Thursday, February 21, 2013

Interview with Escondido

(Here's my recent interview with Escondido for CMT Edge.)
If you’ve ever wondered what it might sound like to spend a starlit evening under the Southwestern desert sky, Escondido’s debut album The Ghost of Escondido will transport you there. Filled with airy vocals, stirring melodies, dusty instrumentation, spacious moments and just enough trumpet to feel like a Sergio Leone saga, The Ghost of Escondido has a beautiful cinematic quality to it that lets you see the music just as vividly as you can hear it.
Escondido is a brand new duo from Nashville featuring Jessica Maros and Tyler James. While they were both pursuing solo careers, their fortuitous first meeting at a friend’s recording session ignited these kindred musical spirits to try something together. After many songwriting sessions over shared inspirations and bottles of wine, the duo had an album’s worth of new songs. They contacted a few talented friends and The Ghost of Escondido was captured in an astounding one-day recording session.
CMT Edge: The Ghost of Escondido was recorded in just one day. Was that an intentional decision, or did things just come together that quickly?
James: We wanted to track it quick because a lot my favorite records have that spur-of-the-moment feel. They capture that initial instinct. We spent a couple of months mapping out all the songs and sounds so that there was no confusion beforehand. Lots of preparation mixed with killer musicians day-of was a good combination. I’m obsessive when it comes to sonic references and arrangements, and I didn’t want to give myself the chance to ruin a good moment.
Maros: We put a lot of thought into the sound and arrangements. We ran the songs with the band the day before the session, and they knocked it out of the park the next day.
There’s a 1970s California country vibe throughout the entire album. What are some of the inspirations, both musical and otherwise, for this dusty sonic direction?
James: I’ve always been into spaghetti Westerns and loved how the soundtracks shaped the movie. Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino are great, as well as lots of Ennio Morricone scores. I wanted to put that vibe into a three-minute pop song — kind of a surf twang, washed-out thing with roots music influence. Tom Pettywas a big one, as well. His songs are short, hooky, and the drums are a big part of the mix. We pulled a lot from old country records, as well, both in the songwriting and in the use of long spring and plate reverbs.
Maros: Yeah, we wanted it to sound like an old Western with our life story added to it. I love the sounds of a washed-out, twangy guitar and far away echoes of tambourines. I’m also a fan of Mazzy StarrNeko Case and Stevie Nicks.
The songwriting on The Ghost of Escondido seems to be tinted with heartbreak and love gone wrong, yet it doesn’t feel like a sad record. What’s your secret for striking that balance of cathartic lyrics and feel-good music?
Maros: Some of my darkest moments end up being the happiest ones. I don’t know if that even makes sense, but I try to have a positive outlook on life even when life is hitting me with a ton of bricks. I imagine good things. I never intentionally tried to make the music sound happy and feel good. It was a coping mechanism for me.
Tyler: Dark songs don’t have to be boring. Big melodies and beats sometimes take the point home. I love Bob Dylan because his music gets you tapping your foot and humming along before you realize he’s singing about some life-changing stuff. That’s what gives it a lasting impact.
How did the actual songwriting take shape — independently or collaboratively? Were they any songs written that didn’t make it on to the album?
Maros: The songwriting process started with me and my friend Leanne Ford. Leanne writes a lot of poetry, and I saw a lot of song titles in her poems. I took some phrases and titles and turned them into songs and made them relatable to my life. After writing the song, I would send it to Tyler, and he would cut them up, rearrange them. For example, with “Cold October,” Tyler wrote a new chorus and made my chorus the verse. The process came really fast, and I never had a feeling of being stuck.
There was a song called “Take Me South” that we recorded, and it never made the record. We tried everything to make it work, and it was actually a favorite for some. It was one of the last songs we wrote, and it started to head into a different direction. So that one, we wanted to save for the second record. It needed more production, and the live aspect didn’t give the song justice.
James: Jess would usually bring me something, and I would figure out what it needed. Some took a whole rewrite, and others I didn’t touch because they were already perfect to me. We would build the tracks in Logic, start with rhythm and then vibe it out from there. We still have a completely MIDI version of this record sitting around. It’s cool in its own way.
Being that you were both already pursuing music individually, what was the moment that sparked Escondido?
James: I was recording a song for our friend Leanne Ford, and Jess came over. I didn’t know her at all. … I recorded it really quick when folks had left the room. I had been looking to make an old Western kind of record, and I immediately knew Jessica had the stuff for it. I was burned out from touring solo at the time, and collaborating was refreshing.
Maros: The moment that sparked Escondido was all Tyler James. I originally wanted Tyler to produce my solo record. I had written “Rodeo Queen” before I met him, and he really liked the vibe and style of the song. We went in and made a rough demo of it, and the sound and quality was so organic that I knew we were onto something. He then mentioned about starting a band, and I was all in.
What has been the toughest part of the learning curve, moving from solo artist to band member?
Maros: The toughest part is listening to one’s vision and respecting one’s opinions. The good thing is, we’re both really passionate about what we do, and we’re learning how to communicate. Being solo artists, you do what you want when you want, and with being a band, we really have to make our decisions based on the band and not for ourselves. I think we’re a stronger team because of it, and we’re learning about our strengths and weaknesses.
James: Learning to listen and trust that I don’t always know best. I’ve called my own shots for so long that it’s been nice to let some stuff go.
Apart from the actual finished product, what’s your proudest moment in connection with The Ghost of Escondido?
Maros: My proudest moment of making this record was the pre-production. We spent the summer/fall hanging out in Tyler’s room creating ideas and just jamming. There were no deadlines, no pressures, just the joy of creating music for the fun of it. After each song was finished, we’d crack open a bottle of wine with our friends and blast it on the rooftop. It was a daily ritual and a celebration. Even though I was pouring my heart out, it was happening in a real genuine way. I felt like I was a part of something great.
James: I agree with Jess. The two months of building the record was some of the best musical times I’ve had. I’m also proud that we haven’t killed each other after a year and a-half. We’re like an old married couple.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Interview with Hem

Brooklyn-based folk outfit Hem have made quite a wide-reaching impression since they first released their debut Rabbit Songs back in 2002. With a rich catalog of albums, EPs and compilation appearances, they have continually raised the bar of excellence and expectation for themselves and for their fans with each subsequent release. However, after a tumultuous season in both their personal and professional lives, there was a time when it seemed that Hem might’ve sung their last song. But somewhere amidst the heartbreak and confusion of that time was birthed a perseverance to continue creating and a new found respect for each other. The result is their beautiful new album, Departure and Farewell, releasing April 2 on Waveland Records. 

Ahead of Departure and Farewell, Hem has joined with NoiseTrade to offer 2 brand new songs from the upcoming album, as well as their inspired Funnel Cloud album in its entirety. Rootsy, dreamy, orchestral and lush, Funnel Cloud is enough to make you a Hem fan for life, while “Tourniquet” and “Walking Past The Graveyard, Not Breathing” will sufficiently get you through the next month or so until Departure and Farewell is released. 

Here’s their charming new video for “Tourniquet”:  

I recently talked with Hem’s founder and defacto ringleader Dan Messé to get a little more info on Departure and Farewell, as well as discuss his thoughts on Funnel Cloud and their penchant for picking fantastic cover songs. 

NoiseTrade: Funnel Cloud showcases a few different sides of what we had already come to expect from the Hem we met on your first three full-length releases. Where exactly did the inspiration come from for the cinematic songwriting, the more upbeat tempos and the 21-piece orchestra? 
Dan Messé: On Funnel Cloud, we were inspired very much by our experiences with DreamWorks Records. More specifically, that was the first album we did AFTER DreamWorks was sold to Universal and we were released from our contract. The great Lenny Waronker, who originally signed us to that label made sure that our masters were returned to us, and he told us to keep moving forward no matter what. We just felt that we could repay his belief in our music by making our most ambitious album to date. 

NT: Funnel Cloud features some fantastic guest appearances from James Iha (The Smashing Pumpkins) and Amy Helm (Ollabelle). How did these connections come about and what did each artist bring to the project? 
Dan: New York City (and Brooklyn in particular) is a surprisingly supportive place to make music. Our connection with James came from recording in his studio (Stratosphere Sound) and him being one of the first individuals who believed in our sound. Lately, we’ve been working a lot in Saltlands Studio in DUMBO, which is located in a building bursting with other bands and producers. Sometimes – like when we’re putting together a chorus – it’s as simple as walking down the hallway and seeing who’s around who wants to sing. 

NT: Hem's music has always had a certain dreamlike quality to its sonic landscapes. Do you attribute that to the way the melodies are written, Sally's swoony vocal delivery, the deft instrumentation, a combination of all three or something completely different? 
Dan: Hem is a pretty great example of the power of collaboration, and the cinematic/dreamlike quality of our music is a direct result of what we each individually bring to the project. If I had to break it down, I’d say it starts with the tension that exists between a dark, heartbroken lyric, and a very pretty (usually major key) melody. Then Sally’s voice might just be the most comforting instrument going these days, and she can deliver a sad song in a way that sounds almost hopeful. Finally, we are suckers for a great arrangement, and we’re just as inspired by Copland and Gershwin as we are by The Carter Family and 70’s pop songs – that’s a pretty broad palette from which to draw – and we are fortunate enough to collaborate with arranger Greg Pliska who is able to realize our most ambitious ideas. 

NT: Tell us a little bit about your exciting new album, Departure & Farewell. What got you back into the studio and what do you hope Hem fans will be pleased with and surprised by? Dan: I think I’m even more grateful that we ever got ourselves out of the studio. We began this album back in 2007, and it’s taken over 5 years to complete. Originally, we had thought this might be our final album, so we were interested in tying up all sorts of musical and lyrical themes. For example, the song “Last Call” was written as an epilogue to the other ‘barroom songs’ in our catalogue. It begins almost exactly like “When I Was Drinking” (the first track off our first album Rabbit Songs) and then there are lyrical nods to that song, “Lucky,” “The Pills Stopped Working” and “Pacific Street” throughout. 

It’s been a tumultuous 6 years for the band – both great and terrible – and many of the ups and down are reflected in the songs. In the end, not only were we able to complete this album, we were able to come back together as a band with a renewed appreciation for each other and the music we’re able to make together. I guess that makes Departure and Farewell both a breakup album as well as a reunion album. 

As for surprises within the album itself, we have never created a more ambitious sonic palette – from the super hi-fi, to songs that sound like field recordings, we’ve tried to draw from all the music that we love to create something new. We play with vocal arrangements more than ever in these songs. Harmony has never been more important on songs like “The Jack Pine” and “The Tides at the Narrows” (thanks to Tall Steve Curtis and Dawn Landes). We also play a lot with choirs and smaller vocal ensembles (like the gospel trio on “So Long”). Finally, we even go so far as to play with Sally’s voice by multi-tracking it on “Things Are Not Perfect In Our Yard.” 

NT: From Elvis Costello to Johnny Cash to R.E.M. to Ray Price, Hem has always had a special knack for channeling amazing cover songs. What goes into choosing them and are there any special new ones in the arsenal? 
Dan: Between albums, we usually try to record an EP featuring cover songs as a way of exploring new sounds for the next full-length album. For example, when we recorded our cover of Johnny and June’s “Jackson,” it helped us move toward the lush sound of our album Eveningland. 

How we pick cover songs is more random. Sometimes, it has to do with being asked to contribute to a tribute album, like when we recorded “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” for the Rolling Stones tribute. Mostly though, it comes down to songs we love that we think we can make our own somehow. Lately, in rehearsals we’ve been warming up with Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” Sally does a mean Robert Plant… 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Interview with The Lone Bellow

(Here's my CMT Edge interview with Zach Williams from The Lone Bellow.)

Already friends before the band formed, the story of the Lone Bellow is a unique mix of talent and community with just enough serendipity to cast a magical air over the whole thing.
At its core, the Lone Bellow is a multi-skilled trio comprised of Zach Williams, Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist. While their songwriting runs the emotional gamut and are all fluent in a variety of instruments, their real sonic superpower is in their full-voiced harmony. Within the span of 11 refreshingly rootsy tracks, this Brooklyn-based band raises the musical Mason-Dixon Line a little higher on the map.
On the heels of a national television appearance on Conan and a sold-out album release show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, Williams talked to CMT Edge about the Lone Bellow’s formation, the recording of their debut album and the warm hug they received from NPR.
CMT Edge: You started your career off as a solo artist who just so happened to enjoy playing with a group of talented friends. What finally prompted the move from Zach Williams and the Bellow to the Lone Bellow?
Williams: It became evident to me that I was just a part of this band. My name being in the band name was not representative of the way that we play and write music together. I’ve also wanted to be a part of something that was more than just me and a backup band for some time now.
You’ve described the Lone Bellow’s sound as “Brooklyn country music.” What are some of the defining elements of that musical distinction for you guys?
We’re all from the South. Brian and I are from Georgia, and Kanene is from Virginia. Everyone in the band now lives in Brooklyn — upright [bass], drums, pedal steel, piano, banjo, mandolin and, of course, the singers — all within walking distance from each other. And that has created this “small town” vibe in the way we do life together. We run into each other everywhere. … We used to show up at Kanene’s soda fountain just to work tunes out together while she was working. She would be serving ice cream and jumping up to sing her line at the same time. This type of living made its way into the essence of how we started writing and singing together, and the “Brooklyn country music” idea was just an easy way for us to explain what we were experiencing playing music and doing life together. We all live here and found each other here in the neighborhood, so putting together this American sound came very natural to us.
Your impressive vocal chemistry with Kanene and Brian is certainly one of the most unique calling cards of the group. Is this something you guys have worked toward, or is it just a natural, magical occurrence when you all sing together?
It was just a natural fit. … I was playing with my old band, and my female singer couldn’t make it out to the show, so I called Kanene. Kanene had just moved from China to Brooklyn, and I met her a few years earlier when we both sang “O Happy Day” together at her big brother’s wedding in Nashville. Kanene was going to the French Culinary Institute at the time, and I called her up and said, “Can you learn 13 songs in 24 hours?” She skipped class that day, and we played the show. During the show I tried out a new song, “You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional.” I randomly asked Brian to jump up onstage and sing it with us. We didn’t rehearse it, but the moment we all sang the bridge together, I felt like we were on fire, but in a good way. Soon after that, I left my band and we started this one.
The majority of The Lone Bellow was recorded in what some would say is a fairly unconventional way. How did foregoing a traditional studio setting for Rockwood Music Hall prove inspirational for the recording sessions?
Charlie Peacock and Richie Biggs had the idea of recording the record at Rockwood. Charlie came up to see us play. Before the show, we had lunch at Lower East Side BBQ, which is one street away from Rockwood. I said, “Charlie, you’ve got to meet Ken Rockwood. He has been my musical mentor for years here in the city.”
So after we finished up, we walked over, and Ken happened to be there. Charlie started walking around the room and randomly clapping in different spots. Then he came over and said, “Ken, can we make a record here?” It was a moment I will never forget. Ken gave us Rockwood Music Hall stage two for three days and three nights. We recorded 13 songs with eight musicians in one room. Sometimes Charlie would go out on Allen Street and invite strangers in for us to sing to because he felt that we needed an audience. Rockwood’s windows stretch from ground to ceiling all the way across the room, so every person that walks by could see what was happening. I feel like the energy of NYC haunted those microphones.
The song that intrigues me the most personally is “Two Sides of Lonely.” Can you provide a little background into what that hauntingly beautiful song is about?
That’s a great question. I am grateful that you connect with that song. It comes from a hopeless time in my life. It’s the hardest song in the set to sing. When I first wrote it, I hesitated to play it in front of people. However, after I tried it out, I realized it needed to be in our set and on our record. I am now thankful that I have the song to sing.
From an artist’s perspective, what are some of the benefits of having a producer like Charlie Peacock guide the sonic ship?
Charlie is an incredible listener. He has a way of pushing away anxiety that would bubble up in the recording process and replace it with confidence. He was so patient with us. The record has several moments where the band really wanted some tiny detail of a mandolin or a fiddle to be deleted or turned down, and Charlie let us do it. He truly saw the process as a team effort even though we had barely any experience to pull from. He respected our ears, and that created a very trusting … family environment.
Your songwriting on The Lone Bellow vacillates freely between hurt and hope with an incredibly powerful emotional undercurrent. What were you tapping into as you crafted these songs? Was it difficult for you to dig that deep?
Some of the stories are personal, and others are pulled from the beauty of a mundane day. We have been trying to see the darks and lights of everyday life here in our community. Some of the stories are ours, and others are from our close friends here in Brooklyn. Our hope is that the stories and songs will become a part of others’ stories as they listen to the record.
At such an early stage in the Lone Bellow’s adventures, what type of impact do things like NPR’s praise that “the world of acoustic music is about to get a new household name” and a national television appearance on Conan have on you personally?
It feels like a warm hug. We don’t deserve it, but we are grateful to be making our music in a time where it feels like vulnerability and honesty are appreciated in singing and songwriting.
As the band gears up for its first major touring excursion, is it true that all three of you have taken the leap of faith of quitting your day jobs?
The short answer is yes. We are very grateful to have the opportunity to be playing our music in other cities and towns!
In your song “Teach Me to Know,” you allude to “living out all your best guesses.” Does that accurately describe your current whirlwind?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sandra McCracken - Desire Like Dynamite (Album Review)

From the first time I heard Sandra McCracken’s voice singing a duet of Dylan's “Make You Feel My Love” with (then future husband) Derek Webb in the late 90s, I was hooked by the unique emotional weight carried in her voice and her powerfully gentle delivery. As I have followed her career, she has continually built upon (and surpassed) this initial sonic stamping with album after album of lyrical creativity, thought-provoking confessions, encouraging challenges, honest longings and communal engagement. Her attention to the craft of complimentary musicianship is phenomenal as well. She has proven again and again that there will be no throwaway lines or stray instrumental noodlings on a Sandra McCracken album. You can enter into each album with confidence, knowing that both entertainment and enrichment are waiting within the sounds and spaces.

Her newest album, Desire Like Dynamite, follows true to this preceding catalog. Your heart, brain and ears will all be equally attended to as clever melodies dance with candid lyrics above a rich bed of folk-pop instrumentation. Take opening track “Go” for example. A whimsical string line and (serendipitously taped-up) piano introduces deceptively understated lyrics like “Listen when you first wake, your compass aligns to the sounds of the morning, thoughts like tiny earthquakes alive in your head, a light and a warning.” As the additional organ, drums and trumpet usher in the chorus, the song literally comes alive in conjunction with the direction of the lyrics. With “Forgiveness,” the quiet piano ballad unrolls over a steadily strummed acoustic guitar that gives just enough of an uncluttered foundation for the gravity of “When the blessed assurance is hidden behind a great cloud, when the joy is a secret and pain like a trumpeted sound, oh for grace to be measured by more than my means and to love with a love that gives free without strings.” You could actually pick any song as this poetic synergy is genuinely found throughout the entirety of Desire Like Dynamite, creating an integrated listening experience that sticks with you long after the final song has ended.

In addition to writing and performing, Sandra produced Desire Like Dynamite with (now present husband) Derek Webb, with additional co-production assistance from Jordan Brooke Hamlin and Joshua Moore. Derek, Jordan and Joshua also contributed their talents via a variety of instrumentation throughout the songs. Sandra even has a few impressive guest vocals from her friends Matthew Perryman Jones (“The Wait”), Lori Chaffer (“Dynamite,” “Forgiveness”) and Chelsey Scott (“Forgiveness”). The final result is a stirring album from a fantastic artist that is beautifully accompanied by a creative community of friends.

Desire Like Dynamite is currently available in physical or digital form from, as well as through iTunes and Amazon. You can also get three of the songs (“Go,” “Gridlock” and “Dynamite”) via her NoiseTrade sampler HERE.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Interview with Brooke Waggoner

We here at NoiseTrade are beyond excited to announce our brand new NoiseTrade Sessions and we’re extremely proud of our first release with the enigmatic Brooke Waggoner. Brooke is an extremely creative artist who filters pop melodies through classical training and she refuses to conform to any genre boundaries. Along with the 5 intimate in-studio performances found on NoiseTrade Sessions, Brooke has also included “Rumble,” a track from her third full length studio album Originator, which will be released March 5.

The tracklist includes Brooke’s unembellished take on “Metempsychosis,” “Fresh Pair of Eyes,” “The High Wind,” “San Juan Capistrano” and “Meek; Wild.” Each performance is sparse enough to capture her pure talent and quiet enough to hear the squeak of her piano pedal. NoiseTrade Sessions offers the ability to hear an artist without artifice and Brooke is certainly fitting of that description.

I had the opportunity to ask Brooke a few questions about her songwriting, her new album Originator and her impressive stint as part of Jack White’s backing band.

NoiseTrade: Congratulations on being the inaugural artist for our exciting new NoiseTrade Sessions! Since your albums are very orchestral and layered, what was it like recording these gorgeously unadorned, one voice/one instrument versions of your songs? 
Brooke Waggoner: This is how I always originally write and record for each song or project - vocals and piano. It's important for me to know if each song can stand on its own in an isolated way.

NT: Your artistry is created from a place that is steeped in years of formal classical music training. Can you tell us a little about your music development through that time and how it has translated into your songwriting now? 
Brooke: It all goes hand-in-hand. Trying to get better with everything you do and hoping to grow every time you make something. I never tried to over think things in my upbringing with classical (which is sometimes hard to do) and I try not to over think things now. The real trick is finding what you love to play and accepting there will be some piggybacking. All art piggybacks. That's an important moment to recognize.

NT: For your upcoming album, Originator (release date March 5), you bypassed all computers and technological trappings and recorded straight to 2” analog tape. What drove the decision for this traditionalist direction and how do you feel it paid off? 
Brooke: I had already experienced that setting a few times with other bands I'd previously produced records for. So I was feeling more comfortable with that idea when the time came to make my new record. I mostly wanted to create those confines for everyone involved and I needed to surround myself with something simpler and tangible - the actual process of watching tape being recorded is enough to inspire anyone to want to do this every day.

NT: After producing your last album (Go Easy Little Doves) by yourself, you’ve teamed back up with Chad Howat, producer of your first two releases (2007’s Fresh Pair of Eyes EP and 2008’s Heal for the Honey). What are some of the things you learned with solo production and what are some things Chad brought to Originator

Brooke: Go Easy Little Doves was a unique project for me that made sense to produce alone - it's all very cinematic and classical. The majority of the writing for that record came from actual notation (i.e. writing short pieces for a string quintet). But for Originator I wanted to enlist more creativity from other minds. It helps me to have someone to discuss what I like and don't like. I need that conversation. Otherwise, I'll get too far into my own brain and start to lose perspective at times.

NT: As far as your new songs, is the bouncy bravado found in first single “Ink Slinger” indicative of the entire album or are there even more sonic surprises in store?
Brooke: It's probably the dancey-ist song on the project. Not at all indicative of the entire album. It's really a brief introduction into the world I wanted to create for this project. There are so many moods explored.

NT: You appeared on Jack White’s Blunderbuss album and played keys and organ on his subsequent tour. As a musician, what was it like playing alongside someone who is known for their eclectic performances, improvisational spirit and “give ‘em a different show every night” attitude? Brooke: It's thrilling. I think he's thought about every facet of what the show should look and feel like. And it totally works.

Here's a look at Brooke's new video for "Rumble" (directed by Allister Ann):