Suffice to say Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There bubbled by brains for the better half of 2014.
Late in 2014 I picked up Strand of Oaks Heal, on the title track, Showalter name checks Van Etten “my headphones on And I listend to Van Etten Sing You gotta give out, give up…”
Van Etten has a voice that seeps. Fills in the seams.
The way her voice wraps around words or, trying to explain Are We There to a friend when playing the “No Bad Songs” game in that irritating dancing-about-architecture explanation of music that is so subjective and personal I thought, man, even though I’ve only recently discovered Van Etten I feel like I’ve been listening to her my whole life.
Okay, enough with the exposition. Here’s a new track she released. Oh, and if you haven’t seen her and Shearwater’s performance of the Petty/Nicks “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” do yourself a favor and consult the oracle.
Brooklyn-based electronic duo, The Mast, are playing Soda Bar this Thursday, January 22.
Their latest record, Pleasure Island, is a hypnotic and alluring journey comprised of thirteen danceable and heady tracks. You’d get lost in the layers of sound, keep your feet moving and find the easily memorable hooks sung with aplomb by vocalist-poet and instrumentalist Haleh Gafori. Musician, composer (music director and composer for Louis CK’s “Louie”) and producer Matt Kilmer pulls inspiration from many places, from acoustic instruments like the Balafon to the sound of the city to Pygmy water drumming. It’d probably be pretty easy to hook the IDM genre label on The Mast, but I’d be remiss if I failed to mention what I hear as distinct lines of inspiration from drum and bass and breakbeat—Metalheadz era Goldie and Roni Size—as well as elements of trance and trip hop. They took some time from their tour to answer a few questions regarding the creative process.
Go check them out this Thursday with Lightworks and Bakkuda. INFO_TICKETS
As both a poet and musician, how important are the words you choose for a particular song?
Haleh Gafori — Sometimes I’m emotionally invested in the words and they feel like the life-blood of the song. Sometimes they’re relating images or fragments of a story. Other times, their sound and rhythm are more important than their meaning, and the words become more like abstract brushstrokes–sounds and syllables rather than vehicles for a narrative.
Do you find yourself making concessions for words to fit the melody?
H –Words in a song have to sound good when they are sung. I would never use the word ‘usurp’ in a song, for instance, that would probably sound terrible.
They also have to rhythmically work in the melody, so sometimes I have to cut a word or find a synonym with less syllables.
Does the form (music) allow for more flexibility in theme/narrative?
H –I think music often dictates optimal line lengths, stanza lengths, rhyme, and rhythm patterns. So in that way it can set limits. Sometimes the limitations push me to excavate things from my imagination that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. So in a way it can be liberating and revealing. That’s the irony of form I guess.
When composing a song, are you fitting the lyrics to the music or vice versa? Or is the process more dynamic in that regard?
H –On ‘Nuclear Dragon,’ I wrote the lyrics first. I was listening to some tracks that Matt was working on and one jumped out as the right track for the words, rhythmically and emotionally, it just worked. So I started singing over it, letting the words dictate the melody, and the song was done.
Sometimes I’ll have a basic idea for a song or a couple of lines and the rest of the lyrics and melody will develop as I go back and forth between my notebook and the track. This is how “UpUpUp” and “Luxor” and “Temptation” came about. At the time I was working on “Luxor” I was reading about hot air balloon rides over tombs in Luxor, Egypt. That was the starting image and it developed from there.
When I started working on “Temptation,” I had just watched Josh Fox’s documentary on fracking. The image of a ball of fire exploding out of the open tap triggered the words in the first line.
How does culture influence your songwriting?
H — I write more when I’m reading, listening to music, watching movies. MuraMasa, Mount Kimbie, Pure Horsehair, tUnE-yArDs, Tiniariwen…Force Majeur, Birdman, The One I love…Miranda July, Jim Jarumsch, Reggie Watts, all these musicians, movies, artists inspire me. They oil the wheels and get the right machine in my head working. It is amazing to live in a time where so much art is at our fingertips.
What is your favorite poem?
–I can’t name one particular poem that is unequivocally my favorite. I love so many poems and so many single lines from even more poems.
Today I happened to reread Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Sunflower Sutra’ which is great and Galway Kinnell’s poem “After Making Love we Hear Footsteps.” I love the line about the baby returning to the “ground of his making.” Denise Levertov’s “Writing in the Dark” is a good reminder about how to live.
What was your favorite record of 2014?
H –Flying Lotus , “You’re Dead”
and on a totally different note, Sharon Van Etten’s “Are We There” (*both were favorites of mine in 2014 as well)
How does your creative process differ when making films/videos for The Mast? “So Right,” and “UpUpUp” were beautiful vignettes whereas “Nuclear Dragon” was a performance-style video (all were well executed and beautifully shot).
H –The first video I directed and edited was UpUpUp. It features Pandora Marie, an amazing pop and lock dancer who lives in LA. I wanted to merge her style of hip hop dance with the minimalist and eerie aesthetic of Japanese butoh. I think it gave her a beautiful part zombie-part avatar look which fit the mood of the song. I got obsessive about the editing, that took a long time. Editing video is a great way to put the obsessive part of my brain to us.
“So Right” is a very different video, but also character driven. This one stars my 22-month old nephew. He loves to play with our ipads and keyboards and we started filming him a little and then I thought it would be fun to make a video with him as the DJ. The idea of him escaping from his crib, tricking the baby cam, and inviting friends over for his mini rave came later and I eventually did my first shot by shot storyboard. That was necessary especially because we were dealing with a baby. Everything had to be super organized on our end and super fun and relaxed on his end. We turned each scene into a game which his parents helped a lot with and we shot for 5-10 mins a day for 5 days and then shot the party with all the kids. Each day we filmed, we had no idea if he was going to go along for the ride or if he was going to freak out, in which case we’d have to cancel the whole thing. It was a great reminder to temper expectations.
“Luxor” was the latest video we made. It features some of my very close friends. I wanted to make a video about friendship between women, and the healing power of that. They happen to be from very different parts of the world, all arriving at this island of rejuvenation. Kind of an afterlife maybe. I was thinking about the tombs or sarcophagi in Luxor too, which is what the box is modeled after, and how the ancient Egyptians thought the tomb was also a womb, a chance for rebirth.
Is it a democratic process when deciding what to do to visually represent to a song?
H –I basically do most of the video direction and editing, though Matt is involved and give feedback through it all. He also took on the role of videographer in ‘So Right’ and ‘Emerald’ so there was a lot of back and forth about the shots in those.
Drums first? Melody first? Does a melody come to you followed by the rhythm? Or is the process more organic and simple?
Matt Kilmer –I always like to have a tempo in mind though before starting anything. Sometimes I’ll make a beat and then find a nice chord progression to go with it and other times it’s the opposite. Haleh comes up with the hooks and melodies once I have a beat and progression in place and then we bounce ideas back and forth after that.
How does your creative process differ from your work as a composer?
M — As a composer (for film and TV), there’s usually a scene or character that I’ll be writing for so it’s coming from a specific direction to begin with. With The Mast, the sky’s the limit and it’s about self expression and making something that I’d want to listen to. I like a lot of different music so it’s nice to pull influences from different genres and mix them up with my own sense of what sounds good.
Does it inform your approach to creating in The Mast?
M — Now that I think about it, we’ve been writing with different themes in mind so there’s some direction and limitations in place. I think it’s really good to set some sort of limitations on yourself when creating so things have a unified sound and vibe. I think we’re getting better at that.
How do you know when you’ve found the right “sound” for a song? The Balafon isn’t a typical instrument found in most rehearsal spaces. Do you have an arsenal of instruments you can draw from when making tracks?
M — I have a lot of instruments that I’ve collected along the way and I will always love playing acoustic instruments. As far as the “right” sound, I think it’s really about finding the right combination of sounds and the proper mix of those sounds – whether it be acoustic or electronic.
Is there a conscious effort to strike a balance between synthetic sounds and organic sounds?
M — I find that I gravitate towards more organic sounding synths as a result of playing instruments for so long, but I’m still open to new “synthetic” sounding synth sounds and getting more into the sound design side of things. I’m a musician first and a producer second, so I feel more comfortable starting tracks by playing something and then later sitting down at the computer and making it all work together.
Working within the realm of polyrhythms and syncopation, do either of you find yourself inspired by the sounds of the city?
M — Most definitely. Just being around so much activity and interesting sounds, it must seep into our being.
H — When I’m in a relaxed frame of mind, I can hear the trains, buses, trucks, drilling, and construction as music. It’s less grating that way and even beautiful sometimes, the rhythms and textures are generally uncharted so the soundscape can feel pretty unique and fresh.
Follow up to the previous: have you ever used “found sound” or field recordings when composing music for The Mast?
M –Yes, on Pleasure Island, we used the sound of water drumming from the Congo on the “Lean Into It” intro and there’s also the sound of a windsurfer riding through the water as the background ambiance on Emerald.
Favorite piece of gear, either outboard or software?
M — I’d have to go with Ableton Live, just because it’s the centerpiece of our whole setup, both live and in the studio. But I’ll never stop playing my 16″ Cooperman frame drum either.
H –A distortion pedal my friend Ryan Scott made and my latest Touch OSC set up on my iPad.
As touring, working musicians, do you feel that economic imperatives trump democracy and art?
M –They can unfortunately. Music houses for commercials pay a lot more than Spotify and everyone’s gotta eat.
What excites you and Matt most about the music you are making?
–We’re addicted to making things, whether it’s songs or videos. Hearing new sounds, beat, progressions, melodies, that gets us off.
Do you prefer live performance to recording/producing?
–We love them both.
Creating art at a loss…Is there a gain to be made in music?
–The process of creating is the gain.
That’s where the magic is.
In the era of the single, short attention span culture, what are your thoughts about “The Album” as a compilation of songs…what does it represent to you? What does it signify? A portfolio of songs?
H –The album is still alive. Sometimes it’s a record of a time or phase in a composer’s life. Sometimes it’s a chance to explore a concept through 10 or so songs. I think it makes sense nowadays to release a single at a time, and then one video at a time if you can, to keep the album alive for longer than one pass through a newsfeed.
M — I think albums are going to die one day very soon, but at the same time, they’re are kind of a signification that you are a serious artist and not just a hobbyist. They definitely make it easier for your fans to have a volume of your work but they also put all of your “content eggs” into one basket.
Thanks for taking the time to answer. Greg sent the record earlier this week so I’m still getting to know it, it’s quite good. Have a fantastic show on Thursday at Soda Bar.
M and H – Thank you so much for taking the time to listen and for spreading the word. We appreciate it.
Is it unfettered access that creates such stunningly exquisite music?
All of us connected, absorbing information, sharing sound in the global village.
Brit singer-songwriter Nadine Shah inhabits the space between vibrating in some fusion of electric gothic jazz where Nick Cave whispers from a black-eyed past and PJ Harvey writhes wantonly in expertly tied bondage knots.
Her latest release, Love Your Mum & Dad was produced by Ben Hiller (The Horrors, Blur, Depeche Mode) with several of the songs recorded in her father’s expansive Curtain Superstore adding a haunting organic reverb, a sonic theme that carries throughout.
Though the instrumentation on much of the album is sparse, piano, a bit of percussion, a zither on the opening track, much of it is expanded by Nadine’s voice.
Pick up the vinyl from Insound http://www.insound.com/Love-Your-Dum-and-Mad-Vinyl-LP-Nadine-Shah/P/INS120837/
RIYL: Rose Kemp, Chelsea Wolfe, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, PJ Harvey
David Ford is a singer songwriter who honors the tradition of the punk and DIY attitude of Joe Strummer, infused with off kilter, often dark, lyrical content. Songs for the Road, which was warmly praised by the folks at the New York Times and a dozen other reputable rags has become a frequently listened album on my iTunes library, fitting nicely between Glen Hansard solo/Frames stuff and Ray Lamontagne. Ford’s use of looping technology and the one shot/one take video intrigued me initially, doing all that filming and performing live takes some serious coordination. I recently sent a handful of questions to Ford which he graciously answered, albeit in a quicker manner than I have posted this. Enjoy.
1. What is the biggest difference, creatively or conceptually between Songs for the Road and I Sincerely?
I think all the clichés about the difficult second album are true. It’s easy to create something honest when nobody cares what you are doing and that was certainly the case when I recorded my first record with no thought given to its place in the competitive music market. Trying to maintain a spirit of independence was difficult when it came to making a follow-up. Where the first record was given space to develop an identity, the second had to fight like hell for its own. I definitely wanted to make a bigger record, to put more into arrangements whether they are sounding like a band or an orchestra. I like to think the songs are in charge of the record and as a performer or producer, I just want to do right by them.
2. Did you find yourself utilizing any new or different techniques to compose the songs?
No, I have my way of writing, which I have found to work best for me. Essentially, I ignore the process of songwriting and allow it to happen accidentally. So I never try to write, never set aside time to write, never co-write. Instead, I trust that I will be inspired and that ideas will arrive and take musical form. It’s a pretty reckless foundation upon which to build and it means I am less than prolific but it also means I do not doubt the sincerity of my songs because songwriting has never felt like it is a job.
3. How do the songs begin, melody, idea, lyric and where do they go from there, melody then lyric, chorus then concept? (I’m interested in the process and realize there may not be just one way you compose the pieces.)
Mostly I start with a tiny piece of the song, a line of melody with a lyric. Often it will be a line of verse, which feels to me like it perfectly captures a mood or sums up an idea. I then use this as a foundation from which to build the song developing the ideas and characters but hopefully staying true to the spirit and essence of that first idea.
4. Both vids I’ve seen for “Go To Hell” give the impression that they are ‘One Shot, One Take’ compositions, how much ‘editing’ goes into post production of these videos?
I have always liked making one-shot videos. I like the realness and honesty of it and also the challenge of keeping a film interesting without relying on clever editing. So the aim is to use no edits at all. There is one cut in the go to hell “buried alive” video, which is used only to avoid me actually being killed-although we were considering risking it anyway.
5. How the hell are you doing all that looping in “Go To Hell”? How much of this technique do you think will eventually develop into your own composing style?
There are a number of different methods and machines I use for looping. At shows I use the electro-harmonix 2880 and boss RC-20 loop stations. In the studio environment, the looping is done by the pro-tools recording software. Essentially it’s like any normal recording session; everything gets mic’d up/plugged in and recorded, the only difference is that each instrument track repeats every 4 bars and i have to get it right the first time, every time. For me this is only a performance technique and forms no part of composition. Writing songs should be all about art, inspiration, romance not technical dexterity.
6. Is looping a product, style or tool?
I think part style/part tool. You can use looping as a tool for enhancing the live arrangement of a song, for adding texture, harmony and rhythm. Alternatively it can be part of the fundamental fabric of a song. When I play “State of the Union” live, the loop station contributes as much to the intensity of the song as the lyric or melody. Mostly, I see the loop machine as a toy and a friend.
7. Who shoots the vids?
My best friend (who goes by the name ‘Cock’) and I have always made videos together. He points a camera better than most and it’s always easier to work with friends. Since I have been spending all my time in America, we weren’t able to work together on the last shoot. A guy called Wes shot the “Go to Hell” live film.
8. What do you use to put everything together once the shot is complete?
The beauty of the one-shot video is the lack of editing involved after filming. Setting up and planning the shot can be time consuming and often we end up shooting the same thing several times before getting it right, but all that we do, post shoot, is to line up the audio and apply any treatment to the video; often black and white, high contrast with added film grain for a little grit and grime. Mostly I use Final Cut Pro software but for the more straightforward films iMovie is so easy to use and gets the job done.
9. The song “Go To Hell” is great but how all those elements come together, visually, make the song more intriguing, do you feel that the visual medium combined with the music/performance aspect of things adds or detracts from the standard listening experience?
I think “Go to Hell” the song and “Go to Hell” the live video exist as 2 pretty different things. I don’t think the film casts any particular light on the meaning of the song and as such could be seen as inappropriate. It was more an exercise to see how far we could take the live loop technique and the spectacle of that rather than enhancing the emotive nuance of the song…but we have another film to do that. This is all part of the creative liberation that comes from not being tied to the one-size-fits-all marketing machine of a major label. I get to make videos as an extension of the creative process rather than as a desperate sales tool.
I prefer this one shot/one take version of “Go to Hell” even though the other is captivating.
Here is the artsy version of the video for “Go to Hell”
David Ford is a singer songwriter from across the pond who recently played here in San Diego. He makes full use of looping technology to create wonderfully layered compositions. Sort of in the vein of Liam Finn, these multi-instrumentalists represent the possibility of new methods in how pop and rock music is composed. I mean, looping isn’t new but it gives a new image of the ‘one man band.’ This video was shot while the singer was in the States on a recent tour. I can’t tell how he is putting this all together but I’m going to find out soon so check back.