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On Knowing When Not to Self-Produce & How to Maximize Mobile Tech During Your Creative Process
Since forming as a three-piece band in Brooklyn in 2010, Widowspeak has gone through a lot of changes, changes in line up, places and producers. They currently have a new album All Yours out now on Captured Tracks, which brought the band full circle to work with their first producer Jarvis Taveniere. We recently talked with band members Robert Earl Thomas and Molly Hamilton during their cross-country drive on their current tour.
Can you give us a brief history of the band?
Molly: “The band started in Brooklyn in 2010 with our first drummer Michael Stasiak. Michael was really connected with the music scene in Brooklyn and wanted to start a band. He and I knew each other because we were both from Tacoma and he knew Rob from college. Michael left after our first album, so we made the second as a duo with people guesting to fill the line up. It has been a duo since then. We have a lot of rapport with each other so it works great, but we tour as a quartet. We have a drummer and bassist who are on tour with us now. There has been a lot of complicated line up changes. Our sound has evolved; it’s hard to pinpoint when or why.”
You recorded this album with Jarvis Taveniere, who also recorded your first album. Why did you choose to work with him again and what was the experience like?
Molly: “Jarvis is in the band Woods. On the first record we recorded in his studio Rearhouse, which doesn’t exist anymore. We kind of wanted to go back to the beginning and it made sense to go full circle and work with him again. It was cool, because it felt like the right situation. He and the drummer from Woods, Aaron Neveu both played on our new record as the rhythm section.”
Rob: “Jarvis is just the best. It was so comfortable to go back to working with him. When we did the first record we didn’t look back because so many things changed like with Michael leaving the band and then we got an opportunity to record the next two albums with Kevin McMahon. For this album we actually started with the idea to do the record in our house. We got a toe in to the water and I realized being your own producer for me saps so much of the creativity. I spent so much time making sure the microphones were plugged in that I lost what I was doing creatively. We were talking to Jarvis, who is a buddy of ours, and we said, ‘Hey why don’t we do this again?’”
Have the changes in the band changed your sound?
Molly: “I think a little bit…Almanac and The Swamps are studio pieced-together records where we used demos as a basis. The new and the first record were more like live playing. It sort of changed the process but not necessarily the sound. It allowed more flexibility because there was no set line-up; it was more free form.”
How is the instrumentation different on the new album?
Molly: “We kind of had the balance of the normal of two guitars, bass and drums. We also had our friends from the band Quilt do harmonies. We added keys and piano and organ. We also added strings – cello and violin – and we added a couple more sonic textures with guitars, experimenting with sound. But we also approached it straightforward as a rock record.”
What about recording techniques? Were those different with this record?
Molly: “We always try to play with sound a little bit, but we also want the songs to translate live. We don’t want to bring a lot of bizarre instruments on the road. But it’s important for us to have records that don’t necessarily have to be exactly as we play them live, but can be translated live.”
Rob: “What’s cool about this record is it was basically live performed. There were just a few takes. Lot of people labor over 1,000 vocal takes, 1,000 guitar takes, meticulously putting it all together. But for us it was a lot less nit-picking, because we were more worried about making it happen and having a good time. We always say we are going to record to tape but it never do because it always bogs us down because of technical problems. And we are not gear heads. I know what I like. My ethos on the matter is it really doesn’t matter what gear you are using, it’s about content and the heart.”
Well, speaking of gear, what do you use most?
Rob: “I love a good Fender amp, my Telecaster and tremolo, and just kind of a comfortable tone. The more I try to force myself to use new gadgets, the more in the way it gets.”
How did you approach the writing process for this album as opposed to the other records you’ve done?
Molly: “We had a lot of time. We took a year off from touring; we are now living in a rental house in upstate New York, the Woodstock area. Instead of having this sort of writing period like we are going to record the record in a month, we took the whole year without any deadlines and waited to see what would happen. The songs were slower coming, they are more patient and it was more of an organic process.”
Rob: “The way I write with Molly is she has all the ideas…I help her put them together somewhat like a producer. You know, helping her realize her own ideas. Guitar playing is a huge voice in the band and that is the way I contribute, too. I hear the melody through the guitar as a voice. Also I am completely self-trained, so the only way I understand music is through the guitar; that is my window.”
What about technology or apps for songwriting?
Rob: “I have an iPad with Garage Band. I use it to make demos to make different tracks and because it’s low quality, I stop thinking about specific sounds and use it to lay down ideas. I think hand-held technology is so hugely important to how we do things. Especially when we lived in the city in little apartments where you don’t have a bunch of stuff because of physical limitations. That’s a big deal.”
Do you have any favorite songs from this album?
Molly: “Its hard to pick a favorite because they are united by a similar mood, nostalgia and a little sadness, but they’re also more optimistic than our other records. With ‘Girls,’ the first song we released, it’s pretty upfront about kind of feeling, like you have deadlines tied to your age, kind of feeling like people younger are accomplishing more and worrying about your own ability to make things happen. And about how hard you are working at certain things in your life and kind of accepting that and being chill with that. And it’s about admiring people for what they are doing instead of feeling like you need to match them in any way. Also one of my favorites is ‘Coke Bottle Green.’ I liked it because it encapsulates the whole feeling of the record. Moving upstate and moving on from lots of things like moving from the city. It puts everything on the table about moving on.’
How do you translate the new songs live, with the additional instruments?
Molly: “We are playing five songs from the new album [on tour]. Generally we can’t tour with keys and some of the other different instruments. I think we are trying to fill that in with different guitar tones and textures. We have changed the way the songs translate, but we keep the feel and dynamic. It’s the same mood, even if it isn’t exactly the same instrumentation.”
How have you built your fan base since the beginning?
Rob: “We like to be approachable, since the whole show is an experience to be shared by everyone. Usually it’s a club and we are hanging out with the audience. We like to promote that type of vibe. That comes a lot from being from Brooklyn and hanging out with the other bands that are your friends. It’s not like I am the entertainer and I am here to entertain you – it was more like we are all here to participate in this event together.”
Molly: “We design and sell our own merchandise, so we are generally at the merch table talking to fans after the show. That is really important; we don’t want to have a sterile feel at our shows. We are still real people interacting on stage, no stage personas. We don’t check out. We are four people playing songs and having fun with it. As far as social media, we have Instagram, we try to communicate what we are doing and where we are. We post those to Facebook and Twitter, as well. We use them more for news. The most personal stuff is through Instagram. We use it like a tour documentary. What we are doing and how we are doing it, life on the road between the shows…”
What would you say keeps you evolving and moving forward in music?
Rob: “Over the course of our band’s history, place is the single greatest influence on our sound. Weather it be Molly talking about where she grew up and feeling nostalgia or homesickness for that place or us dreaming up places where we would like to go. Even us leaving the city to go upstate, place is always a really big character in our music. Especially with this group of songs there is a bit more narrative than some other ones. We are always trying to paint a place with our music more so than telling direct stories. Abstract concept is important to Widowspeak.”
Follow on Twitter @widowspeaking
Standout Track: “Girls”
photos by Shawn Brackbill