When you are listening to it that much, how do you keep from getting tunnel vision? I find when I spend too much time doing something, I have no clue what it is anymore.
Yes. Definitely. It happens a lot, and it happens kind of fast for me. I only have a six hour mixing day in me anyway. Some people can stay in the studio until the song is finished, but for me there are really diminishing returns to a certain point, where I have to step away from something. I think that’s one of the reasons why the mixing phase took so long. Sometimes I had to step away from a song for a few days if I’d reached the point where everything sounded terrible. Then I’d start over, or make a major change of some sort.
When I reach the editing stage of writing, I’m almost mournful to be so removed from the experience of whatever I was writing about that it becomes just technical choices. Do you feel that sense of loss?
Mm. With this particular record it felt a little bit like a continuum, like it was all one thing, the writing and the arranging and the mixing. It felt like a thought that wasn’t complete until it was done, so even cutting things out felt like an extension of when I’m writing lyrics, where a line might be the placeholder, and then I find what feels to me to be the perfect word or revision that makes it more musical or conveys meaning more clearly. In a way, cutting things musically and adding things musically, doing the editing that comes with the mixing process, to me feels like the same thing.
This is blowing my mind! Do you remember any of the things that you let go of?
Well, I cut a whole song.
It was having a diluting or weakening effect, I think. It was approaching but not reaching the thing I wanted it to be, and it was pulling focus away. It was also a bit of a stretch harmonically; it didn’t totally work in this pattern I was setting up. It kind of worked, I could justify it, but it was a weak link, harmonically speaking.
Are there any remnants of it in the other songs?
There’s a lyrical remnant. A lot of the record has this binary thing, where ideas are set up in opposition to each other and create a tension. There’s a key lyric, in the last song on the record, “Time, as a Symptom,” a lyric, “I was wrong, it pains me to say I was wrong. / Love is not a symptom of time, time is a symptom of love.” That’s in reference to the establishing claim that was made in the song that was cut. But it seemed unnecessary because it was all in there already, it was redundant in a way.
For a song layered with references, like “Sapokanikan,” do you have all of those allusions in a catalog, and they come out when you’re writing, or did you do specific research for the song?
I feel a little hesitant to use the word research because it’s such an academic word in a way, but whatever the process of reading in depth about something that’s prompted by the agitated curiosity surrounding a new idea [Laughs], I did a lot of that.
In many ways, your songs feel like short stories; a four-line verse alone can pack so much in: “When the sky goes pink in Paris, France / Do you think of the girl who used to dance / When you’d frame her moving within your hands, saying / “This I won’t forget?” Do you have a proclivity toward short stories? Who are some of your literary influences?
I do really love short stories, a lot. Especially when I was still in school, trying to figure out what I wanted to do in writing, I was definitely drawn to short story form. But they were still pretty crummy, they weren’t very good, they were almost there but—I do love trying to write short stories. As a reader, I think I probably read more novels, but I love short stories, too. I like John Updike short stories, I was reading those last year, he’s a good short story writer.
Are there any that you could trace to your work?
No, not Updike. Probably, uh…It’s possible something from a past record was connected to a short story I’ve read.
One of our readers, Catleya, said, “I know at art college you weren’t working with the same questions as your classmates. What would you say to an artist whose work and interests aren’t shared by her peers, who’s interested in things there isn’t space for yet, if you felt that way?”
That’s a very good question. I also should say, for me personally, I don’t know if my issue was that my interests weren’t shared by my peers. I think I was just shy enough that I didn’t explore whether or not my interests were shared by my peers. But it’s true that I didn’t see a path clearly before me outlining the specific thing I wanted to do. I was a college dropout, but my time in college was very helpful because the collection of things I was most interested in laid out, let’s say, a very clear network of thoughts creatively, that then it was up to me to connect.
Let’s see though, her question. I mean, I just went home and worked on what I was interested in. That’s the easy answer. But I was also interested in the other stuff, and I ended up using it all in some way or other. I’m doing a terrible job answering this question. Would you ask me one more time? I want to make sure I understand her question.
“What would you say to a young artist whose work and interests aren’t shared by her peers, where there isn’t a specific place for yet.” So it sounds like she’s in art school and what she’s working on isn’t that common?
But, no pressure. Don’t force it.
I just really appreciate that she’s asking and I don’t want to give a shitty answer that’s gonna make her feel bad about her situation. It sounds like she’s already feeling creatively challenged.
I think what you said, you go home and you do what you like.
Some of the things I was working on really benefited from peer discussions. The discussions I had with people in some of my English literature classes, there was an American novel class that weirdly sent my brain in certain directions that were endlessly important for me later—learning to read better, basically. But then there was stuff that was like carrying a secret around all day, and then going home and doing that thing. That was the joy-giving thing, that everything else was approaching and helping and augmenting in certain ways, but I don’t think I would have been able to talk about what I was doing with my teachers and my classmates.
When you were talking about the specific references of what you want, like, “I want this violin to sound this specific way,” do you remember having any similar reference points for this album?
No, most of the reference points were sort of interior. When I was working with an arranger, it would be narrative reference points, something as simple as, “I want this to be a moment that’s voiced by four woodwind instruments that interact in a way that replicates the way birds sound when the sun first comes up.” Or, “I want there to be a violin part played throatily over a simple harmony with the vocal one third up.” I would give the arranger way more information than I would ever want to destroy anyone else’s listening with. You don’t want to belabor someone else’s experience of the music by overexplaining it, especially because over explanation tends to actually take away from it in many ways. But with an arranger, it’s important to really underline narrative meaning stuff. I wanted everyone I was working with to understand the place the songs were coming from. In many ways, I feel that that’s the best way of closing or bridging this huge abyss that exists between the subjective ways that people have of thinking about, and listening to, and especially writing about, music.
So, in the simplest way, I would say what the song’s about, this song’s about this this and that, and then see what that prompts in someone else’s playing style, if they’re a musician playing on the record, or arranging style, if they’re a composer arranging a style for the record. Sometimes I would convey some narrative element and the thing that someone would send back would be quite different from what I was envisioning. Sometimes that would be awesome, and sometimes we would just start over or make a ton of adjustments. I’m sure the songs are all ruined for anyone I worked with because they all have the codices for everything.
So as a listener, you know, some people live for knowing those things.
But as a listener, do you not like to have so much information?
I don’t like to have it handed to me. I do think that, certainly not everybody, but a lot of the people who listen to my music really like being able to figure it out for themselves. If I come out, guns blazing, with my mission statement for what this record is about, I think it actually would be a bummer for a lot of people. But that’s what I do when I’m working with an arranger, I just send them the CliffsNotes, ’cause that’s the one way to meet in the middle in terms of the way the arrangement feels, and then that gives them an opportunity to bury lots of fun narrative references.
On the previous record [Have One on Me], Ryan Francesconi had so many little narrative winks and Easter eggs in his arrangements. There’s a song in the record called “Autumn,” and there’s a line in it that references the song, “Star of the County Down,” and he buried that song throughout his arrangement.
For me, those sorts of decisions live in the same world as a buried reference or a buried quote, which is to say, they do something like breathe life into a song, even if it’s not on the level that is immediately available to a listener who is not analyzing the living daylights out of a song. I don’t believe someone should have to analyze the living daylights out of a song. I think the way a song feels and sounds on the first listen probably matters more than any listens after that. If the song doesn’t resonate with emotional truth and doesn’t sound—obviously the word “beautiful” is hugely problematic—but if it doesn’t move you in some way, if it doesn’t excite you instrumentally, if it doesn’t have value outside of any computational analysis or digging or unpacking that a person might do—then it’s not a good song.