The Brooklyn-based Widowspeak speaks with All Our Noise about parallels between the cowboys of the Wild West and Medieval knights, New Year’s Resolutions, and their recently released 2nd album for Captured Tracks, Almanac.
All Our Noise: Almanacs have served as guides throughout the ages, did you happen to look upon any for inspiration during the making of your album? If so, did any particular style resonate with you?
Molly Hamilton: Sonically, we were inspired by everything from Sons of the Pioneers to Television, 1930′s country to 1970′s Saharan rock and roll, a lot of Tom Petty, Neil Young, Rolling Stones. It wasn’t so much that we were referencing a style or era of music, but kind of going for a specific feeling that we found across a lot of sources. We knew the record was thematically going to be about cycles, starts and beginnings, and wanted it to feel expansive and sort of rustic, or pastoral. But beyond that, I think we were just trying to make a record that took the listener somewhere/sometime else.
AON: As Benjamin Franklin said in Poor Richard’s Almanac, “with the old Almanack and the old Year, Leave thy old Vices, tho ever so dear.” Does anyone in the band have any resolutions they hope to see through, or vices to overcome?
MH: I’d like to look at screens less. Even when it’s harmless, like researching facts or getting directions, or helpful, like hearing important news or discovering things you love. I know that we’re living in the future and the internet is important, and it’s a beautiful thing to have a constant stream of information, but I like the idea of having “internet time” and “other time”.
Robert Earl Thomas: I’d really like to find a musical and philosophical mentor. Ideally an elderly person who can help me with my music theory and impart wisdom, maybe I can help with the grocery shopping or something.
AON: I caught an Instagram picture of almanac drawings, saying “epherma in the works. The drawings are quite gorgeous, and left me curious. Care to share any details about them?
MH: The drawing, based on the layout of the Farmer’s Almanac, is for a newsprint poster that comes with the special edition vinyl. We wanted there to be something extra that leant itself to the namesake of the album. There are tiny pictures of the changing seasons, old fashioned borders, and caricature portraits of Rob and I. The back of the poster has text about the purpose and usefulness of almanacs. We’ve been a lot more involved in the visual aspects of this record, versus our first; we wanted to create a cohesive world for the music to exist in.
AON: Having listened to Almanac streaming on NPR Music, I really enjoy the flow of the album. It carries a lot of dynamics, with a lot of exchange between tonal depth and gentle temperament. Did the songs come together with a certain planned sequence, dyed in wool, perhaps…or did you decide on the placement of songs once everything was recorded and compiled?
MH: “Perennials” was always meant to be the first song on the record, and we had held the last track for what would become “Storm King” (though it was written last). We also knew we wanted “Almanac” and “Ballad of the Golden Hour” to end the first side. But beyond that, it wasn’t a hard-lined concept album. We only wanted it to have a feeling of progression, or a natural arc. And actually, we originally wanted a different track order; it was taken to a committee of people working with us for the record, via our label, and it was decided that it would ordered the way that it is. Who’s to say if it subtly affects the way it’s heard, but we think it still has the fame feeling we had originally meant for it.
RET: Overall I think Almanac was envisioned as an entire album. So while it may not follow any explicit story, most individual details, from tone, to arrangement, to song structure and content were informed by this greater sense of theme.
AON: There’s plenty of medieval imagery in your song titles, with thieves, devils, spirits, and kings. Anything else from the Middle Age of Medieval Times that influences you, whether it be musically or personally?
MH: I think generally we were influenced by more American imagery, but the ideas we were trying to express are kind of universal. Obviously American culture, language, folktales borrow a lot from the Old World. I think with Almanac, we wanted to capture the experience of the American west, the sense of wildness and expansion that was happening, but also the fear of the unknown. A lot of the reason why we called it Almanac was because we wanted it to have a sense of tradition, and superstition. I got lost in Wikipedia a lot while writing these songs, especially in researching the burned-over district of New York State. Seances, revivals, and divining for water.
RET: For what it’s worth I think there’s probably a fair parallel between the feudal dark ages and the lawless Wild West. Substitute cowboys for knights, oil men for kings. Plus that fascination with the supernatural Molly mentions.
AON: The little hidden audio gems throughout the album are incredibly enjoyable, like the outdoor sounds of insects and “Minnewaska”. Immediately at the beginning of the record, I’m having trouble deciphering if I’m hearing falling rain or crackling fire.
MH: It was the sound of rain, and our bassist Willy was recording it with his phone at the same time that Kevin McMahon was playing this little hammer dulcimer in the studio. It was being run through an amp in the barn’s silo, (which he uses as a natural reverb chamber) and so it picked up the sound of the instrument. It’s actually also playing in the background of “Storm King”, which it was recorded for. We recorded a lot of the sounds we heard in the barn: crickets, pigeons, coyotes… A lot of them were recorded on our phones; they really are useful for instantaneous field recording.
RET: I wanted to get as much actual field recording on the album as possible. If done tastefully i think it really helps put the listener in a physical space they can connect with the record. The sounds don’t have to be explicit, but just their rhythm and cadence can help people feel the atmosphere of the barn, where the record really lives.
AON: I heard that you tracked and recorded Almanac in a barn. What was that experience like? How’d you find out about the barn?
MH: We went into planning this recording process knowing we wanted to be removed from the city. For me, it was because I wanted fewer distractions, but also because a natural environment seemed very appropriate. Mike from our label knew that Real Estate had recorded in a barn upstate, and so we got introduced to Kevin McMahon. His studio is amazing, and it really informed the creative process of piecing the record together. We had meals together, listened to records together, went for walks, drove into town for Chinese takeout and Red Box movies… And beyond the communal experience, we were surrounded by this really beautiful, dramatic landscape.
RET: I agree that getting out of the city eliminated a lot of distractions and helped us focus. A lot of the records we love were recorded in communal, retreat-like atmospheres and I think Almanac benefitted from the perfect vibe.
AON: You got some great tones rolling through Almanac. What kind of effects are used with the guitar?
RET: Kevin had a whole chain of effects and I love all kinds of delay pedals, but the most of the tones on the record came through a variety of amps and guitars all layered together. I doubled and tripled a lot of instrument parts and Kevin set up a whole room of amps recording at the same time. I used a Leslie speaker on a bunch of songs and also this tiny Fender Bronco Molly got when she started playing electric guitar. Slide and baritone guitars are also all over the record, as are Rhodes piano and organ. We’ve actually expanded to a five piece live band to accommodate all the additional parts.
AON: How does living in Brooklyn affect your affinity toward rustic adventures and being outdoors?
MH: Playing music for me is definitely a bit of an escape from the city; while I love living here, it’s important to remove yourself sometimes, in whatever way that is, so you don’t get stir-crazy. So our music in itself is almost like a departure from the experience of Brooklyn. But I also love touring and traveling, and being able to visit new parts of America, or the world. Sometimes I feel so cooped up living in a tiny apartment; I miss looking out my window and having a sense of the natural environment, because I used to see mountains, trees, the Puget Sound. But being in the band has allowed us to see the prairies, the Pacific Coast, the Southwest, and even a tiny historic ghost town in Mexico. So, I’m able to put up with the drawbacks of living in a city the rest of the time.
RET: I grew up a total urbanite, but touring and recording has allowed me to take in the diverse natural beauty across the continent and even right outside of New York City. I think Molly has a poetic sense of nostalgia when it comes to this natural world but I’ve only started exploring and I think that really informed my recording experience.
AON: Do you have a favorite natural park? Perhaps it’s Minnewaska?
MH: I think my favorite natural park is Gifford Pinchot National Forest, if only because I’ve never been to Yosemite or Yellowstone. But it’s an amazing place; it encompasses Mt. St. Helens and the huge area around it, so the effects of the eruption are still really evident. There’s also this part of the park called the Ape Caves, which are these huge lava tubes that stretch underground for miles, it’s completely and utterly dark down there, and you can just wander around for as far as they go, which takes hours. It’s really crazy. Mt. Rainier is closer to where I grew up, (Tacoma is named after it), and is more beautiful and majestic, but doesn’t have the same dark history that St. Helens does.
Widowspeak plays at the Black Cat Backstage tonight, January 24th at 8pm with Murals. Tickets are $12.