Interview: Widowspeak

Widowspeak - Shawn Brackbill

Change is scary. It’s an uneasy process that doesn’t come with instructions, but for WIDOWSPEAK, it was essential. The duo’s creative drive had dried up following their 2013 release The Swamps and despite their success, they had to distance themselves from New York City to let a little country air clear their heads and clarify their hearts. The move was merely a simple one, but that’s where All Yours comes in.

The pair’s third full-length follows Captured Tracks’ unofficial motto of “organic and bold”, but it also presents a whole new layer to their “little art project” – dipping into a sound that is full of gossamer riffs (“Dead Love”), intricate narratives (“Hands”), and subtle odes to In Utero (“Stoned”). With a headlining tour already booked for October, we recently caught up with Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas to discuss their move from Brooklyn to the Hudson River Valley and why it’s important to escape every once in a while. Even if it means sacrificing everything for mediocre pizza.

You just finished a pretty extensive U.S. tour to prelude your new album All Yours. Are there any memorable moments that stick out from that trip across the country?

MOLLY HAMILTON: There were a lot of moments as we were mostly having fun and because we went swimming a lot. I mean, we had really great shows but we were opening for Lord Huron for a lot of the days, so most of the moments came from trying to win over someone else’s crowd. They were really good gigs but I’m actually more excited to head out on our own tour in October because I feel like we’ll be able to play more new songs.

What was it like touring with Lord Huron?

MOLLY: It was really great; all of those guys are really nice, friendly, and welcoming. Their vibe was also really complementary to ours because of the whole aesthetic of their records and the stories behind them, which are such cool concepts.

In regards to your own work, All Yours has been described as a more honest and open portrayal of who you guys really are in comparison to your previous albums. How do you think you’ve progressed or grown since your self-titled debut?

ROBERT EARL THOMAS: I think we’ve come full circle. The first record was really off-the-cuff and honest and in the moment, and we tried really hard with our second record, but I think that was to our detriment. On this one, we were more relaxed and we just made an album because we could and not because we were trying to make a statement.

MOLLY: We were trying too hard to be good at “us” because we were being really ambitious. So letting this record just happen ended up being the most honest thing we could do. If that makes sense? We went into it pretty casually – we spent just as much time on it and put just as much of ourselves into it, but without being really stressed out or too worried about what the outcome would be. In some ways, it’s almost like a full circle because our first record was more of a “happy accident”.

ROB: I don’t know if it was a “happy accident”. It’s just natural and it breathes really well.

MOLLY: We really love this record and I think it’s my favourite one so far. I mean it’s hard to pick a favourite because they all represent a specific moment and you’ll always like the newest one because it represents the present. But we’re both really proud of how this record turned out.

Did moving away from the urban chaos of the city impact your outlook at all?

MOLLY: It definitely has. I mean I loved living in the city and it played an important role in starting this band and nurturing this band, but I think I really needed to have more isolation. After a while, it just lost its charm. I still love going into the city and playing other various places. Rob says he doesn’t but he also grew up in Chicago so you know, he’s enjoying our new life on the edge of town and in the woods. I am too, but I think for our kind of music, it was a little bit hard for us to remove ourselves from reality because there are people and distractions that are constantly surrounding you. There are other artists of who feed off that energy, but I feed off of the opposite.

ROB: The thing is that when we started, Williamsburg and Bushwick were like a high water mark for “indie guitar music” and that wave broke. There are still amazing things going on in the city, but it’s just not really in our wheelhouse. We came out of a really amazing environment but then people moved away and venues closed, so it’s just a different atmosphere now. We’ve both realized that New York itself wasn’t enough to keep us there. So we were able to seek out the type of scene that we wanted and I think we are thriving much better now.

MOLLY: We didn’t grow up in New York; we just both happened to be there as we all went to college in the city and, you know, people eventually move on from their college towns at some point. I loved my time in New York, but it felt like the right time to try something else.

People do move on. It’s just a natural occurrence that happens in our lives.

MOLLY: At this point in my life, I feel like I’m getting more out of removing myself from the city for a little while. I don’t know what the next move will be. We’re living upstate now and it’s pretty calming and peaceful. The quality of life is high, we have space to play music in our house, and we have the ability to have more time to write music. We’re also not working two-and-a-half to three jobs.

ROB: The new record came out of that space. We actually recorded it in Brooklyn and in a few different studios, but the record itself – like the vibe and all the things we talk about as a whole – is very much a result of us moving into this house upstate.

What’s been the greatest part about living in a more rural area?

MOLLY: I just really love hearing and seeing the little animals (laughs). When you’re in the city, you don’t really get a sense of your place in your natural environment because you don’t necessarily see things like the mountains. I mean, there’s the East River and the Hudson River but…

You can’t really jump into those.

MOLLY: Yeah (laughs). But I don’t know… it really is kind of inspiring to be sitting in a field while surrounded by trees. This sounds really hippy of me but it’s true; it’s calming and it puts you in the right head space to work really hard on something.

ROB: With New York or any big metropolis, it’s like an alien space; it’s not normal. When you’re in there, it feels like its own atmosphere and a lot of the art that comes out of those really urban spaces is based on commentary as you’re observing other people. When you’re out of a place like that, you feel like you are getting a deeper thing sometimes. Even if it’s not monumentally deeper, it’s just kind of a balance of humanity and existence.

Is there anything you miss about living in the city?

MOLLY: There is always something to do in New York for those moments when you feel restless. I know that solitude has its uses and even boredom can be really important for sorting through your feelings and thoughts, but sometimes you’re just like, “Man, I’m bored. I want to go do something!”. There is not much to do upstate as there’s not a lot of people. You have to drive everywhere so it does keep you housebound a lot. Even though that’s sort of a good thing, it can also be a drawback. I don’t know… Rob, what do you miss most about the city?

ROB: Um… I guess I miss the various cuisines the most.

MOLLY: I would agree with that actually. We have a very limited number of food options now. I mean we have a grocery store but we miss the luxury of having any food delivered to you at any time of the day. Nobody even delivers food upstate except for this one pizza place and they close at like 10 p.m.!

In terms of the music, what made you two decide to take your time with writing and recording All Yours as compared to Almanac and The Swamps?

MOLLY: When we got to The Swamps, we were already working on new songs and planning out what the next record was going to be, which was an album that had themes weaved throughout it. It ended up being more of a concept record, but we weren’t really motivated by that so we scrapped a lot of the songs we had at the time. The new record really didn’t come together until we stopped trying so hard and I think that’s why it has more of a natural theme than a concept. The songs are all about a similar feeling which is moving on and setting out in a new direction.

ROB: Instead of being a concept record, it’s more like a record that had a concept to it.

MOLLY: Yeah, like an external concept. It feels cohesive to me.

Did you discover any specific inspirations outside of music?

MOLLY: We are all influenced by different things. I’m not trying to sound like a hippie but we’ve always been interested in the West, like nostalgic sounds and that kind of imagery. I love the idea of making music that creates a feeling. Our new songs definitely have a visual connotation to them.

ROB: Just the idea of simplicity was a big thing for us. The new songs are pretty straightforward and the arrangements aren’t really fussy. Most of the album was tracked live without us actually laboring over the entire recording process.

MOLLY: We just wanted to simplify things in general and make it more organic and more casual. Everything came together naturally.

As Captured Tracks noted, you guys wrote material via sharing voice memos and having late night jams in a living room. What was that process like?

MOLLY: Our writing process is just generally me recording a lot of voice memos. I’ll work on them for a couple of months and then when I feel like they’re at a place where we can start figuring out the final version, I might change all the lyrics or change some of the melodies. Rob and I will usually jam on something for weeks to feel it out and see where we want it to go with it. Then at that point Rob will come up with different instrumental parts and sort of work with the dynamics of a song.

Is there anything you would like to do differently or experiment with in the future?

ROB: Honestly, this might not be the right answer, but no. We want to get deeper into what we’re currently doing so we can do it better. But who knows, maybe I’ll change my mind in a month.

MOLLY: It’s weird because our band is a project that has two different songwriters and the common ground we have is what Widowspeak is. Rob has his own little projects and so do I, so he might do other things and I might do other things, but what we have when we are writing together is just what we’re trying to improve on. It’s kind of like a Venn diagram. I mean the songs will probably change in terms of what they’re about and the feelings they evoke, but I don’t think we’ll make an ambient record. But who knows, maybe (laughs).

With your writing process, how do you maintain a balance of general and more personal themes while trying to reach out to a relatable audience?

MOLLY: It’s weird because I think on other records, I kind of tried to veil things a little more and tried to keep the small details out of it. I guess I was more about internal musing and using language that was really visual or painted a specific picture. Especially with Almanac, which was kind of about the end of the world and The Swamps, which was more about stagnation. With All Yours, I just tried to be a bit more unfiltered as the more straightforward you are about your own feelings, the more universal it can be. It’s just kind of what happened and I feel a lot better about how specific the lyrics are compared to other songs I’ve written in the past.

For someone that’s listening to Widowspeak for the first time, what’s one thing that you would like them to take away from your music moving forward?

MOLLY: We’re always going for “mood” as it’s always been about mood from day one, so it would be great to hear if our music takes you to a certain place.

ROB: We also want people to know the best things don’t always have to be in your face. We’re more of a slow-burn band and not a massive dance jam band; those things are great but we’d rather have our music wash over you in a slower, warmer way.

MOLLY: Yeah, subtlety is our ammo.

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