Charlie Parr, the Duluth-based folk-blues crooner, kicked off yet another tour here in Chicago this past Thursday night at Lincoln Hall. He’s accompanied on this tour by his friend Phil Cook. I’ve been a fan of Charlie’s since I first stumbled across his work in 2016, when Stumpjumper— an album I still play on repeat at least twice a week– popped up on my Spotify. Nervous and excited, I arrived at the venue early and took a seat by the window. After a few minutes of waiting around, a bewhiskered Charlie humbly ambled out to meet me, having just finished sound check.
The following is a transcription of our brief conversation, slightly condensed for length.
I wanted to ask you a bit about your songwriting process… An older Citypages interview said that you write from the perspective of 1931 in a lot of your songs, drawing from old blues acts. Is that true?
Yeah well, not all the time… There were certain songs written using stories my dad told me as starting off points. He was born in ’22. During the depression he was a teenager, and he left home and bummed around the country for a long time and had a lot of good stories about that… I didn’t write any songs at all until he died. I think the main reason I even started writing songs is because I was having a really hard time figuring out how to grieve for him, because we were really close. So, I wrote down a lot of things that turned into songs that were inspired by all those stories he told me about the depression and hopping freight trains and all those crazy things he did… I guess I still go back to that occasionally, but it’s not so much the time, but the grief. I’m motivated more by that than anything else.
I noticed that some songs appear multiple times across different records in your discography… Does the meaning of the songs change for you over time?
For sure. Songs are never done… For me anyway. I mean, this is personal, but songs are never really finished. You know, if you’re a writer or a painter, you create your art and you give it away or sell it, and it’s theirs. They can do whatever they want with it. You can’t break into their house and edit it. But as a musician, every night I get to recreate the art that I made again—brand new. Because I haven’t made anything at all. When I play, nothing is created. You’re just moving air molecules around. And when you’re done, the air molecules will move back to where they were when you started. There’s really nothing there. It’s the most Buddhist form of art there is. So, songs get kind of rewritten every night, in a way. Certain songs that never felt finished in the first place keep piquing my interest until I re-record them, because they don’t feel the same anymore. Like you said, they’ve taken on a new meaning for me.
I think it’s alive.
I read somewhere that you play up to 250 shows a year?
I have—I’ve played up to 275 shows a year, but I don’t have a job, so I got nothing else to do. This past year I did way lower than that. I broke my shoulder this past August, so I was off the road for like two months. But I play as much as I can. If somebody asks me to play, then I’ll play, because all I want to do is play the guitar.
You also have a family– two teen children– how has that impacted your musicianship and touring, et. cetera?
Umm, not well. Or maybe it’s the other way around. You know, this lifestyle destroyed my marriage. The challenge of being a parent and living this lifestyle is daunting. I’ve tried to make it okay by the time that I am home, trying to be mindful and present—awake—for my kids. They’re in their teens, so sometimes they don’t really want me to be there, but you know, if they do want me, and I’m in the house, I want to be there and say yes to them and what they need. When I was a kid, my dad worked in the packing house. He was a great guy, but he worked 12 hours, sometimes 14 hours a day; when he came home he was tired. His body was there, but the rest of him was not… I’m gone for a couple of weeks, so when I am with my kids I make it my duty to say yes to them and spend time with them, and just do what I can.
So, we mentioned your shoulder earlier, I’ve read you were also diagnosed with focal dystonia…
Yeah, that was years ago.
How has that made an appearance in your work?
Well, what happens is your rhythm goes away… You feel like you don’t have a hand anymore—you have a flipper. It’s really hard to deal with. When I got the hang of it and started changing the way I play the guitar, the way I hold it, the way I attack it, then it seemed fine again. And it’s plateaued at that spot for 7 or 8 years now. So, I’m comfortable now. There’s still a lot of stuff that I physically cannot do, because these fingers are not usable anymore… I can only play with my index finger and my thumb, and for a finger-style player, that’s not really enough. But I took a lot of comfort in the fact that a lot of amazing guitar players like Reverend Gary Davis and Booker White and Doc Watson pick with two fingers, so I could look to them for inspiration.
And you play a lot of slide was well.
Oh yeah, sure.
Do you mess with different tunings often?
All the time, yeah. I love alternate tunings. I don’t use a lot of them in performance, you know. There’s some that seem really specific to like one or two things and it takes a minute to get there. Some are a strain on certain strings and you’re always afraid you’re gonna break something on stage, so during a performance I might use two or three different tunings, but rarely more than that. At home when I’m practicing, I’m really interested in exploring a lot of different tunings, so I have a few guitars that just hang around the house and are tuned odd, so I can play around with those.
You alternate between a resonator and a guitar at times.
Normally. My twelve string is kind of in rough shape, so I’ve got two resonators tonight set to different tunings.
There’s some harmonica in some of your recordings, do you ever break that out on stage?
Well, that’s a friend of mine that plays that. And he’s a freight train engineer, so he doesn’t travel unless he’s got time off. I’m trying to talk him into retiring, because railroad pension’s pretty good. You could just hit the road and play music.
Yeah, that’d be nice! Another question: I saw online that you had a pdf, sort of minibook format of some of your writings, and song lyrics, and what have you. What inspired that idea?
That was my friend Ryan, who does the website. I don’t have a computer so it’s hard for me to figure that stuff out. He’s like an archivist, librarian. Really good at it. So, he wants me to send him lyrics, so he could put them online. Well I don’t have a computer, so I mailed him some notebooks and he scanned the notebooks and sort of put them all together that way. And then I just started sending him everything, and he started compiling it, scanning it, putting it on the website.
Do you do any illustrating?
You know I do, I do painting, watercolor painting, but it’s terrible. [Laughs] It’s a mental health therapy so I don’t show those around too much.
I know depression has been a constant theme for you, and it’s evident in a lot of your songwriting, but can you talk about what that’s been like for you, if you’re comfortable?
Yeah, I’m getting comfortable with it. There’s been too much of my life where I wouldn’t talk about it because I was ashamed of it. When I was 14 through 16 I had several suicide attempts. I was in and out of the state hospital around where I lived, umm, and then for a while it kind of subsided. You know, depression’s weird. For me, anyway, depression manifests itself in this situation where you don’t feel much of anything. You know, your motivation goes away completely, you don’t feel particularly sad, you never feel particularly happy, you know you just don’t feel much of anything. And it’s dangerous. When I was in my late 40s, and I’m 52 now, it came back with a vengeance. I had a few more suicide attempts and decided to actively start seeking some sort of therapy for it, and it’s been going well. So that’s what I do. I play music and I practice kind of a walking meditation daily, that helps me a lot. But it’s there, and it’s powerful.
Your work, at least the way I see it, has a way of reaching out to people in similar situations, feeling similar things. You’re a walking example of overcoming it in a sense.
That would be an honor. That’s hard sometimes. It doesn’t feel like I’m overcoming it. It’s such a present part of my life, you know. Depression comes along with a weird kind of social anxiety I have that sends me running to the most private place I can find. I wanna just get away. It’s weird, playing shows, and you’re in public, and people are around, sometimes a lot of people, and you have to find a way to deal with that. And I always appreciate when someone comes up and says, “I have it, I’m suffering as well.” And it’s not something where I can say I’m doing great, but at least you know you’re not alone. There’s more of us out there when you think. There was a time when I was a kid, a teenager, when you didn’t say anything to anybody because there was such a stigma around it. People called you terrible names. Think about a 14-year-old kid who takes a bottle of pills because he’s done living, and he goes back to school, and people make fun of him for it. It’s freaking terrifying. Anything I feel like I can do—I can’t help anybody, because I haven’t found a way out of it myself—but if I can say you know I’m here too… Sometimes that’s good. But that’s all I’ve been able to do so far.
On a lighter note, are you working on any new projects?
Yeah, Red House [Records] is putting out the next record in August, which is more of a solo record. It’s actually a little bit of a retrospective. I wrote some new songs, I covered a couple of songs I’ve wanted to cover for a long time: a Spider John Koerner song and a Grant Hard song. And then, like we were talking about earlier, I revisited a couple of old songs that I feel like I really wanted to get another run at, because they’ve been around for so long and they’ve changed over the years. The meaning has shifted for me, so I wanted to take another crack at it. So that’s going to come out at the end of summer. And I’m always writing a lot for the next thing, but nothing’s really coalesced yet.
Alright, well we look forward to hearing it! Thanks Charlie.
Thank you, Finn, I appreciate it.
Oakland-born, LA-raised Tim Atlas has become a darling of popular “indie” Spotify playlists like “Indie Rock Road Trip” and “Feel Good Indie.” Inclusion on playlists like these has played a large role in the popularity of his hit song “Compromised,” which currently has over 15 million streams on the platform. With a new project on the horizon, Atlas is headed out on a quick Summer 2019 North American tour and Schuba’s Tavern in Chicago represents his first stop. WNUR was able to talk with Atlas before the show about his well-rounded musical upbringing, plans for the future and how music production is evolving.
Backstage at Schuba’s, 1 ½ hours remain until the show but Atlas seems at ease in the green room as he sips a black coffee. His white T-shirt reveals tattoos that take up the better part of his forearm, one of which is a forest green cactus. The whole picture exudes “California indie-pop singer.”
Growing up, Atlas had a very open mind when it came to music. Each of his family members had their own distinct tastes and he credits multiple artists with impacting his sound.
“My grandparents loved Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, my dad loved the Beatles and Elvis. My mom was into all these power singers like Whitney and Mariah and my sister was, like, locked in her room listening to 90s R&B music. I just kind of liked it all, I was like a sponge.”
Atlas began releasing music to streaming services in late 2013, with his first EP “Lost in the Waiting.” The EP, coupled with various YouTube covers, led to his being discovered by Bay Area talent scouts and appearing on Season 9 of The Voice.
“The producers make you feel like it’s your last chance to do something, so you really give your all when you’re in that moment,” said Atlas of the high-stakes atmosphere. “But after the show is where the challenge is. It’s like ‘do I want to be a dude from a reality show for the rest of my career or do I want to be an actual artist?’”
It’s clear that Atlas chose the latter path. After his departure from the show, he got back into the studio to make three songs, one of which turned into Compromised. This song in particular cemented Atlas as a figure to watch in the indie pop scene.
“[When we made Compromised,] I remember thinking ‘I really hope people fuck with this sound because I want to make this forever. This is the type of music I want to make 10 years from now.’ Luckily, people responded to that song…and ever since, we’ve been pumping out songs in that vein.”
This tour represents Atlas’ 2nd as a headliner. In the past, he has opened for artists like American Pets, Mating Ritual and Daniela Andrade and he hopes to do more opening gigs in the future, a comparatively modest approach when it comes to aspirations. Similarly, he named venues like Los Angeles’ Troubador and Oakland’s Fox Theatre as his ideal shows to play, in favor of more well-known arenas like United Center and Madison Square Garden.
“I want to be opening for artists like Phoenix, Toro Y Moi, and Still Woozy. Those would all be sick support slots,” he said with a smile. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had my head up in the clouds that much where I’ve pictured myself in a stadium. It’s always been maybe, like, thousand-cap venues. Those are where all my favorite bands play, I’m not going to a stadium to see indie bands.”
With a capacity of 165, Schuba’s is definitely on the smaller side when it comes to Chicago venues. Regardless, Atlas received solid crowd support in spite of the show being at the same time as the new episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones. “I’m kinda tempted to run off the stage and see what went down [on the show],” he joked.
Two Chicago-based artists kicked things off. Self-described “nu-pop” singer/producer Carlile served as the first opener, holding her own vocally over thumpy club tracks. The EDM production did not shy away from risk-taking, featuring everything from woodpecker noises to a rattling effect reminiscent of the beginning of Monte Booker’s “Kolors ft. Smino.” R&B singer/rapper Rich Jones, a prominent figure in the Chicago music scene, followed. Jones took the stage alone and had some funky production of his own accompanying his nasal, yet soulful voice. He seemed very at ease in his hometown, making conversation with the small crowd that bordered on stand-up comedy. A personal favorite song was “Rainy Days,” which featured the kind of low-key hip-hop production one might see on a Saba song. Jones rode the beat perfectly on this track and even rapped the second verse. Both openers brought strong energy despite an audience on the sparser side.
Atlas’ trademark soft falsetto notes and lush guitar-heavy instrumentation gave his sound a transporting quality live. His set flew by; at times, it felt like it was just him and the audience on a trippy California beach journey. Atlas did a fair amount of experimentation with the set; his performance of “Dive” featured talkbox effects on the chorus that did not appear in the studio version. One tall enthusiastic white guy at the center of the crowd busted out a pretty aggressive toe-tap during the surreal track. He closed things up with a heartfelt, honest sentiment praising the crowd before playing Figure A: “There’s always this fear that you go to a city and like no one shows up.”
After Atlas finishes up the tour, he plans to travel to Southeast Asia in search of inspiration, namely the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam.
“I just want to experience more life, so I can write more. I’ve just been in LA for a while kind of going through the motions and I find myself digging for things to write about,” said Atlas. “It’s been marinating in my mind lately, just to take a step back and be inspired.”
Thanks to technological innovations in music production, Atlas rarely has to wait to record. He has what he calls a “backpack studio” on tap for when inspiration strikes.
“I have a little keyboard, my laptop, and a mic if I’m just trying to do rough ideas. A lot of the stuff on the record, we just held an iPhone up to some drums. There are so many creative ways to record these days, so I don’t think I’m really limited when I’m on the road, not as much as you would think.”
Make sure to keep an eye out for Tim Atlas’ newest project, which he plans to drop this June. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe after some Southeast Asian soul-searching, “The Pho Tapes” will be the next addition to his discography….
Carlile – Spare Me
Rich Jones – Chicagoland
Tim Atlas – Dizzy
Tim Atlas continues on his tour on the Pacific, with dates in LA, Seattle and Vancouver coming up in early June.
Make sure to also catch Rich Jones at Subterranean’s Hoist Fest on Sunday, May 26!
I first heard Puma Blue’s music in March of 2018. “(She’s) Just A Phase” showed up on my Spotify Discover Weekly, and I was immediately drawn to its understated complexity. It felt like drowning in the most peaceful way, and so I submerged myself in the rest of his discography.
Puma Blue is 24-year-old multi-instrumentalist Jacob Allen, who began his music career recording songs in his bedroom in South London. After the SoundCloud success of his first EP Swum Baby in 2017, Allen embarked on a year-long tour of Europe, Asia, and the United States. His second project, Blood Loss, came out in November to critical acclaim, adding further depth to his indie-jazz fusion sound.
Nearly a year after I was introduced to his music, Puma Blue performed in Chicago for the first time (read the review of that show here). I was awestruck by his set. Hearing the songs that had become some of my favorites played by a full band in an intimate setting was magical. To my advantage, it just so happened that Puma Blue had a show in London while I was there over spring break, so I got to see him live twice in two weeks.
Seeing Allen perform on his home turf was undoubtedly special, particularly because of the circumstances. The show was at Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen, as part of BBC Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac’s annual concert series, and it was Allen’s first show in London since October. I was fortunate enough to talk with Allen briefly after the show, even though he had just returned from America three days previously and was justifiably exhausted. Despite this, he could not have been sweeter or more accommodating, giving me his full attention amongst the slew of people waiting to congratulate him on an amazing performance.
However, Allen was initially unsure of how the night would go.
“I was expecting this show to be really bad, honestly,” Allen said. “I thought this gig was going to be kind of corporate, with lots of radio people, but it was really special. I felt like a lot of people here were very attentive.”
They were. During Allen’s more emotional tracks, the crowd was absolutely silent, trying to take in every word. Allen’s lilting voice has been met with frequent comparisons to Jeff Buckley, but he finds most of his inspiration from jazz and R&B – an influence that came into play when he moved to London to study at the Brit School.
“I grew up around a lot of rock fans, and I love rock music with a passion, but the kind of stuff they were listening to I had no desire to be a part of,” Allen said. “So coming to London and living there full time, I was finally around other people whose main passion was jazz, soul, hip-hop and R&B. That was the first time when I was able to express that side of myself without feeling embarrassed.”
Allen got his start on SoundCloud when he was 16, but didn’t realized he could make music a career until his track “Only Trying 2 Tell U” began to garner attention on the platform.
“It suddenly felt like I could do this properly instead of in my bedroom forever,” Allen said. “But, I was fully prepared to just do the bedroom artist thing. I was really enjoying being a musician and thought it would be a side job.”
Because he started out recording in his bedroom, Allen quickly acquired the “bedroom pop” label, but doesn’t consider himself a part of the newly popular genre.
“I think it’s cool that [bedroom pop] artists have found a mainstream audience, but just because something is made in a lo-fi setting doesn’t mean it shouldn’t reach this massive array of people,” Allen said. “I don’t like that it’s trendy. I’ve always thought the coolest stuff is different or original, so any idea of being thrown into a category I don’t like very much.”
If anything, Allen has proven himself to be original – and strikingly so. There will always be comparisons to be made, but after getting to know the man behind the moniker, I’m convinced that Puma Blue is truly one of a kind.
In discussions about the music industry, graphic artists are often overlooked — a strange fact considering that we adorn our walls with posters of our favorite bands, buy t-shirts depicting the same artwork, and sometimes even etch iconic album covers permanently into our skin… I Googled “music poster industry” and the first page of results was chock full of RedBubble advertisements and Amazon links, but surprisingly sparse in journalistic content. I did, however, find three articles on the topic: one relatively recent but intensely narrow article by Smithsonian Mag, focusing only on Chicha music, and two with slightly broader perspectives, written in 2004 and 2014 respectively. Clearly, this is a topic that has been overlooked.
If you’re anything like me, you admire and appreciate great art, especially art that promotes a band you love. While attending South By Southwest in Austin this year, I took a stroll around Flatstock 69: the part of the festival dedicated to showcasing the graphics industry and the visual artists behind some of our favorite designs. I sat down with a long time family friend and seasoned music-industry veteran and we talked a little bit about his job. He’s had the privilege of working with big-name clients, including The Arctic Monkeys, Jay Z, Death Cab for Cutie, Spoon, Guided by Voices, The Alabama Shakes, Jack White, Kia Motors, Wonka Candy, and Vans Warped Tour to name a few.
What follows is a slightly condensed version of said conversation in Q & A format.
Would you mind introducing yourself?
Yeah, my name is Andy Vastagh, President of the American Poster Institute and the owner and designer and printer for Boss Construction… my design company.
So, you’re self employed
And how many employees do you have working for you?
Uhh, zero. [Laughs] It’s all me.
That’s really cool, can you talk about your path to where you are today… how you got here?
Yeah so, I was making artwork for friends’ bands, for these little shows. That was kind of my way to get into the shows because I was always wanting to go to the shows but didn’t have enough money to actually pay to get through the door. So I found a way to align with the bands and get to be a part of the scene without knowing [how to play] music.
So you’ve worked with some pretty well-known artists. Do you usually work with the artist directly, or is it through their manager, or label… How does that work?
It can be a variety of things, between management, venues, promoters… but often it’s me and somebody in the band who sort of has the lead on creative direction and we just go back and forth. Like Adam from War on Drugs just emails me when he has an idea or he asks me to send him some ideas. I work directly with him because he likes to have a hand in that kind of stuff.
Okay, that brings me to another point; how does licensing and permissions work when you make art for, or sometimes with, a group?
Well, we have a couple of different arrangements. One, they can buy the artwork outright. That’s the top-level fee. A lot of times, they go for the middle tier fee… Essentially I give them a little break on design or printing, with the agreement that I can keep a portion of that limited edition run and sell it myself, via my website or poster shows at festivals, that kind of thing. That one usually works out best; they save a few bucks in the end, and I… have the good will to exhibit and sell them myself. And I make more money that way. IF they sell, that is.
How competitive is the industry? How hard is it to get gigs lined up?
I’d say most people start kind of slow and low… Mostly [working with] smaller tier bands, local bands, or working with venues. But when you start to get the venues that are getting decent sized touring acts coming through, you can connect with bands like that, then it kind of starts to evolve. Then, promoters at the bigger venues see what you’re doing with these smaller guys, and say, “We wanna do that too!”
I started with probably one of the smallest clubs in Nashville when I started really getting serious into it, and now I do stuff for like their giant arena… But it wasn’t right out of the gate that I was doing stuff for Bridgestone Arena.
So you’d say most of your business is word of mouth?
Yeah, word of mouth, or just being out. Doing little local things, or doing things like this. Flatstock here in Austin, or the one we do in Chicago, you have a lot of people (especially at SXSW) that are in the industry, wether they’re bands or management or they work for a record label. And they’re always looking for something to kind of step up their brand.
You can walk through here and see seventy-five different artists’ work. It’s kind of like a living, breathing catalog of amazing artwork and different things. And you can meet the people who are making it in the same place.
So I first met you at Warped Tour in Nashville, and now again in Austin. You also mentioned shows in Chicago. Sounds like a lot of travel!
Yeah! Especially in the summer, I do a lot of traveling. Starting in May, and going through November. I do larger festivals between Bonnaroo and Firefly Festival and Pitchfork in Chicago. After this one, we go to Barcelona at the end of May for a festival called Primavera Sound. This will be my seventh or eighth year. It’s a good excuse to go to Spain, and it’s an amazing festival. It’s probably 80-100,000 people for four days, it goes from 5pm to 5am… it’s wild.
But travel can be tiresome and I’ll miss my dogs and my bed and then I get to enjoy coming home. But yeah, I’ve gotten to see a good bit of the world [based] on the sole fact that I make and design concert posters.
Awesome! On a closing note, what’s one thing that you’ve come across or learned, be it about yourself or anything, that you didn’t expect to.
I learned to be confident in whatever is is that I’m doing and to make it as authentic to my instincts and aesthetics and beliefs and not worry so much about making something that’s gonna match with someone’s couch, ya know? Just make it for you, and if it’s honest enough, you’ll find the right audience.
Crudely marked by pink-white scars, 38-year-old Tony Baker’s hands serve as a mangled road map to the eight years he spent in the depths of heroin addiction. Damage from shooting up caused his hands to swell to twice their normal size, with the middle finger of his left hand bent permanently at almost a right angle. Doctors urged him to amputate, but Tony opted for a series of surgeries instead, hoping that he would once again be able to practice what saved him: music.
But music was not Tony’s sole savior. His wife, Kat – once his partner in drug-related crime – became his partner in sobriety and encouraged Tony to pursue music. Now, he is the guitarist and Kat the vocalist in Chicago band Broken Robots, along with bass player Martin Ontiveros. In October, the trio released their debut album, Home Is Not A Place, on the same day Tony and Kat were married. Having spent most of their adult lives searching for an escape through drugs, they instead found one through music and each other.
The Chicago natives first met in April 2015, when Tony was panhandling on Lake Street off of I-355 in Itasca and Kat would give him change and cigarettes. Both at an all-time low, they turned to heroin out of hopelessness. Their first arrest followed soon after.
At this point, in May 2016, Tony had fallen in love with Kat. He knew that he had to change, so he refused probation and went to prison, forcing himself to get clean. With Kat still on probation, the two stopped talking out of fear that their relationship was toxic. But six months later, when Kat heard that Tony had been released, she checked herself into Haymarket Center – a treatment facility in the West Loop – on her 25th birthday. Tony followed suit to solidify his sobriety, and the two were reunited.
“The scariest thing about it was that we were afraid that once we got clean, we would have nothing in common,” Kat said.
The treatment center organized a talent show. Tony and Kat both participated, reigniting their musical affinity. Tony had been playing and engineering music since 16, and Kat started writing songs at the same age.
“We realized that we both had a passion for music, and it was something that we could get high off of in a different way,” Kat said.
After treatment, the pair moved to Rogers Park and built their own studio. In December 2017, Broken Robots was born. With Tony composing music and Kat writing lyrics, they began recording Home Is Not A Place. Following its release on Oct.1, Broken Robots have played several small shows around the city and are already working on their second album. The pair works at Lou Malnati’s to support themselves, but have also been able to earn revenue of off Broken Robots, having already sold out of physical CDs. Although they don’t confine themselves to a single genre, they describe their sound as a mix of indie pop, rock, and hip hop.
Tony and Kat’s experiences with drug addiction are heavily reflected in the album’s subject matter. Perhaps the most potent example of this is the penultimate track on their album, “Money off the Trip,” a conceptual song from the perspective of a drug dealer as well as a customer. Marvin, who recently joined Broken Robots and is also a former addict, said this honesty was what drew him to the band.
“They’d tell me stories, and in the beginning I was like, ‘Did that really happen?’ and then I’d hear it in the songs,” Marvin said. “Every song is something that they’ve experienced.”
Both Tony and Kat agree that sharing their story is the primary goal of Broken Robots. “Our imagery is not the prettiest stuff, but I need people to know how real it is,” Tony said. “If we were pretty it wouldn’t work.”
Ultimately, Broken Robots has provided the community and motivation for Tony, Kat, and Marvin to overcome addiction. Now, they want to end its stigma and help others through music.
“A lot of people don’t want to talk about addiction, but I think that having a sense of community and purpose is really what it’s all about,” Kat said.
Though the scarring on his hands will forever remain, Tony has found internal healing through music – and most importantly, something to look forward to.
“We may look like somewhat of a motley crew,” Tony said. “But we’re all about love and hope, hope, hope.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ellise Shafer: Tell us about how The Ophelia’s came to be.
Spencer Peppet: We started in high school, so my senior year. I guess we’re all the same year except Micaela, she’s a year younger. And I was putting together this benefit concert kind of deal, and so I had been playing in bands before that and it was all kind of male-dominated and I was getting really sick of getting told exactly what to play by some dude who thought because he knew who Galaxie 500 were that he was better than me. I was like, okay, Guided By Voices t-shirt, like I’m done.
ES: That hits hard.
SP: It’s too real; it’s too much. And the thing is, everyone knows what I’m talking about. When I say Guided By Voices t-shirt, you know exactly what I’m talking about. There was a lot of that. And I had been playing in bands and I had done my own project before that but it was just, I was playing ukulele so it doesn’t really count, you know what I mean? Because I was like “Oh, I haven’t played an instrument before!” The guitar, at the time, seemed too daunting and now I know it was just because I’ve been told forever, “You can’t just pick up the guitar and start playing it. Men do that, women don’t do that.” So I was like okay, I guess I’ll play the ukulele. And then eventually, I was like I’m sick of this, I want to play the guitar. And so I picked up an electric because it was easier to play than an acoustic and I was like, “Oh, wow I can be loud! I really like that.” So I was putting on this benefit concert, and I realized that I didn’t want to play by myself so I reached out to a couple of my friends. One of my friends was playing cello and had never played bass before. And I was like, “Hey, do you wanna play music?” And she was like, “Yeah, I’ve always wanted to try bass.” So we kind of picked up our instruments at the same time. And our drummer is just amazing and has been playing since she was like six or whatever, and our violinist is the same way and studied classically. I just got lucky, they said yes and we played a show, and I was like “Ooo! You guys are really good! Do you want to keep playing?” and they said yes and here we are.
ES: Did you all go to different colleges? How did you keep the band together during that time?
SP: Yeah, we all went to different schools, studying completely different things so our schedules are kind of at odds with each other. But to be honest, we really didn’t play very much in college just because I was in New York, Micaela was in Chicago for a bit and then moved back to Ohio, Andrea was in Columbus, and she studied abroad in Chile a couple of times which was super cool. She’s doing really cool linguistics work, it’s amazing, you should ask her about her thesis. So like, we’re all over the place and we ended up just getting lucky that we could play shows whenever we were in town on breaks. We recorded this album, and then it came out and we toured in the summer. It sucks, because you want to be doing more, and you see all these bands who are grinding every weekend, playing shows, really putting the work in. Being able to do that only for short periods of time is like “Oh, please let us do more!” We’re on tour for a month right now, and that’s the longest tour we’ve ever done.
ES: What are your songwriting influences?
SP: One of the things I really like about the four of us specifically is that we don’t have the same influences. Personally, Joanna Newsom is my top person forever, I think she’s basically a prophet. She’s amazing, all of her stuff is just like unbelievable. I listen to a lot of The Microphones, Mount Eerie, Fiona Apple. There’s so many, I could make playlists on playlists on playlists. We saw Andrew Bird last night and Andrea loves him and so does Grace. We love Esperanza Spalding. I always blank when I get asked this just because there’s so much from very different people. Micaela loves Paramore more than anything in the world. Just early jazz stuff, punk music, Fugazi, orchestral stuff, Max Richter. Kind of drawing from eight thousand different places and then trying to not make it sound like one thing; trying to make it sound like we’ve been inspired by all of those things.
ES: People have labeled your sound as soft punk, baroque rock, art rock, moth music, atmospheric… How do you respond to that and where do you think your sound fits in?
SP: Genres are stupid. Anything can be anything. Labels are meaningless because now you can say you’re anything and people just kind of have to take your word for it. We put moth music, nature punk, Marxist rock, as tags on our Bandcamp because it’s like whatever, who cares. But I don’t know, to say like “Oh yeah, we play indie rock,” it’s like yeah, we do at its core, I guess, but also that kind of doesn’t take into account the 8,000 influences that I tried to explain. This is getting into Spotify algorithms and shit, but like I feel like genres now are just so people can pitch themselves to different Spotify playlists. Like are you going to be on the indie rock playlist, are you going to be on the bedroom pop playlist, are you going to be on the R&B playlist, are you going to be on the Country Music On A Summer Night in Indiana playlist… I feel like that’s the main reason why people are doing genres that they might not otherwise be because it’s easier and it helps you get listeners. I mean, we market ourselves at indie rock, I don’t know if we really are. Maybe we are. I can’t tell! I just sing things.
ES: Your Spotify bio mentions that you were all the “token girl” in respective bands before forming The Ophelias. What does being in an all-girl band mean to you? What do you think needs to be done to get away from this “token girl” mentality?
SP: Playing in a band with all women has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me, hardcore, full stop. I think it allows a sense of musical and emotional freedom that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. I do think that the whole female-fronted as genre thing kind of just needs to stop. Being a woman in a band is more than just being a woman in a band. On one hand, I’m glad that there’s finally space being made for women and non-binary people in music, but I’m also like are you going to only allow a specific set of women and non-binary people who fit into the acceptable, manufacturable, consumable versions of those things to succeed? What kind of standards are there for women? How much higher are they? I think getting rid of token girls is a great idea. I think it’s not going to happen for a long time because there’s a sense of risk when women get signed to labels. There’s a lot of misallocation of resources, there’s a lot of women who get stuck making quote bedroom pop forever because no labels are willing to take a risk on someone who sounds different than what women are told that they’re allowed to sound like in twangy indie rock: guitar solo, lead lines, *boom, boom boom chhh* and the one bass line. As long as you’re doing exactly what they think you’re going to do, then you can be successful as a woman in music. But if you’re not, you have to work much harder.
ES: You released your album Almost last year. What was the recording process like?
SP: This was a long process. We recorded the basic tracks for the album in 2016, so we did all the basic tracks, it took us like three or four days because our friend recorded it at this studio that has since been shut down. Rest in peace Ultrasuede, you did such good for so many people. We love you. But we recorded it there, our friend got free studio time because he was interning there, so he engineered it for us and we were going to work with him and then things got kind of complicated so we ended up shelving it for a little bit and not really thinking about it. We were like, how are we going to make this record, like how is this going to come out of the woodwork and become an album. We played a show with WHY? in Cincinnati and the head of Joyful Noise came to that show and we were like “Hi,” and then a couple months later they were like, “Let’s do this,” and we were like, “Fuck, okay!” So then we decided that Yoni [from WHY?] was going to produce it, so those tracks kind of got dug back up because we had them and they were ready to be twisted knobs on. We had all of those, and then kind of just jumped immediately into the mixing process. I did a couple of things as a solo act while I was in college because I was still writing music, and I released something summer of 2017, which feels so far away right now. I put out a solo EP called Moon Like Sour Candy, and I sent the title track to Yoni and he was like, “Oh, we have to put this on the album.” And I was like, “Okay.” So I flew into Cincinnati and we did it in one day and then I flew back and continued to do school. I wasn’t there for a lot of the mixing. Grace was our assistant producer, so she sat in for everything and was the voice for the band since we were all over the place. She did amazing work. Some of the really cool effects and things were her idea, and they would try things and send it to us and we would listen to it, we would call them, we would have Facetime sessions – so much technology went into it. And so we worked with Yoni and he would go far one way and we would pull him back the other way, and we would go one way and he would temper us with this other thing, and finally we ended up with Almost and we released it and it got put out into the world.
ES: Going off of that, how has it been signing with Joyful Noise and joining the ranks of Kishi Bashi, Good Fuck, Ohmme, Surfer Blood, etc.?
SP: Oh, man. They’re so cool. They were one of my favorite labels in high school. I remember sitting and listening to a Joan of Arc record and being like, “Ugh, it’s so good, I love Joyful Noise, they have so many good bands!” And flash forward to three years later… If I had told my 18 year old self like, “Hey, you’re going to sign to one of your favorite labels,” she would have been like, “Shut the fuck up, no. Go away.” They’re some of the kindest people that I’ve ever met. They’re lovely. I have only good things to say about them. I think they do a really good job of having so much diverse music on their label, and they do a great job making it into cool pieces of art with all the vinyl stuff that they do. Big fan. I love them. They’re so cool!
ES: What’s next for The Ophelias?
SP: We’re doing this, we’re going to be back in Cincinnati in mid-April I think, and then a bunch of stuff. I’m doing some composing for film scores, so I’m doing two of those, one for a short one for a future. Andrea has to finish her thesis and then she’s graduating. Grace is actually currently in San Francisco doing a co-op, so we have a sub-bassist who is amazing, I love them so much. And so Grace is finishing that, she’s still in school, Micaela’s still in school, and honestly we’re just gonna keep touring and we’re gonna make another album. I’m ready. You know a lot of those songs are from 2016 so I’m sitting on a backlog. Let’s bring the backlog to the front.
ES: Anything else you’d like the people to know?
SP: College radio is one of the coolest things in the world. I love it and I think that it’s A) an underutilized resource, and B) something that if you’re not in college yet I highly recommend looking into. Underrepresented and educational programming, forever.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ellise Shafer: How did you all get your start?
Blaze Bateh (drums): Well we started when we were kids, the three of us started playing in 7th grade, and we just never really stopped. We had different names over the years, and then finally this happened. But we got here on a plane yesterday.
ES: What was the first name of your band?
BB: I don’t remember. I think we actually did an interview in high school where we said our goal was to get a CD in a CD store.
Reid Bateh (vocals): Still working on that.
ES: Did you always play noise?
BB: It was a little different.
RB: We were kids into pop punk, so we started with that and then it slowly became what it is now. It’s hard to say, it’s just kind of been a progression.
BB: Because you always start out playing covers of bands you like and making songs similar to that. We were super into Blink-182.
William Brookshire (bass): So early on we did some of that and started writing imitation songs to figure out what we actually wanted to sound like.
ES: You moved from Georgia to Brooklyn. What has this done for your music sonically?
BB: I feel like we sound more southern now than when we actually lived in the South. I don’t know what it has actually done, I know it’s made us manage our time better because you have to work a lot more in New York.
RB: Yeah, it’s definitely helped to make us more focused.
BB: Yeah, so we like block out time to work on things specifically, whereas in Georgia you could kind of just hang around and things can come into fruition over time.
RB: I do feel like it enforced a little bit of growth, just because you have to because you’re always working on it.
ES: Reid & Blaze are brothers. How has this affected the dynamic of the band?
RB: Well, it makes it a lot easier for sure.
BB: William might as well be a brother. We’ve known him since first grade. He lived seven minutes from our house.
RB: It makes it to where any sort of disagreement is really not that big of a deal.
WB: We’ve heard stories of bands firing their guitar players at SXSW this year, and that’s just laughable to us. There will never be a disagreement where one of us gets fired.
RB: There’s a lot of communication and understanding.
BB: We all have a lot of devotion to it and an equal amount of creativity involved. Our voices are all heard at the same volume.
ES: I actually saw you guys play in September opening for IDLES. How was it touring with them? Any weird stories from tour?
BB: We first played with them in New York, we got asked to open for them, and then after the show they were like “We love you guys, you should come on tour with us.” And we thought it was cool, but we didn’t think they were actually serious until we got an email.
RB: They’re just like, the best people. That tour was one of the best we’ve had.
BB: They’re the nicest dudes. It’s genuine, too.
ES: On Shadow on Everything, the vocals are much more prominent and it follows a more narrative structure than previous records. What sparked this change?
RB: Well I think we started doing that with the last record, but for us, what we thought was bringing the vocals up really high, was not. But we’re so used to burying them in noise. We used to think that vocals should be kind of like an instrument, you know. But I think the more we messed with that, the more we were missing a humanness. We wanted there to be a human personality that’s talking to you and it ended up working really well for this record because the lyrics are so narrative and so important for the whole concept of the record.
ES: Can you talk about the concept itself?
RB: I’m a writer; I write a lot. I’ve been working on this novel for like six years. So when it came time to write this record, I was kind of still in a novel mindset so I wanted to write it as if it was a novel with different chapters. So it’s just about this town out West, based loosely on a few real places and a lot of real people. It’s just their stories and what it’s like to leave your hometown and how hard it is to stay away. There’s also a lot of dark undercurrents and things like that, but that’s the basic idea of it.
ES: Was this inspired by leaving Georgia?
RB: I would say some of it is, the idea of your hometown following you as a shadow. That’s true, but I didn’t really have trouble leaving it as some people do. Especially in New York, we’ll have a lot of friends move there – and it’s the place that just doesn’t want you to be there. It wants you out. So we’ve seen a lot of people move there and they’ll be gone in a few months, a year max. And it just feels like you’re alway getting pulled away. But for us it was easy, we had a good time. Moving together helped a lot.
ES: What’s next for Bambara?
BB: We’re writing the new record right now; that’s pretty much what we’re spending all of our time on. And we’re going on tour with this band Daughters, a small Northeastern tour.
ES: In your opinion, what does it take to make a good noise album in 2019?
BB: I mean for me, I always want to feel like I’m in a place when I’m listening to something.
RB: Yeah, atmosphere. Not necessarily a geographic location but if when you listen to a record and feel like you’re inside of it. An atmosphere, I think that’s very important.
BB: That’s what I like when I listen. So whatever you’re doing to achieve that, that’s cool.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ellise Shafer: Tell me how Her’s started. Did you guys always want to be musicians, respectively?
Audun Laading: For me, I came to music a bit late. Me and my family have always listened to music a lot together, like we share a lot of music within the family, so I’ve always been really passionate but I didn’t start playing seriously until I was like 15. Because before that I played like the trombone which sucked, then I played the violin which was not my favorite either, let’s say. I’m sure it’s great for people – different people, different tastes – but yeah, it wasn’t doing it for me. So I picked up the bass at 15 and felt at home straight away, blew all my money on it and enjoyed it ever since, basically. And like, getting into music from there was just a matter of doing something I liked and then sharing it with people and then more and more people were taking an interest in it, and suddenly you’re in Austin.
Stephen Fitzpatrick: My entire family are basically very musical, so I was kind of born into it I guess. They’re all bass players as well, so it was kind of natural that I’d end up doing it. I started off playing drums when I was like 10, and then always played a little bit of guitar and started taking it seriously when I was 15.
AL: We met in university, we somehow had the exact same schedules lined up, so we’d always meet in university the night before we were meant to be doing hand-ins, panicking and stuff, so I think that made for good bonding.
ES: What’s the story behind the name?
AL: Happened pretty organically, yeah. So, we were bonding over late homework and everything. We were both in a couple bands, in the rhythm section, and we were making this arty film one night, made a little YouTube clip and spent all night, up until 5 am editing it and we smashed it up on YouTube to show all our mates. And we had to make a choice right there and then because you need an email for a YouTube channel, and so it kind of happened out of that. We always didn’t want to overthink the band name, and have a sense of mystery.
ES: Your music is incredibly nostalgic to me. Do you draw inspiration from bands of the past?
SF: We’re definitely into a lot of music from the 50s onwards, I guess. Every decade. And I think we try to incorporate that into every song and kind of link each song with a specific decade in a way, but we try to not make it too obvious at the same time.
AL: I think it’s like a little salad of things we like, chopping up different things and tossing them in.
ES: Your music is often referred to as “dream pop” or “bedroom pop.” How do you see yourselves fitting into this genre? Would you say it’s an accurate label?
SF: I think we’re definitely somewhere in there, but not strictly at the same time.
AL: I guess for me there’s a pretty big difference between dream pop and bedroom pop. They’re always linked nowadays, but dream pop is very glossy and bedroom pop is very unglossy. I guess we try to not be too glossy, but I think we’re pretty glossy. Shiny at least; sparkly. Yeah, dream-poppy but not too bedroom-y.
ES: How has it been coming up in the U.S. as opposed to England/Europe? Any major differences so far?
SF: It’s actually the third time. We came to South By in 2017 and in November we did four gigs in the U.S. and now we’re on a big tour plus South By. It’s our first real U.S. tour.
AL: The crowds are very different. Touring in Europe, every country has got its own personality and every city as well, but coming here there’s also a general change that happens. People seem to be very enthusiastic, for example playing around the UK, no disrespect but people are very rowdy and chatty, while coming here people are quite attentive and are here for actually the show.
SF: It’s a lot easier to eat on the road here as well, like you can just get Mexican in gas stations which is really nice. It’s nice not having to eat greasy pastries all the time.
ES: Any favorite on-the-road restaurants?
SF: Sheetz was pretty good, and WaWa. We went to Taco Ranch this morning, that was pretty good.
ES: What message or feeling do you hope listeners can get from your music?
SF: We always say that the band’s kind of like an escape, so like whether it’s zoning out to dreamy love songs or entering some kind of fantasy world…
AL: I don’t think we’ve got any authority to tell anybody about anything.
SF: Haven’t read enough books.
AL: Yeah no, we’re not learned enough.
ES: What’s next for Her’s? New album, touring, chilling?
SF: Basically everything you just said.
AL: Doing that chill is definitely going to be a priority once we get back from this tour. I think the label is pretty eager for some demos, they’re pretty cool about it though there’s no stress. We’ve definitely been coasting on the album for a little while now, and it’s definitely coming to the point where we’re quite excited to be demo-ing again. We visited Paul Cherry’s place when we were over in Chicago, and we were playing the Empty Bottle which is like right around the corner from his house, so we got to listen to some of his demos and it was reinvigorating, it was like a lime-lemonade of inspiration.
ES: Is there anything you want to add?
SF: Hope everyone’s having a very good South By!
AL: Stay hydrated forever. Drink water.
SF: I’m sorry to everyone who saw us at South By because I can’t sing at the minute but, what can you do?
AL: You just sound a bit more soulful, it’s fine.
ES: You’ve got that rasp.
SF: The baritone is extra baritone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ellise Shafer: How’s SXSW been so far?
Shane Blanchard: South By is definitely crazy. Austin is beautiful; I didn’t have a chance to really check out the city last time I was here but it’s a beautiful city. We played on a boat on Lady Bird Lake, which was really cool. I’m just getting tired, but I’ll power through.
ES: What was the genesis of Bane’s World? How and when did you start making music?
SB: My friend asked me to start playing guitar in his band and I had always played guitar, I never took it super seriously, but he came to me and he was like “Hey, I’m recording all this music by myself and playing all the instruments,” and I was like “Woah, that’s really fucking cool.” I played in his band for a while and then I eventually got my own recording stuff and I just started making music and posting it on SoundCloud and it took off. I kept doing it, and basically was just doing it for myself, and then people started to take interest in it. And I would just do solo shows, or if I had people who could play with me I would do that.
ES: Did it start out as a solo thing and then you slowly brought people on for live shows?
SB: Yeah, basically. I still wanna try to keep the recording thing as only me, but I don’t think that’s what it’s going to be. Just because I’m a control freak, I guess you could say. Not actually, but it’s really nice to have complete control over what you want to hear and not have to compromise with other people. But I’m playing with an amazing group of guys. They’re really inspiring me every time I play with them, so I think I’m going to work with them on some stuff and see what happens.
ES: Does the name have anything to do with Wayne’s World; please I must know?
SB: Oh, man. People ask me this all the time and I feel like they always get upset, but I haven’t seen that movie since I was probably like eight, and nothing really sticks out to me about it. But my nickname in high school was Bane (combination of Shane and Blanchard) and I was like oh, Bane’s World, that kind of sounds sick. I don’t really know why I decided to do that, I mean I guess I obviously knew it was like Bane’s World, Wayne’s World, but I’m not like a giant fan of the movie.
ES: I’d call you one of the pioneers of the current “bedroom pop” genre. What inspired you to start making music this way?
SB: Wow, really? I guess bedroom pop is just people who make music in their rooms or in their garages. It has to do with the lo-fi quality and the chorus pedals and stuff like that, but I’ve always been a huge fan of Mac Demarco and Homeshake, and my parents always put me onto great music. My dad loves the blues and my mom loves The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen, so it’s just a melting pot of everything they showed me and what I was able to do. It wasn’t very forced, I don’t think. Whenever I sat down to make something, I would want to make something beautiful. That’s how I would get there, you know. That’s what I think is beautiful, at least.
ES: Okay, you really blew up last year. How did you react to that?
SB: Like, the Tyler the Creator stuff? I remember I woke up one morning to like being tagged on his Instagram, and so many people were just like “Oh my god, Shane. Oh my god. Look at this.” And I woke up like “Woah!!!” It’s so surreal. It’s like, not real. You wake up and it’s a blessing, you know, that somebody will back you. I feel like my fans are really loyal and really are there to support me and they’re really cool.
ES: Did you get to hang out with Tyler at Flog Gnaw?
SB: I talked to Tyler a few times. Never really hung out with him, although I would love to pick his brain. But I haven’t gotten to. It’s been small steps and then some really big steps and then smaller ones. It’s like riding the rollercoaster up; someday it’ll go down.
ES: You’re playing Coachella this year and played Flog Gnaw in November. What are the pros and cons for you of playing big festivals like these?
SB: I really do prefer intimate shows, actually. The cons of like Coachella or Flog Gnaw, is like if you’re not the headliner – I mean you get a really nice trailer and a nice place to relax – but getting in is a pain in the ass and the security will treat you like shit unless you’re the top of the top. And it’s just like, I don’t really do good with festivals, it kind of overwhelms me and makes me really tired. But yeah, I like intimate stuff. I like stuff where people are there to see you, because that’s when I give my best shows. The energy is way better.
ES: Your live performance was very powerful, definitely different than what I expected from the low-key vibe of your recorded tracks. How have you gone about translating bedroom-made tracks to the stage?
SB: Well, I have to credit the band itself, because we’ll sit down and be like “Oh, this is what we can do,” and everybody has an input. I want their skill to reflect in what we end up doing, and the guys I’m playing with are really incredible so we have a really solid set nowadays. I don’t restrict them from doing anything, because I think that I have very malleable music, like the songs can be put into any kind of style. So if we want to do it country Western style we can do that, or if we want to do super jazzy, we’ll do super jazzy.
ES: You haven’t released new solo music since 2016. Is it coming? When can we expect it?
SB: You bet there is. I’ve been recording ever since then. I haven’t stopped recording, it’s just I want this to be my pièce de résistance, you know, I want it to be the best. When I was making Drowsy, I had made a good 25 or 30 songs and I just picked those ones off my SoundCloud and put them on a compilation thing, but I want this to be 12 or so songs that are the best stuff that I’ve made. But I’m not posting it, I’m keeping it all for myself and then when I’m done I can just pick the songs and then save the other things for later. But yeah, something’s coming hopefully this year.
ES: Are you taking a different approach at all?
SB: Kind of. It’s a lot more keyboards. It’s a lot cleaner-sounding. I’m trying to figure out my vocals a little bit differently, trying to do more vocal runs, more of a singer kind of thing. Still recording it in my garage.
ES: In your opinion, what is the future of “bedroom pop”? Does this label annoy or frustrate you at all?
SB: It doesn’t annoy me, but I’m not a huge fan of having to tell people what my genre is anyways, because people just like to categorize things.
ES: I also feel like bedroom pop is genre-less.
SB: Yeah, because pop is just popular music, and it can be anything. It doesn’t frustrate me but I think that it’s just going to get better. The quality’s going to get better. It won’t be bedroom pop anymore because the quality is getting so good and everyone can do it, and that’s going to be what the music industry is.
ES: What is your biggest dream within the industry? Are you trying to take this as far as you can, or do you have other aspirations?
SB: I want to make other people happy with my music and make myself happy with my music and keep supporting myself. I want to buy my mom a big house, buy myself a big house, and have a bunch of animals running around. You know, I just want to be happy, that’s the end goal and I just want to keep doing it forever.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ellise Shafer: What was the genesis of Del Water Gap?
Holden Jaffe: I went to a sporty high school and I was bad at sports, so I decided to make a record. I spent some time converting a storage closet there into a recording studio and ended up making my first record there. At the time, I was listening to a lot of indie artists that were solo artists but they had project names like St. Vincent and Bon Iver, so I decided to hide behind a project name myself and what I came up with was Del Water Gap. I ended up putting out that music and moving to New York for school, where a few people convinced me to actually pursue it and play some shows, and the rest is history.
ES: What made you want to hide behind a project name?
HJ: I don’t know, fear? I also think that having a project name does allow a little more freedom creatively to sort of make that project publicly what you want it to be. It was a band for a number of years which was helpful for me. I really thrived being in a group, it just allowed me to lean on people and be creative with people in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do if it was just myself.
ES: But now it’s back to just you?
HJ: Yeah, so the last couple of years the people I was working with moved on to do other things. I’m still doing it, so it’s just me now, but it’s been good.
ES: How do you go about writing music and recording the songs as a solo project? Do you play the instruments or do you have a full band?
HJ: It’s a mixture. I’m surrounded by a really good community in New York City, a lot of really talented people. So effectively, I make demos and then I get some of my friends to help come make the record.
ES: Are you playing with a full band here?
HJ: No, I did one duo show with me and my guitar player, and then I’m doing a solo show tomorrow.
ES: Was your inspiration for the name the Delaware Water Gap? Why? What is its significance to you?
HJ: I was in a band, a sort of noise rock band based in Morristown, New Jersey and so I was going there a lot on weekends to rehearse, and it was by the Del Water Gap. I saw the name floating around and I liked the way it looked, so I added it to my growing list of band names and it just ended up being the best one. And yeah, I think it’s aged decently. It’s hard to Google but I still like it and think it suits me.
ES: 2017’s EP is titled with a phone number. Is that an actual number? What is the significance behind titling it that?
HJ: Yeah, it’s a sort of drug dealer burner phone, like a flip phone that’s on my desk in my bedroom.
ES: Do you get a lot of calls?
HJ: I get a lot of calls, yeah. I used to pick up and I used to text back but it just got to be too much. And then it got really weird, I got some really stoned people on Spotify. But yeah it’s cool, it was sort of a project to experiment in access. I had this moment when I was trying to name the EP and I lost my iPhone and I realized that I didn’t know anyone’s phone numbers, and I think that’s something that we’ve lost in the age of having cellphones. I feel like there’s sort of this intimate piece in knowing someone’s phone number, and I realized I only knew my parents’ house phone. My girlfriend at the time, I didn’t know her number, and I didn’t know my parents’ cell numbers or any of my best friends’ numbers. It sort of felt like a nostalgic move and a way to give people direct access to me and yeah, it’s been really interesting.
ES: Your new single, “Chastain,” begins with the lyrics “Man, I just wanna live a day as a blonde/I’ll look like Jessica Chastain.” How did this lyric come to be? Also isn’t she a redhead?
HJ: Well, it’s a joke. The whole song is kind of tongue-in-cheek because I think the character of the song is like a bummy guy who just hangs out in his house. My mom is a brunette, but she dyed her hair blonde a few years ago and she always makes jokes about how, you know, “blondes have more fun.” I was thinking about that and this character wanting to be a blonde, but not being with it enough in pop culture to know that Jessica Chastain isn’t a blonde and sort of being confused and grasping at straws to contextualize this for himself. It was a good way to establish his personality.
ES: Do you often have characters in your songs or do you mostly write from your perspective?
HJ: No, I don’t often. I’ve written a lot about myself and my feelings, and a lot of it has been pretty romantic-based and nostalgia-based, and more recently I’ve been challenging myself to write more; to write narrative songs that aren’t necessarily about my life. This was the first song of that new era of writing. I’m new to it.
ES: “High Tops” is a beautiful and heartbreaking song. I first discovered it on my Spotify Discover Weekly and it became a staple song in my playlists for at least a few months. Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind that song?
HJ: I had a very short relationship with someone who kind of came in and out of my life at a very vulnerable time. I wrote that song really quickly, it was sort of a “for me” song, like I wasn’t really planning on sharing it with anyone because it felt very personal. But then I brought it to my friend Michael to try to finish it and he really pushed me to put it out myself. For years, for months, I was scared to play it live because I say this person’s name in the song and so it was very personal. But yeah, it’s come to really have some legs and I’m really proud of it. It represents a memorable time in my life and so it’s special for me.
ES: It has over 2 million streams on Spotify. Did you have any idea/feeling it would get so big? Has that changed anything for you?
HJ: It happened really slowly, that song finding a place, and pretty organically. I think there’s two parts of being a music creator – one is you make music for yourself, and the other part is you make music to connect with people or you make music to have a career and make money. And this was the first time that second thing was really shown to me, like a lot of people really reaching out to me and having personal anecdotes about this song. It made the project feel like it wasn’t just about me anymore which was really nice. You know, I think imposter syndrome is a big part of this type of career. If you’re not super busy all the time you can start feeling like this is your journal or your diary, and you’re sort of just making noise to make it. And I think that song was part of a transition into me actually feeling like there’s more people involved.
ES: A new album is coming soon from Del Water Gap. What can fans expect from it? How will it be similar/different to past projects?
HJ: I think that it’s pretty similar vibe-wise but I think the record sounds better and I think the writing is a bit more mature. I think it’s my best work; I’m the most proud of it. It’s the first time I’m putting out a record where no one can tell me it’s bad, like I just won’t believe them if they tell me it’s bad. I really, really like it and I’m really proud of it. I think what’s similar is just the narrative voice and the arc. I think it’s still me as a writer. I think it’s a little more minimal than my old shit; I think it takes a little bit more confidence to be more minimal. I think in the past, I really leaned on having a thousand things going on to kind of distract people from myself.
ES: What message do you hope to send with your music, in regards to yourself and those who listen?
HJ: That’s a good question. I think for me, a lot of what I get out of writing is what a lot of people seem to get from spirituality or meditation practice. For me, it’s about dedication to the process. I really feel like I’m serving this thing that can serve me, so I try to write a lot and try to improve as a writer, and sort of being available and being open to that and willing to receive it and work on it allows the message or inspiration to be secondary. I feel like a lot of the time it’s more conformed by what’s going on at the time, what I’m listening to, what I’m reading, and that changes all the time, and the relationships I’m in or not in and the people I’m spending my time with. So I think that’s more passive, the first part of that question. The second part being the message I want other people to get from it – I think I want it to be up to them because I feel strongly as a creator that once you put something out into the world you give it away, and I think it’s not as much up to you anymore. Obviously, I want people to find comfort in it or love in it or fall in love to it or around it, and I think that’s the case for a lot of creators, but I think the minute details of that is up to whomever is consuming it.