The Hudson River Valley, Stage Fright and Wikipedia: An Interview With Widowspeak

01/30/2013 9:00 AM |


Sometimes you have to get away from the structure and the strain of city life to get the creative juices flowing. For their second LP for Brooklyn’s now-venerable Captured Tracks label, Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas needed a change of pace, a change of scenery, and a step away from an internet connection, even if it did mean a temporary halt to Hamilton’s tenacious Wikipedia habit. With most of Almanac written in Brooklyn, the duo retreated (along with producer Kevin McMahon) to a hundred-year old old barn in the woodlands of the Hudson River Valley. And Widowspeak sound all the better for it, both on record and in conversation. Once coy about singing live and hesitant to make Widowspeak the center of her life, Hamilton, a Tacoma, Washington transplant, sounds more intent than ever to see her band take on new challenges.

The L: How do you think where you recorded the album affected how it came out sounding?

Molly Hamilton: We had demoed the record extensively and we did know what we wanted the parts to sound like. And we wanted to add that we weren’t always playing with our band, like in a live setting. But being in a place removed from the city and a place immersed in a pastoral setting, especially because a lot of the record, lyrically, thematically, is about cycles of things. The title comes from those sorts of ideas. So being in a place surrounded by that, I think reinforced everything we were experiencing in making the record. And also, it was totally removed from distractions, so we were just having to focus on that constantly. You’re making it and you’re sleeping in a place where you’re recording, making it and coming back together and listening to a record is obviously going to inform the work you’re doing that day, or different parts you’re going to write or record that day. So I just think the record the allowed to be more extensive and creative than it would have been if we were doing it in the city. Not to say that that’s not a good place to record a record, but if we were relying on checking into the studio night and day, I don’t think it would have been as much of a creative process. 

So you originally wrote the music and lyrics in Brooklyn?

A lot of it. We had kind of mapped out the record because we wanted it to have an arc and we wanted there to be certain elements. Like we’d written “Perennials” a couple months ago and we wanted that to be the first track because it felt like a really good introduction. So having a first part of the record and maybe a couple of other songs that had already been written, we needed to know where this would go. So we kind of mapped out the arc and we started writing “Ballad of the Golden Hour” in the summer and then we wrote “Almanac,” the title track. It was originally part of a song, but we kind of liked it to be its own stand-alone idea. And we hadn’t written “Storm King” or “Minnewaska” until right before we started recording and “Storm King,” actually, I didn’t write until we were probably three weeks into the recording process. We knew what sort of songs we wanted to go at the end. We had this guitar riff. It was kind of this cyclical movement that we wanted it to have. But we didn’t actually add any of that instrumentation until afterwards. I was really inspired by Storm King, which is a mountain upstate in the Hudson River Valley and Minnewaska, which is a lake 15 minutes from where the studio was. It’s actually in the same park as the waterfall on the record cover. It wasn’t so much about trying to make a Hudson River Valley record, but so much of the ideas we had going into the record were influenced by heading across the United States and kind of experiencing a lot of the outdoors that you don’t get when you’re in the city all the time. When you’re actually in a more natural place, I think it definitely trickles into the sound of the record.

Was it pretty secluded out there?

Yeah. I mean, it’s close to New Paltz. It’s like a 15-minute drive from New Paltz. Technically it might be in the city, I don’t know. You walk out the door of the barn and there’s one or two other houses on this large lot. You look out and there’s this vast field, hills, huge cliffs beyond that. There were these crazy nights where it was incredibly foggy and there were these weird sunsets. Everything was really intense and wild, so it was beautiful. Also, if we needed anything, we knew we could go to town. There wasn’t a shower or anything, so we obviously had to go back to the city once in a while, but we were pretty much there Monday through Friday until we stayed over the weekend. For like, four weeks were there.