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.
Could you go into more depth about why the album was titled Almanac?
For this record, I think it was the first time we actually kept a notebook. Usually with a notebook, I'll start it and kind of get tired of it, so I'll start another one. I mean, I've had a lot of notebooks at any one time, and I think a lot of people can relate to that. But with this one, I actually had one notebook that I kept the whole time. And it was basically just to keep track of ideas, but a lot of times, I'd be on Wikipedia and just reading books and I was putting down facts about things I didn't really know about... agriculture and old-timey ideas about the natural world. Like, natural phenomena. Because I wanted to look at those cycles and see if they would turn into songs. And a lot of it was idioms, like old-timey ideas. Those little sayings that you don't really know the meaning of. I was keeping track of all of these sayings, I wasn't even in the lyrical stage yet. And it kept on referencing almanacs, on these Wikipedia pages. And the more I thought about it being a 12-month calendar, that keeps track of all of this stuff and also offers advice. And sometimes it's Biblical and sometimes it's comical, and a lot of times, there's just funny things. Like, it'll tell you, the 13th of March is the best day to cut your hair if you want it to grow, which is a weird idea. And also, it's kind of an American experience even though these things happen everywhere. So I just started feeling like it should be the title for the record. While we didn't know if there were going to be 12 tracks on the record, it felt like it was kind of encompassing this whole year, a cycle in itself. I think that's how it came to be. And then also, when I first told the band I wanted to call the record that, they laughed because sometimes the tease me about using the almanac. I will tell facts that I swear are true, but if I don't cite my source, they're convinced I'm not telling the truth. And a lot of times, I can back this up, Google it (My internet sources are just Wikipedia and Google). But I'm not lying, per se. They just don't know if I"m telling the truth.
So you still had an internet connection out in the woods?
We didn't, actually. Once we were there, we were totally internet-less. And we had phone, which I guess still had internet service, but I was totally internet-less. I couldn't even really get email. When we had to, we were like, pooling our sources, trying to load email on our phones. We could go to the city and get some wi-fi if we needed to. But in terms of being in the barn, it was really great not having the internet as a distraction. Prior to that point, I think in the idea formation state, when we were still in Brooklyn…
Were there any ideas or sounds that you couldn't accomplish on the self-titled record that you were able to explore more this time around?
Definitely. The way we made our first record was just piecing it together from what we made up until that point. So that was a patchwork of where we were at that point. With this record, we actually approached it more intentionally and put ideas in place instead of representing a band up to that point without editing at all. I mean, we definitely had to record the songs as best we could and represent them as best we could represent them. With this record, everything was much more intentional and Rob definitely, in terms of the production. He just had pre-demoed a lot of sounds. So like, the keyboards weren't just things we added to flesh out the sound. It was like, we planned out all of the parts. We knew what we wanted instead of going into it, like, "I guess this works. I guess we'll use this tone." So it seems like we liked having things like the harmonium sound, the Wurlitzer, having the Rhodes in there. A lot of instruments we hadn't really been playing live. We'd been like a guitar and drum band, and then we added these later. So it was something where we realized we didn't have to be limited by our live set. It's actually at the point where I think we're going to add a fifth member because we like how it sounds so much. While there are bands that can stick to one specific instrumental lineup, I think that it was really great that we explored beyond the people present, what the sound we wanted was. In terms of style, I think we got into a more organic territory. I think there's a lot more psychedelic sort of textures. It's not that we made a psych record; it's not as straightforward. And sometimes it's more straightforward. I don't know; it's hard to describe because the experience of it is one where I guess it'll always be heard a different way.
How many members are in Widowspeak right now?
We started as a trio and we acquired a bassist for a couple of months, from, like, February until June of last year. And then our drummer left the band. He quit. It was just a stopping point for him. And we were about to record a new record, start this whole thing over again. I don't think it was working out for him. He didn't want to do it anymore. We don't have specific details, but he left the band. And because our bassist had just joined and we felt kind of weird knowing that me and Rob write the songs and we didn't know if we were going to have a bassist or just find another drummer, so we just kind of wrote the record ourselves. That's why it's the two of us on the cover. We wrote the entire record ourselves and then at the end of the summer, we asked our friend Kyle to join and play drums. So he plays on the record, the actual drums and a lot of the percussion. Although Rob wrote a lot of the bass parts and played a lot of them on the record, our friend Willie is now playing bass for us. And then yesterday we had this show at Brooklyn Bowl and it was the first time that we had Dylan Treleven, who is playing keyboards and backup guitar. So we added something new to the band. And I think it will continue because we really like this lineup and we like having a really full sound. We were able to communicate the record a lot more effectively. And our old record, I think a lot of those songs really benefit because they have a lot of slide guitar, they have a lot of keyboard, and they have a lot of built-up layers of guitar. So it's something where I really feel like live music is all about energy, but there comes a point when you can fill it out the way you want to. Technically, I guess we're a two-piece, but we're also a five-piece.
When the band first started, you had a fear of singing in front of bigger crowds. How do you feel you've been coming out of your shell as a frontwoman?
I think I've gotten a lot better about it. I don't know that it's just time and experience doing it. I think I've also become more confident in what I'm doing. I think I used to hide behind the fact that it was a band and I was just supposed to be singing my part and once it was over I could breathe a sigh of relief. So I was getting all worked up about not being able to actively and effectively convey songs as well as I wanted to. In performing, I was afraid that making mistakes was going to take away from the songs. Because as much as you can be confident about it in a practice space or a recorded sense when it's done, I was afraid that if I didn't do it as well as I knew I could, nobody was going to experience it the right way. It was tied into insecurity. I wasn't just afraid of what people would think of me, it was more like, I didn't know if I was going to do the proper service to the record. I mean, I guess at this point, I'm starting to enjoy playing live in a way that's more like, the energy you have when you're onstage isn't just about being nervous anymore. It's about being able to get into your own songs and interact with a crowd. Although with a lot of the songs, it's difficult to sing and interact and play guitar at the same time because you literally can't move. But I think that just the way that I play and the way that the band is playing is a lot more not loose, but a lot more relaxed and natural than when I was freaking out and crying before shows. And afterward, just breathing a sigh of relief and having to go outside and breathe for a minute to collect myself. Now, it's a lot easier and a lot more fun.
You've mentioned before (in press for the first album) how you didn't see Widowspeak as the center of your lives or what you define yourselves by. With this record out, do you see that shifting into more of a priority?
I would definitely say that since that record came out, it's become the only priority. And I think that's because I've become more comfortable with the idea of this becoming more of an artistic project and not just something that… my friend Michael from Tacoma was starting a band and wanted me to join Widowspeak. We were playing nothing but DIY spaces, where it seems like, that's all it would be. I've done musical projects, creative endeavors, but I did now expect that I would have this opportunity. So definitely, with this record, it's become the most important thing in the world to me. And I can't speak for Rob, but I'm really proud of it. And also, I'm already thinking about what we'll do next, what will happen next. I'm just really excited about recording and having the opportunity to tour and travel. But also continue to play as much as possible.
So it seems like you're becoming more comfortable with playing bigger and bigger crowds, and even festivals maybe?
Yeah definitely. Whatever happens, I'm totally excited and welcome to it. And also being able to identify as I have the opportunity to make something artistic and creative. It doesn't just have to be about being in a band. It's like, being some form of artist who plays and instrument and sings, you know? I guess it's just the way you think about it. being able to think about it like that has actually made me more excited to do it and less scared of messing up.
Do you ever wonder how your life would have been different had you stayed in Tacoma and not come to Brooklyn?
It's weird because I originally moved to Brooklyn for college. And then I got so homesick but I moved back to Tacoma and I ended up going there for a year, which didn't solve the problem because the Tacoma that I grew up around had changed. It just kind of felt like I was homesick for a time and not necessarily a place. It's weird because I go back and I don't know a lot of the people because a lot of my friends from Tacoma have actually moved to Brooklyn and a lot of new people haven't came out of the woodwork back home that I don't know. You'll go to the neighborhood bar and everyone seems to know everyone but I feel a little out of the loop. I know that if I was a part of that community, I'd still be making music and being creative. I think I would be happy, so I don't have any regrets about that. As far as Tacoma versus Brooklyn, I think it's just been a different experience and I'm so glad that it happened and I feel like it has been a lot more challenging in a lot of ways. Living in a huge city is just harder. It's way moor emotionally taxing. It's a difficult experience, but I think it's also more rewarding. I love Tacoma and maybe someday I'll be back there. It is weird to leave behind something when there was nothing wrong with it.
And just to clarify, Rob is not from Tacoma; he's from Chicago. He's always like, "We're not a Tacoma band!" (Laughs).
Below, video of Widowspeak performing "Harsh Realm" in the office of The L Magazine way back in July of 2011.