Monday, June 25, 2012

Erica Rivera Interviews Caroline Smith

At the tender age of 18, singer-songwriter Caroline Smith cut her teeth on the Twin Cities’ music scene at the 400 Bar, the West Bank watering hole that has served as a launch pad for adored local artists like Mason Jennings. In 2007, Smith joined forces with Arlen Peiffer (of Cloud Cult), Jesse Schuster, and Colin Hacklander and a year later, the quartet released their debut album, Backyard Tent Set under the moniker Caroline Smith & The Good Night Sleeps. The group has since completed several national tours, shared bills with big Indie acts like Dawes, and received substantial critical acclaim for their quirky, storybook-style folk music.

While the band’s latest release, Little Winds, veers into new sonic territory, loyal fans will continue to be wooed by Smith’s heartfelt and unforgettable lyricism as well as her feisty, youthful energy. Don’t be fooled by Smith’s seemingly precocious nature, however; this chick knows her stuff and isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. I spoke to Smith in anticipation of her next big gigs: opening for DeVotchKa at the Minnesota Zoo on July 6, a show with The Jayhawks in Duluth on July 7, and a two-night-stand at the Minnesota State Fair on August 25 and 26.

You’ve said that the making of your latest album was a trying time for the band because you were “in transition.” What about the process made it so intense?

Caroline Smith: We weren’t prepared to write the songs that came out. Everyone talks about how different our first album is from the second album and it’s true that the two are very different, but we didn’t do that intentionally. When we were writing these songs, they were just coming out of us. It was very jarring. We were asking ourselves, “Is this who we are? Is this what we do?” We fought against it, but the songs ended up being a balance of all of our personalities. It was challenging to accomplish everyone’s ideas in one project. There was some fighting, a lot of tension. But we came into our own because of it. No, that’s the understatement of the year. We almost broke up because of it. But we came through and we’ve had an amazing year and we’re all really excited about the music that we’re making and we’re all very proud of this album.

You recently played at the Live Letters’ "An Evening With Friends" event, and I wanted to ask you, as a performer, how the experience differs when you play in a small venue like that versus a larger space. Do you have a preference between those?

CS: I prefer playing smaller venues. My favorite venue is the 7th Street Entry, but we’ve grown past that. It’s kind of sad. But, yeah, I like intimate, acoustic shows. Playing in a room of people listening is more relaxed and laid back. The stress and excitement of a big show is fun, too, but that’s not really why I write songs. At the Live Letters show, you covered a Beyoncé song (“Why Don’t You Love Me”). First, I want to say that I hope you record that, because it was awesome.

CS: Thank you.

And then I wanted to ask you if exes inspire most of your songwriting, and if bad relationships provide better material than good relationships do?

CS: I hate to be the woman who has to say this but, yes. If you’re in a safe, steady relationship, the writing comes harder. I used to write a lot about exes, but I’m in a relationship with a great guy now and I’m happy, so I don’t write so much about boys anymore, at least not from my personal experience. What I’ve been doing is taking from my girlfriends’ experiences, and I get to write vicariously through them. They’re advice-based, empowering songs.

Could you speak to your experience of being a female in the male-dominated music industry, or is that something that you’re not even aware of? Are you just one of the boys?

CS: I am constantly reminded that I’m in the male-dominated music business and it’s really frustrating. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve worked on my craft, not only as a songwriter, but as a singer and an entertainer and a musician. I know how to use my gear and my levels, but sound guys will talk to me like I don’t know what I’m doing and I want to say, “I got it.  I’ve been doing this a long time.” It’s almost belittling because no asks the guys in my band anything, because the assumption is that they know what to do with electronics. We’re a band that is always on tour, so I see these things all the time. If I say something gross between songs, people notice, but if a guy were to say those things, no one would care. I try to rub up against it. I play with aspects of it. It’s very fulfilling as woman to do that, but the reality of touring is frustrating sometimes. They probably won’t like me saying this, but the dudes in my band are a little effeminate. They talk about their problems and they’re respectful. They’re in touch emotionally. They take care of me.

How do you deal with unwanted attention from male fans?

CS: That gets tricky. We were playing a show with Trampled By Turtles—have you ever been to a Trampled By Turtles show?


CS: Then you know: their fans get really rowdy. They don’t have a lot of girls open for them or playing with them, so I don’t think they were prepared for this, but we were playing and it was a crazy, drunk, raucous night and there were a group of guys heckling me and saying offensive things, and I was like, “How do you perform through something like that?” I don’t know. My mom taught me to be strong. I don’t take a lot of bullshit. I’ll say, “You’re in my comfort zone,” or “Don’t touch me,” or “Back away.” I’ll see a guy coming my way and think, “Oh, no, I know exactly what you’re after” and throw the hand up. The creepy Facebook messages are less threatening. I laugh about those in the van with the guys in the band. So let this be a warning: if you send me a creepy Facebook message, it will get laughed about.

Smith (left) with Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles (far right)

As you mentioned, you’ve shared stages with big names like Trampled By Turtles, but I’m also thinking of Dawes [whom Smith and the Goodnight Sleeps opened for on New Year’s Eve] and soon you’ll be opening for DeVotchKa. Do you ever feel intimated by these artists or is it just business as usual? Do you ever get starstruck?

CS: Trampled By Turtles are my buddies, I mean, I know they’re a Top 4 artist now or something, but I think of them as my buddies. Minneapolis is a really supportive community, but I don’t think I’m above it. It’s great when national artists come through and they get to see the best of what we have to offer. I got starstruck when I met David Bazan. He said, “I really like your music,” and I thought, “I’m going to pass out right now!” I’m the worst at being starstruck. When I met David Groth—he’s my favorite person in the whole world—I almost died.

Where’s the strangest place you’ve written a song?

CS: Hmm…the weirdest place would have to be on the beach, waking up in Crete, which is off the coast of Greece. But I don’t usually write songs in strange places.

Do you have a structured schedule for songwriting?

CS: I do. I usually write in my bedroom. Sometimes in the van, though I can’t do much with a song there. I also have a huge, irrational phobia of writing in front of other people.

If you were to voice a fairy tale character for a Disney film, which one would it be?

CS: I don’t watch many Disney films, but I guess it’d be The Little Mermaid.

What is your favorite State Fair food?

CS: Fried pickles.

Is there anything on your iPod that you’d be embarrassed for people to find out about?

CS: Dave Matthews. Nobody will every understand it. They will just tease me ruthlessly for it. I went into hiding for a while about how much I like Dave Matthews. Then I came out and said, “I am a fan!” and now I’m back to keeping quiet about it again.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Erica Rivera Interviews Cory Chisel

Raised in Appleton, Wisconsin by a Baptist minister father and a piano-teacher mother, it’s easy to see why themes of faith, death, desire and redemption circulate through Cory Chisel’s music. His handcrafted blend of Americana, folk, and gospel sounds create a spellbinding sensation for listeners, evoke haunting, pastoral scenes, and make for a memorably intimate live show.

Chisel’s full-length debut, 2009’s Death Won’t Send A Letter, was produced by Grammy-winning Joe Chiccarelli (The Shins, White Stripes) and featured members of Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, and the Raconteurs. The album was described as a “dark and urgent rock and roll vision” and led to collaborations with the likes of Brendan Benson and Jack White.

Chisel’s right-hand woman is Adriel Denae, the angelic vocalist who accompanies him on recordings and in performance. Together, Chisel and Denae are gearing up to tour with Norah Jones this summer. I spoke to Chisel in anticipation of the June 26 release of the new Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons album, Old Believers, and the band's upcoming appearance at the Turf Club on June 28.

Most interviews with you begin by mentioning that your father is a Baptist minister and asking about your spirituality.

Cory Chisel: Yeah.

So my question is: are your childhood experiences still influencing your music today or do you have a set of beliefs that are unique to you?

CC: My beliefs have grown stronger and stronger and farther and farther away from what I learned as a child. I draw inspiration from all types of spirituality, but I’m just as influenced by gospel, blues, and R&B. People enjoy my music regardless of what their spiritual beliefs are or what God they believe in.

Does the title of your new album refer to anyone in particular?

CC: It does. It’s a reference to a type of person, but I don’t mean “old” as in outdated and archaic. “Old Believers” is a phrase I came across in a book; it’s a reference to the Orthodox and the people who rejected the constraints of the church, but that’s not the way I’m using it in the album title. I’m thinking of it as a guy who’s been down for a long time, but is still a steadfast human being, a journeyman. It’s the type of person who is interested in growing. It’s almost a religion unto itself. I know a lot of people like that.

Nature seems to be a critical part of your songwriting. How do you stay connected to nature when you’re on the road?

CC: It’s a big struggle. There’s a lot of fucking concrete between here and the Coast. I guess that’s why I put nature in my songs; that’s how I pack it up and take it with me. I feel most at home in the woods. I feel like my real self when I’m there. The difficulty is to find that in a place like New York City. Unless you can curl up inside a song.

How did you come to partner with Adriel?

CC: We met when we were younger--25 years old--at a show I went to in support of a friend who had passed away. That night was already a heightened experience because of the emotions about this person and the celebration of his life, and then Adriel walked in with the band she was playing in at the time. When she started singing, that was it. I was over the moon. I knew I had to do whatever it took to work with her.

Does she do any of the songwriting?

CC: She does. It’s definitely a collaboration. Her role is also being the main source I run every song by. She’s my first audience.

Yet her name isn’t in the band title. Is that intentional?

CC: Adriel came into the Wandering Sons when it was already formed, but our relationship has become a collaboration. She has been my most consistent wandering son. She’s also working on some songs that she’ll release on her own, so she’s saving her name for when the time is right for her music. When that happens, I’ll be her wandering son.

You once did an ad for Lucky Brand Jeans. If you were to ever endorse a product again, what would it be?

CC: That’s a tricky question, because I only endorse things that have a soulful approach. When Lucky came to me the first time, I needed to make money just to stay alive. The reason why I was interested, though, was because they wanted to partner with us as artists. It wasn’t about modeling. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. My record label wasn’t going to put my name on a billboard on Sunset Boulevard, but Lucky was. And they were going to talk about my music. If I were to do something like that again, it’d probably be for something I use every day…like wine.

Perusing your Facebook page, it looks like hats and painting are some of your other favorite things.

CC: I’ve always had a fascination with my grandfather’s era. The men always looked sharp—you know, unless it was late at night—but it stood out in my brain that men wear hats. They were fancy, and that’s right up my alley.

And paintings…I just really love them. If I had a dozen or so lifetimes, I would get into painting from an early age. I draw more inspiration artistically from paintings than I do from music.

And wine…I’m just really interested in how it’s made. It also helps with self-consciousness.

Your hometown, Appleton, is known for its cover bands. Can you speak more to what the music scene is like there?

CC: It’s changed a lot; whether or not we had anything to do with that, I don’t know. Initially, no one started a band in Appleton to go anywhere; it was mostly out of boredom. Appleton is a completely agreeable place, so if you were feeling disenfranchised, your choices were: break the law or break shit or rock n’ roll.

There were no venues for original music then, so the only places you could play were things like German Fest, and they wanted a certain kind of music. That’s where the cover band thing started. It’s like a get-together in a house; rather than play a song you just wrote, you and your friends would rather sing a rendition of an Elton John song. It wasn’t intrinsically sad, but I wanted to focus on new ideas, not revel in party music.

If you were to cover a rap song, what would it be?

CC: That’s a good question. I really like Wu-Tang Clan and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. He has a song called “I Like It Raw” that I’d like to cover. If I were to do it more seriously, maybe something by The Roots.

What are some of the places that you like to visit when you are in the Twin Cities?

CC: I lived in Minneapolis for a while, actually. It’s one of my favorite places. There is every type of pleasure to be indulged. I’ve gone to grimy shows at the 400 Bar to some of the best shows of my life at First Ave. I went down to the new Twins stadium; that was fun. And Minneapolis has great record shops, of course.

Where do you envision yourself in 50 years? Do you think you’ll still be doing the same thing?

CC: Still doing the same thing, but hopefully with a little more swagger.  [Laughs.]  My dream would be to have a little place everywhere. I had a house in Wisconsin and discovered that wasn’t really for me. Now I have a one-bedroom in Nashville. I could see myself traveling to Europe, having a place in Scotland. If I really put my money where I wanted to, I would just live free. Spend time on the Iron Range—my family is all from Minnesota and still lives there—so a cabin on the lake would be nice. I guess I’ll have to sell more records or rob banks to make that happen.

Originally published on the Live From Studio 5! Blog in June 2012.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Erica Rivera Interviews Remo Williamz

Erica Rivera spoke to rapper Remo Williamz about his new album On Location, moving backwards through the music world, and what the Twin Cities Hip Hop Awards could do to prevent riots.

Read the Q&A on the Live From Studio 5! blog here.