Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Erica Rivera Interviews Haley Bonar

Haley Bonar is one of the most captivating singer-songwriters in the Twin Cities. With four albums, three EPs, two Minnesota Music Awards, extensive touring and appearances with the likes of Mason Jennings and Andrew Bird, plus a side punk rock project called Gramma’s Boyfriend under her belt, Bonar is experienced well beyond her 28 years.

Bonar’s childlike innocence and wise insight collide on her latest album, “Golder.” The lush vocals and glittering instrumentation lend an almost fairytale-like quality to a collection of songs that are cutthroat in their emotional honesty. Though initially funded through Kickstarter and released in April, “Golder” is being re-issued on vinyl nationally through Graveface Records next month. As for Bonar’s next big project? It isn’t musical; it’s maternal. She welcomes her first baby, a girl, in October.

I sat down with Bonar at one of her fave hangouts, Kopplin’s Coffee in St. Paul, the city she now calls home.

Most interviews about your new album “Golder” begin with the question about why you moved away to Portland for a year.

Haley Bonar: You’re not going to ask me that, are you?


HB: Good. I’ve been back for a year-and-a-half! It doesn’t matter. That must be a Minnesota thing. I understand that people here are proud of their community and their artists, but I’m not from here. I didn’t grow up here. There’s nothing weird about leaving and coming back. The relevance of that time in my life and this record is small.

Aside from the Portland story, though, there isn't much about you "out there." If cyberspace is any indication, you're a very private person. Have you always been that way or is this a result of what you do?

HB: When I’m researching artists I like, I find the less I know about their personal life, the more intriguing they are. I’m not trying to build some mystique about myself but I’m not posting stupid status updates on Facebook, either. I don't do interviews often. There are just some things that people don’t need to know. I think the focus should be my music because I work really hard at it.

What is your songwriting process like? Is there a certain mood you have to be in?

HB: I don’t know how or when it happens. I guess it depends how much inspiration I’ve had. If there’s a movie or book or records that have captured my attention, I’m more prone to pick up on it and sit down with an instrument and work.

In the past, I used to get freaked out by the process. I would write all the time. I was so diligent. Every morning I would record something, even if they were crappy songs. Then I stopped and I wondered what was wrong with me.

Now I know that inspiration is very sporadic. I’ll work really hard on a chunk of songs, release an album, go on tour and then I’ll go into a creative and physical hibernation. I’m not writing all the time. I need time to soak it all up. I need to have my sponge period. I need to take it easy, to live, to gain perspective.

I haven’t written a lot since I got pregnant. Everyone told me that I’d be so inspired but... [Shrugs] I’m still waiting. It might take a year or two for the songs to come, but when they do, there will be like 20 of them, and I’ll pick out which ones I like best.

You write a lot about men and relationships. Is each song a story about a specific person or are they a collage of different people?

HB: As much as I want to be specific on my perspective in a song, I try to keep the experience as broad as possible. I used to write more story songs because it’s easy to write fiction when you don’t have experience. Now I’m older, so I write about my own experiences without being too personal. I like to present a palette of things so people can take away what they want from it rather than telling them, “This is the color and the mood of this song.”

Has anyone from your past contacted you about a song that they thought was written about them?

HB: Oh, sure, I’ve gotten nasty emails from an ex, but I think it’s stupid. Even if he knows the song is about him, nobody else does. There’s also that “You’re so vain, you think this song is about you” thing. I’m not the first one to write a song about someone in particular. I’ve had songs written about me and I think it’s cool that I inspired someone.

Are there any experiences you won’t write about?

HB: My songs are pretty open book. You can’t read my human history directly from them, but they’re pretty raw. I don’t know how to be anything else. But I won’t write a song about labor. Nobody wants to hear that.

If anyone could pull off a song about giving birth that wasn’t too grotesque or offensive to people, it’d be you.

HB: Actually, that would be interesting. Maybe I will write a song about it and make it really grotesque! [Singing] Giving birth is haaaard…

Some of the songs on “Golder” aren’t new, per se. What made them relevant now?

HB: I wrote “Rattlesnake” the winter before I moved to Portland and “Silver Zephyr” is actually the oldest song on the album. I wrote that when I was 21. A friend of my emailed me out of the blue and said she’d found a demo of it, so I dug it out and rewrote some of the lyrics. If it weren’t for her, that song would’ve been dead and buried. The rest of them were written in a pod.

Talk about the decision to put two instrument-only tunes on “Golder.”

HB: I did an EP before “Golder” that was all instrumentation, so I’d been wanting to do that for a while, but I just didn’t have the right songs. With “Golder,” those songs are like the glue for the record. They round it out and showcase the musicianship. When you’re presenting an emotion, you don’t need to have the vocals.

What does “Golder” represent as a whole for you?

HB: It’s the end of a period of time in my life and the beginning of another. It’s saying goodbye to my early 20s and growing up and reflecting on that. In the past, I’ve written and recorded without thinking about what the group of songs meant. With this album, I viewed it more as “These songs go together. How do they go together?” They’re my diary for a period of six or seven years. Though I was writing and recording other albums during that time, it wasn’t until I went to the West Coast (Portland) and had time alone with my thoughts that it came together.

Tell us how your band (Jake Hanson, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Mike Lewis and Luke Anderson) influenced the songs on “Golder.” Did you have their parts in mind before you went into the studio or did they bring their own ideas about what the album should sound like?

HB: In the beginning, a drummer friend in Portland helped me because I was so far away from the guys. I knew what the band would sound like and what they had to work with, so I bossed his drumming around until it sounded like what I wanted. I used synth to mock the sound and put fake strings where the song should swell. Then I came back to Minnesota and recorded it with the band at Pachyderm.

Studio time is usually about putting the music under a microscope and I can’t do that. I get really bored scrutinizing. I chose these guys because I trust their instincts. That’s what makes the album seem so alive. They know what I like and they accompany the song. They don’t come in and demand to play a certain way. The band has this simpatico.

We recorded the album livevocals, tooand that was difficult for me. There were times the instrumentation was right on but there was a mistakeor what I saw as a mistakeon the vocals. It was good for me to have opinionated people around during that process because the band would tell me, “It sounds great!” and if it felt good, I figured they were probably right. It was a lesson in vibe over matter. It wasn’t perfect…and that’s what makes it special.

This was quite the summer to go on tour; with the heat and the pregnancy, how did you get through?

HB: I don’t know. It was getting crazy. We were away for two months and at the end of the East Coast tour, I was exhausted, we had to cancel the shows on the West Coast. I don’t like to be weak. I don’t like to be “resting.” It’s hard for me, but I had to set a cutoff of Oct. 1 so I can go into hibernation and learn how to be a mom.

What was the peak of the tour?

HB: Our last show on the East Coast part of the tour was in Chicago at the Hideout. In the middle of the second song, a horrible high-pitched sound came out of the speakers. The board actually blew up! The sound guy was freaking out. He said that hadn’t happened in ten years!

My non-pregnant self would’ve freaked out, but since I’ve been pregnant, I feel like I’m high all the time, so I said, “Well, whatever,” and unplugged. I came up to the edge of the stage and did some of the songs acoustic until they brought an old soundboard up. We got four songs in at the end with the full band. That was special because it was unexpected and I think we were all getting burnt out playing the songs as we had been up to that point. It was one of those happy disasters you couldn’t have planned. The crowd loved it because it made for a memorable show.

Gramma’s Boyfriend. What the fuck?

HB: “What the fuck?” is right. That’s exactly the reaction we were going for. I named the band before it came to fruition. One day in the studio with the guys, I just starting screaming and being strange; it was so much fun, we said, “Let’s do this again. Let’s do this onstage!” It’s kind of embarrassing but at the same time it’s fucking liberating to do that, to completely expose yourself as a weirdo. We all know how to play and write songs, but it’s fun to be a freak. Nobody sees that side of me. My friends see Gramma’s Boyfriend and they say, “It’s you!” Because that is me. I’m a nerd. I’m a goofball. It’s my playtime. People dance and that makes me happy. We just had our final show at the Entry and I dressed up as an old lady. A pregnant old lady. [Giggles] That band is so fun for all of us.

Are you thinking about your next album yet?

HB: No. The way I’m feeling right now, it will probably be really stripped down or really rock.

Published on Metromix Twin Cities in Sept. 2011

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Erica Rivera Interviews Brian Moen of Peter Wolf Crier

Peter Wolf Crier

The drummer is often the most overlooked member in any given band. Brian Moen, however, is impossible to ignore. Though he may appear straight-laced and reserved when he sits down behind the kit, once the beat starts, Moen’s energy turns explosive. This drummer bangs away with such vigor he looks like he might launch right out of his seat and into the stratosphere.

A veteran of many Midwestern line-ups, Moen is best known for his role in Wisconsin-based Laarks and Twin Cities rock duo Peter Wolf Crier (with Peter Pisano). The latter's debut album, “Inter-Be,” was released in 2009 and earned Peter Wolf Crier national acclaim. Pisano and Moen were soon signed to indie label Jagjaguwar (home of Bon Iver and GAYNGS), wowed audiences at SXSW and played 100 shows in a six-month span.

Now the boys are back with “Garden of Arms.” Peter Wolf Crier's sophomore effort is far from a slump; rather, the duo's once sparse sound has evolved into a more complex, confident collection of songs while maintaining the cryptically poetic, restless spirit that makes Peter Wolf Crier's music so irresistible.

I talked to Moen about the process of making the album as well as how this two-man band will translate their beautiful noise to a live setting.

Tell me how you came to be half of Peter Wolf Crier. It was something of an accident, correct?

Brian Moen: More or less. Peter wanted me to record a solo album for him. After recording the guitar and vocals, he said, “Hey, put some drums on some of these songs.” I ended up putting drums on all of the songs.

Describe your dynamic with Peter. Would you say you’re the grounding force or the propulsive force behind the music?

BM: I’m the grounding force. Peter is a great ideas person. He’ll come up with 100 ideas and it’s my job to filter them. Then we come to an agreement on what’s best for the song.

Are you the more experienced member of the group? You seem to have been “broken in” by the music scene in a way that Peter hasn’t.

BM: I’ve been in a lot of bands, yeah, and I’ve toured before. When we went on the road with Peter Wolf Crier, it was Peter’s first time touring.

What is the meaning behind the title of Peter Wolf Crier's new album "Garden of Arms"?

BM: [Laughs] That’s a tough one. I’m not entirely sure. Peter has a better grasp on that. The title is sort of vague but it has a more specific meaning for him. It’s from the lyrics of the first song on the album and that’s just how the words came out of his mouth. They can mean different things to different people, which is what we were going for.

Do you write any lyrics or is your contribution to the band purely instrumental?

BM: Just instrumental. Peter Wolf Crier is a singer-songwriter project where Peter brings the lyrics and the melodies and I add the percussion and the textures. He writes the songs and I shape the sound.

What instruments other than drums do you play on “Garden of Arms”?

BM: Vibraphone, bass pedals, auxiliary percussion and tambourines.

The appeal of Peter Wolf Crier for a lot of listeners is in the nuances of those sounds and “Garden of Arms” could almost be called a headphone album. How do you translate that to a live show? Are there some songs you just can’t play because those details get lost in the space?

BM: Deciding what to play live is going to be similar to our first album. It’s always a matter of finding what the core of a song is, finding those essential pieces and doing what we can with two people onstage.

We always go in trying not to limit ourselves. We make the strongest album we can in the studio, knowing the live shows will be a very different experience. Live, there’s the visual aspect of watching us perform and the energy. On an album, you want to texture the songs so that you can listen to the same recording over and over and hear new things, like a guitar line, every time.

For the live shows with this album, a third person (Kyle Slater, of Laarks) will be joining us onstage to add those textures.

Speaking of Laarks, do you have anything new in the works?

BM: We just recorded a new album. It’s not mixed yet. I’m going to mix it. I hope to have it done before Peter Wolf Crier goes on tour.

Do you and Peter still have day jobs? When Metromix last interviewed Peter, he was a science teacher on the side.

BM: Peter is no longer teaching full-time, but he’s subbed for some classes. We were on the road for seven months, so we had to have that time for the band. I used to be an Art Director at a magazine in Eau Claire but I wanted to be able to tour. Now I do freelance design. That’s about 20% of my time.

You’re having a listening party for “Garden of Arms” at the Aster Café. What was behind the decision to do that?

BM: We did a listening party for our last album, but it was a re-release and those songs had been streaming on our Bandcamp for a month straight, so people were sort of familiar with the songs already. What’s exciting about this time is that we haven’t been playing these songs live. Most people haven’t heard anything from the album yet. It’s a great way to get people together and get them excited about the release.

Peter Wolf Crier’s album release show takes place at the Cedar Cultural Center on Sept. 23. “Garden of Arms” drops on Sept. 6. The album can be pre-ordered now through the band’s official website.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Erica Rivera Interviews Mason Jennings

Mason Jennings is one of the most prolific and poignant singer-songwriters of his generation. Though born in Hawaii, Jennings considers Minnesota his home. His forthcoming album, named after the state, consists of softer, sentimental pop ballads and represents a return to the Mason Jennings fans fell in love with over a decade ago.

An artist’s artist, Jennings has always stayed true to crafting brave, beautiful music, regardless of whether or not the industry has approved. Formerly on Jack Johnson's Brushfire Records label, Jennings has chosen to continue recording on his own, in unconventional places, like a cabin and a church. I spoke to this humble musician regarding his affinity for this frozen tundra state, his penchant for bursting into Lady GaGa while onstage and his new (yes!) coloring book.

You’ve written plenty of songs with geographical titles (“Memphis, Tennessee,” “Big Sur,” “Pittsburg,” “New York City,” “California,” among others) but Minnesota received its own album. What was it about this collection of songs that made this album sound like home to you?

Mason Jennings: This is my favorite state. I’ve lived here 17 years. I recorded all the songs here. Though I don’t talk about Minnesota on the album, I saw it as a collage and when I thought about what word summed up that diversity, it was Minnesota.

“Minnesota,” with its emphasis on piano, sounds very different from your last album, “Blood of Man,” which was darker and heavy on the electric guitars. Did the change in mood come first or did the choice of instrument influence the tone?

MJ: The mood. I started writing these songs at the end of the “Blood of Man” tour. It was the start of spring and this felt like a natural breath. They were happier songs because that’s what I felt in my heart.

Are there any instruments you’re eager to feature in a future album? Is there a Mason Jennings “Saw Songs” album in the works?

MJ: Horns. It’d be fun to use more horns...but I choose instruments based on what makes sense for the songs. I see what the songs ask for.

You have a series of small concerts coming up, starting with the Electric Fetus in-store followed by The Current road trip. Did you want to keep the live performances intimate on purpose? Is music is perceived differently depending on the size of the crowd?

MJ: These are shows but they’ll also have interview sections. I don’t get to do small performances as often anymore and I wanted to create events in cool places like churches and coffeehouses to celebrate the record; I thought it would be a fun way to kick off the album release. There will be bigger shows, like at First Avenue, later in the fall.

You’re also taking The Pines on tour. Did you choose that band based on the fact that they’re from Minnesota?

MJ: I liked the idea of a Midwest band, but I also think Benson Ramsey is an amazing songwriter and I like those guys so much as people that I asked if they’d sit in and play at the end of the set. It’ll be fun.

One of the reasons your music has resonated with listeners is because it is emotionally authentic. How do you write about these deeply personal experiences and emotions without sacrificing your own and your family’s privacy? Do you run songs by your wife before you decide what goes on the album?

MJ: I try to remind people that they’re songs. There is a grain of truth to them, but they’re not all my experiences and they’re not necessarily about stuff that has happened. My wife listens to the songs and she’s had her moments where she wasn’t comfortable with what I was putting out there, but we work it out. I don’t want to have a negative impact on my family. That's the way I’ve always written, though, going to the heart space, because it helps me when I listen to music that’s authentic. Going to that spot of honesty has pulled me out of some of my hardest times. If I can write songs that will help and heal someone, that’s what I need to do.

A lot of your songs are rooted in gratitude, which can be a rare sentiment in popular music.

MJ: [Laughs]

Is that something that you do intentionally or has music always been a way to express your gratitude to whatever deities you believe in?

MJ: Well, I’m happy to be alive and I’m grateful to be making music. I love music so much. When I hear a song, it’s a joy. I try to focus on that. It’s so easy to be negative, so I look at the amazing stuff in my life, at my family and friends and focus energy there. It’s therapeutic.

People who haven’t watched your interviews on YouTube, met you in person or heard you perform live might not know that you have a great sense of humor. During your First Avenue show last year, you broke into a cover of Lady GaGa’s “Bad Romance” and the audience loved it. Is there enough room for humor in your music, for more shamelessly funny covers?

MJ: That’s something I’ve been thinking about because I want to be authentic and I do have a skewed sense of humor. Sometimes I wonder, “Is this going to freak people out?” I realized over the last few years that if I’m going to keep doing this, I have to be totally myself. I have to fully incorporate my personality into what I do, whether that’s in the music, onstage or in interviews.

You do a lot of visual art. Does that expression of creativity complement your music?

MJ: Yeah. I animated my first video for this album. I like to mess around It makes the process more playful for me.

You are also including a coloring book you made in the "Minnesota" Deluxe Pack on your website store. How did that come about?

MJ: I’ve always drawn stuff and given it away. I noticed my friends kept my drawings. They said, “You should do more of this.” If it gives people joy, I’ll do it. That’s where the coloring book came from.

What are you listening to now? What excites you on the local and national scenes?

MJ: I love the new album from The Strokes. Bon Iver is cool. I listen to the old stuff, like Louie Armstrong. The Bad Plus. I haven’t heard the whole album but the new Feist song is really cool.

Name your three favorite Minnesotan places, people or things.

MJ: My favorite place would be up by Ely in the Boundary Waters area. Favorite person would be Paul Westerberg of the Replacements. He was a big reason I moved up here. He’s been a beacon for me. And a third thing...hmm...the Birchwood Café.