Widowspeak's Almanac: "A Rock Band's Take on Movie Soundtracks and Country Cowboy Choirs"
"It's almost like waiting for your birthday when you're a little kid--'Oh my gosh, I can't wait for my party! I hope people come! I hope I get a ... train!'"
Laughing, Molly Hamilton eases into a foldable chair in the middle of her practice space in Bushwick. After taking a swig from a half-gone Sierra Nevada, she brings me up to speed: Widowspeak, her band, has been practicing like mad over the course of the past few weeks because they'd recently added a member, bringing their touring outfit to five players. They've been feverishly counting down to today as it marks the release of Almanac, their sophomore album out on Captured Tracks, as well the beginning of a brief run of East Coast dates that kicks off at the Mercury Lounge this evening. Older Widowspeak material has been on the agenda for the rehearsals leading up to the show, though the songs of Almanac are what Hamilton is, understandably, especially keen on unveiling. "We'll probably still play a good chunk of them in rotation ... but we're just getting so, so excited about people hearing the record!"
When Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas set out to write and record the follow-up to their self-titled debut, the departure of drummer Michael Stasiak presented them with a fork in the road right at the onset: move forward as a band while working out a completely different creative process, or don't. "We had to address whether or not we'd continue and be a band without him," says Hamilton. "We definitely wanted to; we just had to change the way we wrote music. We were writing as two people who were both playing guitar, and we weren't really able to jam on a song for a long time because we didn't have a drummer. A lot of the songs [on Almanac] were written piece-by-piece and by building things instead of playing with them until they resembled a song. It felt more like we were being the architects of a record, in that we went into it with a more distinctive idea that we wrapped the record around. It was more of a cohesive project, whereas our last record was where we were at that specific moment in time. All the songs we had written up to that point were more of a test-drive in a sort of way."
The ethereal, gauzy aesthetic from Widowspeak hasn't been cast aside entirely but improved upon, as Almanac embraces a visceral, deliberate approach reflecting this newfound determination shared between Hamilton and Thomas. "A lot of the songs we wrote would start with a feeling and we'd ask ourselves, 'How do we represent that musically?'" says Hamilton. "Even though 'Sore Eyes' is a Widowspeak song and I sing my way, and it's structured the way we wanted it to be, it started with non-lyrics and a non-melody--it just started with a story."
"Sore Eyes" and "Minnewaska" represent this beautifully, in that the pair had clear scenes in mind when they first tried to musically articulate it. During rehearsals, Hamilton jokingly referred to "Sore Eyes" as "Camel" before settling on a name for the song, as the feeling they aimed to evoke was that of a camel plodding through desert sands. "Minnewaska," Widowspeak's take on an end-of-the-world lullaby, employs a chorus of lowing voices that wouldn't find themselves out of place surrounding a prairie campfire. "The way a song would come most naturally was when we'd start with something entirely different. It's not about 'I want to write a song about the end of the world;' it's 'I want to write a song about this feeling associated with what if the world ended' or 'What would it look like if the world was ending?'"
"It's less about music and totally about other visual things," continues Hamilton, ruminating on Almanac's influences. " We were pulling from all sorts of influences--Terrence Malick films, the American West, Tom Petty, T-Rex, the '70s. There were songs that we wanted to sound like classic rock while staying Widowspeak songs. There was no way we'd write a classic rock song--that's not stylistically in our vocabulary--but the idea of something more classic than that, it's kind of a rock band's take on movie soundtracks and country cowboy choirs. I feel like that whole spectrum of influences remained consistent. These are Widowspeak songs, but in a certain sphere of style."
With a headlining tour and South by Southwest on deck, Almanac's release has set an ambitious, groundbreaking tone for Widowspeak's 2013. Artistic growth and new beginnings aside, Hamilton's connection to her latest work is an introspective one that marks a milestone for the young musician. "Before, I was kind of like, 'I'm along for the ride, and I hope we play shows and that we get to go on tour this year, and I hope people listen to the record!'" she says. "Now, I realize it's more about the fact that I have an opportunity to make a record. Rob and I made a decision to make this record in light of having a way out that was there if we wanted it. Because we were so intentional about Almanac, I think I realized that no matter what I'm doing, whether it's music or something visual, I have to be more intentional about what I'm doing. Everybody has the opportunity to make things, and I didn't really value that up until now because it was such a great experience making the record."
Widowspeak perform tonight at Mercury Lounge with Murals, Prince Rupert Drops + Alex Laliberte of Vensaire. $10.
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