The first show the Brooklyn band Widowspeak played, at the Brooklyn DIY venue Shea Stadium, was a rousing success—except for lead singer Molly Hamilton staring at the ground the entire time, breaking her guitar strap, and getting electrocuted.
“I was getting zapped in the mouth the whole time because something wasn’t grounded, so I had to play through a hat on a microphone,” Hamilton says over beers with the rest of the band at Pearl’s Social & Billy Club in Bushwick. “At first, it was working because it was preventing me from getting shocked. And then it got wet because I had to get really close, so I was, like, breathing on it, and the condensation started making me get shocked worse than if I hadn’t done that. Just a constant electric shock.”
Much to the band’s chagrin, a recording of that performance can be found online, but they’d rather you check out their self-titled debut (Captured Tracks), a collection of spare, haunting ballads that often recalls the Cowboy Junkies by way of early Low. Which is a tough sound to nail, actually. Plenty of bands aim for entrancing and end up with inert. For a solid chunk of their album, Widowspeak come off as brimming with potential, able to piece together sparse parts into songs that flow like gothic takes on AM-radio laments. On “Harsh Realm,” the album’s mesmerizing highlight, Widowspeak pull off the rare trick of making a song feel so inevitable it seems like it has always existed.
Although the inevitability was a bit prolonged. For the band’s first several practices, Hamilton didn’t sing. “You’d open your mouth and pretend you were singing,” remembers guitarist Robert Earl Thomas while smiling at Hamilton, “but just no words.” She was nervous about singing in front of someone she’d never met before, so she just told him she had a soft voice.
“At first, I was very reluctant,” Hamilton says. “I’m almost so much of a control freak that I didn’t at first sing in front of them because I was like, ‘This isn’t how it’s supposed to sound in my head.'”
Thomas had been warned by his former NYU dormmate Michael Stasiak that Hamilton, an acquaintance of his from Tacoma, Washington, had songs and “a beautiful voice,” but not much confidence.
“We had to get this band going really fast, or she was going to change her mind,” Stasiak says. “So part of the push was calling her up and being like: ‘Hey, what are you doing? I’ve got my drums. Let’s go up on the roof and play.’ I didn’t want to lose it.”
Stasiak might have been pushy, but Hamilton has a tendency to change her mind. A few years ago, she moved to New York to attend the New School. After a year, she moved back to Tacoma, but too much had changed. So she moved back to Brooklyn. “It’s a lot calmer than New York, so I actually felt sort of comfortable here,” she says. Education is on hold for now. But she likes living here, at least.
Tacoma is the sort of place where the 50 or so people who like music likely know each other. Hamilton, who says she misses it there even if what she misses isn’t there anymore, winces as Stasiak describes it as “living in a tire fire. It’s a place that you don’t go to because it looks bad and smells worse.” Hamilton and Stasiak weren’t close back home, but, she recalls, “all of a sudden, Michael came up to me a party and was like: ‘Let’s start a band. I heard this one track we did together.’ And I was like, ‘I guess.'”
Despite her reluctance, and in contrast to the ambling pace of most of their songs, things moved fast for Widowspeak. Their first practice was in June 2010, their first show in September, and after a couple of shows, they went to Rear House, operated by Jarvis Taveniere of Brooklyn folkies Woods, to record.
It can take the band a while for everyone to get on the same page, as Hamilton has an ethereal, playing-this-at-night-just-for-you voice and guitar style, while Stasiak and Thomas play with a restrained but mood-setting forcefulness. “Michael and I have a rock-band mentality, and Molly does not have a rock-band mentality,” Thomas says. “It’s more about an atmosphere, a feeling. It’s not about making a song that sounds a certain way but makes you feel a certain way or brings to mind something.”