When you think of a New York band with a New York sound, there are probably a few things that come to mind. Maybe the street corner operas of Lou Reed, or the 4 a.m. cigarette glamor of The Strokes, or the goofy aggression of the Ramones, or dozens of other things. What you probably don’t think of is the kind of golden sunset mandolin quiet time songs made by Widowspeak, who’ve just released a new EP, The Swamps, and play the Bowery Ballroom on Friday. It’s more Kentucky front porch than Bushwick rooftop. And yet, Widowspeak don’t just live here; the band formed in Brooklyn, and basically couldn’t have happened anywhere else. How do they make music that’s so mellow in a city that’s so frantic?
It all comes down to Molly Hamilton, Widowspeak’s founder, singer, and principle lyricist. Originally from Tacoma, Washington, Hamilton moved here for college in 2006. She moved back home again a year later.
“I thought I was homesick,” Hamilton told me over the phone from a house in Iowa the morning after a show. She’d grown up in the same house her father grew up in, looking at the mountains and the water, and felt overwhelmed by the city. She ran away. But then she ran back a year later, and has been here ever since.
Hamilton lives in the other New York. Not the non-stop city of networking and partying you see on TV, but the New York that’s a fantastic place to be alone in. A place where the rush everybody else is in makes your slow pace seem more personal and vital (as long as you walk to the right); a place where people are too busy to notice you if you don’t want them to. You can wander winding streets, looking at nice houses, strangers dressed funny, cute dogs, little shops with things you could never afford, maybe grab a coffee and read a book for bit, sit in a park, go to a movie, and then do it all again the next day in totally different places and seeing totally different things. It’s where, if you live deep in Bushwick and the L train goes out, you just take the hour walk to Williamsburg because, “it’s nice knowing where you are on the island,” as Hamilton says. Where you spend hours walking around Manhattan, even if it makes you late for every appointment, because, “there’s something on every corner that is famous, or has been in a song, or in a movie.” You can get lost in the place, and at the same time get lost in your own head.
Widowspeak is part of this daydreaming, ivy-garden New York. It’s that secret world Hamilton runs to: her Narnia, her Taribithia, her world where Bender is a knight. “When I’m in New York,” Hamilton explains, “I’m kind of caught up in ideas of times that I’ve spent other places, or the idea of getting out and being someplace else. Sometimes, it’s the idea of another place that you’re dreaming of.”
You might think that Hamilton could simply run away to somewhere more slow and actually live that life. Like a lot of fantasies, however, it doesn’t really work out in reality. Take the recording of The Swamps, for example, which happened upstate. The band spent part of the time living in a cabin which they were housesitting for friends. They couldn’t take it. It made them stir crazy. “It was cool like getting away for weeks, but I don’t know about forever,” Hamilton said. “The more we go on tour, the more I feel like New York is really important to me, and going there is really important, and being there is really important.”
So, at the end of the day, Widowspeak couldn’t have happened anywhere but New York. Without the city buzzing outside, Hamilton would have no reason to shut the door and dream of somewhere more slow. As she puts it, “A lot of our music is kind of about escapism, I guess.”
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