As any New Yorker will tell you, living in the city can be both inspiring and challenging. For Widowspeak, who formed in Brooklyn five years ago, that was always a given; it was the place where founding members Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas met and, along with Hamilton’s childhood friend Michael Stasiak, recorded their eponymous debut for Brooklyn-based label Captured Tracks. But after Stasiak departed the band, Widowspeak began to explore a more rustic sound, evidenced by the Americana-indebted anthems that populated 2013’s Almanac and its accompanying EP, The Swamps, even going so far as to record the LP in an old barn in the Hudson River Valley. With their latest album, All Yours, they’ve gone all in: The pair moved to the Catskill region two years ago, and though the record often finds them looking wistfully backward, it also achieves a kind of balance and ease that more authentically reflects that change of pace.
“With Almanac, we were just visiting [the Hudson River Valley], and we were almost fetishizing it in a way,” says Thomas. “That record is really dense in terms of arrangement and instrumentation….We were almost overcompensating, trying to make it sound big and pastoral. [All Yours] came more naturally, as opposed to trying to make it happen.” The duo’s more relaxed lifestyle first manifested with a slower approach to writing new material; they spent the first year in the mountains mellowing out.
“It’s not like I’m overly anxious,” says Hamilton, “but spending that year up here, I really relaxed a lot as a person.” In Brooklyn, she’d channeled any inkling of stress into productivity, an act to which many New Yorkers can certainly relate, but the move truly stoked her creative output. “For me, it’s been a really nice break to have a less frantic mindset, just in the day-to-day, so I think that definitely influenced how the record sounds and also what it’s about and how we play together.”
Thomas agrees, saying, “We focused on really simplifying the songs. There weren’t a lot of overdubs — we played most of the songs live, so the whole thing was more casual, which I think comes from the actual act of living up here.” Stripped of the nostalgia that made Almanac slightly overwrought, All Yours expands airily into the band’s bucolic surroundings; the guitar reverb on the title track sounds like it could be echoing from distant rolling hills, while Hamilton’s voice embodies the languid river that meanders through them. The lazy swing of harmonica that gives “Girls” a desolate, Old West feel mirrors Hamilton’s musings on indecision: “I’ve seen girls younger than me so sure of what they want/It gets harder to focus in on what I want to focus on,” she sings, before a buildup that fizzles gorgeously as she concedes, “Further from my wilder years, I get kinder to the younger girls.”
“With this record, I wanted to write songs that felt more honest, that felt less edited and less labored over,” Hamilton admits. “That definitely caused them to be more personal — that’s just where I’m at right now, reconciling major life changes and making peace with it.” Thomas describes Hamilton’s lyrics as “plainspoken” but says that they also have a universal depth. “In a not-explicit way, the entire record is about us leaving New York as a metaphor for leaving things behind and having to make changes in your life and accepting them,” he says.
Hamilton adds, “A lot of things go along with that: leaving people behind, leaving bad or good experiences behind, and how that’s bittersweet, trying to find balance and trying to find home again.” With the band on the road so often, she admits, “I kind of felt like New York [City] wasn’t my home anymore. But that doesn’t mean that this was immediately my home, either.“
After settling in and starting to write, though, Widowspeak found themselves in the midst of an artistic community with a rich legacy. “The Hudson Valley and the Catskills have a really longstanding bohemian history,” Thomas points, out, referring in part to Bob Dylan and the Band, who wrote Basement Tapes and Music From Big Pink, respectively, while living in Saugerties in the Sixties. “We weren’t necessarily chasing that, but that’s indicative of the whole place having that kind of attitude.” They bonded with peers who were also making music, which ended up having a huge impact on the record; Anna Fox Rochinski and John Andrews, of dreamy psych-folk outfit Quilt, stopped by quite a bit while Widowspeak was writing and leant their voices to the almost raga-like ramble of “My Baby’s Gonna Carry On.” It marks the first time that someone other than Hamilton sings on a Widowspeak recording.
“Up until now, I’ve been doing harmonies with myself,” Hamilton says. “There’s a certain sound that happens when you’re layering your own voice, and then there’s an entirely different sound when you’re singing with other people. It sounds a lot more open and inviting, having other people’s voices on there. I really like the sonic quality of voices that are stacked that aren’t just the same voice.”
In another first for the band, Thomas takes the vocal lead on “Borrowed World,” with Hamilton’s voice floating in like an apparition on its snappy, romantic chorus. “I sing a lot and I write songs for myself all the time,” Thomas says. “I didn’t ask to have a song on the record, but I think Molly liked the idea of breaking it up — and also I think she liked that song, [because] it fit in with the vibe of the record. I never thought I would sing a song in Widowspeak, so it’s kind of a fun, awesome thing for me.”
Widowspeak also hooked up with Woods, another Brooklyn band with a Catskills connection. Jeremy Earl runs his label, Woodsist, from nearby Warwick; Hamilton and Thomas tapped drummer Aaron Neveu for percussion assistance and recorded All Yours with Jarvis Taveniere. “We actually had them come to our house [when] we were workshopping our songs, figuring out how we wanted to record them, so that was cool,” says Hamilton. “Jarvis, though, he’s like a through-and-through Brooklynite, so we kinda had to drag him out,” laughs Thomas. “But we actually ended up doing the recording sessions in the city, just because of practicality, getting people all in the same place at the same time.”
With New York only three hours away, they still have access to their old stomping grounds (and the Captured Tracks offices). They’ll be back, in fact, for their album-release show on September 3, which takes place on a boat as part of the Rocks Off Concert Cruise series. “Weirdly, we’ve played on a boat before, but it was moored in France, like on a river,” says Hamilton. “But we’ve definitely never been on a moving boat and playing at the same time.” It’s an appropriate metaphor, perhaps, for going with the flow, something Widowspeak hope they can convey with All Yours. “It sounds silly,” Thomas says, “but [All Yours is about] living your life, as opposed to letting your life live you.” For those of us still living in New York, we can use the reminder, as well as the escape.
Widowspeak commandeer the Jewel for their Rocks Off Concert Cruise on September 3. For ticket information, click here.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 2, 2015