Kris Delmhorst is known, at least in my mind, as one of the best sad song writers around. Her tunes have gotten me through some serious heartaches. The slinky textures and groovy vibe on her new Shotgun Singer only accentuate the beauty of the message which, in this case, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s all cherries and roses, certainly is a little more positive-minded than some of her previous efforts.
You’re known, at least in my mind, as one of the best sad song writers around. Your tunes have gotten me through some serious heartaches. How does that feel to know the pain you sing of helps to heal others?
That’s funny to hear. One of the most amazing things about doing what I do is knowing that the songs go out into the world and weave into strangers’ lives in ways I will never know about. All my life, other people’s songs have meant so much to me and been so connected to different events and situations, so of course I know how it feels to have those relationships with music. But it’s honestly hard for me to truly believe that something I wrote could have that kind of meaning for someone else. I kind of have to take it on faith, but it’s still an amazing feeling when people tell me about the ways that songs of mine have been important to them.
As for Shotgun Singer, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s all cherries and roses, but there is a sense of optimism or, perhaps, peace and contentment in the composite work, if not in the songs themselves. Was that your vision or did it unfold in the process?
I’d agree there’s a lot of hope in this batch of songs, which is just the way they came out. My writing always gets worse the more I try to steer it, so I usually try to let the muses drive as much as possible and I often don’t get a sense of where a song is going until it’s well on its way to being done. These songs were just the ones that wanted out at this particular moment.
Despite often touring as a solo acoustic performer, you usually paint an interesting sonic landscape on your records not normally associated with “folk music.” That’s certainly true on Shotgun. How much credit does producer Sam Kassirer get for the slinky textures and groovy vibe?
It’s hard to describe exactly what Sam brought and what I brought to this project. I definitely had a vision for this album and I worked on it alone for a very long time, and by the time I brought it to Sam all the songs were pretty well established in terms of vibe. I had started with the vocals and then built up layers of guitars, keyboards, backing vocals and strings on my own. Then I went around and got friends to play on it, including the drums, bass, more keys and guitars, and all the vinyl samples and unidentified sounds. Only at that point did Sam get involved, and honestly we weren’t sure going into it exactly how much influence he would have over the sound of the final product.
We spent a couple of weeks at his studio working on it, and a lot of that time was spent arranging – making decisions about what to use where – which actually impacted the tracks quite a bit. And we did a bunch of recording too, I think more than either of us expected to. A lot of what we were recording was amplifying existing parts to deepen the textures of things, but we added some brand new stuff too. In the end, we took a look at what we had done and it felt like his presence on the project was strong and that it made sense to call the record a co-production by the two of us. I was incredibly grateful for the level of commitment he brought to the record – it’s potentially a little tricky when someone comes on board so late in a project, but Sam had the perfect blend of respect for the direction I had established and creative vision for how to finish it. We had a great time working together.
Word on the street is that you booted Erin McKeown from her house to use her studio. True?
Close! Erin is a neighbor and friend of mine, and she did offer me the use of her house while she was gone on a couple of long tours, for which I’ll owe her forever. The “studio” consisted of all my recording gear and instruments. Each time I went up to Erin’s house I brought my carload of stuff, rearranged her furniture and created a really lovely recording environment. Then every time I was done with a session I would whisk it all away, reassemble her house and it would be as if nothing had ever happened…
Your last outing, Strange Conversation, was a bit of a departure. It was stylistically diverse and you used various poems as starting points for lyrics. How did that compare to birthing the whole thing yourself?
It’s a vastly different experience to work live in the studio with a band as compared with working alone, but each one is wonderful in its own way. The sessions for Strange Conversation were just a flat-out great time. The whole band were friends, not to mention seriously amazing players, and we made the whole record in I think six recording days total. Since we were cutting things live, we were just focused on the feel. You have to let a lot of little things slide in that situation, which I really enjoy. We laughed a lot and there were a lot of very magical surprises.
Working alone was something I was curious about trying – mostly I wanted to have a lot of time to experiment off the clock, to go on tangents that I would never try if I was in a studio paying by the hour or the day. And there’s also a real difference between the way you sing in a room full of people and the way you sing when you’re alone, and these songs felt like they would benefit from that kind of intimacy. So, it was an experiment, and it was lot slower and in some ways less fun – but it was also a really profound experience for me and I learned a ton about both writing and recording. It’ll feel great to go back to a live band situation next time, I’m sure, but the process of making so much of this album by myself was incredibly rewarding and exciting for me.
Speaking of birthing… you’re very much with child, do you have a sense yet of how motherhood’s going to affect your writing and/or how you go about your work? Are you going to write a whole batch of “I love my baby” tunes?
I don’t think there’s any way to ever predict how your life’s events will affect your writing, especially something so mind-boggling as having a child. Of course being a mother will influence both the process and the product, but I have no idea how, which is actually quite exciting, as well as terrifying. I’m sure that the journey of parenthood can only add to the richness and depth of the emotional material available to me as a writer. That said, I’ll definitely have some friends keeping an eye on me to make sure things don’t get too cute!