You were at the Folk Alliance Conference last week. How would you describe that to someone who’s never been?
Did you ever go to those places as a kid where you can feed fish? Like sometimes they would have them at amusement parks and stuff. You get some bread or whatever and then go to the edge of the dock and drop it in for all of the fish. The fish are all squirming all over each other, there are hundreds of them, and they are opening their mouths really wide in hopes of catching some of the snacks. Folk Alliance is exactly like that. Except with people, in a hotel. But everyone’s crawling all over each other with their mouths open really wide.
In the past few years you’ve assembled a full band with an intricate, nuanced sound. Do you bring in completed songs for the band or is there a collaborative nature to your songwriting these days?
Well, usually I bring my band a fully structured and written song, but then we collaborate a lot on everyone’s parts. I don’t write the bass lines or drum parts or anything, they do, and that happens in rehearsal. So I’ve written the song, but then when I bring it to them sometimes even the structure can change a lot. It’s a really awesome and intricate process that takes us a very long time. My band works so well together, though. Everyone is very mindful of what everyone else is doing and there’s no ego about any of it. We are all striving to make the song the best it can be.
Last year you collaborated with Jim Eno from Spoon on two songs for Public Hi-Fi Sessions #2. How did that come about? What was that collaboration like?
Well, Jim was producing some of the songs on my next album, so we started working together for that. I brought him a couple of other songs that I was on the fence about and we treated those like collaborations. Jim came up with the drum tracks and then we worked together in the studio to finish the songs. It was really eye-opening to me. I’d never experimented with those kinds of sounds before. I really loved the process. It felt pretty freeing and I’m really proud of what we ended up with.
I’m overly-obsessed with place, as I think a lot of folk musicians are. Your beautiful album Leelanau is an ode to your summers as a child in Michigan. Is there a conscious effort in your writing to root a specific memory or emotion to a place for the listener to visualize?
It took me a long time, until I was about to go into the studio to record Leelanau, to realize that the songs had a cohesive theme to them. So I wouldn’t say necessarily that I make a conscious effort to write about place, but it’s definitely something that happens. A lot of my newer songs that will be on the next record kind of take the idea of place to a different level. It’s a much more abstract idea, even though I’m describing physical surroundings.
You sometimes go on songwriting retreats, right? Are you a more productive songwriter when you can focus on just that for a few days at a time? Do you often start and finish a song in one sitting?
I definitely write better when I’m focused on it. I also find that I really need to be alone. I’m kind of like a monk when I go on these retreats. There’s a lot of solitude and quiet and I only eat roasted vegetables and oatmeal. I don’t know, somehow the deprivation of a lot of senses really helps me write. I also need to be pretty close to nature to be able to write a lot. I can write at home some, but there are so many distractions and not a lot of visual inspiration.
I don’t think I’ve ever finished a song in one sitting. Part of the process for me is to walk away from it and then come back to it to see if I even like anything I’ve written. Some songs come quicker than others, but never just in one sitting.
You’ve done a few live sets through Concert Window. What exactly is that? Do you enjoy playing live in that setting?
Concert Window is an online venue, basically. People can log on and “buy tickets” and watch on their computers. I thought that I would hate it, but I actually really like it. I find that there’s actually a profound sense of community and closeness, at least from my side of the screen. I would have thought it to be impersonal and horrible, but I have found the opposite to be true. And something about it makes me braver, too, so I end up playing a lot of new songs, which I would never be able to do at a live show. Yeah, I think it’s pretty cool.
Thai food or pizza?
Thai food at night, pizza in the morning.
Dawn or dusk?
What is dawn? Dusk, I guess.