On the back of releasing her hypnotic & elegant new album, Wildest Dreams , the Mumble caught up with its creator for a wee chat
Where are you from & where are you living today?
I was born in Flagstaff, Arizona but I’ve lived in five states permanently including Portland, Oregon, Olympia, Washington and all over California and New Yoik, New Yoik. I also lived in Berlin for five years and I moved to Edinburgh 10 years ago. I’ve stayed in Edinburgh longer than I’ve lived anywhere else consistently now.
What are your first musical memories from life in Arizona?
Singing to myself in the forest. Singing to myself to tune out the dysfunctional world around me. I remember one of my first concerts was Willie Nelson, and he winked at me. I wondered from then on why men cut their hair. It was so nice to see a man with long braids who sang from his heart. Apart from that, my mother wanted to be a blues singer. She played guitar and sang songs that she wrote. She’s away to that other realm now despite being only 20 years older than me, and if she could read this she would surely be happy to know that though I almost did, I didn’t pawn her guitar.
What instruments do you play & how did you pick them up in the first place?
I pick them up with my hands! I play guitar, baritone and concert ukulele, five-string banjo, piano and shakuhachi. I’d like to pick up the wooden flute here soon, as the trumpet might make our cabin fever turn into something more deadly. Portable stringed instruments make taking the show on the road easier, so maybe it’s a matter of practicality. I can’t see a better tool for a songwriter than a guitar, but it can be overly suggestive at times. I wanted to play the oboe when I was wee, but there wasn’t one in all of the town. I think I was influenced by Tchaikovsky’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’ on that one.
Who has been your greatest musical influence over the years?
My first musical influence was Chopin, which might sound ridiculous, if not pretentious. I was unreasonably obsessed though with playing the piano because of hearing that music from a very young age. We couldn’t afford one both in space and money. It wasn’t until my mother married a man that had a piano that I could give it a go. I was probably around nine. Apart from that I love everything from The Meters to Joni Mitchell, Laura Viers to the Pixies. I used to listen to a lot of torch singers like Billie Holiday and early Sarah Vaughn, but right now I’m really into silence. I love very “old” music in general, Hoagy Carmichael and Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Skip James, Memphis Minnie…
Desert island, solar power’d CD player, 3 albums – what are they?
John Fahey, ‘The Dance of Death and other Plantation Favorites, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ by the Beatles (‘Magical Mystery Tour’ is closely tied), Chopin ‘Nocturnes’, and Alan Watts ‘Out of your Mind’ lectures (that’s four, I never was much of a rule follower). I do think I play specifically acoustic music just for this apocalyptic kind of thinking; when the lights go out I want to know that I’m still plugged into something.
Where do your songs come from & how do you shepherd them into existence?
I enjoy your use of the word shepherd here. For a long time I thought that they just dropped from the ether but as I’ve been teaching songwriting in the last many years I have come to realize there is so much a craft-meets-art-meets-craft, absolutely. I am unconsciously working all the time. I tend to ask questions of myself, and the world around me, and then I attempt to answer these questions with as much candor as can be. When I’m stuck, I study music, learn a new song. And if I can’t answer the question, well – time to insert a good ol’ fashioned instrumental. ‘Banjo is the Swiss army knife of the darkside’ – but also some other more joyful places. And the places that can’t be met with one instrument can be found with another one. My instruments are helpful lovers and they all give me something different, never jilted that I took time with another. In my view, songwriting-as-life is played in and plays with empty space. It’s possible the main thing one needs to shepherd songs, and why I like this word, is that the practice is to realize they belong not to you but the universe; they exist within and without you, revealing themselves with careful observation and gentle nudge, if needed.
What are the key ingredients to your sound?
Harmonic depth, breath, improvisation and playful exchange, distilled poetry humor, candor, viewing vulnerability as strength, and Dr. Dirk’s homebrew.
Why the move to Edinburgh, & how do you find its music scene?
I had a magical and very happy dream about it when I was 24 living in Oly WA, which was a long time ago, but it stuck with me. We came in as EEA members as Dirk, despite seeming American, is actually German. When we lived in Berlin a few unfortunate violent incidents happened so it seemed like a good idea to check it out. Upon arriving, I found a gold ring on the street and Dr. Dirk a jazz hat he felt he very much needed. It had a feather in it already. The music scene has been good to us and I’m grateful to be here every day. I don’t mind the wind at all, but I think my road competes for top spot in that regard.
Can you tell us about your recent release, Wildest Dreams?
It’s a carefully selected group of songs that go together as an album and reflect my true and wildest dreams, some of which border on the odd nightmare (see: Sweet Sue, Feather Boa) but inside each song is a dream I’ve had in the past that has revealed itself to come to fruition. Like all truly wild things, these things know how to hibernate, be simple and just be. ‘Wild’ is a tricky word often overused/used incorrectly. I’ve chosen it on purpose because of its multiple interpretations. Motherhood for instance is a common dream for some but a “wild” one for someone like me to realize, and is reflected in this body of work. Inside scoop – the title of the album ‘Wildest Dreams’ is the title of a song I chose not to include on the album but will release at a later date. It was fully produced! It is an indie-pop number that stands on its own, but doesn’t reflect my “Wildest Dreams” as a notion. It instead chews over the regret of having gone after dreams in the first place and the possible unforeseen consequences of that. “You, me, we, we get what we deserve. I have let it run away with me the wildest of the wildest dreams” sings the chorus. Americans I’m told speak in hyperbole, but these here Wildest Dreams are what I have, and what I’m made of, plain as can be.
Any shout-outs for the contributors?
Ben Seal is a genuine boss of a producer with a magnificent studio at the Elm in Fife. He gave me the extra mile all the time and reeled in my perfectionism and neurosis with humor and tact, which is no easy feat. To boot, he’s an authentic creative and plays a lot of different instruments as well. It was more than fun for us to spend time together coming up with ideas and making them happen quickly. With someone this smart in the recording/cutting/mixing room, it’s easy to be spontaneous and experimental. It’s a necessary quality in a producer for me, and he nails it. His donning of colorful jumpers will keep you on your toes as much as he will.
Dr. Dirk is a fiddler of the highest caliber who can play a lot of styles with authentic reverence. More importantly perhaps, he has an editing ear and the decency to just play the right and needed part when accompanying a vocalist. Dirk has an experimental approach in learning, but a delicate sensitive touch and a true sense of song. It’s rare for a lot of players and I try to do my best to let him have at it sometimes. He’s patient and kind, “gently assertive” a fellow musician said recently, but I’d further that by saying he’s not playing for himself, he’s tapping into something much deeper. I consider him a civil servant to ‘the cause’, a rather noble one. We aren’t tired of each other yet somehow.
Joel ‘Joey’ “Jello” my bass player is also a dear friend and I feel he deeply understands the heart of my music. He’s playful, fun, and chock full of ideas. The music I write requires a lot of space and listening, but it also requires a strong ability for my instrumentalists to improvise and write parts of their own and he does this very well. I love writing things with Joey in mind, always interested in what he comes up with. We work well together and I enjoy traveling with him. I would be hard pressed to see a better accomplice in a room full of interesting strangers miles away from home.
I heard Jello has an unusual instrument, can you tell us about it & what does it sound like?
Yes, Joey made his own bass in Canada with some grant money from Creative Scotland and it’s been a game changer. I asked him to say a few words about it –
“Jellobelly couldn’t carry on trying to play cello and double bass at the same time for much longer. Things were getting desperate. Then Eddy Spoons turned up some ancient Silver Maple and Otis said “Sure. Come and make your crazy instrument with me in my workshop in Cape Breton”. And so, ‘The Beast’ was born…and she was called J-llo…..part cello, part double bass, 100% JelloBass.”
And lastly, Iona Lee did the artwork and album design. She’s an incredibly talented poet, muse and illustrator. I highly recommend her work, her pamphlets and new book coming out. Iona is funny, poignant and very needed right now as a voice on the scene.
Your son plays a part on the album too – how did that transpire?
I am so proud of Harlen. More and more often I catch him teaching himself something on his own without my prompting by Bo Burnam or the Gorillaz, Nirvana, and even recently, our favorite Chilly Gonzalez, and “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin. Surprises never cease and I think I’m over a decent hump with him. I can only hope he’s got ‘the itch’. We hope he grows to know it’s the best video game on earth, no screen needed, and a friend for life. I try to tell him – as I tell you all now – if it’s not hard going, even just a little bit, it’s probably not worth doing. Now work that left hand.
How do you balance motherhood with creating such a prolific & poetical wealth of beautiful music?
I don’t. I am robbing Peter to pay Paul every day. I manage because I have a nurturing competent husband who cooks, cleans and cares for our son with exceptional thought and skill. It doesn’t hurt he’s a musician who understands a specific kind of burnout we face and is accustomed to a more radical lifestyle. We live a fairly eccentric life to most, and inevitably extreme “imbalance” happens. I could perhaps be proud of being both a mother and musician all at once, but I don’t really feel that I have a choice in the matter. To me, it would be like being proud of freckles, or big hands or anything else that is involuntary. I am definitely both a musician and a mother, and both suffer because I am the other. I have this phenomenon in common with all other muso-mamas I know who (all that I can think of ) are married to fellow musicians for good reason. It requires intimate understanding. It can be a bit lonely sometimes to turn around as a songwriter-come-mother and realize you are nearly alone out there, as a species. We do need a lens with which to look at the issue because it’s clear many specific women’s voices and stories aren’t being heard in the numbers they could be. I believe thisgenuinely disadvantages us all. Unfortunately, the burden of having this conversation rests on the shoulders of already fairly busy women.
You have a secret gig coming up – are you allowed to tell us anything about it at all?
Nope, I’m not allowed – the mystery shall remain! But my lovely new label “New Teeth” (Leith) records will be hosting another release in January, and when Emma Briely’s animation for “Catfish Friend” is finished, another local one, I’m sure.
How is 2023 looking for you so far?
I’ll be doing lots and lots of recording starting with finishing a grant in January/Feb for Creative Scotland awarded in the pandemic to record a reflective album of the experience using some new tools. I’ll also be finishing an album for Delightful Squalor, my passion project with Lake Montgomery, fellow ‘merican from Texas. The Half Moon Medicine Show will be happening here and there no doubt, stay tuned! And then comes summer time with its festival season to keep us busy. I’ve always got my Jazz Bar showcase on every Friday 6:15-8:30 where I host some of Scotland’s finest and most unique musicians, songwriters, enchantresses and wizards in the business, unless I’m on the road. I know that I will be writing new things, and taking myself on a retreat. I finally got my driving license in the UK, so I’m able to take on more independent work, which is very exciting and long overdue.