Before smartphones and Google, before printed encyclopedias, before even Gutenberg, there was the almanac. This was an annual compendium of weather forecasts, important dates and useful facts and statistics. Like today's Internet, the almanac was not always 100 percent accurate, but it served the essential purpose of cataloging and organizing an often-confusing world.
It's not surprising that Widowspeak, a Brooklyn-based band of transplants from the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, would seize upon this imagery. New York City can seem to the newcomer like an adrenalized artificial ecosystem, where almost anything is available day or night. At the same time, there are quiet moments of beauty and transcendence available for anyone who cares to look. With its mix of folk and country-influenced melodies, cinematic-inspired moods (especially Robert Earl Thomas' spaghetti Western-inspired guitar) and lead singer Molly Hamilton's woozy voice, Widowspeak makes perfect music for those moments.
After a solid 2011 debut, Hamilton, Thomas and friends returned this year with Almanac on the Captured Tracks label. Almanac finds the band broadening its sound without sacrificing its earlier charms. "Devil Knows" and "Dyed in the Wool," for instance, suggest the influence of 1970s album-oriented rock (not just Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, to which Almanac has been compared, but also moody hits like Ozark Mountain Daredevils' "Jackie Blue" and Cliff Richard's "Devil Woman"), while "Locusts" unleashes a drony, one-chord undertone.
Appropriately enough, we tracked Widowspeak down during the Pacific Northwest leg of its current tour. Hamilton answered some of our questions while traveling from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Seattle.
Mike Appelstein: Who is in the band now besides Robert and you?
Molly Hamilton: We have three friends of ours playing live on tour: Kyle Clairmont Jacques on drums, Dylan Treleven on Wurlitzer and slide guitar, and Willy Muse on bass.
You are currently in the Pacific Northwest. How does it feel when performing so close to home? Were you at all involved in or aware of the local music scene as a youngster?
I love the Northwest. It will always be home. I got really excited when we made the drive through the Cascades and started seeing Douglas firs. I was definitely well aware of the local music scene growing up, but more as an outsider. Always loved and respected Sub Pop, K, Kill Rock Stars and Barsuk, and just how supportive the community was in general. It's taken me a while to get over my stage fright, but my friends in Tacoma and I put out compilations of our various solo projects, on this label called Dear Records.
Between the first and second album, you lost your original drummer, who was also a Tacoma connection. How, if at all, did this force you to reinvent the band? Did you have to change certain ways of doing things, for instance?
We were writing songs in a sort of trial-by-error way, and without a drummer, we had to be very deliberate. Rob and I had to piece each song together as a cohesive idea and demo them, and eventually teach the songs to the new band members. It was hard to lose Michael right before writing a new record, but it strengthened the writing connection between Rob and me.
Did you feel much pressure with Almanac? You know what they say about having your whole life to write your first album but six months for the second.
We always have pressure on ourselves to live up to our own expectations, but we actually didn't feel too much "sophomore album" pressure. We're even now thinking already about our third album. For us, I think it's been about constantly asking ourselves what our band's about, what its strengths are and exploring that, instead of being too conscious of its reception. Strengths and interests always change, and you have to keep momentum, not just live up to a first impression. At first we wanted our songs to be understated and sparse, and the first record reflects that. With Almanac we wanted it to feel more lush and expansive, because I was writing a lot about things that felt bigger to me. We wanted it to feel like Widowspeak, but like a new and fully formed thought.
You deliberately designed the cover of Almanac to resemble an actual almanac. The music has a certain pastoral feel as well. At the same time, you live in Brooklyn. Do you think the two are connected?
I think this record was a bit escapist in its themes and also in the experience of making it. We got out of Brooklyn for the month, lived without a lot of city conveniences and really focused on sounds and expressing the songs as best we could. The almanac idea just felt like the perfect way to frame everything, from lyrics about life cycles and time passing to more nostalgic instrumentation and song structure. It also definitely reflects a preoccupation with the natural world, because I know, for me at least, that I was spending a lot of time thinking about being away from Brooklyn.
Is there a yearning for an earlier age, or at least an attempt to evoke it?
I'm definitely a nostalgic person. Maybe I glorify the past a little too much, but I like tradition and the idea of musical or stylistic canons. A lot of the lyrics on Almanac were inspired by the way life used to be and feeling at odds with it now. I'm uncomfortable with too much change, and so a lot of what I write about is feeling at odds with the future we're living in. It just feels crazy sometimes, and exponentially crazier by the day.
Tell me about the "Locusts" video. Who came up with the idea of the American Bandstand set?
We wanted to make a video like a Shindig! telecast, with dancers and dramatic lighting. Our drummer Kyle's art gallery had this coincidentally perfect installation up the week we wanted to film. It was directed by the Craig brothers and choreographed by friends of friends. The final product just felt like a really organic distillation of all our ideas.
If you could go back in time and perform anywhere, where and when would it be?
We'd love to go back to the 1950s and try to be part of one of those country/rock & roll tours that only went to state fairs, bandstands and midways.
How's Brooklyn these days? Being from Tacoma, were Portland or Olympia ever temptations?
Brooklyn's great, but the city does get a little stressful for me. It's just slightly more difficult to truly relax in a city that's so alive. The secret is balance, so going on tour keeps things more manageable. Sometimes I want to spend a few months in the South, and maybe I will. But I've never wanted to move to Portland or Olympia, only because I'd just move back to Tacoma if I went Northwest. It's cheaper, and I love it. I know it like the back of my hand. Especially being on tour, you realize that no matter where you live you can be happy and productive and artistically challenged. I've realized Brooklyn really doesn't have that much of an advantage.
Current reading/listening/viewing favorites?
We've been watching Ken Burns' The Civil War in the car. It's basically a narrated book on tape, so the whole car can enjoy it. We've been listening to a lot of old country and classic rock. It's always great road-trip music for traversing America.