Courtney Swain talks “Sweet Snow,” fostering creativity, and yetis.
Hello, Courtney! Thanks so much for chatting with us this morning.
Thanks for having me!
Your new solo album, Between Blood and Ocean, is on its way to listeners very soon [edit: you can listen and purchase *now*!] . You wrote this album during a residency at Martha’s Vineyard; did that happen to take place over winter? There are a lot of references to snow.
Yes, I was there March 3-17 in 2017, towards the end of winter but still a few snow snowstorms.
Do place and nature typically influence your writing? In addition to snow, we’ve got sheep, trees, sand, and the photography for the album has you out in a wooded area.
Not necessarily? I do tend to be a winter-oriented person, without a big list of summer-friendly songs. Even outside of this album I have a lot of cold/snow references in my writing. A lot of my music is driven by introspection but in this case being in an environment with a lot of nature during the writing, I think a lot of my metaphors and inspirations were drawn from that.
Yeah, winter seems like the season for introspection. And when you take a quiet forest and add snow to the trees—that’s a really “quiet” image.
Definitely. The album is a lot about isolation, crooked family issues, soul-searching, self-acceptance etc.
“Sand Angels” is certainly no summer beach anthem. Sonically, it’s covered in that Sigur Ros-esque chilled, dark air, but is this the point where isolation and self-acceptance meet? The line “I’m learning to be selfish/All by myself” comes across as actually quite positive and anthemic in its own way.
Funny you bring up that song; I had some pause about releasing such a winter-driven album closer to the summer (I just wanted to get it out the door in the end), but I’d told myself, “well, at least there’s “Sand Angels” and I could envision listening to that on a beach sprawled out in the sun” ha ha. That song turned out particularly well on the album, and I do think about it as an anthem. I don’t think I’m the only person who’s trying to reclaim the word selfish for the importance of self care and self awareness. I wrote the idea to that song actually lying on a beach and marveling at the isolation and me-time I was experiencing.
Sounds like the time at Martha’s Vineyard provided a great opportunity for you. Two of your previous solo albums came out of focused periods of work, as well (the RPM challenges of 2013 & 2015). What do you like about this approach to writing or recording?
It’s something that works very well for me. It’s also a struggle, because I have a hard time having a regular creative schedule. It’s something I feel a bit guilty and a bit ashamed of. I’ve been trying to get better about this, mostly by expanding my idea of “creativity” (I’ve been trying to draw and write more, write instrumentals instead of songs, etc.) and trying to incorporate it into my life more frequently. At the same time, I’m also trying to accept that it’s not such a bad thing either. If concentrated chunks of work is how I feel most creative, that’s totally a doable thing. Now that I’m getting ready to release this album, I’ve been looking into new residency opportunities to go and write something again.
I don’t think there’s a “one size fits all” tag on artistic creation. A lot of musicians write on the road and come off a tour with notebooks full of songs or substantial pieces, but others I know write almost nothing until there’s a specific project to write for. Some bands jam it out in the studio; others come in with complete demos.
Exactly. I think it’s just a chip I have on my shoulder, and also something I’m trying to approach as a creative challenge.
How did that creative challenge work for this album? Between Blood and Ocean features electric guitar in a way that your previous solo albums didn’t. Did you know going into the writing process that this album would feature a more full-band-alternative-rock approach on some songs, or did something happen along the way to push the songs in that direction?
Well, I’ve always wanted to play guitar but it’s something I haven’t invested myself in yet. When I set off to the residency I took a guitar, a few synths I was unfamiliar with, and a few iZotope software I also didn’t know very well. A lot of the new sounds resulted from those elements. I tried writing some stuff on guitar; my previous (and only) attempt at this was “Lila” from my first solo album. There’s one really whacky solo in “I’d Kill” which is actually something I played when I was demoing the song at the residency. My first guitar solo debut! The drums came from a combination of writing in Ableton for the first time and using loops, and challenging myself to learn iZotope’s BreakTweaker.
Move over Ben Levin, Courtney’s coming with the solos! Is that technological experimentation what prompted the heavily processed vocals on “White Trees”? I was wondering whether the effect came later in the studio, or was part of the direction of the song early on.
Yes, correct. Before I left for the residency I’d just received a bundle of iZotope software because of collaboration we did with them. I was experimenting with VocalSynth when I was writing “White Trees,” so the vocal texture was really mechanical from the get-go.
Intriguing. So, there were several conceptual elements that factored in for this album—the emotions and processing that come out in the songs, but also the focused time & place and the self-challenge with new instruments and technology.
Yes. When I applied to this residency I had two goals 1) to write about the experience of growing up half-Japanese in Japan. I scheduled the residency immediately after my annual trip to Japan to visit my mother. 2) to use the time and focus to learn new tools and create in a different way. By the way the final album didn’t end up being about 1). At the end of the two weeks thereI had a collection of about 7-8 songs on that topic, and then 12-13 more on random topics. When it came time to make it into an actual album I selected 10 songs from the whole pool instead of going in a concept album approach.
Did Growing Pains come from the same pool?
No, Growing Pains was set of songs I’d been writing over the fall/winter of 2016 (though one of the songs was a lot older) and I recorded that in January ’17 just so I could get it out of the way before I went to the residency and wrote different songs.
Gotcha. So there’s still an album’s worth of songs written…Do you have firm plans for those songs at this point?
Not really. I actually haven’t listened to them in a looong time, and I might keep it that way for a while. Maybe I’ll be inspired to re-arrange or use one of the songs if I look back on it in a few years.
Sure. Sometimes the point is just to write and make something, with no need to share it. Going back to Japan, how did you get connected with Chisato Tinaka? The album art captures the lyrical themes and musical textures in a way that is as immediately arresting as the songs themselves.
I met Chisato Tanaka in my hometown Fukuoka this winter, when I was shooting a music video for “Sweet Snow.” My friend Riki Nitabaru directed the video (he also animated “Time Deer” for Bent Knee, and directed the “Good Girl” video as well) and he is close with Chisato’s partner Kazuki as well as her. We needed a big yeti for the video, and Chisato designed the costume, and Kazuki wore and acted in it. Chisato is a really prolific artist, well recognized in Japan, so I didn’t actually think it would be possible for me to have her artwork on my album. I reached out to her anyway, especially since she’d mentioned she’d been drawing scenes from the video shoot we did. (Going back to creating consistently, Chisato is one of those amazing people who paints every single day).
She sent me over 5 pieces that I could use for my album and surrounding promo, and they just fit the vibe perfectly. There are a lot of hooded figures in her work, but I liked that the black riding hood theme runs through the artwork, the press photos, and the video, too. It connects with this nihilist I have inside, that feels a bit forlorn and outcast at times. The black sheep, I suppose.
Oh, cool. So, the video came first, and that made an impression that has carried through to the rest of the album art.
Yes that’s right.
I noticed that hooded figures in black are a frequent theme in Chisato’s work. Against the red backgrounds and the woods, it’s almost a subversion of Little Red Riding Hood.
Indeed. She has really beautiful colors in her work as well, but I like the set she sent me which were generally very dark, with a yeti figure, almost fairly-like, with a little flower crown.
It suits the album for sure. What do you like about this Yeti character as an accompaniment to the album? Is it a counterpoint to the nihilist, or an extension of it?
I’m still trying to contextualize it myself, but I think it works in the sense of confronting fear. For a long time I intended to call this album “Stop Being Afraid” from a line in “Snowflakes.” Over the last few years I’ve realized that I have a lot of fear in my mind and in decision making, but a lot of it is unwarranted. The yeti is the fear that I’ve held, but after all it wasn’t so scary. The yeti was a friend.
You have an upcoming one-off show in Portugal [edit: Courtney rocked that show!]. Any plans to tour Between Blood and Ocean further?
Yes, I’m very much looking forward to returning to Gouveia. I don’t have any plans to tour much with my solo stuff, largely because Bent Knee is really busy right now. The other is that I want to be more selective with where I play my solo material. I’ve definitely played the music out in dive bars but it doesn’t feel quite right, and I’m waiting for opportunities like Gouveia where I can really dig in and deliver the best performance I can.
Good for you being selective! It makes such a difference to the music when a venue is set up to serve the music, rather than music being an add-on. Bent Knee have played some great spaces that allowed y’all to produce really lovely live videos. Maybe you need some live residencies for your solo work—not Vegas, but a nice New England theater?
Good point, I’m sure it’s a big difference for the audience to be in a music-oriented space, in addition to my own comfort! There are a few places that I like playing, such as the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge or the Columbus Theater in Providence, and maybe I’ll look into setting up something there?
Any plans to release Between Blood and Ocean on vinyl?
That’d be pretty great. After pressing Shiny Eyed Babies on vinyl I realized it’s not such an intangible thing, so it maybe something I do down the road (for context, we pressed Shiny Eyed Babies independently whereas the other two albums Land Animal and Say So were pressed by our labels).
Have you seen Bandcamp’s announcement about their vinyl pressing service? You’ve had experience with running the crowdfunding and coordinating the pressing and shipping separately—thoughts on what the Bandcamp service would mean for you as an artist?
Cool that Bandcamp is offering the vinyl service! I don’t foresee using it; if there’s a big demand I’ll try to fund it through my Patreon, and there will be less cuts taken if I work directly with a vinyl manufacturer. Though, the band did run a campaign specifically to press vinyl last year on a Kickstarter, and I would have been interested to see what that would have looked like on the Bandcamp platform.
What’s the status of the new Bent Knee album? Y’all finished recording, but has mixing and mastering completed?
We’ll be announcing things soon!
I appreciate you jumping in early on a Monday, and I hope all is well over there!
Same, thank you for the chat early Monday morning! Enjoy your week.