Some things happen suddenly and unexpectedly, and some come only with the most careful attention and concentrated, purposeful dedication. Widowspeak’s sophomore album, Almanac, out this month on Captured Tracks, is definitely the latter. We opened up a party line with Widowspeak singer Molly Hamilton and guitarist Robert Earl Thomas to talk about their meticulously constructed new record, losing drummer and band founder Michael Stasiak, cyclicality as a central theme, and the folk ethics of story-sharing.
So tell me more abut your new record. How is it different from your first?
Robert: The first one we did, we recorded over a long period of time, like six months or something like that, and we only recorded a little bit each week because we were all working. It was a lot less planned out. The first record is kind of like this picture of the band right where it was when we first started. They asked us to make a record, and we just jumped in and had to just fly by the seat of our pants.
But then we did a bunch of touring and our drummer quit, and with him went the bass player, so Molly and I took a step back. We decided that we wanted to keep going, and then really worked hard to envision and plan out this entire Almanac record down to the sound, the themes, where we recorded it, all the aesthetic choices that went with the record…This was a really concerted effort, I would say, compared to the first one. Not that it should take anything away from the first one, but this is a big record for the two of us.
Molly: Yeah, the first record was a great experience, and I’m glad that it happened, but it’s almost like that first record was more a collection of singles and songs that we’d written up to that point. We loved that recording experience, but this one was just totally different –
R: It’s like a real album.
M: Yeah, there’s definitely a unified idea behind the whole thing that, you know, as we worked on it, it became more and more obvious in all aspects of making it – visually, thematically…it was all really focused.
Funny that you bring up “visually.” I was going to ask about the album cover. It’s very different from your original aesthetic and from what you typically see these days.
M: Yeah, I really liked the idea of having a photograph of us on the cover. Because it’s something that people don’t really do, and it seems a little bit…having yourself on the cover it’s a little –
M: Yeah, it’s seen that way, but really it’s owning up to the fact that you created something and representing that it came from this band that consists of two people. I also really like the pastoral setting. It looks like it’s in the canon of 70s record covers.
Definitely – kind of like a 70s country record or something.
M: Yeah, maybe it’s a little cheesy, but it’s also…
R: I think it’s done sincerely. It’s not a joke.
Hearing you talk about it, it’s also a picture of the two of you looking at each other, a one-on-one relationship. It really shows that you made this thing between the two of you in a very literal way.
R: I never thought about that, but it totally makes sense because the whole thing is supposed to be a picture of the theme, not really us posing for the camera. It’s more like this sort of self-involved thing that’s going on –
M: And that waterfall was also just 15 minutes from the barn we recorded in. We found it when we went to meet [co-producer] Kevin [McMahon] for the first time and see the studio, and we were like, “Let’s go find some swimming holes!” And we ended up finding this waterfall, and we realized that it was going to be so amazing to be up here for a full month. So it represents the record very literally because we were actually there recording.
R: Also, it’s just like…it’s us in front of a waterfall. If you’re going to go for the big striking photograph…that kind of does it.
That’s all you need to take it to the next level – a waterfall. So you guys recorded this out in the middle of nowhere?
R: Well, New York state parks are amazing because you’re an hour and a half outside of the city and it feels like you’re miles and miles…years away from it. So we recorded in an old barn that has a studio in it, and the barn and its surroundings made it feel very secluded, but we were just outside of the town of New Paltz, NY, which is, you know, a polished town and it’s only an hour and forty-five minutes from the city. So it was convenient enough that we would stay up there on the weekdays, then kind of drive back and hang out on the weekends. But the studio itself, being in an old barn and looking out, seeing nothing but trees and a couple of houses, gave it a very secluded feeling.
M: Yeah, I mean without having any distractions – no internet, no phone service – we were able to focus so much more. Also, our bassist and drummer came up, the guys who are playing with us live, even though we wrote the record, they came up to kind of experience it at the end, and we would have communal meals and cook together, make hot dogs, whatever. [Laughs] And, you know, it was good to have that experience because we’ve had a band member leave, so it just felt like a really supportive environment.
So you recorded the record with just the two of you, but plan to expand the band live?
R: Kyle and Willie, who we brought up, did play on the record. Kyle played all the percussion, and Willie kind of moonlit and played some bass once in the while. But basically, Molly and I wrote all the parts, and so they came up to begin to experience the record, to listen to it and hear it being crafted. Even though we made it, because Molly and I had worked for a long time to demo all the songs before it went to the studio, it was cool to have them there so that they could be a part of the process.
M: And also, Robert and I are a songwriting team, but we like the idea of being able to work with our friends and musicians that we respect…whoever we need at the time, whoever is available. So if our drummer and bassist are too busy doing other things they do, the core band can go on and stay the same. We’re not demanding that anyone needs to commit to be in the band for so long.
R: Also, it’s cool because the way it was before, it was a lot of work by committee. Which has its benefits, but obviously has its drawbacks too. So when the original drummer left, Molly and I were sort of able to be like, “Okay, so we’re going to be the administrators. Here’s our plan. Do you guys want any part of it?” And they were super into it, but it made it easier because you pitched something to somebody before they were a part of it, and then they could decide if they’re interested or not. Thank god they said yes!
Your ex-drummer, Michael Stasiak, was a big part of the band, a founding member. After he left, why did you decide to keep the name instead of starting something new? Is the music you’re making now still related to the first album in a really strong way?
M: It’s a continuation of all the ideas we were having, and our goals are still in line with that. We’re getting more and more focused on what we want to do, because as the band keeps going, we just get better at writing with each other. But it feels exactly like the same band, just the way that things happen is different. We don’t really write songs the same way because we don’t necessarily have a drummer all the time, so a lot of it is contextualizing what songs we want to make first, and then actually writing the songs after that. It wasn’t just us in the practice space jamming, which is kind of how our first record happened.
R: It’s all Widowspeak. We might do different things and definitely have different projects, but we weren’t suddenly making things where we thought we needed to be a different band with a different name and a different image, it was like we had just gotten better at making songs that were Widowspeak songs.
M: And I mean, I still write the lyrics, I still sing, and Rob still plays the guitar…not in the same way, but in Rob way. [Laughs] So it still feels like the same thing, even though our drummer has changed.
Why did Michael leave, if you don’t mind my asking?
M: I don’t even really know why Michael left. I don’t know if there’s a specific reason. I think that he just wasn’t having fun anymore –
R: As much fun as he wanted to, as he thought he should be. It wasn’t, like, the fallout of some giant argument or something. He approached us pretty calmly at a point where we thought we were all on a high note and told us that he wasn’t really interested in doing it anymore.
M: I think it was a really good time for him and us because we were about to go into writing the whole record. We had planned that as soon as we got back from this tour we were on, and all summer long, we were going to write the record and record it in the fall, and then start the whole thing over again. And it was on the tail end of everything with the first record, and I think Michael just didn’t really want to renew the whole process. So, yeah, it was good for us because it was the perfect time to start a new idea. It was the end of chapter one. Now, chapter two.
R: But he was missed. The drumming was pretty phenomenal and he’s a great musician.
M: I’m also really glad that everything with that first record happened with him. He’s the one that started the band. He’s the one who introduced me to Rob. He was the force behind a lot of things that happened in the first year or two.
So if Michael introduced you, how did you two grow into this creative duo?
M: Widowspeak started when Michael approached me about it. We knew each other from home and used to play music together, sort of, in Tacoma. He wanted to start a band and wanted me to sing. But we didn’t have a guitarist. We tried a few people out informally, but then Michael was like, “I know. I’m going to bring Rob over to your house. We’re going to have a practice in your living room. Rob’s perfect. You’ll love Rob. He’s going to be great.” And when he came over, the three of us…it was just really easy for us to play music together, which…it had always been hard for me to not be nervous in front of people.
R: Yeah, and through the band we saw each other every single day.
Was there any one moment where you guys realized what you have, creatively, together? It seems like you’ve both pushed each other into this new place, and it’s really cool to meet someone and grow into that kind of relationship…
R: Touring together and just being around each other so much, we talked a lot and started to understand each other’s influences. And our musical tastes and skills and our intellectual ideas sort of had a Venn diagram moment where they crossed over. And that’s right around when Michael told us he was leaving and when we sat down and decided to keep doing this because there was really something there. There’s a yin and a yang kind of thing going on. We can openly talk about how certain things that I like, Molly has no taste for and vice versa, but there’s a good amount of creative crossover.
M: It’s like we’re only getting better at working together, writing together, making stuff together. It’s exciting making this record and already talking about new things we want to make and the next thing we want to do. There’s a lot of momentum because this was such a great experience.
Now that you’ve made this as a duo, are you planning to continue as one? Or would you rather add more people, possibly return to a full band again?
R: I think the goal is to integrate the rest of the dudes in as much as possible. They’re into it, and we like their skills and their tastes, but there’s also a certain level of us having invited them to be part of it, and sort of on paper, they’re hired by us. Not that that’s how we treat them, but it’s cool because it implies a power structure, and often a nebulous power structure or design by committee is how things fall apart.
M: Also, having a sort of a framework to work within is really great because it’s not just a whole bunch of ideas, throw it to the wall, and see what sticks. We have something we want to do, and we collaborate to that end.
R: And you can get the best out of people. I personally have made music with a lot of different people, and when I’m not on the creative end I really want to know what people expect of me, and so I think that’s helpful for them too because we can be like, “Hey guys, this is the box we’re working in.” It gives them a little bit of a structure so they can realize what they can bring to it, and how they can be part of the whole thing.
Describe this box for me. What are some of those major ideas you had for the record?
M: We wanted there to be an art to it. We wanted the songs to be cinematic and expansive and have this visual element to it, conjuring up certain images in people’s minds when they heard it. We wanted it to have a feeling, too. That’s important to us – not necessarily that the lyrics are conveying something specific but that the whole thing is giving you a specific feeling. I guess everyone is always trying to do that.
R: I think specifically for this record, cyclicality – I don’t know if that’s a word, but – cycles. That’s something we tried to work with when we built the songs rhythmically or thematically, thinking of cycles in relationships of any matter, and human relationships. And the title’s Almanac, so it’s very rooted in the cycles of nature.
M: It kind of started off as being a record about – well, not about the end of the world, but we really wanted to record and put out the record before the world ended for superstitious reasons. But the idea of things ending and things beginning, and what happens after things end, and, you know, our band had changed too. Things were ending and beginning. And then, also, just the natural element of it was something we were thinking a lot about and that I was writing about. Different aspects of the natural world that end, and it’s a good way to talk about relationships or using relationships to talk about that. I do feel like a lot of times, whatever story you have you can convey in another non-specific way. I don’t really like writing songs that are so specific that it can only be about one thing. We wanted the record to be…not ambiguous, but more —
R: Holistic, maybe.
One of the things I was thinking about when I listened to your record was the idea of catharsis and mystery. To me, music can be about either one of those things or both simultaneously –letting something go or keeping something hidden, selfishly expressing or empathetically sharing. Do you guys think about your music in terms of a personal catharsis or is it more about creating a mystery for someone else? It seems like it could be both…
R: I think that’s almost a folk influence. Molly talks about folk music, not as a stylistic thing, but as a sharing type of music. We definitely look at our music from the perspective of how people were going to receive it. It wasn’t about getting something off my chest or “I love this sound. I have to make this sound.”
M: Yeah, I don’t think it’s as cathartic for me as it is storytelling. And I think stories should be told. It is cathartic to sing a song that I feel invested in personally, but I also think that the experience of other people hearing songs is why I like doing it and why anyone who’s making music is…not necessarily making music for other people, but with the fact that it will be heard in mind. It’s not just for me because if it was just for me, it would sound different, it would feel different, and I think it would be a lot…sadder. [Laughs] Or sometimes happier…but I think, at least, we do have an audience in mind, specifically what we want for them.
R: I think that’s another cool thing about making a second record. Without any machismo about it, we just knew that people were going to listen to it. You know, you make the first record and you’re just making a record. I’ve made records before that no one’s ever heard. But with making this, it’s like you knew someone’s going to listen to it, so there was an element of responsibility and purpose to making it.
M: Yeah, at least the people who heard our first record might be curious and listen to the second one, and we wanted to continue what we were doing, but also tell them more. Tell them something else.