What was the first album you ever bought?
This goes pretty far back, so I may be wrong, but I think that the first album I ever bought was Boys for Pele by Tori Amos. I love it today as much as I did then, probably even more because there are some themes that childhood me couldn’t wrap my head around. I remember making my own music video to “Caught A Lite Sneeze.” I have always been entranced by Tori’s vocals, her command of the piano, her strong feminism, her overt yet self-owned sexuality, etc. Images from that album still resonate with me – barefoot in a rocking chair holding a shotgun or nursing a piglet – damn, she’s brave and creative and fierce.
I’m currently reading Tori’s autobiography, “Resistance: A
Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage.” It’s really
magnificent in the way she ties politics with music with personal history. I love to know the stories behind the music and Tori really knows how to tell them.
When did you first start playing music?
I started playing music at a very young age with piano and violin around age 3. I come from a classical music family, my mother is a professional violinist, her brother a cellist, my dad’s brother a world renowned conductor, and everyone in between at the very least loves music and had to take lessons for some period of time. I must have hated the violin because at one point I scratched the body of my rental with the tip of the bow. I am mortified to think of that now! My mother wasn’t happy about it, but she took the hint. She said that I didn’t need to play violin but that I needed to play something. So I
chose the cello, and we’ve been together ever since.
What’s your favorite thing about being a musician?
Being a musician is this amazing balance of following and breaking rules. The arts in general is a place where we can learn so much from those who have created before, follow best practices, build upon what exists, break out of all the shells, make something totally new, and always be supported in it for the sake of creativity. I love that as a musician, when I do things well, the gains can be great, but if I don’t succeed, the stakes aren’t that high. People can of course be very judgmental, but I am small potatoes, so I really only get
positive feedback and a lot of understanding about my creative endeavors. I love that for me, being a musician means expressive freedom.
What was the first true concert you ever attended and what effect did
it have on you?
I attended countless orchestral performances throughout my childhood. I loved many but also found a lot very boring. The first concert I ever chose to attend was Crosby, Stills, and Nash. I bought my own ticket for a show on the last day of summer before 10th grade. I loved it. I loved the intergenerational nature of the crowd, I loved seeing real rock legends right in front of me, and I love that it grew the live music bug for me. I’d been performing classically for a long
time, but that show was part of letting me know that I wanted to perform in different musical ways.
How long have you and Galen been playing together? and how long have
you been Strange Heavy?
Galen and I were set up on a blind date a little over two years ago
and we clicked right away. We talked about our favorite albums on our first date and it wasn’t more than a week or two before I invited him over to play music with me. He has a locally established band that he has been fronting for many years.
At the time we got together, I had just started to write songs for cello and vocals that I was performing solo. We got together in May and spent that summer getting to know each other and my music. We had our first show in December, at which time we revealed ourselves as Strange Heavy. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and we haven’t looked back since.
How did the songs come together for Wearing No Collar? Is there a
theme to the content beyond the album title?
There is definitely a theme to the album. All of the songs on Wearing No Collar are love songs in one way or another. One of them is about my divorce, and one of them is about the time I spent single after that. The other nine songs I wrote towards the beginning of my relationship with Galen, so they are very tied to my own personal growth, the growth of us as both a couple and a band, and my hopes and fears about all of those things. I would say that overcoming the odds, being willing to fall in love again, trying to look past hurt, and ultimately being open hearted are among the major themes of the album. Other themes are around the plight of the worker in a capitalist world, the death of my father (which occurred just a few weeks after our first show), polyamory, humility, and forgiveness. The songs came together because when we were invited to record, those were the songs we were playing, and it was easy to feel them as a cohesive piece because that was how they were functioning at our performances and generally in our lives.
How did you go about tracking / recording the album? Was there an over-riding approach in the studio or did that vary from song to song?
We were so fortunate to work with a really brilliant musician and engineer named Nick Bullock. He used to live in Ithaca and currently works out of a couple studios in Nashville. We recorded at The Doghouse Studio and Nick did a lot of mixing there as well as in his private studio, Awake Studios. Nick heard a song from our very first performance in December 2018 and wrote to me saying that he would love to work with us. At first I thought it was a joke, I couldn’t imagine
that a popular engineer would seek out my music so soon. But Nick and his offer were legitimate, so we talked for a while and spent a week in Nashville in October 2019. We had a similar process for each song, as I imagine is often the case. We started with the rhythmic foundation, drums and bass, added cello and other instruments, and ended with my vocals. Because Galen performs playing both drums and guitar, it was really fun for him to get to focus on one instrument at a time. He even laid down some tracks that were new to us as a duo, and there was definitely a spirit of spontaneous creativity in the studio. Nick is a multi-instrumentalist who had a really clear and collaborative vision for how to fill out the sound with bass, organ, piano, percussion, etc. It was important to us that the music be true to us, despite the way it was growing, so our approach was always authenticity. We started with the simple and unique elements of the songs that make them stand out, then added around them to give them the broad sound they deserve. It was a truly dreamy process.
What’s your favorite song on the album and why? What’s Galen’s?
It’s tough to pick just one but if I have to, I would say “Way Over
There.” I felt really inspired writing that song. The bridge and
breakdown represent a little more gutsiness than I tend to play around with on the cello. Lyrically I think it’s very compelling. Sometimes I watch the video of just me playing it in my kitchen when it was brand new and feel like it is just a perfect song, like I tapped into something really special creating that one. The album version is equally appealing to me, it’s so driving and groovy and sexy. I have a friend who is a videographer and upon listening to the album, honed in on “Way Over There” so much that we ended up making a music video. I think the questioning of the lyrics and the way the hook always leaves you wanting more make it a very palatable song to a lot of people. The title of the album comes from that song: “Purring and panting and wearing no collar, I’ll lay where you want me to.”
Galen would likely say that “It’s All Your Skin” is his favorite because it’s the most rocking song on the album and that really speaks to his folk punk heart. Go figure, that’s the song about my ex-husband!
What advice would you give to young musicians who want to get the point where you are, making legitimate records / arts?
My simplest advice is to just go for it! I am a regular person with a job, kids, and plenty of responsibilities. I didn’t branch out into making my own music knowing anyone in the industry, and creating this album has been a huge learning experience for me. I would tell young people to not be shy about their creativity. It’s ok to keep some things to yourself, but be brave enough to get it out there, and practice paying attention to positive and constructive feedback only,
don’t give any credence to people who just want to tear you down. Write and record as much as you can, even on your phone, just to keep a catalog of what you have and how it is evolving. Find inspiration in that as time goes on. And be patient! Nothing happens overnight, making legitimate art was something that took a lot of thought and care and attention. Everybody has the potential to do it. For me, setting my sights high but accepting whatever outcomes I meet was important. I have always wanted to work hard for my music, but I never wanted it to feel like a hustle that burned me out. I have taken breaks, sometimes years, from playing the cello. I waited a really long time before I started performing the music I was writing. I’ve been in and out of other people’s bands, failed trying to start my own, and received less than flattering criticism. Ultimately, never forget that it’s about you. Your art in and of itself is legitimate because it’s yours, and anybody who loves it is just spreading icing on the cake.
You’re stranded at sea, adrift for days, regaling the passengers with nightly impromptu late night jams … as rescue finally arrives in the form of a friendly UFO a voice is heard — “Shipwrecked People of Earth, Miss McKenzie — Who is Strange? Who is Heavy? and what cover song are you going to play us to get off this sinking boat?
Oh boy, a cover song! What a fun challenge, I never play cover songs. Although I am quite a karaoke aficionado! One cover that Strange Heavy has toyed with is “This Mess We’re In” by PJ Harvey and Thom Yorke. Those two are some of my favorite musicians, they are brilliant and have a lot of staying power. Plus, that song seems to fit the scene, shipwrecked at sea getting saved by aliens, what a great mess to be in!