SARAH VOS’ w/ DEAD HORSES

>>>>> Most musician’s early influences are in some way tied to family in some way, is that true for you too?  Absolutely. Both of my parents are very musical; they both sing and play piano and organ. I grew up in the church so there was a strong emphasis on hymns and psalms and singing in general. I was also in a handbell choir in middle school! The choirs taught me about music theory and performing with others in time and in dynamic. ​

>>>>> As kids, many creative types often flounder a bit until they find their muse as it were; was this true for you at all?  I’m still floundering in many ways. There was, however, a definite switch for me during adolescence where music naturally became central to me over any of the other activities I was involved in. It wasn’t until my twenties when I decided to pursue music fully, and that helped me feel a lot of fulfillment. I had spent my college years trying to figure out how I could play music instead of what I was doing. 

>>>>> What singers did you try to emulate when you first started singing / writing / playing and what was the first tune you learned to play and sing on guitar comfortably enough to play for others?  I never consciously tried to emulate anyone while singing or writing or playing. When I first got a guitar- around ten years old or so- it was a vehicle for me to write songs. I taught myself how to play by looking up guitar tabs to songs I knew online. I’m really not sure what the first tune was that I played and sang in front of others, but I think one of the first times I played in front of others was at an open mic that I asked my mom to take me to because I wasn’t old enough to drive yet. I remember being pretty terrified but excited because I always knew while writing that I wanted to share too.

>>>>> What was your first album purchase and concert viewing respectively and how do you think they may inform your music or general approach today?  My first album purchase was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” by the Beatles. So epic! I bought it on cassette, and I would listen to “A Day in the Life” over and over again. It’s interesting how that’s two different songs melded together. I’ve done the same thing in my writing many times.

>>>>> Some who hear Dead Horses may find the songwriting, beyond folk, as decidedly southern: where does being from the Midwest & Milwaukee figure in to that mix you think?  I think it might be related to how I grew up listening to old gospel hymns. 

>>>>> How does the songwriting process work for you and Dead Horses; has it evolved or do you have a tried and true formula at this point?  No real formula per se. I usually have the skeletons (or more) to songs and I bring them to Dan and we work on them together. It’s always evolving and I welcome that.​

>>>>> How do you get in the right mindset pre-show or is that not a concern for you day to day?  Funny you should ask, as I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. It’s so important to be flexible because you never know what you’re going to have to work with from show to show or festival. Maybe you’ll have a quiet place to warm up in, maybe you won’t. A couple of weeks ago we drove five hours to a festival, got out of the van and immediately took a golf cart to do a session on a porch, and then we rode back to our stage where we played a full set

I am curious about how it might help to spend time getting in touch with body before a set- meditating, stretching, breathing. ​Some of the best advice given to me were “Use your nerves.” I really appreciate the nerves I get before most shows, because they serve as a source of energy and a tangible recognition by my body of what’s about to take place. 

>>>>> The ‘Critically Acclaimed Album’ seems to remain the spark point in the Americana scene for artists looking to make it to bigger stages: How do you manage / ignore the pressure to ‘one-up’ your prior release?  I feel that I’m at the beginning of my career and that there are many records to come. I think there will be ups and downs in how people perceive our work and also how I will feel about it. I think it’s great that anyone is paying attention to the writing because it’s one of the most fun parts for me.

>>>>> Could you ever see yourself doing a big Nashwood-type presentation were you to headline the Sheds soon? Is that a fear as you’re name grows; preserving what you have without compromise to keep climbing?  I do definitely have a strong attachment to this desire to stay “authentic.” I have been asking myself what that really means, as it has caused me some inner conflict. I think you have to do your best; decisions are often not black and white. Things that we hang onto with our whole being are often ego-based, but a level of integrity is so important- especially in this field. 

>>>>> You encounter a lot of great young, new artists on the road: when you meet those you really believe in, do you engage them? and what sort of advice do they tend to seek form you?  Definitely! If I can. Today someone was asking me about how to get rolling with music. He’s a great player but doesn’t play out ever. I told him it’s a community and you’ve got to get involved! Find some people you want to play with who are playing music you’re interested in.

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WILL PHALEN

1.0 – Your solo release, HolyGhost/GoldCoast feels incredibly organic, did making it without other’s input per se help accentuate the flow? There’s something about working alone, late at night, when the rest of the world is quiet that really works for me. When I can get into a zone working on a track and just take it from start to finish over the course of several hours and really develop an idea and experiment with any sound or color I want — I love that. When you work with others, there’s a process you have to go through. Often, it’s very healthy and productive. But sometimes it feels like you’re auditioning your ideas for other people. “What if we did this?” And then you have to sell your partners on the idea, or maybe it gets rejected outright. Again, these are not necessarily bad things. Lots of good work comes from collaboration. But it’s also very freeing to not have to audition. You just do whatever is on your mind and you are the only one you’re working for. I like that. In the end, you’re the only one responsible for what you’ve done, so there’s that risk involved, but I’m okay with that. If other people like what I’ve created and can relate to it, that’s the best thing ever. But at least I know, before anyone else gets to hear it, that I have created something that I can live with.

2.0 – Is this something you had wanted to do for some time?  It really wasn’t something that was premeditated. I write a lot of songs. Sometimes more than I know what to do with. The solo album idea really came up as a way to collect some new and different material that I wanted to share. The Stereo Addicts were busy working on a separate bunch of new songs, and I had these other songs that I knew wouldn’t fit in to the bigger rock sound that we were working on at the time. So I just held on to them till I felt the timing was right.

url3.0 – How did you record it?  Each song on the album was written, recorded and mixed in one day. Meaning: one day, one song. Actually, there may have been one or two exceptions to that, but, by and large, that’s how it came together. And they were all pretty much made in the same place. I was staying in this tiny one-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. Late at night, I’d stay up writing and recording songs while the neighbors were sleeping next door. I think that’s probably the reason the album has such a quite, mellow feel to it. I couldn’t make too much noise, and that lead to some interesting experiments. Instead of using real shakers for a percussion track, I’d rub together two pieces of paper and use the magic wand of studio wizardry to make them sound like they were shakers. Or I’d record the sound of my sandal lightly tapping on the floor and use it to create a kick drum effect. And obviously I couldn’t be blasting my amp, so I’d either play really quiet electric guitars or else just stick to acoustic. That’s why I love recording at home: the limitations of your space define what you’re able to create. I think those kinds of limits are absolutely essential to making any good or interesting piece of art.

4.0 – Did you have a sound in mind or did it evolve as it came together?  I didn’t. Like I said, I think the environment was fairly key to developing the sound of these songs and recordings. But I never had any specific idea about what kind of sound I was going for. All of these songs were composed as part of a project I’ve been involved with called the Song League. It’s like a virtual song circle that I started a couple years ago with a handful of songwriter friends. Each week everyone in the League has to write a song, record it and share it online before Monday morning of the following week. Basically, it’s a deadline: produce something now or else appear impotent before all of your friends and respected peers. And when you’re faced with a deadline like that, and you don’t exactly have something ready to go, it sometimes forces you to create things that you might not normally create, or more importantly, things that you might not normally share with others. At least that has been my experience, and it’s been the most healthy thing that’s happened for me creatively in years. So when I have to write a song for the Song League, I just let it come and whatever it is that takes shape, that’s what it is. I worry about where it fits in later. So for this record, I had produced a bunch of songs that I liked, I picked the ones that fit together best and that was the record.

5.0 – Are all the songs new or were there some left overs from The Stereo Addicts that just fit this project better?  All the songs were new. I was going through this very productive phase in which I was writing songs all the time (mostly because I had to for the Song League). And it was always fairly obvious to me which ones were right for the Stereo Addicts and which weren’t. So those other songs, the ones that weren’t exactly Stereo Addicts material, were kind of floating around in some sort of limbo. I had them recorded and I wanted to share them with people, but wasn’t sure how to best do that. Ultimately, I just decided to pick the ten songs that fit best together as one album and put it out as a solo release. There’s still a bunch of songs from that period (and the time since) that haven’t seen the light of day. But maybe someday soon…

6.0 – Are you going to perform the songs alone on tour or do you plan to have accompaniment?  I’ve been performing the songs with a trio and hope to continue doing it that way. I think there will probably be some solo shows here and there, but that’s not exactly my favorite way to play these songs. It’s a “solo record”, but many of the tunes are fairly layered with various instruments and sounds. For me, those extra colors and textures are as important to the song as the lyrics or guitar part. So playing them by myself doesn’t really convey the full picture I’d like to paint for the listener. I really enjoy having the ability to create a similar, or at least equally interesting, sound on stage as was created in the studio. It’s a very different challenge, but it’s a fun one. And as we’ve tried to play these songs live we’ve found some really cool new ways to approach the arrangements. In a lot of cases, I like now like the live versions even better than the recordings!

7.0 – What led you to pick up the guitar originally?  I grew up surrounded by music. My father is a musician, and he had (and still has) a huge collection of LPs, cassettes, and CDs. And he also had a nice collection of instruments too — mostly guitars — many of which I’m fortunate enough to use when I perform these days. So it was basically inevitable that I’d pick one up someday.Oddly enough though, I first gravitated towards drums and started learning how to play the kit when I was around the age of 12. A year later I started learning guitar at music class in school. We had a really incredible music teacher named Larry Theiss. He’s still around teaching and composing and recording. Just an incredible guy. He taught us how to play drums and guitar and bass and everything. My entire seventh grade class — almost every one of us learned how to play drums! It was amazing. So that’s where it started, and then my father helped me a lot along the way. There were guitars at home, so I was playing all the time. I fell in love as soon as I learned my first song: the bass line to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Kurt Cobain was still alive and everybody wanted to learn how to play those songs. Just learning that bass line was the coolest thing ever. The day I learned it, I came home from school and played it for hours until my parents asked me to stop. They’ve been extremely supportive and tolerant of my music and all the noise that accompanies it over the years, and I don’t blame them for needing a break from it every now and then!

8.0 – Who or what did you want be when you were a kid?  I distinctly remember being asked that question when I was in second grade. It was for some kind of presentation I was supposed to give about myself. I had no idea what to say. I said, “A fireman.” I don’t know where that came from. It wasn’t true. I just said it because I had no other answer. And when I went to college I still didn’t know. Even by the time I graduated I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I was going to do. But I do remember the first time I really saw a rock concert video when I was about 10 years old. It was called “Eric Clapton and Friends.” It was the Eighties. Phil Collins was the drummer. I thought he was amazing. They all were. From that point on, I always wanted to play music, but I never really believed it would be my job. Now that it is, it’s pretty surreal. But I’m very, very grateful to be able to play and write and produce and just share music with other people. I can’t think of anything nicer to be able to with my life.The funny thing is I’m about to turn thirty and I still ask myself that question: “What am I going to do when I grow up?” And I think I finally know the answer. I really want to grow as a producer and keep making records with other people. This past year, I’ve been very fortunate to work in that role with a handful of really fantastic artists. Musikanto, who I think you interviewed here a few months back; Julie Meckler, a rising star in the Chicago music scene; my friend Chris Anderson on his project, Old Fashioned War — which is basically a who’s who of Chicago’s best musicians — and the songs are beautiful. It’s been a dream come true to have these opportunities, and that’s what I’d really like to keep doing.

9.0 – Why did you leave Milwaukee for Chicago and how are you enjoying the windy city?  The Milwaukee area will always be my home, but I came down to Chicago to be with my girlfriend at the time. Now she’s my wife, so I think it was a good move! Anyways, I gradually started spending more and more time in Chicago (which coincided with the making of this album) and eventually I was just down here more than I was in Milwaukee. But I still make it up to Wisconsin all the time, so it kind of feels like a dual-citizenship, if you will. I like it that way. I’d miss my family and friends in Milwaukee too much if I wasn’t making the trips back and forth.And you asked if I’m enjoying it here. Yes, definitely. It’s a great city, and the people I’ve met down here, both in the music community and otherwise, have been extremely welcoming and kind and generous. I’ve made some really strong friendships and found a very solid group of musicians to work with and hang out with. It’s a very supportive and loving scene. People are playing together in a variety of different projects and sharing their talents. That’s something I’ve always wanted to be a part of.

10.0 – When did you become a ‘Stereo Addict’ and what would rehab be like?   Ha! Good question. That’s one I have not been asked before! I just like the ambiguity of that name. If you’re a Stereo Addict, you could be really into audiophile stereo gear, like speakers, receivers, equalizers and all that. Or maybe you just really love the aural illusion created by two channels of audio: as in stereo recordings versus mono. You know, the way sounds move from one ear to another when you’ve got headphones on, and it’s two in the morning and you’re listening to a Jimi Hendrix record. It’s magical. To me, it’s just all about the love of sound and what it does to you. We’ve got two ears, so we live in a stereo world, and I’m so glad the gods saw fit to give us the gift of music. If I couldn’t have it, I wouldn’t want to live.

(photo portrait of Will Phalen by Kait Rathkamp)