An Interview with Kris Delmhorst
Reprinted from Issue 20. Download it HERE.
In the days leading up to when her new album, “Shotgun Singer,” hits the stores, Kris Delmhorst is in the middle of a tour of France, the Netherlands, and the US Midwest. If that’s not enough, she is also more than 7 months pregnant and “pretty much in survival mode,” as she puts it. Yet, she was still more than willing to answer a few of Modern Acoustic’s essay questions:
Modern Acoustic: What does the term “Shotgun Singer” mean to you? You use the lyric in “Midnight Ringer,” but I couldn’t find a definition or reference to it.
Kris Delmhorst: Well, literally in the context of that song it’s referring to the shotgun seat of the car … someone sitting there singing. But it’s just kind of an open phrase that sounds nice to me and suggests different things in different contexts.
MA: Your last album, “Strange Conversation,” and even “Songs for a Hurricane,” had pretty strong themes to them. Does “Shotgun Singer” have an overall theme?
KD: Nothing I set out for consciously. I never really know what a record is about until after it’s done and I have a little perspective. But I do notice that there are a lot of songs that touch on some kind of universality of human experience. That, and there also seems to be quite a bit about love as an agent of change, either in an individual person’s life or in the larger world.
MA: The new album has a wintry, intimate feel but an exuberance as well. How does it feel to you?
KD: I guess a record will always feel different to the person (or people) who made it, because listening to it brings back the whole experience of working on it. But to me it does have a certain mood. Reflective, a little solitary maybe, but not sad. With “Strange Conversation” I was really hoping to make an album that would be nice company to have on in the house, maybe even with people around, making dinner or whatever. But I think this one is more of something you’d want to listen to alone in the car or on a walk.
MA: The music on “Shotgun Singer,” the actual sound, has lots of electronic backing beats, vocals effects and other cool sounds are integrated into it. Was this planned or more spontaneous?
KD: Well, as for the drum machine sounds, that was born of necessity because of the way I made the record. For some of the songs I knew it would be easier to add parts on later if the rhythm was steady, but I hate playing to a click track, so I would dial up a cool beat on this ancient analog drum machine I have and play to that. It actually doesn’t keep time, so I’d have to grab one bar from it and then loop it, but it has this crazy little sound that I’m really fond of. It helped set a mood right away for the recordings. I didn’t necessarily think it would show up on any of the final tracks but it turned out that when we tried to remove it from some songs we really missed its personality, so it stayed. The actual drummer (Makaya McCraven) did an amazing job of playing with and off of the machine, so on some songs they’re really a little team.
All the samples and things were something I really wanted to play with on this album, just because I love the way non-instrumental sounds change the space of a song. I always like to hear things on records that I can’t identify. And I happen to have this friend (Barry Rothman) who is a mad genius with old turntables and shortwave radios! As for the vocal sounds, I wanted to treat the voice like one of the instruments in a way. It’s a little strange to get really exploratory with all the instrumental sounds on a record and then leave the vocal just sounding the same naturalistic way the whole time. Plus, I just love the sound of vocals through an amp.
MA: You’ve said that, with this album, you wanted to “break some habits, both musically and lyrically.” What were you were trying to break away from, and did you succeed?
KD: Well, it’s hard to really describe exactly what habits I was trying to break, but I can say that the more time pressure there is, the harder it is to take risks, and the greater the temptation to just revert to what you know how to do. The stuff I wanted to explore had to do with song structure and the relationship between the vocals, the primary instrument (guitar or whatever), and the other layers in a song. It’s a lifelong process of course but I do feel like I succeeded in doing some things that I never would have been able to do if I had made the record in a normal timeframe, and that’s very satisfying to me.
MA: You played many of the instruments on the album yourself. How did this influence the album? What made you choose this over playing with a group of musicians?
KD: This relates to the previous question – I love playing live with a group of musicians in the studio, but I wanted to try something really different to see what would happen. In a way, my real dream would be to make a slow record with a band someday, to have tons of time to percolate ideas and try completely different approaches to songs. But my situation at the moment doesn’t really allow for it – for one thing, not having a consistent band that I play with all the time kind of makes it impossible. For instance, a band like Wilco can spend months and years in their studio really tinkering and developing things, but when you’re just hiring people to play on a record there’s not that kind of time – unless you have unlimited money, which I don’t, to say the least! So the only way to go as slowly as I wanted to, and to have the space to take enough risks, was to work by myself. That said, I also often love the vibe of records made in solitude, and there’s something to be said for giving yourself such heavy limitations in terms of instrumentation and technical skills, and just using your imagination to make something out of it.
MA: Tell me about the process involved in writing these songs: I saw you perform at the Somerville Theatre last year and you said you had just returned from being holed up writing new songs. Is that a typical writing process for you? I know some artists write on busses, in cafes, in their sleep, etc.
KD: I start songs anywhere and everywhere, but rarely get more than a few lines in. To finish stuff I definitely need to have some time and space to myself, either at home or somewhere else. It’s often a long process, some of them sit around half done for years before they finally come together.
MA: As for the recording, what brought you to record with Sam Kassirer (who produced the album)? Did you have completed songs or was it more of an organic collaborative/ spontaneous thing?
KD: I got to a point where I had worked by myself long enough and really felt like I needed a partner for the last stages of the record. I chose to work with Sam more or less completely on a hunch. We went up to his studio in Maine with the whole record already written and recorded, although we added a good bunch of stuff while we were there – often it was amplifying and accompanying parts that already existed on the tracks, but we created some new parts that were exciting too. And we spent a lot of time on arranging – since I had accumulated a lot of tracks and sounds on the songs, a big part of the process with Sam was subtracting and sculpting. We had a great time and it was a huge relief to have someone to collaborate with at that point in the process.
MA: I have a great fondness for Signature Sounds artists, and you obviously have a lot of friends (and your husband!) on that label. Were you friends before joining the label or did the label “bring” you together?
KD: The label is a nice loose family of good people. It’s more or less a coincidence that a
number of close friends (and relations) are on Signature as well, but it’s a happy coincidence.