Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Widowspeak: “It felt natural to record them all over the place, because we'd written them all over the place”

Widowspeak: “It felt natural to record them all over the place, because we'd written them all over the place”

15 November 2013, 14:00


Smells have long been a catalyst for creativity – according to French poets, at least.

18th Century wordsmith Friedrich Schiller kept decaying fruit around his workplace, as he felt the scent created a spark in his creative palate. Now, science is getting in on the act, thanks to recent studies such as those of Japan’s Tottori University, which found that Alzheimer’s patients response to rosemary and lemon in the morning, and orange in the evening has improved cognitive functions. Meanwhile, in Germany, the University of Dresden Medical School has found that those without a sense of smell are more socially insecure and at a higher risk of depression.

But while it’s all well and good if you’re a poet, and not comforting at all if you suffer from anosmia, little has been said about the effect smell has on musical creation. It’s an interesting notion that a city’s stench could influence the creativity of those inside, but it’s something that will affect a lot of musicians in American – thanks to its large number of cities ruled over by giant factories or chemical plants. One example that springs to mind is Cedar Rapids in Iowa, with its Quaker Oats mill representing its nasal presence. Though sadly, aside from David Hilker, renowned composer of timeless film classics Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Wasabi Tuna, the alluring scent of porridge in the afternoon, or indeed any smell, has done little for our musical evolution.

Or at least that was what everybody thought (everybody thought this) before Widowspeak, the shoegaze indie-rock band that first sprouted in Brooklyn, arrived on the scene in 2010. Despite their birth in the big city, the band’s guitarist and vocalist Molly Hamilton started out in Tacoma, Washington amidst a greyed landscape and a heady musk. Tacoma is another city that has a distinct stench. “There’s a bit of a stigma when you say you’re from Tacoma, due to it being a bit rougher than other towns, and because of the port’s acrid smell,” muses Hamilton before noting its reputation as the “aroma of Tacoma”. She continues, “it’s in Washington State so it rains a lot and the sky has that perpetual overcast greyness, and Tacoma doesn’t have that cultural significance that Olympia and Seattle do.”

But while those cities musical legacy, particularly the latter, need no further contextual overview, beyond a notable mention for Neko Case, Tacoma has never been the most generous in providing the world with the gift of music. It’s no surprise that Hamilton made a bee-line for New York, where she eventually met fellow guitarist Robert Earl Thomas, a native of Chicago. The pair, alongside past member and drummer Michael Stasiak, formed Widowspeak, not completely shunning the microcosm of inspiration that a small and grey port-city can be – combining the drearier elements this landscape with the riffier guitars of Chicago and a tinge of Brooklynian dream pop. It’s a combination that worked, and quickly too. Coming to the attention of local label Captured Tracks, Widowspeak went on to release two full-length albums, a self-titled debut, and 2012’s Almanac, before settling down in the second half of 2013 for album number three.

Though by the end of October, Widowspeak were already gearing up for a new release in the form of The Swamps, an EP that sees the band directly after the tour that covered both Europe and the Southern states of the US. The record itself, unlike their previous efforts, matches neither their setting growing up or their current home, but instead reflects an evolving and impressionable writing process, which has come thick and fast and heavily influenced by a hectic touring schedule. Talking to Hamilton, its difficult to imagine where the band has found time to even contribute further to its own discography. She explains the band’s relationship to its label and the freedom it allows them, but the price is self organisation – leaving little time for the day to day songwriting. The touring schedules are easily reflected through the birth of The Swamps. It shows a band highly organised and eager to produce new material, but at the same time easily swayed by surroundings.

Leading with the track “True Believer”, the wandering, mellow shoegaze tinged melodies represent a lazy trip through southern bayous, or a mist hanging statically across the lagoon. It’s a sound that shows a band clearly dragged out from its roots, and then again from their adopted home. It’s a fair stone’s throw from Almanac and its a rockier, more northern sound. Whilst adopting a similar breezy vocal delivery, the music feels far more a product of the city. The Swamps, conversely, is a standalone record for the road.



The EP comes at a time that a label might expect a band to be thinking more coherently on another full release, rather than producing a stop gap – but Widowspeak has always had a solid relationship with Captured Tracks. The label was founded in 2008, and is also based in Brooklyn, but it’s already overseen numerous alternative and indie-rock releases from the likes of Dum Dum Girls, Veronica Falls, and Wild Nothing. But while some of their match-ups didn’t last long, Widowspeak have called the label home since their fourth show.

The show in question was a local performance, at Don Pedro’s, and Hamilton found herself still full of nerves at the prospect of playing her songs. “I wasn’t used to singing in front of people. I would freak out. But in actuality, only friends came to see us,” she explains. “At that point, we had just recorded a few songs with a laptop built-in microphone and didn’t expect things to happen,” Hamilton continues. But despite the lo-fi start, the tracks clearly hit a chord with the label, who reached out directly before the early show.

The label went on to work with the band on a couple of 7” records; “Harsh Realm” and “Gun Shy” before the release of their debut album, which garnered largely positive reviews. At the time, Pitchfork stumbled over itself somewhat by indicating that the record would appeal to the entire 60s and 70s – going as far as to describe the band as “reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks” while also describing “a meshing of hippy idealism and influences extracted from bad-vibes garage rock” (though also managing to slip in a “not dissimilar to Love at their peak” – just for good measure).

That chameleon-like description is far more pertinent following the release of The Swamps EP. Hamilton is clearly a reactor to her surroundings. Where the first LP is a little muddy here and there, in the afterglow of a Tacoma upbringing, it’s rendered more vividly on Almanac, before the heavier touring period that led to this record kicked in. As Hamilton attest, “we didn’t tour at all until after our first record came out”.

Hamilton describes the birth of the new EP as bound up with tour-bus fever that accompanied such a three month touring stint. The band was itching to work on something new. “We started dreaming up what our next LP would be like,” she says. “We came up with a bunch of ideas and they all seemed to be in these two distinct sort of veins, and the songs that became The Swamps for some reason happened all at once, and easier, I think – because we knew it would be a smaller project.”

The band continues to work on the next LP – but chose to release the EP, because the project came together so quickly. It captures so much of my mindset lately, reflecting on a lot that happened in the past and trying to decide where I’m going from here,” says Hamilton. “Plus it felt like a good connector, sonically, between Almanac and that future album, at least based on our ideas for it.”

Backing up Hamilton is fellow Widowspeak band member and guitarist Robert Earl Thomas. Thomas and Hamilton demoed the tracks that would become The Swamps on a tour through the South, where they recorded first in hotels whilst travelling, and then later back home in upstate New York. The band successfully captured the sound and used them as a base for a proper recording, which they did in the same barn in which Almanac was recorded, a setting that matches perfectly Widowspeak’s surprisingly large sound. “It was definitely a different type of process, but it’s what the songs needed,” concludes Hamilton on the EP. “It felt natural to record them all over the place, because we’d written them all over the place.”

It’s a mentality that makes sense on paper, but is The Swamps a set of tracks that need their own context? Hamilton describes recent shows in Marfa, Texas; “an incredible tiny town that has an international reputation for visual art, especially large scale installation. We played a campground with airstream trailers, teepees and tents, called El Cosmico,” and a love for New Orleans; “because the food is amazing and the architecture is so beautiful and unlike anything else in the world”, but while we’re unlikely to see Widowspeak take on the persona of a big jazz band, the danger of a drifting sound base could be that it all become a little bit Sufjan Stevens.

But that’s a little cynical – there’s no doubting that there is something special about the sound Widowspeak produce, and a lot of that is down to their adaptability. It’s this that makes its links to aromous cities, their love of small towns and spaces that much more intriguing, but beyond a third record – what could possibly be in store for them? The band might well be in the best place they’ll ever be, with a laissez-faire label happy to support but stand-off, and a group of followers that are seemingly just curious at what they’ll do next.

It’s easy to see why Widowspeak wouldn’t have worked if it was built out of a Tacoman background, or any other smaller town with its inspiring scents or landscapes, because plenty of times, it’s not the big city that makes a band successful or more accessible – it’s the curiosity and urge to move and develop in new places. And for now – they’re a band on the move, breathing in the wonder and innocence present in the fresh styles and landscapes around them.

The Swamps EP is out now on Captured Tracks.

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