Widowspeak's Molly Hamilton discusses how a Brooklyn band goes country
All of the blissful harmonies that can be heard on Almanac, the second album from the Brooklyn band Widowspeak, can’t disguise the fact that this is music thoroughly informed by mortality.
“If we live until we’re long in the teeth.” sings Molly Hamilton on Almanac's “Ballad of the Golden Hour.” It’s an injection of uncertainty into a blissful number that concludes with a soaring breakdown that wouldn’t be out of place on Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother. That tension between beauty and uncertainty, along with a sense of wonder in the face of mortality, persist throughout the album.
In a phone conversation last week, Hamilton spoke at length about the process of creating Almanac (out this week on Brooklyn-based label Captured Tracks). The album, recorded in the Hudson River Valley with Kevin McMahon (Swans’ The Seer; Titus Andronicus’s Local Business), represents a significant shift from 2011’s self-titled debut.
When asked about the album’s origins, Hamilton talked about the “life cycles of plants, and weather, and [the] sun and moon.”
“That’s why we called it Almanac,” she continued, “because it encompassed all of those ideas. Obviously, there are love stories in there.” But there’s a transitory quality present as well. “I was also kind of influenced by the idea of the end of the world, and maybe what happens after an end of the world,” Hamilton explained. “All of these ideas are wrapped up in that.”
That sense of large-scale change had its roots in recent changes in the band’s lineup. Shortly before heading into the studio to record Almanac, Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas found themselves without a rhythm section.
“Our drummer, who had founded the band, left, and Rob and I were trying to figure out if we were going to continue, get a drummer right away, get another bassist,” Hamilton explained. “We decided that we were going to write and record the record ourselves without the limitations of a live lineup. It became much more of a creative project.”
Now that the album is finished, the band has a new rhythm section as well as “a keyboard, Wurlitzer-slash-slide guitar, accent guitar player,” in Hamilton’s words, to spruce up the live experience. “With the record,” she said, “[there’s] a lot of the layers of guitars; we’re really proud of that and want to be able to do that in the live setting.”
Almanac is a far more expansive work than 2011’s Widowspeak. Their debut has plenty of fuzzed-out charm; listeners of a certain age might make comparisons to a more uptempo Mazzy Star. Almanac, however, is harder to pin down; while there are guitar heroics and texture aplenty there, the use of vocal harmonies and contrasting moods has increased. While it’s still clearly the work of the same band, their penchant for noisy pop has been channeled into unexpected directions. The end result is a sound that can encompass both the prog-rock-ish elements heard in “Ballad of the Golden Hour,” the subdued lullaby of “Minnewaska,” and the soaring melody of opener “Perennials.”
As Hamilton explained, most of the songs had been demoed before visiting the studio. The process altered several, however, notably the subdued, surreal “Minnewaska.”
“We wrote “Minnewaska” the week before we got into the studio,” she said. “At that point, it was just kind of a chord progression and me singing some lyrics. Then, we had the idea to make it more of a cowboy choir, campfire sort of song.” Her use of the phrase “cowboy choir” is no coincidence.
“I think that the idea of the American West is a huge theme in a lot of our music. I’m from Washington, which isn’t really the Southwest per se. We’re influenced by a lot of different ideas: film soundtracks.... Ennio Morricone, and Terence Malick films.”
“Stylistically,” she continued, “I think we’re definitely influenced by the idea of the west; uncharted territory, and the styles that go along with that.”
For all of Hamilton’s references to the West (literally and archetypally), the geography of upstate New York also played a substantial role in the making of Almanac.
“Storm King is actually this mountain in the Hudson River Valley, and it’s one of the places that we went to take pictures for the record cover. When we actually went to take the record cover is this waterfall above Minnewaska Lake. We did definitely get outside, and it impacted our experience of recording in such an isolated place; not getting to leave and go to a bar.”
That cover—which places Hamilton and Thomas in a decidedly pastoral setting—takes its cue from yet another place in time.
“For me, visually, the ‘70s are the biggest thing,” Hamilton explained. “A lot of the record cover was influenced by that. What people might think is just kitsch—people in a meadow or people in the woods—there were so many record covers in the ‘70s that were like that. I liked the idea of that being a canon, that you shouldn’t be so formal. Putting yourself on a record cover is kind of like owning up to the fact that you made it. I actually made this thing, and we were in front of this waterfall that was 15 minutes away from where we recorded it. It seemed like such a ridiculous idea, but it was also true, sort of.”
Storm King also inspired the title of the album’s closing number, a slowly-building number that places a dolorous Hamilton vocal in front of a simmering guitar part and a carefully played piano.
“We knew that we wanted [the album] to have a certain ending,” Hamilton explained, and mentioned that “we had this cyclical guitar part that we wanted to base it around.”
And, for Hamilton, the end of the world need not be so gloomy.
“Sometimes Rob teases me about constantly being dark in [my] lyrics, and liking darker ideas,” she said. “That was kind of the idea behind this record, that the end of the world ... you could talk about doomsday imagery, but for me, a lot of it was afterwards, there’s a calm about it.”
It’s a paradoxical notion, as well as the kind of thinking from which memorable art is born.