Her musical and romantic other half, Andy LaPlant, was supposed to join us but got snarled up in heavy London traffic and only arrived, somewhat flustered, towards the end. Jess’s sweet concern for his frazzled nerves provided only a small glimpse into their very close relationship, but it was just enough to see that these two exist in a unique symbiosis, a musical partnership which owes as much to raw, gut instinct as it does to love. There’s nothing affected about She Keeps Bees; it either feels right or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t then it’s off the table.
Their third album, Dig On, released last month via Names Records, is largely about reclaiming a sense of one’s own authority and breaking away from harmful dependencies, cloaked in a blanket of references to the cosmos and nature at large. We talked to Jess about the making of the album, which took them away from recording in their apartment in Brooklyn for the first time, and the themes that run through it, as well as their mutual love affair with the UK and the friends who have helped them to realise their ambitions.
The way I’m interpreting the new album title is in a sort of commanding, empowering sense. Persevering in the face of adversity. Is that anywhere close to the mark?
Yeah, it’s definitely a kinda empowering thing, and we think of it sort of like a bit of slang or something. [adopts a thick Southern accent] “Yeah baby, dig on!” How it came together was really about a lot of chaos in my life, and how I wanted to metabolise that into medicine. ‘Dig On’ was a lyric that came to me and for a while I was like, “Oh, maybe it’ll be the song title,” and then when we had our mastering done the studio were like “That should be the name of your album,” and we were like, “Yes, that’s it!”
Handy! What were you going to call it until that point?
[laughs] My god, all these really atrocious things. I was writing down words from my astrology books and my mystical books, things like ‘Astral Orb’ and ‘Saturn’s Wings’, and Andy was always going, “No! No! No!” Then I asked my mom and she was like, “Why don’t you call it ‘Fireworks’?”… I just thought, am I naming a horse or an album?! So there were no more suggestions after that. Then, when the album came together, ‘Dig On’ felt just right. I was trying to oversaturate myself when in the end it became something that was just staring me in the face. I like how that happens.
You’ve said that you’d been compressing this album inside you for a long time before you began working on it. Can you explain that?
Yeah… I feel like some of the songs started forming last April and it took a while to see how the album was going to progress. I kind of felt a little overwhelmed by how I wanted it to sound, less aggressive. As the newer songs were coming I started to go through some older songs, too, and gradually as Andy and I were playing together to practise them and see how they were speaking to each other, I realised, “Yeah, okay, I can try out different personalities with them.” So I’ve got a bit of an R&B song on there and one that has no guitar at all, just synthesiser, Wurlitzer and piano, and so it started to be not as frightening to have these different elements.
Even then it did take while to sort of be okay with that, and at one point were debating about going into a proper studio and then deciding on which studio. Mehhhhhh. The record became all these questions that weren’t coming naturally with answers, so we decided to just do it ourselves and take our time, have a whole month to do it, and be in a really inspiring place. So we decided to find a vacation home, which ended up being sort of funny. We rented a log cabin with floor-to-ceiling windows in the Catskills from a couple who had built it themselves. It was definitely of the ‘shabby chic’ type, with the cracks filled in and whatever, but you could tell that it was made with love.
The sun would go down by 7pm, so by nine we’d be like, “Is it time for bed yet?” Then we’d get up with the birds and there were deer all around, so it was just the most peaceful experience. We invited friends to come up on the weekends but then we were like, “Are we running a bed and breakfast? We’re here to record!” So yeah, it was maybe a bit too much fun, but it was good to have that space.
Sounds amazing. Were there any bears lurking around?
No bears, but there were a few thunderstorms and tornadoes [laughs]. There was one night where the power went out and we had to figure out how to use one of those old fireplaces, and we were like “We have no internet… how do we do it!?” Lots of adventures.
You mentioned your friends coming to visit. From the sound of the album, you put them to good work while they were there!
Some good friends of mine who are in a band which you guys should know, called The Love Story, played on the album. They’re kind of on hiatus now but the two albums they made are among my favourites. They’re just incredible. Their drummer Jason Trammell plays with Yeasayer now, so he’s pretty busy with that. I hope they do make another album so I feel bad about saying, “Play with us, I demand it!” Also, our friend Erin played a little bit of cello on the record. And my friend Eric Maltz, who’s in a band called Peculiar Gentlemen in New York, played beautiful piano on ‘Make You My Moon’. I feel like some of the sounds we’ve folded in are kind of subtle, but that’s what Andy loves. He loves making things not as noticeable and so things are revealed after time.
Yeah. That’s definitely the most striking difference between Dig On and Nests: it’s not as intense so you get to pick up on lots more details.
Oh, I’m so glad that you think so. Now we’ve been playing the songs a little bit more, I was hoping that they have gotten a bit more dressy. It’s a different thing, playing live. I think there’s something about recording that makes me a little more reserved or shy or something, but it’s good to think of an album as a time capsule: that’s it, that’s how it was, now let go. Because I do feel like saying, “Oh, just one more thing…” and “Oh, let’s do this instead…” but you could do that forever and never let go, you know?
Yeah. It must be hard to let go and be an empty nester again. So, tell me more about the recording setup. What equipment did you use?
We did digital again, but we also had a couple of other elements that we didn’t have before. Last time we only had two inputs, so two mics, and that was it, but that’s how we recorded everything up until then. This time we had about eight inputs so we could have a pretty elaborate drum setup, and again we did it ‘live’ where I would play guitar and Andy would play drums and we’d get that down, then vocals would come after. We had a different computer too; Nests was recorded on a laptop, so we were constantly saying “Easy boy, easy boy… shut it down, shut it down!” This one was more powerful and allowed us to use different plugins and good stuff, so that gave Andy the freedom to play with different sounds. Then a lot of wonderful friends helped us out by letting us borrow equipment like extra guitars, a little synth and some percussion stuff too, which was a lot of fun.
When recording vocals separately is it hard for you to get into as intense a mood as when you’re doing it all in the moment?
It does tend to be a different thing when you don’t can’t feed off the energy of other people. I’ve heard that some engineers will have you do it right there in the room, with other people in there to give it more of a live feel, but I guess at the time I wanted everything to be as perfect as it could be. Everything had purpose, and I wanted to make sure everything sounded correct. Playing live is more about the “Rahhh!”, y’know? So yeah, it is difficult. But it was funny, too. I was in my own little room, which I’d never had before as we’d always recorded in our apartment and Andy had always been there with me, and all I had to look at was a little mirror. So I was just dancing with myself like, [strikes a hands-aloft rock pose] “Yeah!!”
What would you say are the main themes you put into the album?
I feel like it’s a lot about taking back your authority, because sometimes you don’t even realise that you’ve given it away. It’s also about making sure that your strength comes from within. So many times we can look to someone to give us that confidence, which, if they don’t come through, leaves an even bigger hole. As I try to learn these things for myself, in writing these songs I also recognised strands of the stories of my own family and people in my circle of friends. I feel like, in 2010, people were really having to struggle. It was a really hard year, and there was a lot of chaos within my family, so I wanted to get inside that and get inside certain, very dependent relationships and explore how lost you can be in just trying to prove your love. Sometimes you don’t even know what you’re doing is harmful; you’re just doing it out of love, so it must be okay. So it really becomes an illusion, and trying to find a way back from that is tough. And you never know what part of that journey you finally get to learn from those lessons, so it’s good to ‘dig on’… keep moving along the road.
Your interest in cosmology comes through in a lot of the songs, even just from a glance at the tracklist. Did being up in the mountains and close to the stars, away from all that light pollution, have a big impact on the record?
Yeah, in the wild, because there wasn’t much pollution we were able to see Saturn and Jupiter up there, watching over us the entire time. I was drawn to Jupiter especially because it’s the “keeper of stories” so I was like, “Yeah, there’s my friend Jupiter,” and it did feel like he was helping us along [laughs]. I’ve been trying to teach myself birth chart readings, studying photographs of where the stars were the time you were born, trying to understand it myself. I’ve had readings done but never understood what it all really means, so I’ve been studying that. I have a book that I keep with me all the time, which allowed me to dig deeper into certain truths that started to make a lot of sense to me. All kinds of things, like how the universe works and how we are surrounded by magnetic fields, and I started to think, you know, why wouldn’t the moon pull us?
Interesting. Are you into astrology too? What star signs are you and Andy?
He’s an Aries, but he was born on the day that it changes from Aries to Taurus, whereas I was born on the day it changes from Libra to Scorpio. I like to think that all the elements are present on the signs that cusp, and I’ve tried to explore what it means but I’m not very good at it. I mean, I’ve made a few lines but then I’m like, “Ah, I made a beautiful picture!… I’ve no idea what it means, but it’s nice” [laughs].
Coming back to Saturn, I feel like there’s a thread of psychedelic rock that runs through ‘Saturn Return’, and even on ‘Found You Out’.
Mm. Yeah. Something a little bit older sounding?
I’m trying not to say ‘classic rock’ [laughs]. You know, that didn’t even start happening until we put the slide guitar in there. [screws face up] “WREEEEEEEEEEEE!” You know, our dear friend Eoin [O'Ruainigh, of Oh Ruin] is now playing with us and he’s adding these elements that I feel are necessary for the new songs, only to do them justice. He’s got a really amazing, beautiful voice and makes his own guitars. He’s wonderful. It’s funny now, when we do some songs without him, because I’m already missing him.
When you look back at when you started the band five years ago, how does it feel when you look at how far you’ve come?
Yeah, I’m just grateful. Grateful that I’ve been able to grow as the musician I wanted to be. Music is so sacred and healing to me. And you know, sometimes you can be so focused on wanting to just do it so much that you don’t necessarily understand the craft behind it. Now that I’m allowed to be as concentrated as I want to be, hopefully with each album I’ll grow in a smart and empowering way.
How much has the Brooklyn scene explosion fed into how you’ve written your songs?
It’s been beautiful to meet so many people. I feel so inspired by how we’re all “one”, and how every place has that beauty. That gives me comfort. Also, in New York, we’ve been slow-growing our tree, and it’s been really nice just to be able to do well there. I do feel that for a while there was a situation where if you didn’t catch the right wave at the right time you’d get lost there. It’s hard not to get discouraged, you know, because it is so vast and has so many circles. I’m really proud of my friends Sharon Van Etten and Shilpa Ray who are doing so well there.
You know Shilpa Ray? We love her music. Tell her she needs to come to the UK!
Yeah, I went to school with her and we moved to New York around the same time. It was weird, because we ended up working together for a while at the same jewellery place. We had a great time, though I wasn’t very good at it. She’s outrageous live.
Do you think your success in the UK has been particularly instrumental in helping you get attention elsewhere?
Yes, absolutely. And we’re so grateful to Names, our label, for taking a chance on us [with their 2009 re-release of Nests]… because I do feel like it was a chance. Audiences here saw our heart and our soul, and we were allowed to play all these festivals. I was so overwhelmed by the love. I really do feel that the support we’ve had here has been the main reason why we’re now allowed to be “real” musicians. So, the UK does feel like a second home to me.
That’s lovely to hear. So, how long were you shopping Nests around for? Because at first you were doing everything yourselves…
Well, I come from the Washington DC area, which is very DIY and of the “We don’t need anyone!” mindset, so I wasn’t really shopping around for a label. I know that maybe we should have as there was some initial interest that didn’t come through, but I feel that’s okay as now it’s a totally different paradigm.
With the internet?
Yeah, it’s different in every way with the internet: having your own distribution and having a connection with your fans so easily. We’re actually still self-released in the States. We’re open to offers there, of course, but we’re not really looking as Names have been so good to us and have got us European distribution. We’re happy.
She Keeps Bees play a sold-out gig at The Lexington in London tomorrow (August 25) with support from Hysterical Injury and Toe Hammer. They’ll then go on to play Festibelly, Reading, Leeds and End Of The Road festivals before a pair of shows in France. Dig On is out now through Names Records. Buy it through Rough Trade and get an exclusive bonus mix CD compiled by Jess and Andy.