It doesn’t seem like you’ve had a moment’s rest since the last album, Shara. I’m looking at your list of collaborations over the past few years and it’s falling off the page. It’s kind of confusing actually! Could you put together a mini timeline for this album for me?
Well, a lot of it goes back right to the beginning, ten years ago, when I started studying composition with Padma Newsome of Clogs and became friends with the whole band. I sang with them at the Brooklyn Philharmonic in, I think, February of 2009, and that’s how I met Sarah Kirkland-Snider and ended up recording Penelope later that year. I was touring with The Decemberists at the time, too. I did a film and music thing in 2009 called ‘The Long Count’ with Bryce Dessner from Clogs and The National, his brother Aaron [also from The National] and an artist called Matthew Ritchie, and yMusic also performed in that. One of them, Rob Moose, has been playing violin for My Brightest Diamond since Bring Me The Workhorse. They asked me to write for them in the spring of 2009, I think. I get confused too! And then we ended up working on a whole album together.
Do you get a different kind of satisfaction from collaborating than you do from writing your own stuff?
For sure. I think it’s really important to serve somebody else’s vision. You can learn a lot from being in a supportive role, or from being given notes on a page and then having to interpret them. Projects like ‘The Long Count’ and Penelope are more of an investigation of theatre, of acting and dance, than music. I’ve actually just done another collaboration with Bryce and Matthew on Venice Beach where Matthew is shooting flare guns at sculptures that burst into flames and I was singing and incorporating movement in a really different way than I do in my own work.
Last time you were in London, in 2008, you incorporated a puppet show into your gig, and this time around you’re using a mask. Is puppetry something that’s always fascinated you?
That’s actually a mask of myself as an old woman. I got hooked on puppetry when I was in a puppet show of ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’ with Lake Simons. She really hooked me on it. And she’s the one who made the mask.
Do you find it helps you to form a connection with the audience?
The thing for me is that I used to put myself in a bubble when performing, but I found that I was not always able to be present with the audience. I guess I’m still finding that balance between being authentic and genuine and realising that I’m in a position of guiding people. Whether or not you want to call that being an entertainer, I don’t know.
Since the last time we spoke you’ve become a mum, and that has inevitably fed a lot into the new album. How different is your life now?
Being a mum…there is an endless number of ways in which it affects your life. For me, I think it’s being made suddenly extremely aware that someone else’s life is completely shaped by you, and that’s a very big weight of responsibility and is, I think, a really beautiful thing. You know, like if you have a bad show or you mess up on something and then you come home to a kid, it really forces you to get over yourself, so fast, because there’s this little person toddling about. My whole life has always been about making music but having a kid has forced me to prioritise things differently. Whereas in the past I would spend fourteen, fifteen hours a day working on music, I don’t have that time anymore and that’s not easy at all because you see how much you can give in other places and how much art demands of you. So the difficulty then is in making those choices about when to work and when not to work.
Were you a nocturnal writer beforehand?
No, I like getting up in the morning and going to work.
And you approached the making of this album in a very regimented way, didn’t you? Is that something that you’ve ever done in the past?
No, never. I set myself the challenge of writing a song a day, which was really terrifying. I guess that would be the sort of compromise of this record: these are the songs I came up with in a very short period of time and there weren’t very many leftovers. So it wasn’t the kind of thing where you start with thirty tunes and whittle them down to an album. Maybe that’s what parenting does to you [laughs]. It’s like, well, here it is. Gotta move on now.
One song that everyone seems to be connecting with on the album is the one you wrote for your son, ‘I Have Never Loved Someone’. And I think we know from experience that songs people write for their kids aren’t always their best from an artistic viewpoint, but this one is so incredibly beautiful. Did it take you long to write?
[laughs] Yeah. I guess if you put the word ‘graveyard’ in a lullaby it gets a little less Disney. Actually the song pretty much wrote itself. I was inspired by ‘Hymn a l’amour’ by Edith Piaf, and so it’s in the same sort of spirit. And also in the spirit of The Runaway Bunny, which is a story by Margaret Wise Brown. It’s about a child who says, ‘Mum, I’m gonna run away from you,’ and she says, ‘If you run away from me, I’ll become the wind and chase you.’ And the child says ‘If you become the wind I’ll become a fish,’ and she says ‘If you become a fish I’ll become a fisherman,’ and so on. I mean, I’m not quoting it exactly…I’m riffing here.
In a way it’s related to ‘Reaching Through To The Other Side’, which is sort of about pregnancy and death. I had the sense when I was pregnant that I could feel my child, that I had a sense of his character and his spirit but I couldn’t actually hold him. And the same could be said of death. I’ve had someone so very close to me die and I still very much feel that person’s presence at different times in my life, so it does sometimes feel like there is that veil between life and death and birth and being inside and outside. It’s kind of an ethereal concept.
Yeah, that’s not Disney at all. I read in an interview that you always feel like you have to mess things up that seem a little too pretty. Is that why you put in that squeaky toy sample, or whatever it is, in ‘I Have Never Loved Someone’ – to give it a bit of balance?
What’s funny about that is that it’s actually a 1930s pump organ and that squeaking noise is the bellows. We couldn’t figure out how to get it to go away; we tried towels, we tried everything. And then, some months after recording, I just sprayed some WD40 oil on it and the squeaking went away. Of course, by that point it was too late! [laughs] I don’t know why we didn’t try that before. But yeah, people seem to go either way on that one.
It was obviously meant to be! I really like it being there. What I love about the album is that there’s a lot of childlike humour in some of the songs, like ‘There’s A Rat’ and ‘High Low Middle’, but they also have a very serious message on social inequality and injustice.
Yeah, I find it really difficult to translate playfulness and humour in music sometimes. Like, in a live show I think ‘There’s A Rat’ is funny, but on the record some people don’t find it funny at all. And some people hear it as a children’s song, which wasn’t my intention at all. So that’s interesting to me, just from a writing perspective. ‘Ding Dang’ was about trying to bring humour in as well, but I’m not sure how many people picked up on that…
You’re singing about “bankers, lawyers, thieves” etc. so I wondered about your kind of mood at the moment, politically, with all the upheaval of 2011…
I recently watched a video of police attacking some college students and I just started weeping. I mean, the students weren’t doing anything. They were just standing there and the police just started ribbing them with their sticks. I mean, yes, some of the protesting is not peaceful and I think that’s not helping the cause, but if I were a college student right now wondering whether I would be able to get a job after it all, I’d be pretty scared to be honest.
I mean, my family are, culturally, traditionally Southern so they’re very hard-right Republicans, which can make things difficult. But at the end of the day, politics is just politics, and I don’t think it means that I can’t have an opinion, but what I’ve been trying to do in regard to my family is to listen to them and try to understand where they are coming from. But it’s certainly challenging!
Your voice sounds even more expressive than usual on the two songs we were just talking about. Was that something you were pushing for on this album, to explore different kinds of voices?
I do like for my voice to have different colours, but it’s challenging. I don’t know how much I thought about it. I didn’t want to be too careful with it, I knew that much, and maybe that’s what I prioritised. And also because I wanted to record as much of it as possible live with yMusic. A lot of people tend to cut and paste vocals, and it’s easy, but I tried not to do that.
Okay, now I’m going to ask you about some of the songs specifically. Starting with ‘She Does Not Brave The War’, which is another one I get a very maternal feel from – only in the opposite direction.
My grandmother died one day before her hundredth birthday, strangely enough, and this song is somewhat about her. She worked in an ammunitions plant during the Vietnam war, and ‘She Does Not Brave The War’ is also about people working behind the scenes, people who are marginalised. There are things that society values, which is fine, but there is so much more to life, so many things that we don’t give importance to. So I wanted this song to recognise their importance, to give some weight to ‘the people in the kitchen’.
And what about ‘Everything Is In Line’? It’s such a strange song, I can’t fathom what it’s about.
That was a strange one to write but I do have some ideas for how it came about. I was at a child’s birthday party with helium balloons all over and a little girl came up to me, looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘At my party last year we had balloons and mine flew away. One day I’m going to go up in a hot air balloon and I’m going to find it.’ And then she waited to see if I would believe her or not, so of course I was like, ‘That’s awesome! How far away do you think you’re gonna have to fly?’, and so the song started from that.
It was a funny moment because it was about belief and imagination, and also about doubt. I think when you’re looking at the world and you’re trying to make sense of the chaos, environmentally or socially, or whatever, it can be super overwhelming. Each of the stories in the verses of that song is about me trying to find these beautiful moments in conversation that help me to feel peaceful, hopeful and positive when it seems like the world is falling apart. DM Stith plays the foil to that, saying ‘Upside is downside, downside is up, everything is topsy-turvy,’ so he’s the guy asking how we can have hope.
I think that’s what makes the song so intriguing, that there is no resolution.
Yeah. I think that’s why it was the last song written for the album. I was searching for a way to make sense of things. I mean, the whole album is about seeing contrasts in the world. With the internet we have access to so much information, and the weight of knowledge is incredible. So in some way, it’s about trying to figure out how to respond, and I guess that’s never going to end!
Do you think you’ll do another remix project like you did for the first two albums?
I think we’ll just do a couple of the songs. I think I’d rather put my energy into just making a new record soon…hopefully. I feel like this record is in some ways a sidestep, you know? It’s going to an extreme. So now I need to go somewhere else.
I noticed on Facebook that you were really moved by the new Tori Amos album. It’s funny that she also just came out with an all-acoustic chamber album.
[laughs] I know! I couldn’t believe it! There’s that song on it, ‘The Chase’. I was really moved by the text especially. I’ve also been enjoying Björk’s new album; it’s amazing. And I love the new St. Vincent, of course. Tom Waits, PJ Harvey. It’s been a good year.
All Things Will Unwind is out now on Asthmatic Kitty.