Confused? Don’t be. The crucial point is that you need to know this voice. Just ask PJ Harvey, who describes kNIFE & fORK as “unpredictable, beautiful, powerful and moving, quite like anything else”. Frank Black’s a big fan too, which is why, earlier this year, he put out the duo’s stirring second album, The Higher You Get The Rarer The Vegetations, on his own label The Bureau. Wears The Trousers was instantly won over and sought out Laurie for a chat about the record, at last available in the UK on Hornblow Recordings.
As far as I can tell you don’t do many interviews, Laurie, as it’s hard to find much in the way of conversation with you online. Would you describe yourself as quite a private person or just a really busy one?
I am definitely a busy person more than a private one. Quite frankly, no one has ever asked me.
Right. So, from what I’ve read I gather that you come from quite a musical family. Can you talk a bit about the musical priming of your childhood?
I was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana – a state that, in general, does not encourage its citizens to discover themselves artistically. I was certainly attracted to music as a child, but was introduced to music in the most generic of ways. I first started with piano lessons at the age of eight years old and then moved on to playing French horn in the school band and orchestra for seven years. I wasn’t especially talented at either one of these instruments, but the experience of playing both piano and French horn set me up for what was coming next. At the age of eighteen, I escaped from Indiana and landed in the great city of San Francisco. It was there that I eventually discovered my soul, and it came through music and songwriting.
And that prompted you to form your first band, Glorious Clittorious, with your sister – was that just a bit of fun or something you took seriously?
I distinctly remember my first underground alternative rock show in San Francisco that I attended in the late 1980s. I had gone to see a friend play in a local band at the time, The Three Mouse Guitars. I remember the music exciting me in a way that I had never felt before. I looked around the club and realised there were no women on stage performing. It seemed that the closest a woman got to the stage was standing on the sidelines, watching their boyfriends rock out. There was even a term for these young women; they were called Stage Bettys. I thought to myself, “What a rip off! Why do guys get to have all the fun and the glory?”
As of that night, a fire was lit under my ass to learn how to play like that. My younger sister, Jennifer, also became determined and the two of us started hacking away at the concept of being in a rock band. I chose bass guitar and she chose drums. We decided that the only way we were going to pull this off was to move to Seattle where we could afford a house with a basement where we could practise every day. We stuck this out for a whole year and managed to generate a few songs and some ability. It was during this time that the name Glorious Clittorious was hatched but it wasn’t until after we moved back to San Francisco that the actual band formed.
Glorious Clittorious was raw, wild, and fun. Not one amongst the five members in the band could sing and play at the same time, so we all took turns putting down our instrument and getting up on the mic emoting with fervor. Five strong-minded women and all the personalities that come with that eventually brought the band down, leaving Jennifer and I longing for more. Inspirations at that time? Miles Davis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sarah Vaughn, Etta James, Nina Simone, Three Mouse Guitars.
And that turned out to be Ovarian Trolley…? I assume the name was adopted from Henry Miller?
After suffering the loss of Glorious Clittorious, Jennifer and I decided that we needed to consolidate the amount of personalities that we would have to negotiate in a band. Our answer was to form a “power trio”. This meant that we would have to make the big leap and learn how to sing and play simultaneously. Jennifer at the time was dating Buck Bito, who was a young and amazingly dynamic guitar player. The three of us entered the rehearsal room for the first time and it was obvious that we had found our new band. It was Buck Bito who suggested the name Ovarian Trolley, and indeed it was adopted from Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Capricorn. Ovarian Trolley reigned for eight years, put out three full-length recordings, and toured extensively.
Did the band have a manifesto or agenda like so many of the other feminist bands of the era? Did you consider yourselves to be a part of, or apart from, the riot grrrl movement that was burgeoning up in the Pacific Northwest?
Not being an all-girl band sort of kept us a bit apart from the riot grrrl scene that was happening in the Northwest. We certainly played many shows with some of the Northwest bands that came out of the era, such as 7 Year Bitch and Team Dresch, to name but two. Although Jennifer and I were driven on a personal level to be women in rock, Ovarian Trolley did not have a public manifesto of feminism.
It’s been fifteen years since Ovarian Trolley released their last album. Have you officially disbanded, or is there a glimmer of a future for the band?
We have officially disbanded. But that being said, the three of us get together every once in a while and resurface like a great blue whale to play a reunion show in San Francisco. Ovarian Trolley is and always will be my first true love.
So you first met Eric at a PJ Harvey concert when he was playing in her band. Were you firm friends from the beginning?
Yes, we met at a PJ Harvey concert in San Francisco, at the Warfield. We had a mutual friend that introduced us backstage at the show and that meeting led to a fast friendship. I would say that it was around three years after we first met that we started to write songs together.
The first kNIFE & fORK songs were written while you were in bed recuperating from a nasty car crash. How much of an impact did that accident have on your writing or your general outlook on life?
The accident completely changed my life in myriad of ways. I had great difficulty standing or sitting for any length of time, which rendered me pretty much bedridden for many years. As a result Ovarian Trolley came to abrupt end, as well as my day job as a massage therapist. I was thirty-six years old at the time and suddenly all my dreams and aspirations also suffered a crash. I couldn’t see how I was ever going to participate again musically, which led to a deep sense of despair. Eric at this time was on a long tour with PJ Harvey and from the road he sent me two songs on a cassette tape, which ended up being ‘Miserychord’ and ‘7 Hands’ on the first album. Both of these songs are directly about the accident and the impact it had on my life. Writing those songs gave me immense hope that I could, at the very least, keep on being involved musically on some level. For this I will always be forever indebted to Eric. He really believed in me as a singer and songwriter, and his timing couldn’t have been better.
How do you feel about the first kNIFE & fORK record, looking back on it now?
I love it!! It was our beginning. I loved the whole process of working with Eric. We have an easy rapport with each other in the recording studio. I personally grew immensely as a musician / songwriter during our first record as a result of working with Eric. He is my musical mentor as well as a muse.
Eric has said that you and he started writing and recording songs for The Higher You Get… right after you had finished touring the first record. Was it tough going back to the record six or so years later to finally finish it? What was the catalyst for deciding to go back to it?
We worked on the album slowly but surely the whole six years. I don’t think we ever actually felt like we put it down. We both lead somewhat hectic lives and that more than anything contributed to the length of time between albums. We certainly are hoping that it won’t take another six years to complete the next album.
Which of those early songs, if any, made it on to the finished album?
They all made it to the finished album. We generally don’t give up easily on original concepts. Sometimes we will scrap whole melodies and lyrics but the original song concept remains.
I don’t have a finished copy yet so sorry for having to ask but how do the writing credits for this latest album stack up? Did you write the bulk of the lyrics again, and then work with Eric to build the instrumentations and harmonies?
Yes, I wrote all the lyrics and created all the lyrical melodies as well as the harmonies. We both share credits in terms of original song concepts. Eric is responsible for 95% the instrumental work on the album.
Which song was the hardest to get right?
I guess I would have to say ‘Pocket Rocket’. This is one of those songs I was referring to earlier where originally there was an entirely different melody line, as well as lyrics. ‘Pocket Rocket’ was initially called ‘Nicholi’. It had a completely different melody and message. We even performed it live as ‘Nicholi’ for quite some time. When it came time to record the song, I realised the song wasn’t convincing me any longer. I eventually decided to go back to the song and look at it one more time. I ended up rewriting it completely. I do say I like it much better now.
Every time I hear it, ‘The Revelator’ sounds more extraordinary. Dare I ask what it is about? Who is playing the keys on that track?
‘The Revelator’ is a two-part song. In the first part of the song the lyrics speak to a lamenting of an internal loneliness, the kind of loneliness that one can feel even when surrounded by people who care. I suspect that most people have deep places inside themselves that they feel they have never shared with anyone, or at the same time no one has ever been able to discover. Part two abruptly diverges musically, and with that the lyrics switch to more of an exposé on all the roles within the myriad of relationships that one has, or can have, in life. I am a lot of things to a lot of different people, and sometimes the intensity of it all feels overwhelming and burdensome.
The keys, and indeed all the instrumentation, on ‘The Revelator’ is being played by Eric. One of the reasons I love the song is that it really showcases what a brilliant musician and producer Eric is.
I can see why you picked ‘Tightrope’ for the first single. Was it an easy choice? Which of the songs means most to you personally?
Yes, ‘Tightrope’ was an easy choice. It has a lot of movement in it and, I think, pulls the listener in for what is coming next, which is ‘Chariot’. I would have to say that ‘Chariot’ is probably the most personal song in a way. There are others like ‘Tail Spin’ and ‘Bury’ that are heartbreak songs, which of course are very personal, but ‘Chariot’ is a deep prayer to some kind of god. Indeed, I am one step shy of being willing to sign a pact with the devil, begging for a sense of freedom that I remember feeling once in my body, that I know I have forever lost.
‘Pocket Rocket’ and ‘Nicotine’ both have bags of swagger. Are they as much fun to sing as it sounds?
‘Pocket Rocket’ is the last of the songs on the new album that we have yet to play live so we will have to wait and see how that one swaggers on stage as a duo. Nicotine, however, comes across heavy and intense, as it should on stage. ‘Nicotine’ is about addiction, which I have had the misfortune of witnessing a little too closely in my life.
In general, I have been surprised and very pleased with the sound of our duo. The songs, when stripped down to their very essence, are beautifully raw and haunting.
I know you get this comparison a lot but the high backing vocals on the second half of ‘Pocket Rocket’ sound so much like Polly Harvey I have to ask whether it’s actually her.
No, it’s yours truly. But I am deeply flattered by the comparison.
I love the press shot you’re using for this album – looks like it was a lot of fun to shoot. Do you enjoy that side of being an artist?
Photo shoots can be fun…but what to wear???? That is always the question. It can be very stressful.
Finally – you’ve released the album through Frank Black’s label, The Bureau. How did that work out, and is there any chance of persuading him that we need it on vinyl?
It seems that the stars lined up in our favour in terms of being released on Frank Black’s label. Just when we were finishing up the album and the artwork and all that goes into releasing an album, that is when The Bureau decided to open up its roster to other groups other than Frank Black. Timing is a musician’s best friend.
Vinyl?!!! Yes please! Wouldn’t that be great! I will be looking to the night skies for that!