Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Kris Delmhorst Discusses Her New Album "Cars"


From the opening acoustic guitar lines of the album's first track "You Might Think",  I was immediately struck with memories of that landmark video by the Cars back in the 1980's when videos still ruled MTV. But make no mistake, Cars by Kris Delmhorst is not a simple nostalgia trip, but a enjoyable, fun, and tight set of respectful renditions.



Filled with 11 numbers that clock in just under the 45-minute mark, Cars surprisingly stretches out and opens up the source material by changing up the new-wave instrumentation from electronic and electric to largely acoustic and organic. Guitar, fiddle, accordion, upright bass, suitcase drum kit, mandolin, clarinet, penny whistle, and harmonica are all here. And just as The Cars deceivingly convinced the casual listener that their radio-friendly songs were simple and catchy, Ms. Delmhorst preserves the pop appeal of each track, while going in a looser, more organic direction. The results illuminate the multiple layers that exist in these songs, bringing a new perspective to the songwriting and instrumentation.

I recently spoke with Ms. Delmhorst about her new record. We discussed her inspiration for the album, her arrangements of the songs, the recording of the record, as well as her own personal history with the music of The Cars. Here's our conversation: 

Hi Kris. Let's start with an obvious one: When did you first hear The Cars? 
 
Kris Delmhorst: I was a music-obsessed kid and I listened widely and voraciously. I knew and loved the early Cars hits on the radio when I was growing up, but Heartbeat City was the first album of theirs I actually bought (on cassette no less!), in 1984.  I literally wore the thing out. Of course then I got all the other albums and dug them.  

Let's fast forward to recent history: When and how did you get the idea for an album of Cars songs?

KD: I'm honestly not sure where the idea came from but I've been wanting to do it for three or four years. It just kept sitting on the back burner til the time was right. This seemed like the perfect time; I'd taken a few years off recording to have my daughter, and this was a great project to get myself back into the swing of the studio. Also, I had a dream in which I met Ric Ocasek at a party and he gave the project a green light, so I figured it was time to get it done.

Was there a particular song that snowballed into an album?
KD: Not exactly, but I do think "Why Can't I Have You" is the first one I remember sitting down to learn on the guitar, and the first one that I craved the idea of singing it with other people.

If you had to pick one, what is your all-time favorite song by The Cars and why?


KD: I'm terrible at favorites, there's no way I could pick one song. I can say that the first album, The Cars, is my favorite whole record to listen to.   

What is your favorite song by the band that didn't make it onto the recording?  

KD: Quite a few didn't: "Let's Go," "You're All I've Got Tonight," "Touch and Go," lots of them. There were several songs which, although I absolutely love them, I couldn't find a way to sing the lyrics that felt natural to me. And then a lot of the stuff on the first album is so perfectly played and recorded, I didn't feel like touching it. The Heartbeat City stuff was the most fun to tackle, because the arrangements are so dense and chewy and the production is so very 80's. There was more opportunity there to take the sounds into a different realm.

As a songwriter with an extensive discography yourself, what was it about the Cars' songbook that appealed to you the most about this project?
KD: I love these songs but they're completely different from what I do. It was fascinating to take apart such elaborately constructed pop situations and find out what all the moving pieces were. I definitely came away with even more immense respect for the music those guys made, and how well put together it is. 

Can you discuss your approach to the arrangements of the songs? Some seem very faithful and as up-tempo as originals, while others feel more re-arranged and stripped down.
KD: The initial concept was to remain quite faithful to the original arrangements while using a radically different palette of sounds, and for most of the tunes that's about how it turned out. On "Hello Again," for example, we basically played it how they played it, but all the many layered synth parts are performed on wurlitzer, tenor banjo, cello, mandocello, and penny whistle. The kick drum was a suitcase, and obviously my voice bears little or no resemblance to Ric Ocasek's. So the final product is both very different and very similar to The Cars' track.  

On the other hand, a few other tunes we changed the vibe of significantly, like "Magic," which turned into this sweet little folky music-boxy thing. Looking back from here I wish we had taken a few more songs in new directions like that. But we were working super fast and there wasn't a lot of time to stop and reflect. 

Can you describe some of your recording processes for the album?
KD: The album was recorded in two days, live in the studio, with usually 8 or 9 people playing at once. We just set up in a circle in one room, drums and everything, and did a few takes of each song. My lead vocals and almost all the background vocals were cut live too. After those two days of basics, we did a couple little overdub sessions later to add a few bells and whistles.

What was most memorable for you about making the record?
KD: The sessions were among the most fun I've ever done...recording live with that many musicians is pretty thrilling, especially given the level of skill and creativity that these players brought to the table. Also, the music has its inherent vibe, and although we were working our asses off, there was still a good amount of party in the atmosphere. A lot of laughing, a lot of dancing. 

I have to ask: Did you reach out to Rick Ocasek or any of the members of The Cars about the project before you began or after the record was finished?
KD: I looked around a bit for contact information for him beforehand, just to send a note to let him know I was doing this, but I couldn't find a way to get in touch. But then I got connected to Greg Hawkes (The Cars' keyboard player) through some mutual friends, and he ended up coming in and playing ukulele on a bunch of the tracks, which was quite amazing.  He wanted to share the album with the rest of the band, so I sent him off a stack of them not too long ago. I haven't heard anything from Mr. O yet but at the very least I'm glad to know it'll get to him.  I have no idea what he'll think of it but I hope he hears the love in it!

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