Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Chris & Stefanie of Big Harp Discuss "White Hat"

Big Harp is the husband and wife duo of Chris Senseney (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Stefanie Drootin Senseney (bass, vocals). Stefanie has toured with bands including Bright Eyes, The Good Life, and She & Him, and Chris has played in Art in Manila. The Los Angeles-based act's brand new record, White Hat, is a fantastic mix of indie, pop, folk, and classic country. The album has just been released this week by Saddle Creek Records.

I recently had the opportunity to correspond with the duo regarding their musical experiences, biggest influences, sources of inspiration, and their creative process as a married couple and as parents.

Let's start by discussing each of your musical biographies. What compelled each of you to first learn an instrument and play music?

Stefanie: I remember going to see my great-uncle Buzzy Drootin play drums when I was little. He was a great dixieland jazz drummer, and his brother, including my grandpa, were all musicians as well. My mom's dad was a jazz drummer too. We have his old Wurlitzer in our house. I guess with all those drummers it makes sense that I ended up in the rhythm section. I started playing bass when I was 15. My older brother took me to a Firehose concert and Mike Watt blew my mind. I went out and bought a flannel shirt and a bass the next day.

Chris: I started playing piano when I was four. My mom, my dad and my sister could all play this one song. It was called "From a Wigwam". It was this weird pseudo-Native American thing from the Teaching Little Fingers to Play lesson book. I couldn't stand being the only one who couldn't do it, so I begged my dad to teach me. He did, and then I started taking lessons. After that I started making up my own little pieces of music, but I didn't start writing songs with lyrics until I was about twelve, and no good ones until I was about twenty-five. 

How and when did you each meet and then get married?

Chris: The first time I met Stefanie was in a bar in Omaha. She'd had a few too many and was inviting people over for late-night cheeseburgers. I declined the invite. The second time we hung out I was passed out in the backseat of my car and she drove me home. We've settled down a lot since then. 

Stefanie: A few weeks after all that were on a tour with my other band, the Good Life. Chris was in the opening band. We ended up talking until the sun came up almost every night. Eight months later we were married and I was six months pregnant. 

How and when did you decide to start playing together and writing music together?

Chris: I don't think it was a conscious decision. It just made sense. I think we would have had to try pretty hard to avoid playing together. 

Which artists, and/ or records inspired you and influenced you the most musically?

Stefanie: Tom Waits is a big one for me. When I was in junior high I picked up a copy of Rain Dogs at a record store having no idea who he was. I love the way he takes classic songwriting and puts his own strange touches on it.


Chris: It's a hard thing for me to get a handle on. When I was a junior high kid first starting out writing songs I was just trying on hats. I'd write a bad version of a Dylan song one week, then write a bad version of a Nirvana song the next. I grew up hearing a lot of country and folk stuff. I had three cassette tapes when I was probably four or five, all greatest hits collections: Marty Robbins, Hank Williams and Nat King Cole. I suppose whatever other influences I've picked up along the way still get strained through that filter.

Why the name Big Harp?

Chris: The Harp brothers (one Big and one Little) were a pair of murderous bandits who operated around Kentucky and Illinois in the late eighteenth century. At one time I was working on a song about the older brother, Micajah. I never did much with it, but the names and the story stuck in my mind. When we were tossing around names for the band I threw it out there and it seemed to fit.

Can you discuss your writing and recording process for White Hat?

Stefanie: We didn't really have anything worked up until about a week before we went into the studio. We sat down in the living room and Chris played me about forty songs. About fifteen of them got rehearsed and arranged, and then once it was time to record we trimmed it down to the eleven that ended up on the album. We had one practice with Chris Phillips, who played drums on the record, and then we recorded it in a few days with our friend Pierre de Reeder. 

Chris: Even though I bring the songs in with chords and lyrics, they change a lot once we start working together. Like the song "Goodbye Crazy City"; when I first played it for Stef I played it way slower, with this kind of over-serious, ponderous dirge feel, and it only had two verses. I thought it was a throwaway song, but Stef heard something in it she liked. She said, "That'll sound better if we play it like a country song." She was right. I may have brought in the corn, but she shucked it and made tortillas. 

Did you knowingly set out to make a certain kind of record? Did any particular song(s) set the direction for the album?

Chris: We talked about making a stripped-down record, the kind where you learn the songs and get 'em recorded before they start growing fur. That's pretty much the way we did it. I guess if any two songs dictated the structure of the album we were going to make, it would be the two "Nadine" songs that bookend the album. The opening song lays out a narrative, and the closing one is a minor character's emotional response to the narrative. So those were laid out as the beginning and end, and then we just filled in the middle. 

What would you say is the biggest advantage of being married as well as parents as a songwriting partnership?

Stefanie: For one thing, we're in the same house. We discuss things off and on throughout the day. If the kids fall asleep in the van we can drive around and talk about music. 

What have these experiences brought into your work?

Chris: When you have kids, you're already embarking on a big project together as partners. It really dwarfs everything else. Any illusions about music being the most important thing in the universe get tossed pretty quickly. That little bit of distance from it really helps. I see music and writing more like a paved road I can walk down or step off of as I choose, instead of a swamp I'm trying to slog around in. 

How has being artists and musicians influenced your children and family relationships?

Stefanie: There's always music around our house. Yesterday our almost three-year-old son Hank wrote his first song. It's about rabbits on the highway -- the chorus is "UP the highway, DOWN the highway, UP the highway, DOWN the highway". 

What has been the most surprising to you both musically and personally since you have become Big Harp?

Stefanie: I've been really happy with how well we work together. 

Chris: Sometimes people hear that a couple is working together and they assume the worst. And I suppose for some people it could get pretty strained, but for us it feels really natural. 

How did you connect with Saddle Creek to release White Hat?

Stefanie: I've been playing with Saddle Creek bands for years. I'm in the band The Good Life, and I've also toured in Bright Eyes, Azure Ray, and Maria and Orenda's solo projects. I met Tim, Conor and Robb when I was seventeen and my band's van broke down in Omaha. Tim took us in and we ended up playing a show in his basement. Through the years, we'd all set up DIY shows for each other, and became super close friends. 

Will you be touring nationally for White Hat?

Stefanie: Yes, starting in October. 

What have you been listening to lately?

Stefanie: Honestly, we've been so busy lately we haven't had that much time to listen to music. I haven't even been able to keep my ipod charged, so we mainly switch back and forth between NPR and the oldies station. (Chris just elbowed me to make me come clean: we also listen to the modern country station.)

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