Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Shane Leonard of Kalispell Talks "Westbound"

Kalispell is the songs of Shane Leonard. His music is influenced by the old song forms of Appalachia, timeless American songwriters, and contemporary minimalist composers alike. On recordings and live performances, Shane is often accompanied by Ben Lester (AA Bondy, S. Carey) and Kevin Rowe (The Barley Jacks). Before forming Kalispell, he supported such artists as Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Megafaun, Caroline Smith and the Goodnight Sleeps, and The Daredevil Christopher Wright.

Westbound is Kalispell's first full length album, and second since their well-received Last Year EP. Although his studies of Appalachian old time music are an influence, Shane  avoids tired indie-folk cliches, instead mixing countrified instrumentation with contemporary song craft and ambient minimalism. Kalispell reflects his experiences of family, admiration for great composers, appreciation of tradition, and search for originality within it all.

Hi Shane. Thanks for taking the time to participate in this interview. Before we dig into your recordings specifically, I’d like to provide readers with some of your earliest musical experiences and background. First, how and when did you begin learning and playing music?

Shane Leonard:
I began taking formal drum lessons somewhere around third grade, and before that my parents had enrolled me in some summer programs at the community college where I learned about all sorts of percussion and world music.

Before that, I remember grabbing all the pots and pans around our house and banging along to my dad's records, so pretty early I guess.

Later on in elementary school I started learning about jazz drumming from a great mentor who taught me a lot about being a decent human being as well.

Which artists, albums, and personal experiences inspired you early on to pursue music?

Shane: Inside the house, my dad was kind of the "taste maker"; lots of times he would throw on a  track, call me over and we'd listen together, pointing out the moments we liked. I remember him cueing up the Woodstock record to Santana's "Soul Sacrifice" and having me listen to Michael Shrieve's drum solo. I'd try to keep up with drum sticks on the carpet. My dad played guitar in some bands when he was younger, so I think it he got really excited about having a kid who dug music.

Outside the house, my mom exposed me to a lot of great stuff. She'd take me to concerts and somehow finagle us onto stage to meet the drummer, or she'd take me to workshops, like this one where Spyro Gyra's marimbist was playing at a local music store. So my parents were very supportive from a young age.

I don't remember ever wanting to be an astronaut or anything like that; it was pretty much just music for me. Although there was a short time in middle school when I labored under the delusion that I would someday play in the NBA.

There was a lot of Blues Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Aretha Franklin, Rolling Stones, Genesis and Carly Simon floating around the house. I would study their album inserts and even make cassette tapes of pretend interviews with them. Yikes. 

When did you begin collaborating with other musicians?

Shane: I think the first real collaboration I had was in high school, when I joined a jazz trio. It was a huge school, but there were only a few of us who really listened to jazz records, so we would spend the lunch hour in the band room listening to recordings, and then play those tunes together after school or at restaurant gigs. I was in a jam band as well, which was a platform for arranging and writing. High school was when I wrote a couple of my first songs too, although I never shared them with anyone.
Kalispell is focused around your tunes. Can you share some of your previous experiences leading up to striking out on your own?

Shane: Eau Claire, WI, where I came for college, was the first place I had ever lived where there were dozens of young bands around that played original music and performed frequently in town, and one of those was DeYarmond Edison, Justin Vernon's band. I admired his stage presence and writing, so my group at that time would record songs and ask for his feedback, like a very unofficial producer.

Having the opportunity to open for Justin (between the DeYarmond and Bon Iver days) and Megafaun inspired me to write and play at a higher level. Those guys are all so humble and personable, so in a way they debunked the preconceptions I had grown up with about successful musicians. They're always mining the music for a deeper level of honesty.

The fellows from The Daredevil Christopher Wright have always inspired me, both in their musicianship and their overall disposition. As friends, we have an ongoing exchange about what works and what doesn't (musically and personally), which I think is the most rewarding kind of musical relationship you can have.

On a completely different note, when I was in Boston, I played in a balinese gamelan that collaborated with Ensemble Robot, a group of MIT and Berklee folks who literally built robots that played themselves as instruments. Hanging around with them was simultaneously intimidating and broadening. That and visiting musicians like Lee Sexton and Clyde Davenport have been intense learning experiences.

How did those experiences influence and inspire you when you decided to form Kalispell?

Shane: Being surrounded by those folks certainly freed me from the "Jazz paralysis" I had developed in late high school and college. The doors kind of blew open into a whole world of possibility as far as what music I had permission to make, or rather, that I didn't need permission at all. In terms of preparation, observing the performances of more polished bands showed me what works on stage and what doesn't, and what caliber of personal expression it takes to earn folks' attention.

Before I started Kalispell, I didn't have a clear perception of what music I was most personally connected to... kind of an identity crisis. But when I discovered old time music things began to take focus and I knew that was it. Not that I want to cling to some purist notion of traditional music, but that those styles seem to resonate with me most. Which is both daunting and exciting. 

How and when did you connect with Ben Lester (AA Bondy, S. Carey) and Kevin Rowe (The Barley Jacks)?

Shane: Ben and I met in college; we were both percussion students, although I later changed paths and studied English. Kevin and I met in high school; he was the bassist in the jazz trio I mentioned earlier. We both ended up in Eau Claire, and I guess we've been playing music together for about twelve years on and off.

What were the unique musical and artistic sensibilities that connected you to each other the most?

Shane: There are a few other people who play in Kalispell from time to time, but Ben and Kevin are the most constant.

Ben and I share an interest in old country and jazz, which is probably why we have mutual adoration for Bill Frisell. Both of us are disinterested in playing jazz in a traditional way, we like to play/compose/arrange with multiple sensibilities.

Kevin and I have always found an easy connection with each other, and although his training is in jazz, he plays a lot of bluegrass these days as well.

So our styles tend to align, but personality-wise, the three of us are pretty different, which keeps the music from feeling static.

Before we dig into Westbound, I’d like to quickly ask you about Kalispell’s previous EP, Last Year. Can you briefly discuss the circumstances of writing and recording Last Year?

The songs on Last Year developed at the same time as those on Westbound, mostly while I was living in Boston and right after I had moved back to Wisconsin. I was in flux, between jobs, relationships, cities, and just generally searching. The lyrics evidence that pretty clearly. Lots of talk about change and loss and uncertainty.

I recorded it in my apartment, and some friends helped out by adding instrumental parts. Before the EP, I had tried repeatedly to finish a record, but never felt the songs were "grown" enough to see it through. Eventually finishing the EP was a step forward, out of that frame of mind.
What were you listening to that specifically inspired you during the writing, preparing, and recording of Westbound?

Shane: Richard Buckner, Kathleen Edwards, Bill Frisell, Lucinda Williams, and Tin Hat Trio were lying on the passenger seat of my car a lot. I felt interested in their brands of americana and sort of chamber folk sound.

Apart from music, I was teaching and performing improv, thinking a lot about openness and "group mind" type stuff, which translated to a desire to involve musical improvisation within the more rigid framework of songs, even let improvisation influence the way songs unfolded live.

Can you discuss writing the tunes for Westbound?

Shane: Those songs were written during that same period of change, and I see that as the main theme of the album. The lyrics grew from coping with my situation: living in a large city, teaching everyday from 6am to who-knows-when, existing in a difficult relationship, and longing for something better or truer. I was also becoming interested in using folk song structures but messing with the harmonic layout of things.

What comes first: lyrics or arrangements? Please discuss how these come together in your songwriting process.

Shane: It usually starts with a guitar, maybe a banjo more often now, arranging some kind of chord progression and experimenting with different rhythms. When I settle on the guitar part, I usually record the ideas into my phone or computer or 4-track, whatever's handy, and then sing different melodies over that recording.

The lyrics are usually written with that melody in mind, which also provides interesting opportunities to manipulate the timing of things. I've tried different methods of writing, but usually that's the way a song progresses for me. Some folks can churn out dozens of songs and pick the ones they like best to focus on, but I work slowly, maybe generating a group of ten-or-so over a period of time.

Then I work pretty relentlessly to mold them into something that'll do, kind of like what Tom Waits says about "beating a song into submission". It can be taxing, but I like the way you can develop a deeper relationship with the piece over time.

Which musical artists and literary writers influence you most?

Shane: Richard Buckner, Joseph O'Connell, and David Bazan are some of my favorite lyricists. I like studying the playing of folks like Dirk Powell, Bill Frissell, Sam Amidon, and Abigail Washburn, because I feel my direction aligns somewhat with what they're doing.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island Of The Mind has been somewhere on my person for most of the past year, and Charles Simic and Dylan Thomas have influenced my lyrics as well.

Did you have a preconceived notion of the new material as a whole?

Shane: The collection of songs on Westbound came together pretty naturally, slowly accruing over a few years. I think "Lucky A Hundred Times" was where it started, in that the form and lyrical style are representative of the overall album.

"Marion, MT" came together unlike any other song I've written or recorded, it was slightly unnerving. I had the lyrics, but couldn't settle on the instrumental parts to nest them in. I had every other song demoed beforehand, but this one just gradually grew one part at a time, starting with the pump organ. I developed a picture in my mind and recorded the parts separately, piece-by-piece, without any of the musicians being able to hear the other tracks that were part of the song. I think they all were worried it wouldn't work out, since each part is very minimal in itself. Now that they're all layered together, it's my favorite cut.

How did recording Westbound in your house shape the record?

Shane: In a way, the "studio space" is this record, because the entire thing was recorded at my house. I like working in that environment because I can hunker down in the spare bedroom for a few days and just create, without any distractions, time restraints or studio pressure.

I played most of the instruments that comprise the core of each song, so it's not exactly a collaborative marvel, creatively speaking. However, eleven friends ended up playing on it, so that was really exciting, watching each song gradually bloom into something more lush. I spent a lot of time talking things over with Ben Lester (pedal steel) and Davy Sumner (string arrangements), just getting their objective point-of-view on where things were headed.

How does your work with Kalispell connect most to your previous collaborative work?

Shane: I've taken cues from my improv experience, which is collaboration at its most intense, I think, as to what works and what doesn't. I've found that trying an idea is never bad, although if that idea takes a turn for the less-honest, or creates more friction than momentum, it's time to move on.

Musically speaking, Kalispell is part of my ongoing process to develop as a writer and instrumentalist, so I don't draw much of a line between "then" and "now".

Along the same lines, what sets Kalispell most apart from those experiences?

Shane: Other than Kevin, my bandmates in Kalispell are people I've never collaborated with elsewhere. It feels truer at the core than any other musical project I've been involved with, probably because the process of combining my musical interests has become more focused and seamless.

What are some of your biggest non-musical influences? How do these filter into your songwriting and performing?

I enjoy short stories because they require a kind of focus and economy of language that aren't always at play in a novel. John Cheever is one of my favorites; The Hartleys and The Swimmer have stayed with me for a long time. I'm thinking about making an album of songs based off his stories.

I'm inspired by friends who are always making things. Right now one's building a special bike to take his two little boys on a three-month, cross-country journey. Another friend of mine is building a blacksmith shop in his backyard by using all old-world techniques, and another friend is a textile artist who makes patterns out of water fleas and things of that sort. They're all contributing something really special and essential to the world.

What are your plans for 2012?

Shane: Well, at the time of this interview, Westbound hasn't even come out yet. I'm already a ways into a group of songs for the next album, so I'm hoping to finish that this year amidst more touring. There's a new momentum that feels pretty good to me, so I want to take advantage. I've also never been to Europe and haven't spent much time on the West coast, so both those places are in the cross hairs, touring wise.
What have you been listening to lately?

Shane: Anais Mitchell's Young Man In America has had me floored for the past week. Julie Fowlis is one of my favorite singers, Tracy Schwartz, too.

Sam Amidon's All Is Well usually makes it onto the turntable several times a week, as does Mike and Peggy Seeger's American Folk Songs For Children. Bro. Stephen recently released a new record, Baptist Girls, and it's a tight collection of really concise, well-conceived tunes.

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