Bridging Old and New: A Conversation with Kristin Andreassen

Kristin Andreassen is one of my favorite songwriters. She's also my dear friend, bandmate in Uncle Earl, musical collaborator, and a creative force who inspires me immensely. 

In our band and with Sometymes Why (with Aoife O'Donovan and Ruthy Ungar), as well as in her solo work, Kristin is a musical chameleon, in the best possible way. Not only is she able to blend in with any musical setting -- I cannot picture a musical scenario in which she couldn't find her place -- but she's also game to explore every shade of her own voice, both as a singer and a writer. She is genuinely gifted when it comes to making unexpected and visceral connections. Her writing is surprising, clever, and deeply moving. And while I know it may sound as though I'm just gushing about my friend, I am truly inspired by her work, including the solo album she released earlier this year, Gondolier

ND's editor, Kim Ruehl, asked me if I'd like to interview Kristin and I relished the opportunity to pick my friend's brain about her creative process, her experience with making her beautiful new album, and what she thinks of her new digs in Nashville. So, I give you our very rambling and laughter-filled conversation, in hopes you find it enjoyable.

Rayna Gellert: Kim wanted to know how you landed on bass clarinet. Her question was whether it was a sonic vision you had or whether it was specific to wanting to work with Alec [Spiegelman].

Kristin Andreassen: Probably a combination of both. I certainly wouldn’t have thought about the bass clarinet if this crazy guy Alec Spiegelman wasn’t showing up at the Lowlands old-time jam with his clarinet and truly rocking old-time fiddle tunes, learning the melody note for note. So I asked him to play on just one of the songs on the record that I heard a clarinet on. … It was a combination of my thinking that’s a beautiful sound and also that the concept of the album is this pastiche of old and new, and, for me at least, the sound of the woodwinds was new.

I always enjoy hearing about the collaborative process of studio work, and you have two different producers credited – Robin MacMillan and Lawson White. How did that work?

It’s sort of funny how the limitations of New York loomed large at a certain point in the record. Everybody’s fighting for space and time in New York. It’s a crunch there. Robin, who had been producing the record and doing a beautiful job, shares his studio with four other guys. It got to a point where, between his schedule and my schedule and the schedule of the studio, we just didn’t see where we could possibly get enough time to finish the record in his space. We were already working in these random time blocks after midnight. I was just like [laughs] I need to finish this record. I need a human being who has access to a studio during regular working hours.

It turned out Lawson was a great fit and he really loved the music, and he did have time in his studio. So basically, Robin and I created seven of the songs on the record … in this kind of  layered, experimental, try-multiple-versions way over the course of over a year, just when we had time. It wasn’t a super focused recording project, it was genuinely approached like an art project without end. Which was really fun and I really valued that experience and Robin’s contribution. We definitely came up with things I never would’ve come up with if I’d been on a deadline.

But when I needed to finish the record, I called Lawson and we did those last three tracks very quickly. We just knocked them out. Those tracks are basically a band playing live.

But it works, it doesn’t feel like a different production.

Yeah, it’s interesting… Because all of the time spent with Robin, the band had actually created a sound. The vibe of the record was established with Robin. So when I brought the same people into Lawson’s studio it was like, Hey, that thing we’ve been doing in layers of overdubs – let’s just do it live right now. It is the same people and the same approach. I don’t know that I necessarily would have called all those same people if I didn’t have all that time to work it up with Robin.

It’s interesting that both of your producers are drummers.

Yeah, I know, right? There are drums on [my last album] Kiss Me Hello, but I haven’t ever really toured a lot with a drummer. Most of my background is in stringband stuff, where you don’t get to play with a drummer that often. I don’t know what percentage of producer/engineers are drummers. Maybe a lot of them. Tucker Martine is also a drummer. It seems like a good combination.

How much did you fret over sequencing or was it really obvious?

You might notice there’s a different sequence on CD and vinyl, so that probably betrays that I fretted a fair bit about the sequencing.

What we ended up doing with the vinyl is more of a slow build, a contemplative sequence that’s maybe more based around the lyrics. It opens with "The Boat Song," which is the title track.

When I was a girl, I wished I was a boy
I had a dog, I wished it was a horse

It’s sort of an up close and personal introduction to myself. That was the initial sequence I’d been passing around to people who had been listening to the record. After talking to people in radio or in the press, we decided to put more of the singles up front. So the CD starts with “The Fish Song” and “Lookout,” which turned out to be two of the more radio-friendly tracks. But then when we put the vinyl out, I thought, you know if people are going to bother to sit down and listen to two sides of the record, I’ll give them the more contemplative, lean-in version. You have to be already paying attention and then it’s rewarding on some level. It’s a little counter-intuitive. It leads with the longer, slower ballad.

Yeah, it feels like a journey, and in these different ways, too. By starting with "The Boat Song," there’s this sense of moving from water to land. It’s beautiful. I have a really hard time with the b-side, though, because going from "How the Water Walks" to "Sunny Up Above the Clouds" is just however many straight minutes of weeping for me.

Yeah, it hits that place on the b-side. [laughs]

The vinyl is kind of the director’s cut. There were some sonic differences between the different productions of Robin and Lawson that I felt we’d get around a little bit more on the vinyl sequence.  Like “Simmon” just sort of sounds a little bit different than the other tracks. It’s a little bit less in-your-face because there’s more live room sound on the track. I noticed [on] the CD version, there are these inescapable … it feels like a volume shift, but it’s more like a spacial shift. Somehow flipping the record over and starting in the new room, which is what happens on the vinyl, just sort of feels better.

On to vocal stuff. I remember you showing us the video for "How The Water Walks" when we were with Uncle Earl last year, and Abby said, “I feel like this is you singing differently” or “This is a new sound from your voice,” or something like that. In listening to the album more, I have that sense not only about that track, but some other stuff, too. "Some Do" feels kind of similar to me. It’s a fluidity or an emotiveness that feels like a fresh vocal approach. Do you have any reflections on that?

I agree. I feel like I’m having a lot more fun singing these days than I have in the past, because I’m using my voice much more as an instrument. Which seems counterintuitive that that would be a latter development for a person who’s been a singer for a while, but I think maybe my focus was elsewhere. Either in an old-time band where I’m choosing material and arranging it for a group of people or I’m thinking about the lyrics.

On this record, I allowed myself to think of songwriting in terms of what would be fun to sing. Not to the detriment of the lyrics, but making the primary thing be: Is this fun to sing? Is this the right key? Should this phrase bend down or up – what sounds better in my voice? So I’ve been exploring how to write with the fundamental question: What actually sounds good with the way I naturally want to sing? It does seem a little ridiculous that I would be asking that question at this point in my career. [laughs] Better late than never!

I think it’s also part of the process of making a solo record … This is just the second time that I’ve made my own record. I think I learned a lot from being the lead vocalist and having time alone in the studio to really experiment and stretch out with that, having the freedom of allowing myself to be the lead singer and express, and writing for the strengths of my voice.

Let’s move into more general process stuff. I can’t get enough of hearing people talk about process, particularly anything related to ritual or routine or how people function as creatives. One question I have for you is, when it comes to songwriting, do you have a routine or a ritual or any kind of method?

I wish I had more of a routine because I feel like I function really well in the times that I do. I’m most productive when I set aside time specifically to write. I come up with ideas everywhere, but they’re just little snippets and I record them on my iPhone. Then in the focused stretch of time where I really think about writing, that’s when I actually finish songs.

This record was interesting for me because, simultaneously with writing the songs, I was also starting Miles of Music, which is a weeklong camp in New Hampshire. And also running two weekend-long workshops. I found myself being a songwriting teacher. I would think of exercises I could give to the class and then try them out on myself. A few of the songs came about because of that.

I would say “Simmon” counts. I was also writing “Simmon” because I had that tour coming up with you, and I wanted to have a fun new song that would sound beautiful with old-time fiddle. There was a conscious question of – how can I take what I love about traditional music and build on that, and write my own thing?

The exercise I gave to the class was I took a bunch of old-time lyrics out of a book. I photocopied them and took rhyming couplets and put them in a hat, and went around the room. People would pull the couplets out and write their own melody to these time-tested lyrics. In testing the exercise, I wrote the song “Simmon,” which basically just starts as “The Crawdad Song.” And I thought, what does that image inspire in me, with my own personal experience of old-time music being played on a hot summer day?

I think “How the Water Walks” also started as a classroom exercise of writing with a rhythm. I actually had learned that body percussion rhythm from Sandy Silva, who’s this dancer in Montreal who I greatly admire. I took one of her dancing workshops and she taught us these waltz rhythms. So I took one of them and was riffing over it.

What I learned over the process of this record is that I actually function pretty well on assignment. That’s an important realization. By forcing the limitation and setting aside the time to do it, treating it like a job and putting some parameters around it, I can get something that’s unusual and creative because of the limitations. I’ve become a real believer in limitations as something that can liberate you creatively.

That’s good to know. I’m figuring out that I do much better when given assignments, but I need other people to give them to me, because otherwise there’s not any external pressure. You’re giving yourself the assignments but it’s to prepare for something where other people need something from you, so there’s still external pressure.

There’s definitely external pressure. Like a scientist, I feel like I have to inject myself with the vaccine first, just to see. [laughs]

Definitely. It’s exactly like that. [laughs] In that vein, though, since we’re already on that topic, what other creative tricks – or maybe just inspiration – have you taken from the Miles of Music experience? Because it sounds so magical.

Yeah, it’s turned out to be a real gift. It was a lot of work for the first few years but now it’s starting to feel like a gift to be a part of this community that I guess I, on some level, created. But it feels bigger than me now, which is important. That’s the sign of something maturing. The main thing I’ve gotten out of Miles of Music is knowing the people and the artists who come there. We get inspired by each other. We play music with each other. My drummer, Shane Leonard, is a guy I never would have met if he hadn’t come to camp. He’s a percussionist and banjo player, and a songwriter who plays with this band called Field Report. I think the big benefit is the sort of collaborations that happen when you have the luxury of a week together — but it’s not an unstructured week, people are working from dawn to dusk. It’s intense, but you end up in a place you might not have gotten to [otherwise].

You have just moved from New York City to Nashville. I know you don’t yet know what that’s going to mean for your musical life, really. But what’s your fantasyland notion of what that’s going to mean for your musical life, for you to be in Nashville?

The fantasy of being in Nashville for me is space and time. My sweetheart Critter and I lived in a 700-square-foot apartment in New York, and we have moved our stuff into a much larger house here in Nashville. I actually have an office for the first time in my adult life. I’m looking forward to having the physical space to be creative and set up my instruments, and not be putting them back in the case every night because someone has to sleep in the bedroom. I’m looking forward to separating the musical creative space from the business creative space. For those of us trying to do music for a living … there’s music work and there’s computer work. The emails and advancing the gigs and buying flights and approving album artwork … winds up being a part-time job for everyone in the music business.

Pssht. I wish it was part-time.

I know, I’m trying to sound like I don’t actually spend my whole day in front of a computer. [laughs] But really what I’m looking forward to in Nashville is to have enough physical space that I can actually set up a different space for my computer, so I can have a daily schedule where I play some music then walk over to the computer and do a few hours of … whatever communications need to happen. Then maybe [I can] close the computer and walk to a different space and do some music.

It’s an old-fashioned notion, the idea of having an office, but I’m really bent on creating that for myself – having a studio and having an office, and having those be two different things.

And I’m looking forward to being a part of a creative community where people do songwriting as work. I hear great things about the collaborative nature of the scene in Nashville, and I’m looking forward to meeting more songwriters and pursuing what I think is probably a strength of mine – songwriting. It’s something I’ve never explored with as much of a sense of daily dedication that I feel like is the ethic in this town.

You’re not going to have the same problems finding daytime studio time. [laughs]

Exactly. But, again: I love New York. I think it’s the greatest city on earth. I don’t want to not say that. It’s a wonderful, wonderful place. You definitely get creative ideas coming out of the limitations of that city. But I’ve gotten what I need to get out of those particular limitations. I need new limitations.

I can’t get gummy bears at three in the morning at the bodega downstairs from me. I have to plan ahead and go to the grocery store during daylight hours. Those are the limitations of Nashville for me. 

Kristin is one of my favorite performers in the roots music sphere and I'm simply heartbroken that she's abandoned Brooklyn for more living space and weekend trips to The Pancake Pantry. 

I've loved her album since the first listen and she's a warm hearted soul...I wish her the best but hope she comes back here to play from time to time. Really enjoyed this interview...thanks.