Sweet, Sweet Dreams: An Interview With Twisted Pine

What’s in a song that you love and have loved for a long time? Bits of nostalgia, sure. A transportive effect that can take us back to when we were driving around town in high school. Summer days at the beach. A rough break up. Those songs that mold us as artists or music lovers can take you to another time with just the first few notes. Paying homage to them is something musicians have been doing for as long as there have been songs to pay homage to and the way in which folk-meets bluegrass-meets a little bit of everything else band Twisted Pine has done that with their new EP “Dreams”, would do any musician who originated these tunes proud.

We caught up with Rachel, Kathleen, Dan and Chris to get their input on the new project and just what exactly made them latch onto these songs and want to put their own stamp on them.

Read on and pick up this record today!

RLR: What would you guys say was the “trigger” for this collection of tunes? The success of the Monroe-Vulfpeck mash up…and the Cranberries video too seems like a likely launching point. But I guess, what was the main driver for you guys to say “lets get 7 tunes we all dig, make them our own and record them”?

RS: Several of these songs had been in our repertoire for some time: a few were reimagined tunes that we worked up because we felt we had a unique element that we could add; some were songs we had learned as wedding requests – we didn’t really have an end in mind past performing them. It was sometime last year that we realized we had an interesting group of covers and had enough folks asking for recordings to warrant booking some studio time. After the fact, we learned and arranged “Raised on Robbery” and “Dreams” to round out the record.

RLR: Over time, and I think particularly on this project the band has kind of gone from what one might consider a Newgrass or some sort of folk meets bluegrass roots group, to shedding that or perhaps the better term is “evolving” the sound and vibe of the band. What I think its most beautiful about that is that you guys can still absolutely f-ing destroy a fiddle tune or traditional tune in the most traditional sense on stage. I mean the live set can go from St. Anne’s Reel to super charged rock energy in a matter of seconds. In what can be a somewhat divided genre subset (meaning the purists that want you to cover Flatt and Scruggs, Monroe and nothing else vs. this newer age of artists blending bluegrass with everything from chamber music to metal), do you guys wear being a highly versatile group as a badge of honor? Do you just constantly want to stretch the bounds of your musicianship? And have you found any sort of resistance to that over the course of the band’s life?

DB: Great question! We’re forever and always gonna feel a connection to the traditions of the music: that’s something that we each fell deeply in love with and the reason why this band exists. At the same time, we’re all avid music listeners with diverse backgrounds in music, and it’s only natural that other influences are gonna come up in the music that we make. A really important moment in the development of this band was the decision to embrace it all. Any musical idea or influence that any one of us brought to the table was fair game. I guess that’s how you get something like a Bill Monroe/Vulfpeck mashup!

RLR: What was each of your favorite tune, outcome wise, here on Dreams, be it to record in the process or after the fact hearing how it all coupled together? And…of course, why?

DB: Favorite tune is Lucy in the Sky, because it’s so completely reimagined from the original (different groove, time signature, totally different chords). We purposely did not listen to the Beatles’ version when working on it and the result is something wholly from our imagination. And then when we got into the studio with Sam at the helm, we really got to craft it into something totally epic.

CS: I agree with Danny– I’m proud of the way Lucy turned out. Groovy bassline, reharmonized chords, Kathleen’s fiddle solo is so ethereal and sweeping. It gives me goosebumps!

RS: “Heart of Glass” has to be my favorite tune on the album. Kathleen’s vocal performance is incredibly expressive and natural sounding — when she’s singing it, you forget anyone else ever even recorded it. I love the percussion interlude at the end: Sam did a really great job weaving that into the song without hitch, and it’s great to hear Chris groovin’ out on all of the percussion instruments.

KP: It’s really difficult to decide on one song, for me these songs have the ability to set the tone of the day because each one has a unique coloring, or mood. One thing I love about “El Chepe/The One I Love Is Gone” is the fact that during the recording of that song, we couldn’t see each other at all. We just listened to each other to get cues, and that’s what makes that trading section between Dan and I so magical. We all had to feel out the build of the solos to know when they’d end. Tracking the vocals is another joyful memory. Rachel and I were sharing opposite ends of one microphone, and the vocals are one take from start to finish. It made us feel like The Everly Brothers, or even The Beatles and recording it that way helped us dig into that vintage rock and roll sound.

RLR: Working with Sam up at Great North must have been a special experience. When I think of going off into the woods to record or write, I have somewhat different visuals or audible portraits of what might shake out. Lets say a bit more acoustic-ish rootsy vibe…that whole tall pines and deer and stuff. Thoreau in musical format. How much of that experience and environment do you feel made its way into these tunes and what was that process like for the band? Did you heavily prepare ahead of the sessions or did a lot of things unfold in the studio itself?

DB: First off, a LOT of credit needs to go to Sam Kassirer for the way that the record ended up sounding. He’s a very creative engineer and guided us into a lot of new sonic territory. And Great North is an amazing and inspiring place. We were there in the dead of winter and it did really feel like we were totally cut off from the rest of the world and there to create. At the same time, we also couldn’t help but feel a spiritual connection to all of the other incredible bands and artists that had recorded there before us, many of whom we really really look up to (let’s just say that the guest books at Great North are very inspiring to flip through!)

KP: Sam was very much able to understand and tune into our wants for each and every recording, he helped make our sonic dreams a reality!

RLR: I feel like so much of this project is pushed, driven and kept above the water with the rhythm. Its just damn infectious…and that pink sparkle bass. I think its most prominent on the Joni track. I am not sure I have seen Chris without the upright, so first: Where the hell did that bass come from? And, do you think that swapping out the upright for an electric has had any sort of impact on the feeling of things as a whole for tunes in which an electric bass is used vs. a double? If so, how so?

CS: Definitely. For the Joni track, the bass part is a straight 8th-note groove basically the whole time, so the electric helped give it more definition, and made the groove a little sturdier. We’ve started experimenting more with Sparklepony (that’s it’s name) on our live show. It’s so fun! It’s from this small company in california called Daisy Rock Guitars. I first saw it when I subbed for a wedding band (the Ward Eights!) and their bass player had one that I borrowed. It was love at first sight. It’s got such awesome vibe and energy– and it’s super funky.

RLR: Similarly, in terms of Dan. There is a lot of percussive elements to keep that driving rhythm in conjunction with Chris’s bass playing. As a mandolinist, “the chop” is always part of the repertoire I would guess. But there is a lot more going on that a simple chop. For Dan, what was the process like for exploring different patterns and ways in which to add the rhythm of the songs without it becoming monotonous for you? It just dovetails so beautifully with the steadiness in the rhythm, but gives a deeper depth to lock onto and lets the other circling parts, bows, voices, guitar some real space to fill out. The sound here is really, really HUGE.

DB: Thanks man! You totally got it: we do think a lot about rhythm and groove and are always trying to figure out how these four instruments (mostly) can work and interact with each other for maximum funk. Obviously with no drummer or percussionist in the band, and with drums traditionally playing such an important part of the sound of the songs we are covering, we had to find ways to fulfill that sonic and rhythmic role in our arrangements. A lot of times it’s the mandolin, but there’s a whole lot of groovy percussive guitar, fiddle, and bass being played as well, sometimes all together! We experimented a lot as a band and individually, mostly focusing on what sounds good and gets the groove across (it’s all about the interaction, and most of the time less is more). For me personally, I gotta give a shout out to Sam Bush, Chris Thile, Jake Jolliff, Matt Witler, Dominick Leslie, and Josh Pinkham as other mandolin players who have found really creative ways of providing the “CHIK”.

RLR: Harmonies. They slay me and make me weak. How do you guys typically address how the harmonies on a tune are going to play out? Or in this case, given the tunes are covers, what is process like for saying “Ok Kathleen is leading this one” or “Rachel’s voice is DEFINITELY the one for this”?

RS: First of all, thank you! Kathleen and I had a bunch of vocal sectionals prior to recording to work out parts and make sure things were airtight. We generally leave things pretty open ended in the beginning and play around with any ideas that come to mind. It’s all fair game. There’s a lot of respect within the band in regards to writing parts for songs: since we all come from different musical backgrounds, we make an effort not to squash any creativity — we might miss out on something really interesting if we do. If any of us hear something that we think could be played or sung by another, we always try it out and see if it works.

Mostly, leads were assigned to whoever brought the tune to the table, which only happened because we each were drawn to them; we could hear something of ourselves in the original and wanted to emulate the essence, but totally make it our own. “Dreams” was just the perfect song that completely captures both of our strengths. That one really felt like we were both born to sing it together. It’s truly amazing that one woman could do both of those parts so well.

KP: Agreed. A lot of the harmonies come along as we play out the song more and more, live. Sometimes, when we listen to a song a year after first vocally arranging it (for example “El Chepe/The One I Love Is Gone”) it will have morphed so much on stage over time (we both easily tune in to each other’s variations, and breath) that the song will sound completely different. “Raised on Robbery” and “Heart of Glass” are really great examples of how Rachel and I approach the songs with our own individual flare, and how whoever is singing harmony hones into that sound to aim for a perfect blend.

RLR: Tell me a little bit about the “why” for each of the tracks. I feel like as artists you can very often be placed inside a box, however unfortunate that can be and I feel like the past few years have really seen you guys shattering the walls of those confines. This project in particular is an obvious example. A musician or songwriter isn’t one dimensional and what we listen to and take pieces from to create our own personal aesthetic or mosaic is different from everyone else’s. So at what point did say “Lucy” or “Dreams” or any of these tunes make an impact on you as musicians in your life and what is the importance for you including them here as opposed to say the hundreds of other songs I assume had some form of impact at some point in your life?

DB: That’s hard to say because the way this particular group of songs came about was such a natural process, and we never really thought a whole lot about “why” these songs. They just happened to be ones we started playing together at various times. “Lucy In The Sky” came out of a series of green room jams, the “El Chepe/The One I Love is Gone” mashup happened because we needed to fill some time at a gig and had been listening to a lot of Vulfpeck. And “Dreams” happened because we were on tour when Dolores suddenly passed away. We listened to that song over and over again in the van on our way to a gig in Baltimore. We realized that Kathleen and Rachel could already sing the song, and we played it that night.

KP: These songs and the way that we have arranged them very much sparked their way into our lives. It’s fun to reminisce every instance in which they came, washing dishes and singing the Kentucky Waltz wondering how Ray Charles would have done it. Getting funky in a green room in Philly and singing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” in a “La La” style. Picking out old bluegrass standards when a Vulfpeck bass line was being played, and just singing out loud the next song that was suggested as if it were a moment in a musical. Fine tuning and picking out some Scissor Sisters to figure out how we could get piano parts into our groove and bringing the more earthy roots and honky tonk of the song out to where you hear even more of how Elton had a hand in writing it, and having a singer who can deliver it. Sitting and listening to Joni after a friend wrote us an email saying how it was a great fit for us, and getting super pumped about figuring out some sweet Joni harms. Getting excited about percussion breakdowns and having a moment with audience members to sing along,  and being inspired by the loss of such a fabulous singer and writer, and wanting to pay tribute and respect by performing her music just as it was perfectly written. This is just a glimpse of our whys and hows. The inspiration we receive from our very loving and supportive audience members and the love that they have for all of the music we perform, old and new. The connection they experience during one of our shows is part of the reason of why we make music at all.

Artist Twisted Pine