Hi, sweet friends! I’m good, thanks; just moved back to New York to study law at NYU. It feels like an immersion program in an entirely new language / way of thinking. It’s not nearly as corporate or starched-collar as I expected, which is a happy surprise.
Can you talk to us more about your single “A Competition”?
“A Competition” argues that a thoughtful listener is the single greatest gift a musician can ask for. I It begs the listener to be attentive and diligent in listening to the album; I would rather read a ten-page review eviscerating the album than read a one-sentence review saying it’s “cool.” Why? Because it’s clear the ten-page critic has actually listened to it. (The spoken word section is performed by Dr. Philip Kitcher, a scholar and philosopher with the most DELICIOUS voice).
Did any event in particular inspired you to write this song?
Funny you should ask – I remember writing “A Competition” as an iPhone note over a year ago. I was hiking in northern Austria, near a farm where I was living, and I plopped down in the middle of the forest to write it. Eerily, I soon realized that I was surrounded on all sides by “tree graves” (people in that area would will to have their ashes buried beneath a particular tree, in a way becoming part of the forest they loved when they were alive).
Can you tell us more about the upcoming video?
(The video was premiered by Impose earlier this month!) The album’s producer – Sahil Ansari – shot and directed it, and my girlfriend – Alisha Bansal – choreographed and performed. We filmed it in an empty dance studio at Barnard College, I think it came out beautifully. They made me mouth some of the lyrics for the video, and I look like a total dingus… but life goes on.
The single comes off your new album The Ascension of Slow Dakota – what’s the story behind the title?
The idea of “Ascension” comes from The Bible; certain heroes, in a blaze of glory, are whisked up to heaven still in physical form: it’s the ultimate “going out with a bang.” But there’s a paradox, too: you’re taken away at the height of your glory. Your exultation is your exit. I wanted “The Ascension” to be the best music I’ve ever written, and part of me wonders if it’s the last music I’ll ever write – trying to go out with a bang, I suppose.
Is this a sort of concept album?
The first two albums I put out as Slow Dakota are definitely concept albums – “Our Indian Boy” is structured around specific days and numbers, and “Burstner” tells a single story from start to finish. But this new album isn’t ruled by one overarching thing – it’s held together by recurring images (i.e. people wading into water, people talking to birds, dead poets coming back to life, etc.). Instead of telling one single story, “The Ascension” is overflowing with many different stories and tons of characters, places, and sounds.
How was the recording and writing process?
The album took around a year and a half, start to finish, to get right. I wrote some of it while working on farms in Austria, and the other half was written in my father’s house in Indiana. Sahil Ansari recorded some of the tracks in Brooklyn, and he was an invaluable producer. I did the majority of the tracking in my home studio in Indiana. I wrote and recorded on a grand piano that used to belong to my grandmother – who I never had the chance to meet. It felt appropriate, given the album’s fixation on communing with the dead.
What was it like to work with Greg Calbi and how did that relationship develop?
I reached out to Greg’s studio, thinking there’s no way in hell they even respond. But lo and behold, they responded immediately, and were so incredibly thorough, kind, and fun to work with. Greg’s a living legend, and working with him – hearing his thoughts, and creating something together – still feels very much like a dream. I can’t praise him enough. You actually reminded me – he loves dark chocolate, and I’ve been meaning to send him some.
How has your upbringing have influence your music and this album in particular?
My parents started me on piano lessons when I was very young, and the classical training I went through as a kid certainly informs Slow Dakota’s music – especially “The Ascension.” My dad also raised me on Prog Rock, so any over-reaching arrogance and over-busy sonic textures on the album are exclusively HIS fault. (All jokes aside, Prog is some of my favorite music: early Genesis, YES, etc.)
What role does Indiana play in your music?
“The Ascension,” in a lot of ways, is a portrait of the Midwest. Specifically, a portrait of the mysticism that exists on the back country roads, outside of time, under an endless sky. If you want to meet God, that’s the place to do it. Here’s a strange thing: a few weeks after the album came out, my mom called to tell me about a tornado that had torn through Indiana, and destroyed a chicken farm. The next morning, 500 Amish people showed up, completely rebuilt the farm and house, and left without asking for a penny. Which was SO eerie to hear, since that’s the exact plot of “The Magi Visit Farmer Lee.” There’s the Midwest in a nutshell. It’s my favorite place on earth.
What led you to write your most poetic album to date?
I’m not one to say it’s my most poetic stuff, but I’ve never had a year and a half to work on anything before. The process of revision – revisiting each poem, picking them apart until they all fit together, tinkering, and taking time to let everything marinate and cross-pollinate – was an incredible luxury. I’m glad I finished it before law school! Free time is harder to come by these days.
What poets and poems get to influence the lyrics the most?
If I had to narrow it down, the album really traces back to Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Kafka’s “Aphorisms,” and Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” – specifically his great elegy, “When Last in the Dooryard the Lilacs Bloom’d.” On the surface, it’s an easy cheap shot to critique the “old dead white men” influences, but those three – especially Blake and Whitman – were and are so incredibly radical and progressive. If you think the album is dainty and conservative, I fear you’ve misunderstood it.
What aspect of poetry did you get to explore on this album?
The main question, here, is – can you “sing” literature? Can you “recite” music? Where do the boundary lines of poetry end, and music begin? Can we marry those two camps into one form? The short spoken word track, “Magnificat” provides the closest thing I have to an answer (hint: I have no idea).
Any plans to hit the road?
School keeps me from traveling too much, but I’m considering a few tiny shows in NYC this winter. First I’ve got to find a trumpet player, and a few others to flesh out the live set! Return my calls, Scott Spillane!!
What else is happening next in Slow Dakota’s world?
This summer I got back into water coloring, and I illustrated each of the album’s 19 songs. It was so fun to depict all the album’s characters – the whale, poor Paul, one-armed farmer Lee, etc. I’ve been putting my feelers out to see if I could get the entire manuscript (lyrics and paintings) printed in little books. Aside from my mom, though, who would buy it?