“It’s all a common thread, so it always sounds… well, not the same, but it’s still me.”
A lot can change in two years, both in the life of a songwriter and in the very songs themselves. It was only that short space of time ago that Angie Hart reinvented herself musically with her solo debut Grounded Bird – a remarkable, densely textured and sonically beautiful record which contained, under the shimmering surface, what was almost a public catharsis. Two years on, and the layered vocals and widescreen production are gone – and with them, much of the darkness.
Those approaching Angie Hart’s new album Eat My Shadow expecting another collection of lush, elaborate introspection are in for something of a shock. In place of Grounded Bird’s opening statement of out-there intent, there’s the straight-ahead, band-in-a-studio simplicity of There’s Nothing Wrong With You, in which subtle backing vocals and strings sneak in almost apologetically (but to spot-on effect). It’s only after a few plays that you realise that this album, in fact, sits perfectly well as a companion to its predecessor. It just doesn’t sound anything like it.
“Yeah… it’s a bit of a relief,” Angie says of the pared-down recording ethic that producer Shane Nicholson put in place for Eat My Shadow. “I loved the last record and I really enjoyed the experience, but it took me five years altogether. This was a much more concise effort.” That lengthy period of sporadic songwriting that eventually resulted in Grounded Bird was not an option this time. “I started writing while I was promoting the last record and touring it. I started writing right away, too, which I haven’t really done before; I used to do everything in blocks. So it’s nice to kind of integrate everything together and have a musical life, you know?” And a personal life as well, of course? “Yeah… I guess that’s why I write. But I’ve been living. It’s been good just having a life without drama.”
Writing whilst in the midst of touring often results in songs and arrangements that reflect the more straightforward approach of the gig, rather than the wanton experimentation that the studio offers. No exception here; road-testing her new songs as they were finished, Angie found them shaping themselves live on stage.
“Yeah, I think being able to play some of the songs live was part of it. Like when I wrote the first batch, I got to play those live right away. And I don’t know if that’s a great thing or a bad thing, because when I got into the studio it was hard to let go of some of the ideas that I had about them, and I really wanted Shane to do what Shane does best. Yeah, I got a little bit of demo-itis, which was not great. But it was wonderful to be able to be with the songs and see it all happen in, as I said, a concise manner.”
Concise indeed; by the time the songs made it to the studio, many of them were already as good as finished. The emphasis was on keeping it simple; the album’s instant-appeal pop highlight, I Lead When We Dance, was played live to tape, the result a wonderfully infectious pop song all the more appealing for its rough edges.
“We recorded in Shane’s studio, which is really small, so there wasn’t a lot that we could do live. But everything we recorded, whether we could do it live or not, we kept with the concept that there are only a certain number of members in a band, and that it had to be a believable recording, it had to sound like that same band. Which it was, but sometimes we weren’t in the same room.”
Could this have been a direct reaction to the challenge of re-arranging the elaborate Grounded Bird songs for live shows? “Definitely, yeah. That was really difficult. The band that played with me for that tour was amazing. They turned up for rehearsals and they’d worked out the parts so beautifully. But with all the vocals and everything it was difficult. Recently I’ve been doing shows with just me and a guitarist, and it’s going right back to the songs, which is good. That’s been interesting too – to lay the songs bare and play them for people that have never heard them, and see how that translates. That’s definitely one of the reasons I wrote the album the way I did.”
And that’s meant extensive road-testing of the songs in front of audiences, where they’ve taken shape in a very different way to the studio-bound methodology of Grounded Bird. “I’ve been playing about three quarters of the album in my live sets already. In fact, the reason Simple is on the album – that one didn’t make it onto the last record – is because I’ve been playing it live and people have been getting very bossy about it. So I gave it another shot and Shane finally did it justice, which I was very happy about. It didn’t even make it to tape last time – we’d tried it out a few times, but it has been a hard one. As per the title, it’s quite a simple song – but it’s actually quite a difficult one to record. The lightness to it, when you’re recording it, can betray the song, so you’ve got to be very careful with it.”
Ultimately, this straightforward approach to the songs was the reason Nicholson was approached to produce the record. “I was hoping for a stripped-back album, and I was hoping that he’d be the person to be able to do that. I’d had a lot of people come to my shows and ask for me to strip it back even more at the shows – and I don’t know if I could get any more stripped-back! – but people were pretty excited that it was going to be just me and a few instruments. It was actually a little bit of a wrestle for me in my mind, because I wanna throw the whole kitchen sink in there but I’d asked somebody not to. So I’d sit there with my hands tied behind my back sometimes just allowing Shane to do what he does best. Because I knew that I would be my own worst enemy there. And I’m really happy with the results. It’s hard for me to let go sometimes, and I felt… I felt very adult, just allowing him to create something that flowed. I do want to put a bunch of things in the songs – and when you don’t, they really do just start to speak for themselves. So I learnt a lot.”
That newfound sense of spontaneity resulted in one of the album’s best surprises, too, as Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) turns up to share the lead vocal with Angie on the album’s second-last song, Little Bridges. Getting him to do the song was as easy as simply asking. “One little email and it all took off. He was very quick in responding, on the weekend and all. He loved the song, and recorded it really quickly – we thought the whole record might get held up with making sure he had time to do it, but he was right into it.” The song is, especially with Oldham’s vocal, one of the closest things to straight-up country music Angie’s ever done. “Yeah, Fridays and Little Bridges are my first forays into country. Poor Shane – I turned up and told him I wanted to do a sparse record. He’d heard my last record and loved all of the sampling and multi-layers and everything. His shoulders sagged a little when I told him that – and then he heard the first song and it was kinda country! He ‘de-countrified’ them, as he puts it.”
Nicholson also works wonders on the record with Angie’s vocals, recording them close-miked and placing them very much front and centre in the mix. They become, essentially, an instrument working in harmony with the rest of the band. “That’s what won me over,” Angie enthuses. “We went and did a week’s work together before I started the record, and that was the thing that really got me. It’s a great way to perform when you’re recording, knowing that it’s going to come out sounding like you’re a part of the band.”
The first ‘single’ from the new album (these days, basically the first track sent to radio) is I’m Afraid of Fridays - a song that’s a statement of intent in itself. It’s not the obvious ‘radio song’ by any means, but it pushes the keep-it-simple point perfectly. It also marks a change in songwriting terms…
“I guess, dare I say it, it’s my first nod to Kelly Street,” Angie admits. “I didn’t realise at the time, but I’d been trying to write much more positive songs. And when I play that song, I get feelings of Frente, which is the first time I’ve noticed that in my writing.”
Lyrically, there’s still plenty of introspection, honesty and confessional truth to be found in the lyrics; there’s a wonderfully blunt honesty within these songs. Are they all drawn from personal experiences? “Yeah, I guess. Sometimes I write them about other people or to other people, but they always end up being to me. So as I play them live I start to receive the message that I was trying to say to myself.” Angie laughs as though realising this for the first time – but then, there’s a great deal of self-deprecating humour within the lyrics on this album. You won’t find self-loathing and pathos here.
“It’s kind of my way. I don’t know if that’s a masking tool as well, but for me, innovative songwriting – and that’s not for everyone – is to try and write something embarrassing about myself. Because I think that’s where original writing comes from, where you get lyrics that people don’t use all the time. So a little bit of exposure can create something new.”
The sequencing of those songs on Eat My Shadow is, perhaps, a bit unconventional – rather than the usual put-the-potential-singles-up-the-front philosophy used so often these days, here they’re a cohesive collection of song that flow. A quiet, fragile beginning gives way gracefully to effusive, organic pop and then, ever so gently, you’re taken to a quiet conclusion. It’s very much an album that should be listened to as such. And not many people are doing that these days, as the iTunes generation all but abandons the idea of a collection of songs as a cohesive work.
“They’re always like that,” Angie says of her own albums. “They seem to only be able to sequenced in one way, so you battle over that. It’s like pushing memory cards around and trying to find a spot for the round card. There are some songs that didn’t make it on there because they didn’t fit the flow of what I was trying to say, or the way that the sound worked altogether. I still believe in the album.”
© Anthony Horan 2009
Originally published in edited form in Inpress Magazine issue 1096, 4th November 2009