photography/ JASON RODGERS
story / SARAH WRIGLEY
stylist /SARA COOPER
hair and makeup/AHBI NISHMA for Hair Room
Service (using Osis, Make Up For Ever, and Obsessive
I met Robert Earl Thomas and Molly Hamilton of Widowspeak in a Brooklyn art studio, the smell of turpentine heavy in the air, the exposed pipes of the heater ticking loudly, hypnotically as the duo thoughtfully and respectfully answer my interview questions.
I first encountered the band indulging in one of my most shameful guilty pleasures, ABC’s Revenge. Am I admitting that to everyone who reads Ladygunn? Yes. Did I embarrassingly admit that to the band, themselves? Unfortunately. Lead guitarist, and all around swoon mongerer, Earl Thomas, takes my confession in stride responding with an earnest, “That’s cool!” The song, “Limbs”, off of the band’s first self-titled album, in all of its haunting minimalist power completely overshadowed Joshua Bowman’s brooding pout long enough to send me on one of those song-finding goose chases where I Google indistinguishable lines like, “What to do with everything,” and expect the search engine to miraculously know what song I’m talking about. It led me straight to the duo surprisingly, and I’ve been entranced by their music ever since.
The band formed in early 2010 when mutual friend and drummer Michael Stasiak brought lead singer Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas together, later recruiting bassist, Pamela Garabano-Coolbaugh. Hamilton and Earl met for the first time at band practice and were signed by the record label, Captured Tracks, after only six shows. The band has since been whittled down to two. Their first album, Widowspeak, was notable for its melancholic, seductive charm, the kind of stare out the rain-streaked window thinking really profound thoughts kind of music. It was picked up by major television shows like the aforementioned Revenge and the wildly popular American Horror Story.
I expect at least an ambivalent if not negative reaction from Hamilton and Earl Thomas when I ask about this commercial success but their response is refreshingly adverse to my prediction. “It exposes us to someone who wouldn’t necessarily come across the band surfing the Internet,” says Hamilton. Earl Thomas expresses ambivalence rather towards the “whole Brooklyn indie blogosphere,” stating that “it’s corporate but something tangible. People who work in television and movies have a really good ear for how music can really charge a moment. My mom could have heard this song.” Hamilton pipes in that her mother, who wasn’t aware that her daughter’s song had been picked up by a major television show, encountered, “Harsh Realm,” on American Horror Story. “We have gotten so many fans from this T.V. exposure alone. There’s something kind of great about that.” It’s always heartening to see musicians look the threat of consumerism and popular culture in the face and decide to embrace it while maintaining their integrity—something with which most artists have a difficult time grappling.
The band’s sophomore album, Almanac, boasts a new maturity at a defining time where bands can either go to the Place Where Indie Bands Go to Die or find some semblance of permanence or respect. It’s safe to say with the appropriate amount of risk and development tangible in this album that Widowspeak has achieved the latter.
It has become common, as musicians pool in major cities, for artists to record their albums in secluded, natural environments. Grizzly Bear recorded Veckatimest in a cabin in the Catskills and Andrew Bird’s Break It Yourself was made in a house on the banks of the Mississippi river. Widowspeak also fell for the charm of escape as a creative catalyst by retreating to a barn in Upstate New York to make Almanac. “We lived there for a month, in this century old barn not really seeing anything but a couple houses and hearing howling at night.” The album opens with the sound of falling rain in the beautiful “Perennial” and later “Minnewaska” features the heady night sounds of a field of crickets.
Hamilton often refers to the idea of “expansive nature,” of open fields, of air and space—their songs mirror this sense of awe, of slowing down time and observing, something that is a rarity in Brooklyn where the band lives. The city can often feel claustrophobic. Being accosted by a constant barrage of urban stimuli and the idea that anyone with a pencil or Garage Band on their Mac can call themselves an artist can be creatively stunting at times. Maybe Patti Smith is right to tell all young artists trying to make it in the city to go to Poughkeepsie. Maybe they have something in the water that we don’t have here. Maybe she’s got it all wrong.
“It’s an escapist record, if anything. It’s meant to give you that feeling that you can get away to somewhere else.” They conceptually worked with the idea of making an album that can mirror a “lived in” narrative experience, using collections of images to create a sense of depth and cohesion. Cut with lines like, “Nothing lasts long enough,” and the prevalent nature theme, the album comes like a tonic, transcendent with escapism that the two hoped to achieve. I paid for it on iTunes; that’s how good it is—as in with real money.
To close the interview, I ask Robert Earl Thomas what advice he would give Ladygunn readers. After being modestly flummoxed at the idea that he is in the position to offer advice, he responds by saying, “Make something every day.” There’s something pure in the sentiment that is indicative of what makes Widowspeak so damn good.
For more pics of Widowspeak for here.