Courtney Swain is one intensely driven musician. Her primary role is that of lead vocalist and keyboardist for avant-pop band Bent Knee, a group almost constantly in motion, be it on the road or in the studio. Their output can be described as nothing short of prolific. The Boston-based group personifies the classic vision of the recording/touring/recording/touring-oriented music group. One would think a breather from this level of activity would warrant a well-earned rest.
Yet the Muse seems to be in a methodical, but giving mood where Swain is concerned. The song ideas keep coming, and she continues to make the most of these opportunities in the form of solo projects. Her latest, Between Blood and Ocean, displays all the passion and fire of Bent Knee, presented from a slightly different angle. The songs on this album are just as deep and meaningful, but presented with a (mostly) softer touch. Swain’s music envelops the listener, enabling them to feel exactly what she is out to convey with seemingly minimal effort on her part. No doubt this was difficult to accomplish, but the best at something often make what they do look easy.
Swain also brought along a completely new group of musicians for this record, taking her sound to a new and different place. It is a journey well worth taking.
Lest one believe the solo album is a harbinger of things to come, Swain is already back at work with Bent Knee, putting together a new album and preparing to hit the road with Thank You Scientist for a summer tour. In the midst of all this activity, Courtney Swain somehow found the time to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
CirdecSongs: What, in your mind, is the unifying theme behind your new album, Between Blood and Ocean?
Courtney Swain: Vulnerability, guilt, soul-searching, eventually culminating into self love and self acceptance.
How do you determine which songs are destined for Bent Knee, and which are best kept to yourself?
Since our last album (Land Animal) we’ve taken a different approach with Bent Knee writing, where we start songs together as a band. This has made the “sorting” process a lot simpler… In the past, I think I was setting aside songs I heard live drums on for Bent Knee. That being said, I’ve found that I write in spurts rather than in a consistent stream, so I’m rarely springing songs and asking myself what to do with it. I usually write with intension as to where that song is going to land.
Explain the methodology behind your songwriting.
I usually start by finding a riff on the piano, synth, or any instrument that gets me excited about the song it could lead to. Then I start jotting down words/thoughts, or I’ll go back through my journals to find some words that feel right. Then I try to sing the words over the lyrics in some intriguing way. When I write lyrics I’m often just looking for the right sound or feel, so I tend to throw whatever comes to my mind on the paper. The writing is very broad strokes, and I’m not great with detail. It’s a really exciting activity for me, and I’ll go back and listen to the demo or play the song over and over. My production chops are pretty dismal, but I can hear where i want it to go from the demo, and it gets me really amped.
What are you eager to accomplish in music that has eluded you thus far?
Something I’ve been working on pretty seriously is trying to make music more regularly (daily), and without putting as much pressure on it. When I was growing up I practiced piano an hour a day, but it was always because my parents made me. I never learned to enjoy the act of playing or practicing. I’ve never been able to enjoy jamming that much, either. That’s something I’m trying to change my mindset around. Put another way; I’d like to accomplish having a better relationship with music. I feel like I have a decent relationship with music as a performer and a professional, but I don’t have a relationship with music as a friend or a companion in life.
You arrangements have a lot of “space” in them. It gives the music a lot of room to breathe. How did you go about creating the album’s sound?
I’m kind of obsessed with SLOW tempos and lots of space. Songs like Bent Knee’s “Boxes,” and “Sand Angels” off my new album were created from that obsession. The “space” factor is also largely thanks to Vince’s contributions. Before he hits the mixing stage, Vince spends a lot of time with the arrangement of the songs. He doesn’t have the attachment to the parts and sections as much as I do as the person who wrote and played a lot of them, so he’s not afraid to cut or change parts in the interest of making the song the best it can be.
Talk about what led you to choose these particular musicians for the album.
Tim (Doherty, guitar on “Sweet Snow”), Asher (Kurtz, guitar), Kyle (Harris, drums), and Jed (Lingat, bass) are all some of my closest friends. When I decided I wanted other musicians to help me make this album, they were some of my bucket-list people to play with. They all brought really special moments to the album, and I’m so grateful that they were willing to play and lend me their musicality.
Name a couple of singers you would most like to hear sing one of your songs.
That’s an interesting question. I think I could go on for a while, but some top names are: Fiona Apple, Lafawndah, James Blake, Nai Palm, Charlotte Church, Kimbra, Moses Sumney, and St. Vincent.
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