Secret Keeper, the new duo of Mary Halvorson and Stephen Crump will be playing "Indeterminacies" at Zeitgeist Gallery here in Nashville on Friday, May 10. The event starts at 7:00pm and is FREE and open to the public. In honor of their Nashville debut, here is the full transcript of my interview with Ms. Halvorson which took place on December 1, 2012 at the Blackwell Inn in Columbus, Ohio prior to her quartet gig at the University of Ohio. A drastically edited and rearranged version appeared on Spectrum Culture in January (Part One and Part Two). I am no journalist so I apologize for the rambling (if not totally incoherent) questions. She was actually quite gracious and generous with her time and it was pleasure to talk with her. The full transcript will be posted here over the next few days. Herewith is Part Two. Enjoy!
RC: Um. I’m kind of jumping around, I’m sort of improvising this interview…
MH: That’s great [laughs]. That’s cool.
RC: So you and Jessica Pavone just did a little tour; that was your tenth anniversary?
RC: Now, I take it then that was maybe the first thing you did when you came to New York was work with Jessica?
MH: Yeah, it was. She was the first person I met.
RC: Oh, really?
MH: We were neighbors, weirdly enough. It’s funny to be neighbors in New York. We live like a block away from each other.
RC: How funny. And you didn’t meet through Braxton’s group then?
MH: Not through Braxton, but we had mutual friends because, she actually didn’t go to Wesleyan, contrary to what many people think, she went to the Hart School of Music where she was playing with Middletown Creative Orchestra and she would drive down a lot and work with a lot of Wesleyan people. So, we had friends in common, so we did meet through mutual friends.
RC: Now those records are really interesting too because, um, you’ve said it’s like “writing your own folk music.”
RC: And I know you’ve mentioned Robert Wyatt being a big influence for a while. I hear a lot of sort of Canterbury elements to that music.
RC: Kind of folk-rock, um, it’s not jazz.
MH: Not really. And I think because Jess never studied jazz, she’s coming more from a classical background and she’s also really into a lot of folk music and a lot of chamber music so I think it more takes on that kind of influence. There’s probably some jazz influence there but it’s not that strong.
RC: And maybe not even a lot of improvisation, more through-composed.
MH: Some of them are through-composed and some of them have improvisation.
RC: And the singing is lovely, I love the harmonies and the, and you both have sort of plain voices—I mean that in the best way.
MH: We’re not singers, yeah. So that’s the kind thing that, I kind of like it when you have singing that’s kind of raw, like it’s not polished. Although some polished singers I really love, but it’s kind of, we’re just singing almost not because we’re trying to be singers but because the song requires that, you know what I mean? [laughs]
RC: Uh-huh. Right.
MH: So, we’re just singing. It’s pretty simple, yeah.
RC: It’s beautiful stuff. And so you’ve made three records?
MH: Four actually.
RC: That’s right, the new one on Thirsty Ear makes four.
MH: The new one, yeah, Departure of Reason is the newest one. It’s I think it’s now almost a year old, though.
RC: Uh-huh. Um. Oh yeah, and so then People is another area where you sing as well and it has very much a rock sort of feel.
MH: And that was also another when I left the New School and I was thinking of doing different stuff. I was more interested in rock music around that time and People was probably the second band I formed after the duo with Jess and I was kind of experimenting with having a rock band and then I met Kevin and we just started working on that stuff.
RC: That’s great stuff. And you have a new one coming out.
MH: Theoretically. [laughter]
MH: It’s been—I couldn’t even tell you what we’ve been through I mean we recorded that, the “new CD,” I think was recorded in like 2009 or something. And we had three different labels kind of screw us over, kind of string us along and say they were going to put it out and be like, oh never mind, and then we’d be back to square one. So we’ve been sitting on it for a long time. But I really like the record, I hope it gets out. We have a plan now which is actually the same label that put out our first two records. It’s funny, we ended circling back around. They weren’t doing stuff for a while and then by the time we’d gotten screwed over enough times, they were ready to put it out again. But Peter Evans did some horn arrangements on it.
RC: Yeah, I saw something about that. That will be interesting.
MH: It’s really cool, I like what he did. And then we have a bass player now, who also sings. So it’s a little different than the other records.
RC: Have you ever thought about adding a rhythm section to what you and Jessica are doing or is it strictly a duo, intimate kind of thing?
MH: I think…yeah, we’ve more thought about it as a duo although we’ve other groups with rhythm sections, like we did that quartet with Devin Hoff and Ches Smith, which did one record and that was a while ago. And we’ve worked with Tomas and Taylor in the 13th Assembly, so I guess we feel like we have other contexts where we can work with other people and the duo will probably just remain the duo.
RC: Particularly when the singing is going on it’s almost like, if there was a little more heft here, you know, this could almost be like popular music.
MH: [laughs] That’s great.
RC: But maybe that’s something you’re avoiding, you know, doing something overt like that.
MH: Part of the duo in a sense is kind of just a natural extension of our friendship, you know? So we hang out a lot, we spend a lot of time together and then we get together and play music and, it just seems, I guess the idea of adding someone never occurred to us.
RC: It might make it more complicated.
MH: Yeah, because it’s so easy. It’s so easy, you know, it just feels natural. We show up, we have some songs, we’ve rehearsed them. It’s easy schedule. We work really well together in terms of just planning stuff and working on music and so it’s pretty easy.
RC: Yeah, there’s almost no division between like what her material might be and your material, it seems very integrated.
MH: That’s good.
RC: So, you’ve gotten a lot of great press, in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, a big write-up in Downbeat this year—have you had any major labels come knocking on your door wanting you do something?
MH: Actually, I haven’t, you know [laughs].
RC: Maybe that’s a good thing?
MH: Yeah, I mean it’s, you know, I’ve actually been really happy working with Firehouse. That’s been really great. Um, and in a sense I don’t really see a need for it. I mean, it’s like, it’s nice having, I mean I have total control over the music and they do a great job and they also have great insight. In the studio, I mean, Nick is really great in the studio from Firehouse and if I ever have some kind of a question about, oh, I don’t know which track, he always has great opinions. I’m just really comfortable wth them and I really like working with them, so…
RC: Do you like making records?
MH: I love making records.
RC: You do?
RC: I can sort of tell because you have a pretty big discography.
MH: It’s just so nice, recording is such a nice process, I think. I really enjoy it.
RC: Hmm. A lot of jazz people are like, "I don’t like making records…"
RC: Like, "the bandstand is where it’s at…"
MH: I mean, yeah, I mean probably if I had to choose one, I would be a performer rather than a recording artist.
RC: I don’t hear a lot of difference between you on the bandstand and you on records, particularly with your own band. Maybe because you rehearse you rehearse a lot.
MH: Yeah, well, my band doesn’t rehearse a lot [laughter] but we play a lot of shows. Um, but, I mean, it’s different, there’s a different energy you get in the studio and it’s different than a live show, I mean just to be able to spend time capturing the exact perfect sound for each instrument and to really, the nice thing about recording is the clarity that you’re able to present that can’t always get in a live show. Maybe the sound is bad or maybe one side of the room you can’t hear the guitar, the other side you can’t hear the bass, you know? It’s nice to have, to present something the way you want it heard, with the exact precision, I kind of like that about it.
RC: And it’s great for fans, particularly ones who don’t live in New York, so we get to hear what you’re up to. Um, so…I don’t really want to get into a whole gear discussion but on my humble little blog, I’ve described you as the “most complete guitarist” and what I mean by that is that you, you take advantage of every aspect that the instrument has to offer, you don’t just sort of limit yourself to certain sort of sounds and one of the things I find really interesting is that you know you play that gigantic Guild, which has this big acoustic sound and you incorporate that acoustic sound into your electric sound, you’ll pull the volume back and there’s just the acoustic sound, maybe blend it, with a little bit of distortion with that clean sound and, um, you’re willing to use technology…um…is there a question here? I’m not sure.
RC: Um, well, OK. You mentioned that you got a little sick of the guitar and you went out and got a bunch of effects pedals and sort of worked your way through it.
MH: Yeah, that was when I was at the New School, it’s true, I did do that.
RC: And so what is your feeling about technology? A lot of guitarists get, you know, they get a huge rack of gear and they bury their sound in effects and you don’t do that, you, you’re basic sound is that acoustic string, that pure sound of the guitar but you’re totally willing to warp that sound.
MH: Um-hm. Yeah, I mean, I think that, obviously every guitar player approaches it differently and it’s just my taste but I really like having a mix of these things. I really like having the acoustic sound of the guitar mixed in because I really feel like that’s a really important aspect of the guitar, the attack of the pick and the sound of the wood. But then you’re having at your disposal an electric guitar so, you know, it’s nice to be able to take advantage of amplifiers and get a tone that you like and feedback and effects, and so but I like that to be balanced and blended. And I’m not saying that’s the only way to do it because I’ve heard plenty of guitarists who maybe have a wall of effects like this, which could be really bad, but if you have great control over that stuff, I’ve heard like Ty Braxton is an example of somebody who has complete control and does amazing things, looping all these effects. And then you get people that don’t have any kind of acoustic element really to their electric guitar, you know, it’s all from the amp. And that can be great, too. But I don’t know. Personally, I just like having that balance and I like to being able to think that if the amp was taken away and all the effects were taken away that the core of the instrument is still there and I could still come up with something. And I kind of think of the effects as like ornaments, like ornamenting or adding something to it.
RC: Yeah because it’s not like you just step on that distortion pedal and like that’s it and you sort use it as an accent or…
MH: Yeah, yeah it’s like something to, just a little something extra to kind of..
RC: Does that create a challenge, like in the small venues that you play in New York, you can back off and you can still hear the guitar but on like a bigger stage, that must be a challenge.
MH: Yeah, what I usually do in that situation (and for recording as well) is put a mic on, right in front of the strings, so then if it’s like a big hall or something, they can blend this mic and the mic on the amp and so then when the amp goes off you can still hear just the acoustic. So usually that works and I always record like that, with a mic on the strings and a mic on the amp.
RC: So, I heard a story where you used to tour with the big Guild and your dad built a flight case for it or something, is that right?
MH: [laughs] He’s an architect so he likes doing these really detailed drawings.
RC: He did the drawings…
MH: He didn’t build the case, he did, the company was gonna, because my guitar is such a weird size, it needs like a custom shape. So the flight company required like a detailed—I mean, they were just asking for a few measurements, they were asking, like what’s the length of the body, and the this and how long is the neck. I guess maybe they were asking for 10 measurements or something and my dad said he’d do it. But before I know it, I he’s completely carried away and he’s, I mean, he’s doing, you know, he’s measuring the distance between this and across here and this length and he’s drawing little diagrams. I mean, that’s on the cover of Saturn Sings, you’ve seen it. But it was hilarious, I mean, I can’t imagine what these people thought at the company.
RC: I assume the case was well-made.
MH: It was, I mean, it worked [laughs].
RC: Um, but then like you took it to Europe and the guitar didn’t make it until like the last minute or something.
MH: Yeah, it almost missed a gig once. Um, I mean, there’s a number of reasons why I don’t do it. One is that I travel so much and I’m not that strong [laughs] and I’m really tired and then the thing weighs 50 pounds. It takes up, you know it’s this long—it’s like a coffin, I’m basically carrying around a coffin. You know, so by the end it’s like my muscles are aching and the thing is getting lost and it’s really not good for the wood to be exposed to such cold temperatures. And, in the end, it’s like, it doesn’t even fit in the trunk of a normal sized cab, so it just creates a lot of inconveniences. And so I thought I really need to find something smaller that still has that kind of acoustic quality that I like that I can travel with. So, that’s what I will be playing tonight. But the latest update on that is that I’m having, so OK. So basically, I’m still having problems because I try to carry on my guitar. You’ll see the neck, it’s very small, the guitar I’m playing and I have a little gig bag I carry it on the plane—so but even with that, I mean, you get people telling you you can’t carry it on, I mean, with the airplane restrictions getting worse and worse and it’s really stressful because I’ll show up—I can’t sleep the night before because I’m worried my guitar is not going to make it and there’s really no right answer, you know, I haven’t figured out an answer because it still stresses me out. I have a couple of friends, actually John Hebert is one and Michael Formanek, bass players who’ve had this surgery done on their bass so the neck is removable so they can check the bass, the upright bass, like in a, um, still in like a bass coffin, but without the head so it’s like half the height and then neck goes in a separate little case and then they’re able to bring their instrument to Europe with a little bit more ease. I mean, it’s still a pain in the ass to carry around an upright bass. But I was thinking about it because I’d done a trip with Michael Formanek to California and he brought the bass that way. And I thought, if you can do it to a bass, why can’t you do that to a guitar? And then I thought if I can just put my guitar in a suitcase sized thing and carry it on the plane and I wouldn’t have to worry about anything? And so then I know this guitar builder—I would never do that to my Guild, because I wouldn’t be able to it—but I know this guitar builder who I have a relationship with who has done some repairs for me before, he’s really talented (?) and has built all kinds of insane guitars and he’s really into weird, one-off projects and he said he would build a guitar for me. So we can custom build it from scratch, so everything is custom, you know, from the pickups to the size of the body, everything, and build it with a removable neck, so I can fold up the guitar. And we’re actually going to build it into a suitcase. So we’re going buy suitcase, build the guitar so that it fits into the suitcase and then I can walk on the plane. So this is the new model, my new model of travel.
RC: Oh, wow.
MH: Of course, he has five or six guitars to build before mine so I’m on kind of a waiting list. So it’s going to take a little while.
RC: I was going to ask how long it might be…
MH: I guess it would be two or three years but that’s my plan. And I’ve never had a custom guitar so it could be really cool to work with him to design this instrument from the beginning.
RC: So is it going to be a hollow-body, sort of similar kind of things?
MH: Yeah. I’m going to try to make it look—not look—I’m going to try to make it sound and feel as similar to my Guild as I can, but still, you know, have it fold up.
RC: Wow. I would wonder how the whole tension of the neck and the strings and stuff, is that like inviting intonation problems by taking the neck off and on?
MH: I think this guy would know how to do it. There are companies that are doing this now with guitars, so I’m sure they use different materials or some way where that isn’t a problem. But I trust that this guy will figure out a way so that it will be cool. Supposedly you have a bolt, you know, you fold it over, you don’t even have to take the strings totally off. You loosen the strings, fold the thing and then you bolt it back together and then just tighten the strings.
MH: That’s kind of the plan. So we’ll see. I’m very excited about it.
RC: Yeah, because I was wondering, I was looking at gig schedule, you’ve played over 100 gigs this year and you’ve been back and forth to Europe four times. Um, traveling with a guitar must be, like you said, hard.
MH: It’s just stressful and I think anything I can do to make traveling fun [laughs] and not stressful with the amount that I travel, I think it will really help. So, I’m excited about that.
RC: Do you like traveling?
MH: I love it except for that aspect of it, I really do.
RC: That’s good because you travel a lot!
MH: Yeah [laughs]. But just having it, I mean, every day is a fight, you get to one thing and, oh you can’t bring that on, and then you’re fighting with the people, then you might stopped at the check-in gate, you might get stopped up at the actual gate, you might get stopped at security, so it’s all these stages where you’re wondering what’s going happen and fighting with people and it’s just exhausting.
RC: I can only imagine Braxton with all his myriad saxophones.
MH: Oh, yeah, I mean, he told that he used to—I don’t know when this was, when he was very young he went to do a solo show in Europe and I think he brought like 10 horns or something and he just had them in piles—and this was when you could check as much stuff as you want—you just have them in piles, like moving all these horns, you know, out of the airport. I don’t know how—it’s amazing. I don’t know how people do it but, yeah, I’m trying to streamline the process.
RC: So, what brings you to Columbus, Ohio?
MH: Um, this gig? [laughter] Which I’m very excited about because it’s—I’ve played here before but not for maybe five, six years. It’s really nice, I really like being able to travel in the states because most of the work is in Europe and it’s always really great when you get an opportunity to play somewhere in the states because there’s so many interesting cities. It’s just hard, you know, it doesn’t happen that often.
RC: Right. Well, I was going to ask you what would it take to get you to come to Nashville?
MH: [laughs]. I would love to come to Nashville. But, you know, especially with a five-piece band, and you have to get everyone over with the flights and pay everyone, so it it’s not easy to do. And people are so busy, I mean even finding a time when everyone’s free is, I was lucky that this worked out [laughs], everyone was free.
RC: You’ve been playing more in “flyover country,” it seems…
MH: In where?
RC: “Flyover country,” you know, between New York and LA, you know, is “flyover country.”
MH: Yeah, actually I did a gig in—“flyover,” I like that—I did a gig in St. Louis, Missouri and Ann Arbor, Michigan recently and that was amazing, it was so fun.
RC: And 13th Assembly was in Alabama last year, I think?
MH: Yeah, that’s true, we played at the University of Alabama.
RC: And my wife and I were seriously considering going and for whatever reason it didn’t happen which is why we were like, OK, Columbus, only a six hours away, we’re going!
MH: [laughs] That is so nice, that is so cool you came all this way.
RC: Oh, hey, New York is even further so, um. Well, I don’t know how much time you have?
MH: What time is getting to be?
RC: It’s 4:15?
MH: Definitely until like 4:30. We have to go to sound check afterwards.
END OF PART TWO.