Interview: Alex Hall (DJ Keller) and Kelly Crisp of the Rosebuds
A few months ago I conducted a phone interview with Kelly Crisp, one half of North Carolina’s The Rosebuds. It is rare to sit down with an artist that is both equally talented and gracious, but the twenty-five minutes I spent with Ms. Crisp were enough to convince me she possessed both of those traits in excess. What follows is the transcript of that phone interview, initially recorded for 90.5 KCSU on Thursday, July 14, 2011.
Alex Hall: I’m sitting down with Kelly Crisp of The Rosebuds from North Carolina, and they just came out with an album called Loud Planes Fly Low. To be honest with you, Kelly, I’ve listened to the album several times, and I am constantly amazed at it. I think it’s my favorite Rosebuds album yet.
Kelly Crisp: Thank you.
AH: It’s interesting because there are ten tracks, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of your albums construct such strong songs. Every single cut is an accomplishment. But I want to talk – first before the album, I want to talk a little about the tour: I think I read that you’re in the middle of a three-month tour. Is that correct?
KC: Well, it’s two months, and we’ve done one month and a little bit. We’re on tour with Other Lives right now, who is a great band from Oklahoma. Their music is just incredible. They’re so good live, too, so it’s really good that we get to see a band that we appreciate every night. But the music is so crushing; it’s so good to see. So that’s lucky for us. And then, we pick up in a few days with Bon Iver for a summer tour, so we support that for a month. And then – this is amazing – Other Lives supports his west coast run. So for some reason, and maybe this is just because I’m lucky, my two favorite bands and my two favorite records right now we’re getting to tour with. All three of our bands are touring together this summer.
AH: You liked Bon Iver, Bon Iver as well?
KC: Oh yeah.
AH: I actually write for a music magazine, and I gave the record a 4.7/5 [probably link my review in here, don’t you think?] because it was such a beautiful record.
KC: I think just in terms of building a vibe, that record does such a great job of maintaining itself from beginning to end. It communicates what it is very well, and then stays in that pocket for the whole record, which is a feat.
AH: I saw that members of Bon Iver and Megafaun toured with you as part of your backup band at one time or another.
KC: That’s true. We’re from North Carolina, and where we live a lot of our bands were really young at the same time, and we played in each other’s little projects.
AH: It seems very collaborative.
KC: It’s really collaborative, and I guess I feel lucky, but I don’t feel like it’s unique, because in everybody’s town, wherever you live, you have a group of people who identify with each other. It’s more exciting to make music when you’re collaborative instead of competitive, which never occurred to us, but I’ve heard it happens. What happened was we moved to Raleigh, North Carolina around the same time that members of what became The Bowerbirds, Megafaun, and Bon Iver moved. All of us started playing at this little art gallery, and our weird little songs appealed to each other. We were just really young bands and had this amazing ambition to tour and make records. It seemed like a goal that we could work for and achieve, so all of us just started believing it and doing it.
AH: And as you said, young bands back then, but now all of your efforts are coming to the fore. I think Megafaun is releasing an album sometime later this year, and of course Bon Iver, and of course your record. It all seems like it’s happening at once.
KC: Yeah, and The Bowerbirds are in the studio as we speak. This is the year where we feel like we all have become ourselves. In fact, Bon Iver and Megafaun are self-titling their records. We really wanted to self-title ours as well. I think the label had a problem with it, because commercially it seemed like a weird idea. But I felt like – here was my argument – I felt like it was the most ourselves we’ve ever felt recording an album. We ended up choosing a lyric that was really special from the song “Cover Ears” on the record because I felt it communicated that same idea at least between me and Ivan [Howard, the other member of the group]. But for all of our bands we really felt like we have found ourselves with this year in music.
AH: I agree. Listening to Loud Planes Fly Low I think it encapsulates who The Rosebuds are, or at least how I envision them. I hear shades of it on Birds Make Good Neighbors and Night Of The Furies, and those are totally different albums. Each album sounds tremendously different from the last one. You have Night Of The Furies, which embraced some nu-disco, and then you have the gorgeous production on this album. For one example, “Second Bird Of Paradise,” which is the third track, features a…I don’t know if it’s a nylon-string guitar, but there are so many instruments going on at the same time. I’ve never heard anything like it from any of your other albums.
KC: I think what we learned on this record – production lessons we arrived at on this record – was space. In some cases, what created a more lush sound for us was less effect, more space, more distance. I’m glad that you mentioned that track, because to me it felt like we recorded that in a very simple way. We really only spent two days in the studio recording that song because it seemed to be coming together so easily for us. It was fun. We were able to accomplish a lot without a whole lot of equipment and without putting too many things on that song.
AH: Yeah, you can definitely hear that through all of the songs. Was the songwriting process for you and Ivan more deliberate or was it more based around inspiration? As you said, you only spent two days in the studio for “Second Bird of Paradise.”
KC: I have to say both, because we took our time with this record. That song was the easiest to get into, but some of them…none of it was deliberate, I have to say that. That word seems like something where you have demos and you go into the studio with a very concrete idea of what you want, and we never had that. We didn’t even know what the content of the lyrics would be. All we had was this vibe and this idea of how it should feel. And I say feel because to me it was tactile; in my imagination it felt like I could stand in a field, and the idea for me – this is what I communicated to Ivan early on – was, “we should try to see ourselves as the child versions of each other.” A lot of things changed for us personally over the last few years. Ivan and I have always been a couple since we started this band: we were married the week we started. This is the first record we have recorded since that change, and we’re no longer a couple, but I felt like we shouldn’t focus on anything specific. Let’s just think about us as the child versions of ourselves. And I think that opened us up to being child-like in our creativity. Here’s where that idea came from: when you’re in a relationship you feel like you want to take care of the other person and you want to protect them. Because you love them. That really doesn’t change. And that didn’t ever change with us. We still feel like we’re a family. So the best way I could relate it to him was, “what if we were just childhood friends?” Think about that idea. Then things seemed easier for us in making the songs. The lyrics came later and they were really unintentional. There wasn’t a moment on this record that we had really planned out. What we had when we finished was something we felt good about because it was super-honest, but we knew that other people would realize it was very personal.
AH: The simplicity, not going in with any extra baggage, really lends itself to the immeasurable focus that you and Ivan create on Loud Planes Fly Low. I think the fact that you only have ten tracks, the fact that it seems you spent a lot of time with each one – it leads to some really interesting ideas, and again, I think it is your best record.
KC: Thank you so much.
AH: So “Second Bird Of Paradise” was one of the easiest songs for you to get into. What was one of the hardest for you to get into or record?
KC: Well, there were a couple of songs we felt didn’t work, and we ended up just throwing them out. The guy who was working on the record with us, engineering a lot of it, Chris Stamey, thought we were crazy for doing that, because he said, “These are your three best songs! These were the hits!” And we said “nah.” They just didn’t feel right. And I think that was the right choice to make. All the songs on this record feel like they go together. That’s the reaction I have deep inside of me, somewhere where you feel things that bother you. [Laughs] I don’t have that feeling about anything. So I knew that those songs had to go, and Ivan did too. We both agreed to just get rid of them, and then everything would feel good again. If there was a moment where something felt forced or difficult – in other words, if we lost our way in it or the vision wasn’t being communicated correctly – we just fell down on it. So what we ended up with was a bunch of songs that felt good.
AH: When you write an album you want everything to sync. You want it to be a whole. You don’t want, at least in my opinion, a collection of singles. It’s an entity. Do you agree?
KC: Yeah, I feel like that’s the case. My favorite records I listen to from start to finish. But I don’t listen to whole records a lot: I listen to playlists, because I can put together the vibe that I want. But if you think about structuring a record so that it would be pleasant to hear, it’s like putting together a playlist. That’s basically what we did. That was how we came up with the sequencing. We thought about which song felt like it fit well between the ones before and after it. I felt the inspiration for that would be long albums you like to sit down and listen to, where there aren’t any weird, jagged edges.
AH: Yeah, everything is definitely very smooth and very seamless about this album. I want to talk to you about a (paraphrased) quote: Victoria Legrand of another duo, Beach House, said it was easy to communicate ideas for songs because there were only two people in the band instead of four or five. Do you think it’s easy to communicate with Ivan or do some things get lost in translation when you’re trying to figure out how to write songs?
KC: I can definitely identify with that. I love what Victoria does, too; I love the way they approach songs and the songwriting process. Ivan and I have this long history of being in a room and being creative together, to the point where we can…[laughs]. We know what the other person’s reaction is probably going to be, or if one of us isn’t feeling it, neither of us is feeling it. If there’s something kind of exciting to one of us, the other person knows to say, “Yeah, let’s keep going, see where this idea goes.” And that’s how we operate. The other thing we have is a lot in common. We like the same music. And we were really good friends for years and years before we even got together as a couple or a band because we loved to listen to music together. I feel like we have this ability to identify with each other so closely.
There were a couple times where he couldn’t be in the studio because he was with this other band, Gayngs. They were on tour, so I was in there by myself for a couple of weeks, and I remember thinking on all the decisions, “What would Ivan do here?” It was the first time I’d been in the studio by myself, but I felt like he was considered on every idea, every track that I put on the record. When he wasn’t there, he was definitely still involved in it. And then there were things that I felt I couldn’t do until he got back, I really needed him here. I realized just how much of a partnership we have, no matter what. We have this awesome creative connection, and it was something that I was proud we protected, because otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to do this record. I’m just really lucky that I got to experience…how do I tell you this? I really felt like a new person after doing this record, and I’m glad I got to experience that. A lot of people probably thought it was weird that we decided to keep this band together. But I don’t think it’s weird at all, because it is easy for us to communicate creatively with each other.
AH: Yeah, you’ve known each other for so long, the continuity, the creative impetus is so strong. You can’t really walk away from it that easily.
Did you have a favorite song of yours on the album or a song you were the most proud of? I know my favorite song is “Come Visit Me” because the lyrics are so brutal but the instrumentation is so – it’s one of the best compositions I think you two have ever written.
KC: Thank you. Let me ask you: can you play that on the radio? I don’t think you can, can you?
AH: If we do a “Rosebuds Radio Edit” I’m sure we can fit it in there.
KC: [Laughs] Well, it’s really fun to sing that song live, because it’s really cathartic to be able to stand on stage and scream those lyrics. It’s really a good experience. When I sing that song it’s super-fun for me. I think my favorite song on the record…there are two songs: one of them is a really interesting approach to songwriting we’ve never really explored before, and I was satisfied by it. I love the drum solo on “A Story.” I feel like it builds so much tension. We worked with the feeling of that song a lot and made that the main focus. So I would say that song and “Limitless Arms” are my two favorites.
AH: The second track and the eighth track. “A Story” was definitely one of my favorites too. It reminded me of “These Are My Twisted Words,” which was one of the singles that Radiohead put out before their last album. It’s cyclical. It draws back on you again and again and again. It creates this atmosphere that I think is totally amazing.
KC: Thanks. I’ve heard it said that it’s a song that is more difficult to get into, but for me it’s the most satisfying to be inside of when I listen to the record, because I feel like it has the most to give you. Yeah, you’re definitely in a cycle; there’s a pattern in that song. Then there is also this internal tension. The drums communicate that really well. But I really like the emotional experience of listening to that one.
AH: You’ve released four other albums, but this one especially is getting a lot of attention. Do you find that attention startling or are you disappointed with it? How would you rank your response to the way people received this album?
KC: I guess I don’t think about it too much. But here’s what I have to say about how the album turned out: it was really honest, and we were afraid to be that honest with each other, to explore that territory. But once we realized what was happening we started getting deeper. We like to use a lot of metaphors in our writing and like to pay a lot of attention to the lyrics. We care about them so much and building stories. However, these became more concrete and very personal. And I thought, “If this record never comes out because it’s too personal, then that’s fine.” It doesn’t matter to me; we just need to figure out what’s here and what we need to say in these songs. If we have to record another album to put out and this one never sees the light of day, that’s fine with me. Because it was that important. We really did it from a kind of selfish place of needing to communicate the way that we felt. That being said, it was totally a snapshot of that time, and I listen to the record now and think, “That song was about friends of mine. That record was about my really good friends.” Or somebody that I care about. More than it feels like it’s about me. It’s about a moment in time. So once we finished it I felt so…cleansed. I felt like we hit the reset button. I was so happy about that, and I guess it wasn’t as personal as I thought it was. Maybe it was okay to release the record. Everybody’s response to it has been “it was really personal,” but it seems like it resonates outside just the two of us. It seems like it has ideas and emotions and themes that connect with other people’s experiences. So in that way it was not about us at all. And if people like this record, then I’m really proud of that.
AH: Well, I know I enjoyed it. A lot of artists, when they make something so personal, it is not as accessible to their audiences. But with this record, I think a lot of people can connect to it. I think that’s what sets this record apart from many other ones.
Loud Planes Fly Low is available on Merge Records, and Kelly, it was a pleasure talking to you.
KC: Thank you so much.