Nesting Behaviour: An Interview With Mothers
, June 22nd, 2016 08:01
With the Athens, Georgia band's debut, When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired, Kristine Leschper's candid songs have become full-blown genre-hopping indie. They tell Luke Cartledge about the evolution
"I have a very obsessive personality, and when I get invested in something I become very invested in it." So says Kristine Leschper talking about her creative process. The songs she writes for Mothers, her solo project-turned-indie-rock quartet, support this self-diagnosis: intense, eloquent and uncompromising in their self-scrutiny, the music that comprises Mothers' debut LP, When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired sees Leschper commit entirely to expressing every detail of her psyche.
Having begun the project while finishing art college in Athens, Georgia, Leschper was joined by drummer Matthew Anderegg, guitarist Drew Kirby and bassist Patrick Morales in late 2014. Within a month of having formed, Mothers entered the studio to record their debut and When You Walk… presents Mothers as a remarkably complete package. The album's intricate, cross-hatched guitars and frequent dalliances with divergent stylistic tropes are anchored by Leschper's haunted delivery and arrestingly personal lyricism. Although the record may not seem particularly left field or experimental per se, there is a sense of quiet invention throughout. While the shimmering arrangements of songs like 'It Hurts Until It Doesn't' evoke the ornate delicacy of American Football, there's also a sense of yearning vulnerability in a track like 'Blood-Letting', which recalls Sharon Van Etten, a vocal touchpoint for Leschper throughout. What is so fascinating about Mothers' flagrant genre-hopping is their ability to retain a clear sense of self. Although they may betray certain influences, these are always passed through an identifiable sonic prism, a characteristically subtle use of instrumentation: the guitars, though accomplished and carefully considered, are never showy or gratuitously technical and the rhythm section is similarly restrained, but retains an impressive ability to break into thrilling complexity when required. No single part of Mothers' sound distracts from the elements that lie at its core: Leschper's beautiful voice and candid lyrics.
Following a full European tour, we spoke to the band from across the pond to discuss the album, the development of their songwriting process and the benefits of involvement with a music scene such as the one in Athens.
Kristine, you studied visual art in Athens. To what extent does your visual art practice inform your music, and to what extent does that influence flow in the other direction?
Kristine Leschper: I think that the largest way that it has influenced music for me has been related to my work ethic. I think that studying visual art in an academic scenario really showed me how to push my limits and work really hard. I still do both, but it's hard to find time to do everything.
Mothers began a solo project, and the songs largely retain a certain atmosphere of confession and self-examination. Can you talk us through the process of adapting your songs to full-band arrangements, and how this has affected your songwriting?
KL: Yeah, so when we made the record, so many of the songs were songs that I had already written and that I had been performing as a solo act for a long time. And so that was challenging in the sense that they were songs that already existed and we were coming in and trying to add instrumentation to them and fill out the arrangements, make them bigger and more powerful songs without taking away from the original stark quality of them. The way that we're working now is much more collaborative. We're exploring new ways of writing songs now where we're all much more active.
Athens boasts a very impressive musical history, but how is the city's present-day scene? Is the influence of the city's heritage felt heavily by its younger acts or is that simply not relevant?
Drew Kirby: I feel like Athens is consistently pushing the envelope a little bit. There's always good experimental and fringe stuff going on. Getting exposed to that really informs our process. There are so many bands popping up it's hard to even keep up with; people are in a bunch at once usually. We've all played in different bands, we all continue to play in different groups. That was how we got to know each other and how we first approached working together. Because we'd played shows [together], we understood the breadth of what each other tried to do. Matt, the drummer, and I played for a different group called New Lives. Athens is cool, pretty weird, really active and very close-knit. It's amazing how well people know each other here.
Your lyrics are strikingly direct and personal, yet although that kind of writing necessarily implies a certain vulnerability, they never seem overly self-piteous or fragile as such. They're franker and more defiant than that. Is that sense of defiance something you deliberately pursue in your writing?
KL: It was honestly a really natural thing for me, especially when I was just starting to write songs. Because I was in a transitory time in my life, I was really desperately just wanting to express myself. Starting to make visual art made me realise that I could say things that I wanted to say through an art form; when I realised I could do that with music, it was really empowering. I wanted to start saying all the things that I never thought I was able to say, whether that was to other people or to myself. So a lot of the songs are calling people out for my injuries, people who have harmed me in the past and then also I sort of end up calling myself out on ways that I have harmed myself.
Further to my last question, as a songwriter with such a distinctive lyrical approach, what do you tend to seek and connect with in the work of other songwriters?
KL: It varies a lot. What I've always liked about Sufjan Stevens is how direct he is. He just states: this is how they are, this is how I feel about it, now this is a song. Also, growing up I listened to Joanna Newsom a lot. Her writing is very complex – I learned a lot of words from Joanna Newsom songs. But the most important thing for me is honesty in lyricism. Yet I also really enjoy songwriters and bands who are somewhat ironic and humorous, lyrics that hit you not because they're so strikingly sad but because they're really funny and relevant.
Are the album's folkier, more stripped-back tracks remnants of Mothers' previous phase as a solo project, or are those kinds of songs as integral to the work of Mothers the band as the record's fuller, more collaborative-sounding arrangements?
KL: Yeah, they're artefacts of the solo project. We'd only been playing together as a band for a month when we made the record. We retained a lot of the solo songs because that was what I had been doing for so long, and then we were trying to bring more life into some of the other songs that seemed like they would work with full-band elements. The record is very different to what we're doing now. We've been writing a lot and are hoping to start recording at the end of this year for the next release.
DK: Now the band itself has more of its own character; still vaguely the same, but with more collaborative strength.
I find the reciprocal nature of the music-lyric relationship in Mothers songs particularly interesting. The two elements do more than sit alongside one another – they closely interact. Would you agree with this? How do you go about constructing this relationship?
KL: For me, the songwriting process is usually working on the melodic elements and the lyrics at the same time. I'll have a riff or a chord progression that I like, and I have a stream-of-consciousness notebook in which I'll write down a sentence every couple of days. Then I'll sit in my room with my guitar and play whatever it is that I'm inspired by. And then I'll pull out a line or two from the notebook and use that as a starting point. That's how I've worked up to this point, but I can see that evolving in the future. I've become a more competent player since the record. Now, we're all writing parts that we can't actually play yet, which is helping us to become better musicians.
You're currently in the throes of a hectic touring schedule. As a band whose music has such a distinct atmosphere, a very specific sonic location, do you find that you can write while on tour or does that have to wait until you return home?
KL: I think it's possible, but our touring schedule this year has been so much crazier than anything we've ever experienced, and so it's been a challenge for me to dive into that and just stay healthy, physically and mentally. Writing on top of that becomes pretty difficult for me. But it's been positive in a way, because it's given me so much restless energy, being on tour and not being able to write. The anxiety makes you feel like you'll never write a song again, so when you get home you're bursting with energy and ideas.
For such a cohesive LP, When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired embraces elements of a strikingly wide variety of genres. I can hear shades of post-rock, folk, baroque pop, mid-'90s emo and classic college rock at various points across the record. Was this born out of a conscious desire to showcase contrasting approaches to songwriting or did the songs simply take on those varying generic traits naturally?
DK: I think we all listen to so much different music that I'm not sure we'd be interested in retreading one specific vision of something. It's just a more fun way to think about music – going forward, not trying to go backwards. We're definitely indebted to other musicians a bunch but we want to make something that instils all of those into something that's more forward-thinking.
McKendrick Bearden of Grand Vapids contributed some beautiful string arrangements to the LP. They're remarkably sympathetic to the other aspects of the songs in which they appear. How closely did the band work with him on those arrangements?
KL: He made all of the arrangements entirely alone. It was something we'd been talking about for a really long time, something we really wanted to do. He was tracking bass on the record, we didn't have a bass player, so McKendrick was already there. We approached him with the idea of writing some string arrangements and he took the songs home and started composing the parts. He did an incredible job.
When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired is out now on Wichita Records. Mothers play AthFest at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, on June 24 before touring; for full details and tickets, head here