Yesterday I had the good fortune to have a chat with Casey Dienel, the mega-talented woman behind Portland-based band White Hinterland, as she in the middle of Montana, en route to a gig in Billings. She told me how pretty the scenery was, before warning me that the reception might be bad. It wasn’t great, but our call only disconnected once, and the rest of the time we had a lovely chat about everything from Lake Erie religious resorts to her love of Britney Spears, with a whole lot of rich discussion about White Hinterland’s last album and how it got so damn awesome (it totally is) in between.
I began as I usually do, telling her how I do a blog in Cleveland and was, uh, going to be writing about her show in, uh, Cleveland. Figuring that saying our beloved city’s name a third time just might be the charm (to what, I don’t know), I asked her if she’d been up here before. I usually save that question for last, but this time I led with it, and I’m happy that I did. It got the conversation off to a fun, if weird, start and we rolled onward for the better part of a half hour after that. Take a gander at most of what we talked about below – what you won’t see is the part my hunt and peck typing skills prohibited from jotting down as I attempted to transcribe in real time.
1) Ever been to Cleveland before?
Not to play a show, but I do have a lot of family in Ohio. I spent a lot of summers as a kid close to there, in this religious summer camp town called Lakeside, with my grandparents. I remember this one donut shop I really liked and a movie theater. It also had a very good symphony. The weirdest thing was being woken up every morning by church bells playing kumbaya.
2) I read somewhere that you relocated to the Pacific Northwest. What was the experience like?
I’ve been in Portland for about two years, and had been moving back in forth between Boston and New York for a while before that, I guess I couldn’t decide which one to live in.
I didn’t have the west coast growing pains a lot of east coasters feel like they are going to have. Portland is very similar in climate and in some ways closer to New England than you’d expect. In fact, the only thing I was irked by and now kind of like was how frequently astrology comes up in conversation. If you said to someone on the east coast that it seemed like they were an Aries, the east coast dude would say fuck off, but if you said that on the west coast, the west coast guy would be like “well, I can see why you might say that …”
Really, though, the adjustment was pretty easy because I’d been there a lot before, done work there with another label, and because it really reminds me of small New England cities like Portland (Maine), Jamaica Plain, and Brookline. So it wasn’t as big of a culture shock. Really, it was a test move to see how it would be like far away from extended family. I didn’t have a job or housing in place when I went and it took a while to dig my heels in, but culturally I was pretty happy right away.
3) I was asking some friends of mine, who happen to own the record store you’ll be DJing at on the afternoon of Record Store Day, what they’d want me to ask you and one of them immediately responded with a request for an explanation about what made the this last record so very different from its predecessor. So ... what happened?
Oh boy. How about I give you the Cliffs Notes version… You are lucky you aren’t the first interviewer in this cycle – that poor guy, I was just working through my thoughts as I said them out loud. Seriously - Oregon Music News – big love.
A couple things had to take traction for everything else to fall in place. First, I spent a really long time learning to sing all over again. I didn’t feel like I was using my voice right. I came to singing really late in the game and had a different experience than I did when I studied piano (starting when I was 4 years old) and composition (which I studied in college). I didn’t have that kind of discipline coming to singing and don’t think it is something you can do without confidence. Went through a period where I wondered how it would sound if I really knew how to use my voice, if I trained it as a muscle, and so when I decided to get serious about that, I went to the shed and I sang.
The second piece was my friendship with Shawn. Very early on in the process for this album I had a second pair of ears in the room. I’m still the editor, filtering through the minutia, but having teammate makes me more comfortable and confident and makes it a whole lot more fun in the room. Shawn made an indelible imprint in the way the record sound, and I think you can hear parts where Shawn’s personality is rubbing up with my personality.
Records are something that happen to me. We didn’t really conceptualize this one as much as others. I feel like we set up a trap on the side of the road and just waited till things came and got caught in it. At the same time, I spent more time on this album than any other in terms of working on it since we were recording it and I was producing it myself. It is like the difference between spending 5 minutes or a couple weeks on a piece for your blog. You would notice, or at least I hope, there would be a difference in how well it was written.
4) We always hear about how artists do their best work, regardless of the medium, when they are in particular situations that inspire them. What does it take for you to get in your best creative space?
Having an open mind. Sometimes I don’t, and that’s usually when I have writers block. A lot of it is unlocking parts of your brain. Any time I feel like I’m clinging to an idea too much it is usually a sign I need to do an about face. If I’m depending on words, next time I’m gonna go back and see if I can reduce that dependency by writing a song that has like 6 words total in it.
Sometimes listening to other kinds of music helps. I like hip hop and r&b, I like to dance. It isn’t just music, either. Watching a Kieślowski film or a Brothers Quay short, reading a fantastic book, or when I see a ballet dance – oh my god – when I see ballet I turn in to a four year old girl.
When I see something with its own strong unique voice it makes me want to do my own thing. Like seeing people in their own space like David Lynch where he is creating his own space to do what he wants to do to be him makes me want to do something the most like me.
5) Say it was your birthday and you could headline your dream bill. Who would open for you?
Tune-yards, though I don’t know if I’d have her open for me. Or Dirty Projectors, if Tune-yards was incapacitated. Or maybe all three of us could play in a round.
6) I like that you embrace the idea of covering songs by other artists and think you picked some particularly interesting figures to cover. What drew you to Justin Timberlake and Arthur Russell?
They are kind of schizophrenic choices.
Usually it is the singing, a voice. The human voice is probably my favorite instrument; next would probably be drums. I’m usually really drawn in by a singer and if a good melody is there … it doesn’t just make me wish I’d written it, but that I want to sing it and play it and live in it. Those songs, I could literally spend all day singing them over and over.
Also, I think doing covers are really fun. There can be a worry that you overexpose or hypercontextualize yourself or what you do by picking a certain song done by someone else. I think it is crazy when people haven’t heard some songs. It makes me want to buy them World of Echo so they can take it home with them and have it forever.
Shawn and I both come to music the same way, I think, what we care about is if it is interesting melodically. We decide what we think the best thing is about a song and that’s what we keep, and the rest we change up.
I like doing these kinds of songs because I’m not somebody who thinks its healthy for me to be writing music all the time. My level of devotion is so intensified when I’m doing it. It is nice to be able to engage with music that isn’t mine, to work with it in a way that is completely different, without getting as focused and obsessive as I can get when I’m working on a record. It is just nice to lighten up.
7) Any other artists/songs out there you are itching to play but just haven’t had the chance to yet?
Oh, so many. I would really like to do any song off of Black Out or maybe a Kylie Minogue song. I like that music. I understand it is supposed to be a guilty pleasure but I don’t feel guilty about it. Maybe a Lil Wayne cover. Take on one of those guitar solos. That’s it, my next project is to redo Rebirth.
No, I’m not really going to do that.
8) Finally, as I was prepping for this conversation, I looked at your Wikipedia page. There is a section in it, about an unreleased EP called Vessels, that reads like the end text to a conspiracy theory movie. When I read it the first time, I think I sat back in my chair and quietly said, “Wild.” I guess that isn’t really a question, so much as something I thought was cool and wanted you to know about.
Wow. That’s like the end of Goodfellas … and then they all died. Couldn’t see that one coming.
There is tons of erroneous information on that page, like how I have pigeon toes (well that’s true, but other than that …) – there’s just a bunch of shit on there that I don’t really know how I got there, I think people are putting stuff up as a funny joke, stuff like a band I was in for a week, what college I was accepted to and didn’t attend. The internet is an interesting place, man.
White Hinterland on Saturday, April 17th. Not only are they playing the April Cleveland Bachelor Show of the Month (with Dosh and The Sleeps; doors @ 8, show @ 9) in the evening, they will be DJing a special set at Music Saves at 4 PM that afternoon. I got a sneak preview of what Casey has up her sleeve for the playlist but I've been sworn to secrecy. Just trust me that you'll be tickled.
2 years ago