By Rebecca Marx, Photo Credit Zoe Prinds-Flash
“Being a member of a touring band requires you to pack up your regular daily freedoms and fold into the crew, and it’s really jarring to come back home and have the rest of your life waiting for you. “Alone” is about naming the ever – present fears I saw in myself as soon as the ground stopped speeding by outside the windows. It also acknowledges the insidious escapism that social media and information overload presents in our society. I don’t want to spend my days living out someone else’s design or being too afraid to let my real spirit be seen.” ∼Aby Wolf on her new solo EP Call the Rocks.
Aby Wolf is set to release her fourth album, a five song EP entitled Call the Rocks on July 1st. Maybe you are more aware of Wolf’s collaborative side? She is Dessa’s “secret weapon of harmony” after all, and has worked with Dosh, The New Standards, The Twilight Hours, Brother Ali, and Dark, Dark, Dark amongst many others. This EP finds her once more reunited with Producer, Composer and Wolf Lords partner Grant Cutler as its Producer, and it feels oh so good! You’ll be hard pressed to find a better songstress, or bear witness to a more dynamic performer, so check out what she has to say about her new EP Call the Rocks.
Last year looked dizzying from the outside – touring with Dessa, performing locally, your work with Prairie Fire Lady Choir and Minnesota Public Radio, as well as your new EP Call The Rocks that will be released in July. The pace brings to mind the question of a muse; do you have a muse that inspires you to create?
AW: It was a smattering of endeavors to stay on top of! I felt a bit like a plant with a different light source to grow towards every month, limbs stretched out green. I’m most inspired by connecting with people across language barriers, by travel, by the natural world. And movies.
The title of the EP: Call The Rocks, what does it mean?
AW: “Call the Rocks” is a summoning of support from my environment and community, and an ask for the ground to come back up under my feet after a few years of touring and travel. It’s a reference to the movie “Labyrinth,” when Sarah, the protagonist, finds herself hanging onto a tree branch suspended over the Bog of Eternal Stench. (Spoiler Alert for the handful of people who haven’t seen Labyrinth.) The branch she’s holding on to begins to give way as her companions watch in horror from land- if she falls in, she’ll smell bad forever. At the last moment, she screams for her friend Ludo to help with his super power of mineral manipulation. Ludo howls and huge stepping stones rise up out of the sludge under her feet.
Call The Rocks finds you once more working with songwriter, composer and producer Grant Cutler, with whom you collaborated on the 2013 electro pop duo Wolf Lords. This time he is the producer, did the status change from a duo to your solo work change what the collaboration looked like?
AW: Our “Wolf Lords” album was created slowly over time, and was highly collaborative – we’d play improv sets around town, trying out the themes before they became songs. We really bounced ideas off each other. Our roles haven’t changed in our musical partnership for this batch of music. Grant’s been a great producer to work with from the start – we just did our writing separately across the country instead of in the same room.
Although Grant Cutler currently resides in Brooklyn, he is still very much connected to the Minneapolis music scene such as in his duo with Claire de Lune (Tiny Deaths). What does the recording process look like when you are long distance?
AW: This “Call the Rocks” EP mostly came one single at a time – Grant would send me something from Brooklyn and I’d write to it while in the back of a speeding tour van. Eventually I cut vocals up at Humans Win! with Lance Conrad. Most of the writing I’ve done over the last couple years has been for one – off projects without an album in mind, so it took awhile to gather up a release.
The combination of Grant Cutlers electronic prowess and your soaring vocals make for a really symbiotic marriage of sounds. How did the working relationship come about?
AW: Grant first invited me to come sing on some ambient stuff he was working on for the score to the film “Stuck Between Stations.” I biked over to his house in South Minneapolis and he had a laptop and a microphone set up in his living room. He asked me to improvise over a washy synth chord progression, and I just started singing. It came really natural and easy, and that’s exactly what we did the next several times we worked together. He chose some chords and I just sang over them for fun. It was incredible, and so freeing for me. That’s what I value the most about working with him – he presents strong ideas while leaving all the space in the world to play with.
Your vocal range is quite impressive. In the track “Any Shape” I detect a hint of R & B. Are there any particular artists that you find yourself drawn to or inspired by that you keep on repeat?
AW: Well thank you. I’ve certainly got some Badu in my psyche, D’Angelo, Bjork, all that diva pop from the 80’s and 90’s… Mariah, Toni Braxton, Lauren, Fiona, Ella Fitz and Sarah Vaughn, Chaka Khan.
Also, this is not R&B, but there’s this amazing 1992 album by The Story called “Grace in Gravity”—super-tight, academic harmonies and nerdy lyrics. I really love how committed they are to the rules, they execute those parts like snipers. I go back to it when I need some singing exercise.
“Alone” is a stunning track, it really stuck with me. It breathes vulnerability with lyrics like: “face to face our cover is blown…” and after thinking about the song I started to question whether it was written in reaction to something personal, or a more collective reflection upon who we are in this world as a society? I may be way off – can you clear the song’s intent up for me?
AW: Both. Being a member of a touring band requires you to pack up your regular daily freedoms and fold into the crew, and it’s really jarring to come back home and have the rest of your life waiting for you. “Alone” is about naming the ever – present fears I saw in myself as soon as the ground stopped speeding by outside the windows. It also acknowledges the insidious escapism that social media and information overload presents in our society. I don’t want to spend my days living out someone else’s design or being too afraid to let my real spirit be seen.
A word that comes to mind when I think about what type of artist that you are is “original”. You have a penchant for unique projects. I am particularly intrigued by your MPR collaboration that resulted in the song “Maya”. Can you explain how the collaboration came to be?
AW: I was hired on as Music Director for Kerri Miller’s “Talking Volumes” series for a couple seasons. I wanted to do something really special for each show, so I got my hands on as many of the featured books as I could in advance and wrote a custom piece for most of them: Margaret Atwood, Edwidge Danticat, Pat Conroy, Michael Connelly, etc. “Maya” is the song I wrote for Isabel Allende’s novel “Maya’s Notebook,” about a teenage girl who falls into a downward spiral of drug use.
For those who haven’t experienced your live performance, I cannot emphasize enough just how dynamic you are onstage. Your facial expressions and hand gestures are so emotive when you perform, do you have a background in theater or dance – or is it simply the connection with the piece that you are singing coming through?
AW: Theater and dance are pursuits I’d love to dive into some day, but I have zero training in either discipline. When I’m performing, I’m completely committed to singing the song with my whole body. It’s less about presenting a display for an audience, more about inhabiting the vibe.
In fact, I’d say that your performance can at times run to the abstract – a very performance art feel, do you think that is a fair description?
AW: Fair enough. 🙂
I love that the title of the song that you wrote for the Prairie Fire Lady Choir is titled “Hive”. How apt that an ensemble of so many voices join together to sing a song of that title. What was the process like creating it?
AW: I was a few songs into my work load for the PFLC writing project, and was hitting a wall, repeating the same Soprano-Alto-Tenor patterns. My husband encouraged me to reach back into my fondest memories singing in high school choir, and to take advantage of all the potential moving parts I could construct. I let go and the song emerged on its own, and Prairie Fire Lady Choir did such a lovely job nailing it. I think it’s still something they perform currently.
With the recording of Call The Rocks securely under your belt, and the release show set to happen at the Icehouse on Friday, July 1st, what does the rest of 2016 spell for you?
AW: One more European tour with Dessa at the end of the summer. Square Lake Music Festival at the end of August. Then maybe school- I want to take some time to learn a new language.
Call The Rocks Release Show this Friday, 7/1 Icehouse: http://www.icehousempls.com/events/2016/7/1/aby-wolf-ep-release-bones-and-beeker