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Interview: Kelli Scarr talks life as a solo artist and her latest record, Danglin’ Teeth

Kelli Scarr’s experience in the music industry is nothing if not diverse: she penned an Emmy-nominated soundtrack for HBO’s documentary In A Dream, toured the world with Moby from 2009 to 2010 as a vocalist and opening act, and participated in NPR’s highly regarded series Project Song (a challenge to write a song in 48 hours). There is a pattern here; Scarr is a songwriter and an esteemed one at that. So, it’s no surprise that she has continued to write music on her own—recording two albums in the past 3 years—and has defined herself as a Brooklyn-based solo artist with serious chops. While she originally gained acclaim for her contribution to electronic records, she’s currently writing dreamy, folk songs backed by a band of talented, instrumentalist friends.

On her June 2012 release, Danglin’ Teeth, we find Scarr and her band experimenting with steel guitar. According to Ms. Scarr this record is, ”…0ne small step closer to what I want to sound like, [closer] to sounding like ‘me’,”  and a departure from 2010’s Piece. Danglin’ is more of an old country album, the good kind of country though—the kind that makes you want to stroll across the heartland and stare up at the clouds as the vocals wash over you, blowing dust across the Plains in the process. It’s music for falling in love at a campfire.

Listen to the title track “Danglin’ Teeth”

 

There are many ways to conduct an interview: in person, over the phone, with the help of a homing pigeon, or through written correspondence (which in our day means email). Kelli was kind enough to correspond with me via email and talk about what it was like to be part of a major tour and how things have changed as a solo artist. She talked about the importance of her band, the story behind the odd video for “You Could Be So Great,” and which song on Danglin’ Teeth is the most meaningful to her. What you lose in spontaneity by corresponding via the written word, you gain in clarity. I much appreciated Ms. Scarr’s in-depth answers to my questions.

The Silver Tongue: You’ve had quite the musical journey, including an Emmy-nomination for In A Dream, a 15 month tour with Moby, participation in NPR’s ‘Project Song’, and now two excellent solo records under your belt. Talk to me about touring with Moby back in 2009 and 2010. What was that like on a day-to-day basis? How did that come about?

Kelli Scarr: It was like this – private jets, 5 star hotels, and room service. It was amazing and I’m so thankful to have had that experience. I’m pretty sure I’ll never get to that level with my own music.

It came about when I accidentally opened for Moby in 2008.  I was playing in a band called Salt and Samovar and we were playing a show at Maxwell’s in NJ. Last minute the headliner cancelled and the promoter was able to get Moby and his band to fill in.  He saw me sing and emailed me the next day about getting together to work on some music. Then a year later he asked me to join his band on the Wait for Me tour.

TST: What’s an average day for you like these days on tour now? Do you prefer playing to a smaller crowd who are there specifically to see you or do you ever miss playing too many more people in massive, classic venues?

KS: These days I’m traveling in a minivan with my 4-piece and playing smaller venues.  My preference is always to play to a crowd who really enjoys listening to music – whether that’s to 2 people or 20,000. It’s all pretty fun though.

TST: A lot of eponymous bands these days kind of leave the rest of the band faceless. From your bio and other things I’ve read, the lineup you have behind you seems to be an integral part of your music–not just session musicians who could change at the drop of a hat. Is this accurate? Can you talk to me a bit about how the band came together?

KS: This is accurate.  It’s really important to me to play music with friends and to grow the music together.  I have been very fortunate to find some amazing players who I also enjoy spending time with. I’ve known Andrew Southern and Scott Metzger for 11 years now.  We lost touch for a few years when I wasn’t making much music, then when I started working on Piece, Andrew was the first bass player who came to mind.  When Moby gave me some of his extra studio time at Chung King Studios in 2009, I called Andrew and his long-time drummer/friend Ryan Thornton to play and record some of my tunes and, much to my delight, Scott showed up.  It ended up being a very magical day which planted the seed for what I hope will be many years of playing to come.  Then in 2010 I was looking for a drummer to tour the Piece record and Scott recommended Taylor Floreth.  He came in and I knew he was the one after a few bars through the tune.

TST: What is your typical songwriting process? Where do you like writing songs best?

KS: It’s pretty hard to have a typical songwriting process when you’re raising a kid and juggling a few jobs, but I try to sneak it in whenever I can.  I try to write longhand every day – usually with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table before my son wakes up.  Then I take a lot of notes in my phone and compile them in a book throughout the week and wait until I have a quiet night to sit at the guitar and turn my writing into songs.  I spent some time writing during a residency at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming this spring.  It doesn’t get much better than that place for me.

TST: Have you ever written a song and then immediately thought, “I did it. This turned out exactly how I want.” Does that ever happen for a musician or are you constantly self-critiquing?

KS: I think I’ve come close to that feeling a few times, but it’s pretty rare and is always followed by a ton of self-critiquing.

TST: I’d imagine it’s hard to step back and look at your music as it might fit into a larger picture. How would you classify your sound as a solo artist? How would you explain how different it is from your previous collaborations with Moby and J. Viewz?

KS: It’s near impossible for me to classify my sound, which I’m fine with.  The main difference between my own music and that of the collaborations I’ve done with Moby and J Viewz is that I don’t incorporate electronic music elements.  For my own stuff, I try to keep my recordings as raw and live as possible because I’m not a huge fan of playing or recording to a click track.

TST: Who would you consider some of your musical contemporaries?

KS: There are so many, so I’ll stick to some of my favorite Brooklyn songbirds – Sharon Van Etten, Sara Kermanshahi from Natureboy and Leah Siegel from Firehorse.

TST: Talk to me about the video for “You Could Be So Great.” The images of you in the dresser are a little surrealist and odd. How did the idea for the video come about?

KS: This video was directed by my old friend from Folsom, Will Pellegrini.  Will was pleasantly shocked when he heard the new record.  He felt it was a better showcase of my range and scope of musicianship and wanted the video to represent this growth and departure from my previous recordings.

The video for “You Could be So Great” was inspired by a theater piece Will saw years ago (created by Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter, Aurelia Thierree) about a woman trapped in the drawers of dresser, wanting to escape and free herself to enjoy a night on the town. Will thought that my story was not that dissimilar. In my own words, I too could be so great if given the chance to break free of the labels, escape the box, dig in, and find my roots.

TST: How do you feel the new record, Dangling Teeth, compares to Piece? Were there any conscious changes in your sound or any maturation that you yourself are aware of?

KS: Dangling Teeth represents a huge period of growth to me and I owe most of that to my band.  They gave me a sense of freedom and confidence that I didn’t have with the intimate, bedroom-based recordings on Piece.  I didn’t consciously change my sound for this record, but I do feel like I am one small step closer to what I want to sound like; to sounding like “me”.  The styles of songs on this record are really representative of all my favorite music to listen to and subsequently, my favorite music to play.

TST: What song has the most personal meaning for you on Dangling Teeth? What is it about?

KS: I hold Phoenicia very close to my heart.  That song is a wish on a star for me – a wish that the spirits of the loved ones we have lost get to meet and know the spirits of our children somewhere before they are born to this earth.

Watch the video for “It Could Be So Great”

Check out Kelli’s Daytrotter Session

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