A Rational Conversation: Colleen Green And Going Hi(gher)-Fi In 2015
"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on instant messenger or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
Last month, Los Angeles-based musician Colleen Green put out the album I Want to Grow Up. It's a departure from her previous releases, like 2013's Sock it to Me full-length, which were recorded on a laptop and used the minimal instrumentation of an electric guitar and a drum machine. For IWTGU, Green put together a band with JEFF the Brotherhood's Jake Orrall and Diarrhea Planet's Casey Weissbuch and recorded in the Nashville studio Sputnik Sound. Along with a bigger sound, the album also features a more developed approach to songwriting and subject matter. IWTGU has already received by far the best and broadest response of Green's career.
Indie acts cleaning up as they get older is not a new phenomenon, but as the definition of "indie" gets wider and home recording continues to get easier, what type of signals does it send when an artist goes hi(gher)-fi? And while Green might be the most prominent example of this progression at the moment, she's far from alone, as acts like Waxahatchee and Girlpool also head in that direction. Ducker discussed Colleen Green and the lo-fi/hi-fi divide with writer and editor Tess Duncan, whose work has appeared on Pitchfork, Wondering Sound, BUST and Noisey.
Would you agree there's still a distinction in terms of how things sound and what that quality implies?
I think so. I'm not sure if this is what you're getting at, but many people don't take a band or artist seriously if they sound lo-fi. People often equate that with not being a "serious musician."
Now, what "people" are we talking about? Because a lot of really self-recorded, super DIY music is still relatively obscure, even with the relative democratization of music through the Internet. Are there people who are into indie or underground music who are still turned off by too much hiss?
People can be into indie music but be turned off by the hiss. Indie spans so far and includes many acts who have become bigger. For example, there are bands like Death Cab for Cutie or Iron & Wine, who made the switch from lo-fi to hi-fi, but I would still consider indie rock. The listeners who are seeking out underground stuff — the bands who are self-releasing on Bandcamp and platforms like that — those people will likely not be turned off by it. But people who discover new music by more mainstream means, like the radio or TV or big publications, probably will be. But the answer to your last question depends on how you define "indie" and "underground."
Right, there's "indie-leaning" music, which these days may or may not be released on an independent label. What I'm most interested in is when artists make the move from recording their music themselves — where the lack professionalism of it is part of the intended aesthetic — to something that is more competently recorded. I've been thinking about this move a lot in relation to Colleen Greens' album I Want to Grow Up.
Making that switch can be divisive for your fans. On one hand, you have a listener who discovers Colleen Green from her Bandcamp or a show she played and just loves the idea of her doing everything herself, making all of the decisions, that it's fully COLLEEN GREEN. Maybe this listener really values DIY. That listener likes the way her drum machine sounds and has always been into the hiss and the fuzz, and loves the authenticity of it and the intimacy and how you can feel like you're in the same room as the artist playing the music.
When this person hears I Want to Grow Up, they're probably not going to be as stoked. They might not even listen to the album after hearing one of the singles. On the other hand, you have fans who like both. I would fall into this category. I've come to accept that most musicians do end up eventually wanting to record in a studio and usually I still like it. I love Green's early recordings but I love I Want to Grow Up too. They accomplish different goals and they appeal to me for different reasons.
When Ben Ratliff mentioned the new album in his recent Playlist in the New York Times, he described Green's previous recordings as "cruddy, funny placeholders." I'm curious if that means placeholders for her or placeholders for listeners, or both.
I saw that. I interpreted that as placeholders for her, like recordings to tide her over until she could "afford" to get into a real studio. What do you think?
Yeah, that's how I took it. Do you think she saw those recordings that way? (I realize we are now postulating on the possible thoughts and motivations of both a NY Times pop critic and a musician who we've never spoken to.)
I don't think so at all. I think she's always been happy with how the recordings have turned out but she was just ready for the change. I read a Stereogum interview with her and it seems like her new sound just came about naturally. She seemed ready to have more people involved in the process to help with ideas. Plus she mentions that it was just a lot less work for her. The process of self-recording does seem pretty tedious, so I can understand why this would be appealing to her.
Because she'd rather be watching TV?
How do you feel about the new album compared to the previous stuff?
I really, really loved Sock It to Me. I've listened to that album countless times. I may grow to like I Want to Grow Up as much as that one someday, but SITM will always hold a place in my heart. It's great at achieving catchy pop songs that are just so simple. But I love IWTGU because it's more deeply personal and deals with similar themes as SITM, but in a much more real, f---ed up way. I love artists who can write really pure, raw lyrics, and Colleen Green writes some seriously genuine, honest stuff. And I like the more rock & roll aesthetic now that she has a band. It's pretty fitting for her. She couldn't have picked a better two dudes, honestly. I liked the purity and authenticity of her early demos and Sock It to Me, sure, but I still dig the fullness of IWTGU. My only qualm is that now that she's kind of blown up she's probably going to play bigger venues, and I'm not as into that.
Do you think she wasn't able to get as deeply personal on those earlier recordings because she had some of those feelings you were describing when we first started talking — that the stripped down way of recording wasn't serious enough to warrant such serious sentiments? Or is she just becoming a better and more honest songwriter?
I don't know if it has to do with either. It's more of just a natural fear of being honest with the world about your feelings. She mentions in that Stereogum interview being super wary of even recording "Deeper Than Love," which is one of the best tracks on the album. Having the guys in the band there to tell her, "Yes, this is good even though it's really raw," was what she needed to go ahead with it. And now BuzzFeed is writing articles about that song. But I will say that she's also just becoming a better songwriter.
When an artist that has had a very DIY, self-recorded approach gets a certain amount of success or recognition, are you surprised if they don't move to a more professional or collaborative approach for their next recordings?
I'm not really surprised, per se. It has to do with that artist's attitude toward music and how they view their art fitting into their life. Ultimately the more professional approach means that their sound will become more accessible and thus earn them new fans and probably more financial success. If their goal is to make a profit off of their art, then that makes sense to me. But some artists don't value that as much, and they want the control to do whatever they want, so if I see an artist making that decision, that makes sense to me too.
For most artists who still self-record, is it a function of aesthetics or finances?
It depends on the artist. Finances play a huge part in it for everyone who self-records, and the majority would probably like to mix it up and hear what their music sounds like in a studio, but then there are artists who prefer the way it sounds when they self-record. There are people who definitely prefer that aesthetic over the polished sound.
Would you say that most home recording in the indie community is now done through free computer software? How much is still being done through hallmarks like 4-track recorders?
Using a 4-track is still pretty common. There's something about that classic method that really appeals to musicians. But then GarageBand is also definitely a common tool these days too. I'm not sure if I can speak for "most," but my guess is that there are slightly more artists using free or downloaded software, just due to its accessibility.
Is there a purist or authenticity divide among the DIY community of 4-track vs. laptop?
I don't think so. If there is, I'm not aware of it. And that would be a pretty silly thing to be nitpicky about, if you ask me. I'm pretty sure Colleen uses GarageBand, and I love the way that sounds just as much as say, Quarterbacks' four-track recordings.
The Colleen Green situation reminds me a bit of Best Coast's development from stoner-y self-recorded 7-inches, to a more professionally recorded debut album, to a Jon Brion-produced follow-up and now (from the song I've heard off their upcoming album) they're becoming even more polished. Still, at every stage, there are people who chime in to say that those first singles were the best stuff they put out.
Yeah, totally. But are those people saying that because of the recording quality or the songwriting or the overall direction of her instrumentation? Because there will always be people who just hate the new stuff an artist releases. It doesn't matter if it's technically better or the songwriting is more advanced and developed, some people just have a connection with the first songs that the musician really captured their attention with and that's that. Or are you mostly referring to critics when you say "people"?
Not referring to critics exclusively. I've heard Bethany Cosentino say that people will come up to her at shows and tell her that.
How do you feel about Best Coast's progression?
I loved the first album, Crazy For You, and I think what draws people to it is that it kind of sounds like you could be listening to an old surf or doo-wop record. It has that feeling of warmth. I didn't like The Only Place much, but that was more because of the songwriting and lyrics. I got back into Best Coast because of the Fade Away EP, which still had that nice touch of reverb that fits Bethany's voice and songwriting so well. I haven't heard the new album yet though, so I can't comment much on that. I definitely don't mind the polish with her music, but I already established that I'm not a purist when it comes to these things.
With the Colleen Green album, her recording in a studio and working with others coincided with a dominant theme on the album that she outlines super obviously in the album title: I Want to Grow Up. I don't know if I ever considered DIY recording an immature or necessarily youthful method of expression. Maybe that's because I was introduced to that aesthetic through Smog and Will Oldham's stuff, and they always sounded like old craggly dudes.
Yeah, I don't think it is limited to being youthful and immature. It happens to make sense in this case, but a lot of her lyrical content on this album is more about growing up in other, more personal senses. Most literally, she talks about wanting to be healthier both physically and mentally ("Things That Are Bad For Me, Part 1"), and then the blunt proclamation of longing to be more responsible on the title track. But the real maturity is when she's able to acknowledge her flaws, like her strong desire to do those "bad things" on "Things That Are Bad For Me, Part 2," admitting her ADD-like tendencies on "Pay Attention," and her dark fears about love on "Deeper Than Love." We didn't see anything nearly as real and intimate as that on Sock It To Me.
Would the message have the same impact if she recorded the songs in her previous fashion?
As long as you could still hear her lyrics, which you definitely could on Sock It To Me, you would still get the message. But you're right, it definitely packs more of a punch working in tandem with the sonic change. It sends a message of wanting to be taken more seriously as an artist, which extends to being taken seriously as a human being. Like, she's a grown-ass lady who used a real studio and has a real band, and a really real fanbase now that she's gotten so much media attention. I'm definitely not trying to say she didn't have a real fanbase before, but she has a way bigger one now.
Right, this album exists in this middle ground where it's still raw enough that feels super honest, but it's neither too clean that the humanity is taken out of it, nor is it so lo-fi that you're distracted.
Do you feel like this album is part of a movement along other recent releases?
Yeah. There's Waxahatchee's Cerulean Salt. Peach Kelli Pop has also made a bit of a transition because Allie Hanlon, who used to record and play everything herself, has a set band now, and the newest song is pretty well-produced. There's also, like I mentioned before, Quarterbacks' new self-titled album.
In all those cases, was the change was for the better?
Yes and no. In the case of Waxahatchee, [Katie Crutchfield's] biggest strength is her lyrics. I can still hear her lyrics on Cerulean Salt, but I did really like that feeling that she was just in the room with me on American Weekend. You don't get that on Cerulean Salt. Now it just feels more like indie folk-rock and before I would have classified her as folk. I'm still very much into her, but I'm sure that some of her fans who loved American Weekend weren't as stoked on Cerulean Salt. But it's still such an amazing record. My only complaint is that when she plays with a full live band (which she doesn't always do), her voice tends to get lost in the drums and multiple guitars. I'm OK with the new Peach Kelli Pop song, but I'm going to wait to weigh in on that one until I hear the full album. Quarterbacks' situation is similar to Katie Crutchfield's. He was making folk-y music, used to record by himself as Quarterboy, and now he's got a band. I actually really like the unique blend of folk-pop-rock his new album achieves.
Did you read the piece about Kyle Gilbride in The Fader? It's interesting that there is a specific guy who is helping a lot of the artists we're talking about get through making that next step, like they need a trusted vibe guide.
Yes! I loved his band, Big Soda. He's been in a bunch of bands and has been around this scene for so long that he just knows what these musicians are going for and is good at letting them do what they want in the studio.
What's your anticipation like for a debut Girlpool album? They jumped pretty quickly from lo-fi to something more professionally done. Would you have liked more lo-fi material from them before they made the switch?
I agree that it was a pretty fast switch. I don't really mind, but I do think their sound is totally fitting for less professional production, especially since there are only those two instruments being used. But since Kyle Gilbride recorded their album, I trust that it's going to sound cohesive and appropriate, just as he says in that interview. I would have been super weirded out if they had gone to some corporate production company, but they chose someone who's familiar with lo-fi, DIY artists and making them sound great without compromising what the band wants.
Are there artists who've stuck with a more lo-fi sound and not made this transition where you've gotten bored of their stuff?
I can't think of one. In fact, sometimes it's quite the opposite. I love(d) Allison Crutchfield's bands P.S. Eliot and Swearin' (and, of course, Bad Banana with here sister Katie). Then Allison self-released a solo album on Bandcamp last year, and I was totally obsessed with it. It was super lo-fi, just Sam Cook-Parrott from Radiator Hospital and her, all recorded in her bedroom or at her parents' house. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to that album. It was one of my favorites of 2014. Same goes for Radiator Hospital's Torch Song. Which is another band who seems to be making a conscious decision to not go the same route we've been discussing.
Had Colleen Green specifically kept on churning out records in the same style as that early stuff, do you think you would have eventually been like, "Enough, it's time to move on"?
Personally, no. Just because, like I said, if that's what makes her happy, she should keep doing it. But I know for a fact that many people would feel that way. Lots of people already did. I've heard people complain about her not having a live band or say that her live show was boring because it was just her and a drum machine, but I was never bored by it. I was just stoked that she was doing it all herself because it felt so real and inspirational to me.
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