Oregon sisters Joseph (Natalie, Allison & Meegan) featured on the second volume in our Beautiful Songwriting series, the trio's wonderfully constructed and controlled debut album, Native Dreamer Kin, providing a comforting yet honest and questioning listening experience built with immaculate harmonies amidst uncluttered beauty. A Lonely Ghost Burning had the immense pleasure of catching up with one-third of the band: singer, songwriter and guitarist Natalie Closner conversing freely about the battle to write truthfully, unwelcomed assumptions and mixing music and faith. Such was her level of engagement and willingness to confront potentially difficult issues, one suspects that the interview could quite easily, time permitting, have extended to double its length.
You may also be interested in our latest interview with Natalie (Feb 2017), which is focused on Joseph's second album, I'm Alone, No You're Not.
It can’t always just be this triumphant, 'We have the answers, and everything will be fine!' Because nobody will believe you. I won’t believe myself.
Natalie: I started writing songs — well, I started writing bad songs – when I was in high school. [laughs] The first song that I liked probably happened when I was a senior in college. I wrote songs for about a year, and I was like, “Ah! I’m a songwriter; I’ve always wanted to be a songwriter.” I did a little EP for myself then kind of had this come-to moment where a friend called me out and said, “You don’t really believe in this — what are you doing? Why are you trying to make something that you don’t think people need?” All of the songs just came from this place of angst and “Oh, man, this relationship isn’t working out”, or “I have this thing that I want and I can’t have it.” It was all the failings and hope of trying to find love in my twenty-two-year-old self.
So, I had the idea to invite Meegan and Allison. I started by bringing those songs to them and seeing how they would add to them. When I started thinking about songs that we would all sing together, it totally changed the voice, and I started thinking about what else I wanted to say. It used to come only from this place of, like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t do anything but write a song right now.” And this is the great debate of the ages. You have Steven Pressfield – The War of Art – saying, “Get up every morning and just do it. No matter what: make something.” Then you have the idea that you wait until the muse visits you: you entertain the muse and something comes of that. So I would say that, since then, and since adding Meegan and Allison, it’s been way more of the discipline of sitting down and attempting to make something together, although I wouldn’t say we have a formula.
How the songs on this last record happened: I brought them to our producer… Did you want the totally long-winded answer? [laughs] Oh, my gosh; I’m almost done! I brought the songs to the producer who was my room-mate’s fiancée – I liked his music, and I was intrigued to have him help me develop some of the stuff – and he would take the songs and just have this sense for what I really meant. He would help shape the lyrics and the sound of the song so that it was so much more believable. After we got through, I was just like, “Oh! I mean that so much more.” We tried to write with him a little bit for the second record, and it’s been pretty good, but now we have a whole team of managers, a label and all of these things, and they’ve wanted to set us up with a lot of different writers. So, honestly, that question is so hard to answer, because I don’t know that I’ve had one formula work for more than one song; every song has a different story of how it came to be, and it gets even more convoluted and involved as we keep going and try to write with different people. Does that answer your question? [laughs]
Natalie: [laughs] “Yeah, plenty!”
Natalie: I would say that it’s been difficult in some ways and totally a relief in others. I didn’t want to do this because I like business — you get into your creative endeavour and you realise how much of it really is business. That’s been really incredible: to have someone who is an expert at booking shows, having somebody who’s an expert in seeing a band go from nobody having heard about them to selling out ten-thousand person rooms. Gosh, it’s been so amazing to be teamed up with those people, but at the same time, it’s also really strange to have a middleman between me and whomever we’re working with. Going to these shows, it’s been so funny not knowing the context in which we got the show because, normally, I’m the one talking to the promoter, and now we show up and I wonder whether this person is doing us a favour; I don’t know the relational dynamic, which is a little bit unnerving for me because that’s something that I like to have a lot of control over. So, there are all these different dynamics, and similar to a start-up company, you just have to start trusting other people to believe in what you’re doing as much as you do. So far, we’ve had the most incredible team. It’s been amazing.
I would say, with the writers, that’s a totally different story, because these are people who have succeeded in doing a lot of different things. We go and hang out with them, and it’s this very strange thing to walk into a room with someone, meet them, and then go, “We’re going to create something important right now.” [laughs] Or, at least, operate under that assumption. It can be kinda scary, but the time we did that in L.A: man, I learned so much. It was so great. We came away with some really fun, surprisingly honest pieces of work that I will be really delighted to release at some point.
Natalie: I would say that that used to be true… With one of my favourite songs that’s going to be on this next record, Meegan was sitting down — and she doesn’t really play guitar, but she was plucking on one string — and she was noticing she’d written all of these lyrics, but then on the side, she was like, “I can’t say anything true. It’s so hard to be honest.” And then she was like, “I always think to myself there are two thoughts: I’m alone; no you’re not.” That was just, like, her journal — she had had this whole line of things that she was trying to say, and she just started singing the margin part. It was staggering. She sang it to me plucking the bottom E string the whole time, and I just lost it. It was ironic, almost, because she said it’s hard to say a true thing, but that was the true thing. So, I would say that the best environment for it is just the raw… You know, Joni Mitchell said something about songwriting – “Writing songs is like peeling onions — you have to peel back all of the layers and most times you cry.” [laughs] It’s totally that. It’s like: What’s the truest and rawest? That’s the only scenario in which it works.
Natalie: Woah, I love that question… I think it’s… What is it? What is it? What is it? … It’s multi-layered, I think. At a very personal level, I think that I would combust if I didn’t try to communicate my human experience. Arranging words, interacting with people in some way — I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t do that and try to perfect that craft more and more, whether it’s songs or whatever. On a very philosophical level, the human experience of me, too, is just everything. It’s everything in living. When someone else steps out and says, “This is where I am. This is my experience. This is how I feel. This is what’s true for me.” I don’t even know how we could go on if we didn’t have that. So, I think that is just really powerful for me, selfishly, and I listen to music for the same reason. I want somebody else to put to words something that I experience so that I can have a fuller, richer experience of that thing or a better understanding: at least a sense of ‘I’m not the only one who has felt a certain way’.
Natalie: That is the question! It’s so funny that you ask that because… Ah, man, it’s so tricky because I always wanna start there; I always want to start from the place that says, “Okay, this is what we’re about. We’re about communicating hope: we’re about communicating the ideas that, through the struggle and the tension and the darkness, goodness and love and light win.” These are the ideas, like, we’re not alone; we prevail over what pushes against us. Those are all messages and truths that I want to believe in and that I want to say out loud, but if I start from that place, a lot of times I’m telling myself to feel and know something that I don’t necessarily feel in a moment. So, I would say that even though I want that to be the banner, I have to challenge myself to get deeper into what I might be feeling in a moment.
For instance — this song probably won’t go on the record, but I really struggle with this idea of ‘Do I have enough? Am I enough? Are my resources enough?’ Especially with the lifestyle we’ve been living lately, there’s this sense of running yourself into the ground, and you’re like, “I don’t have enough energy to have a good attitude right now”, or “I don’t have enough time to call the people I love right now and I’m far away from them.” It pounds you into the ground, and I was writing — trying to say a thing to encourage myself — and all I could say was, “Do you have enough? Do you have enough?” While the idea of there not being an answer yet to that pains me — because I want to put a bow on it and say, “You do! You do! Act like you do!” Because you know you do, deep down — but the truth of that moment was, I didn’t know, so I think that is just as important: to not know and to communicate that and the unfinished story; the sense of pain and suffering that might be there as well. It can’t always just be this triumphant, “We have the answers, and everything will be fine!” Because nobody will believe you. I won’t believe myself.
Natalie: Like I said, the writing for the second record has been really tough in that regard because I want to just be the triumphant banner carrier. I would say that, when I listen to Native Dreamer Kin, I hear both sides of that story, and I feel really good about that. ‘Not Mine’ is a grieving song — that doesn’t have the end of the story. ‘Gold’ is like: ‘I want there to be something good — just tell me’, and the same with ‘Tell Me There’s A Garden’. So, I would say that, as we started to have anybody listening at all, I started thinking: I have to be the battle-cry. So, I’m struggling against that sense of: Hey, fabricate a battle-cry because you think that’s what people need. People don’t need that; people need what I need. So what is it that I need to say that’s true?
Natalie: A very simple one is that people think we’re from Joseph, Oregon. We spent a lot of time there in the summertime, but we grew up outside of Portland. A lot of folks would think, “Oh, they must be from that town and they grew up in this tiny, tiny town in Eastern Oregon.” I mean, it’s close, and I don’t mind if people think that.
Oh! I would say a bigger misconception… Ooh, this one’s tough… When people make assumptions about what we’re implying in regards to their religious experience and begin to talk to us like we believe the same things. I would say that our relationship to the idea of divine is so complex, so rich and so exciting and daunting — it just isn’t what a lot of —
What it is: I just feel like there are a lot of old Natalie’s that come up to me and just start talking as though I’m a churchgoing, conservative Christian person. It’s not that I’m not, but it bothers me when somebody makes that assumption and doesn’t give me room to articulate a different thing. So many people want to do that with religion. People will ask, “Are you guys’ Christian’s?” And I just wanna say, like, “What do you mean? Let’s get into it. Let’s have a talk about that. Let’s dive into that nuance.” But I hate this idea of, like, “Hey, are you like me? Because I want to feel safe, and I want to think that we think the same things so that I can give myself permission to believe in what you are.” Do you know what I mean?
Natalie: Gosh, that is such a long answer. It’s a twenty-eight-year-old lifetime of having a Christian experience and finding within that, especially in evangelical, non-denominational —
I don’t know what it’s like in England, but in North America, I think language is so important, and in these spaces, there’s this trendy set of words. I love it, because at first they’re vibrant and it makes everything make more sense: it makes you feel alive and there are songs that accompany or include the words, there are sermons with the words, and there are whole hordes of people using words, whatever they may be and whatever religious culture that you have. But, so easily they lose that: they don’t get exchanged for new, exciting words and then somebody else is just parroting what somebody else said. And they don’t know; they’re not accessing the richness of that word. People just want to be told what to say, and people want to be told what to think, and there isn’t this dynamic interaction with a very terrifying idea that there is a higher power and that, maybe, it’s good: maybe, it represents love. All those implications are just not in those environments; there isn’t a lot of room to doubt and wonder. It’s just a lot of people, sometimes, looking for someone to say, “Hey, follow these rules and you’ll be fine.”
While I have a complicated relationship with the idea of singing songs of worship… There’s this song my dad always says about — I love this — where David says, “Praise the Lord, oh my soul”, or something like that, and my dad always says, “I don’t think he was bubbling over; I think he was telling himself what’s true.” I love that idea of worship — telling and reminding yourself what’s true — but that should never negate the ability to question that at the same time and interact with that in a way that doesn’t die. It so easily just dies when you tell yourself, “Don’t feel that other thing anymore; just say this thing.”
So, that is such a discussion but, I guess for me, the idea of all of that is so fluid and nuanced, and it’s always something different. So, I think, just singing songs about a true experience could arguably be a worshipful thing: could arguably be a religious thing, but you know what? That might depend on the night! At least, am I experiencing a worshipful, spiritual thing? Or, maybe I’m even participating in it and I don’t even know, or I’m not tapped in or aware at that moment. I don’t think it can have those parameters. My interaction with the divine is this ongoing thing — as is Allie’s and Meegan’s. So, I think it encompasses that, but it looks different every time.
Natalie: Yeah, there’s this tradition of just recycling vocabulary, where it’s like, “If I say this, then I get all these yesses from all these people.” If you’re just ultimately wanting someone to nod their head at you, then you’re not saying anything at all: you’re saying what somebody else said. And don’t get me wrong, I totally believe there is some music that has been put under those parameters that is totally sincere and where I totally believe them, but it’s case by case. I oftentimes mistrust something that has that title, because I go, “Why are you trying to be in a club right now? Why can’t you just say something that’s raw and true enough that people will say yes to it and people will say no to it, because it’s a strong enough statement?”
Natalie: Oh, my gosh. I think that question applies to you as a living creature. I don’t frequently talk about my own faith experience when I’m discussing the music because, like I said, language is so coloured by a person’s experience. I would say, if I were to try that, if I were to go into situations and start naming myself in certain categories and having these interactions within the framework of a faith thing, it would limit me to that person’s connotations with those words, and it would limit me to be what that person would assume those words mean. So, as much as possible, I try to avoid walking into that territory of: okay, now we’re gonna be under a faith banner. And even that word — what does it mean? It could mean something completely different to you than to me. As much as possible I’m trying to break down that naming of things. The words don’t really have a robust meaning anymore, because they’ve been so fragmented into everybody’s experiences. So, honestly we don’t wave that around and say, like, “We’re gonna go into the faith category.” I would say that, more than anything, people put that on us. So, I don’t think it’s a barrier, really.
Oh, man! We would never get to play certain things if we had that. One of my favourite crowds we’ve ever played to was a poetry slam. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of these events, but it’s people who feel marginalised or outcast or overlooked: there were a lot of people from the gay community and a lot of people from the trans community. Everybody was talking about their problems at this event, and those people were some of the most emotionally present people to hear our music. If we had had any kind of banner of faith, those people connote hate with that, so we would never have been invited. It was one of the richest sharing experiences that we’ve probably ever had.
So, I just try to not let that be a barrier: in answer to your question.
Natalie: I love these questions; thanks so much, Jamie.
Oh, man. Wow wow wow. There haven’t been many; I feel so lucky… Just being new to the situation and learning as we go, probably. I would say that, recently, the biggest obstacle has been recognising how to rest, because if we don’t rest and fill up again then we can’t be good at things at all, let alone good at a job. It’s a great problem to have, and I feel grateful to even say this, but just having too much to do and too many places to be that we’re never home. We’re all extroverts, so we can go and do that for a long time, but then we just run out. We’re shells of ourselves. We realise, “Oh no, I missed something! I didn’t find a way to refill.” I would say that is probably the biggest thing we’re learning right now, like, how do we conceivably do this — the rhythm of life — and not run out all the time?
Natalie: Oh, my gosh! Everything… [laughs] So many things… I’ve gained a friendship with my sisters, first of all. I’m four years older than they are, so we were really more acquaintances before we did this. That’s the best thing that I’ve gotten. We always say this, like, we’ll be somewhere — Omaha, Nebraska — and it’ll be a terrible show and something will have gone wrong and we’ll all just look at each other in the green room with bad beer that Meegan and Allison can’t drink because they’re gluten-free… Whatever bad situation, we’ll just be like, “Well, when we’re eighty, we’ll talk about that one time in Omaha, Nebraska.” [laughs] If nobody else cares about what we do, forever we get to say, “Remember when we did that?” I would say that is, hands down, the biggest thing that I’ve gained — just time with Meegan and Allison, and that camaraderie. I’ve gained so much; I could write a paper about it. [laughs]
Natalie: Woah… Lately, it’s disappointing people. Yeah, I have to face that fear all the time, because I only want to make people pleased or happy or delighted or wowed. There are just a lot of times that that doesn’t happen. When you have your business team and your best friend and your family and your boyfriend… and you have yourself — there’s no way that everybody can be happy. Or, you’re trying to pick a producer, and you have this person and this person and this person who are excited about it. Somebody’s gonna be unhappy, and these are the things I lose sleep over at night. I hate when people are upset with me or I’ve caused a disappointment, and that’s a fear I face every day in this job.
Natalie: Thank you! [laughs]
Natalie: [laughs] My boyfriend makes me laugh a lot; he’s very funny. My dad, when we all watch movies together and he thinks something’s funny. It’s the funniest thing in the world because he has this huge, rich laugh. Oh, man, it’s just like winning the lottery if you get him to laugh at something. He loves the movie Hitch, with Will Smith and Kevin James. Oh, my gosh! That is my favourite thing to watch with him, because he just loses his shit every time.
Natalie: In general? [laughs] I think language and words and sentences: interpersonal communication. Any kind of human-to-human interaction — I just go nuts. I literally said to my boyfriend last night, “I’m like, a really smart person, I think, but only in this one category.” [laughs] I’m so entranced by human interactions, but when I’m trying to plan a tour or trying to connect things: oh my gosh, I can be so slow sometimes, and I’m absent-minded when it comes to so many things. But, when it comes to, “How did that interaction go between those two people? What’s the dynamic between them? What’s the subtext?” [screams] I go nuts. It’s so interesting.
Natalie: [screams] Heavy hitters! That is a trick question, Jamie. [laughs] My boyfriend and I talk about this all the time. I am so lucky and fortunate to get to do that thing that fascinates me: I get to communicate, and that is my job right now. Granted, there are a lot of sacrifices that are made — like, I lived at my parents’ house for three years, and I’m never home and I don’t get to live by my best friend who just had a baby. There are all these trades but, ultimately, I get to say at the end of the day, I am using my soul to do something that matters to me, and I don’t take that lightly at all. But, as a performance driven person, and as an ‘applause’ and ‘people are pleased with me’ driven person, it’s so easy for me to say this is me. So, when somebodies clapping for me: I’m great. I feel good. But, if somebody’s disappointed or if a show didn’t go well… Oh, my God, I can’t even tell you how many times: if people were talking during a show or something was off — it just ruins me. It levels me. Because I’m like, “I’m bringing you everything I have and everything I am”, and if that gets ignored or misconstrued, and I let that be a statement about me, then it’s death: it doesn’t work.
So, I would say that that is a lot of the work of this: it’s to know that the work is outside of me. My dad always says to me, speaking of the faith idea, like, “If all of these things about this good, divine being are true, that’s the thing doing the work and I get to participate in that.” I get some ownership because I participated and was like, “Yes! Let’ do this”, but beyond showing up, it’s not mine to say ‘great job’ or ‘terrible job’ because there’s a greater force changing people’s lives or whatever — causing someone to feel hope or joy. If that doesn’t happen, I can’t blame myself. So, I’d say it’s a trick question.
Natalie: [laughs] Well, this is the dream. What it looks like to believe in it is to go, “Okay, I see a thing, so far away” … My dad would always do this. When I was in college studying vocal performance, he would say, “Do you wanna sing at the Met? Do you wanna sing opera? If so, let’s hold that over here and start exactly where you are. So, what’s the very next step towards that?” The work of the believer is to believe, right? And that doesn’t mean like, “Oh, that’s easy!” Believing is the bloody, daily battle of life: the back-and-forth in your own mind of, like, “Am I crazy? Am I not? Is this worth it?” So, I would say what it looks like to believe is: a battle. Every day.
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Natalie Closner of Joseph gives her thoughts on the band's second record, discussing how much intent was behind the album's poppiest moments, how the final work might have been put together a little differently, the importance of her dad's advice, and the humbling, difficult result of winding up with a successful battle-cry.
Thoughtdream give an insight into the nature and development of their contrasting creative qualities, their favoured writing ambience, and how much they would like to be defined by their work.
Jesse Daniel Smith discusses the pros and cons of his unusually late start as a musician, his desire to be fully defined by the music he makes, and the many joys and difficulties of being a continuously developing songwriter and human.
Jillian Kay discusses her interest and preoccupation with the past, how playing music allows her to be in the present, and why she would like to convey a little more happiness through her work in the future.