You have to scream it with your whole being, and it’s a mental exercise to really embody that each time.Beautiful Songwriting United States - Published: 7th February 2017 - - Words & Questions: A Lonely Ghost Burning -
The profile of Oregon natives Joseph has risen dramatically since they appeared on our second Beautiful Songwriting compilation in mid-2014, and even since vocalist and guitarist Natalie Schepman (née Closner) first spoke with us back in the summer of 2015. In a whirlwind past eighteen months, the band have toured extensively with James Bay, performed on popular television shows in both the US and UK, and released their second album; their first since signing with ATO Records. Titled I'm Alone, No You're Not, the band's melodically impressive sophomore release is something of a departure from debut effort, Native Dreamer Kin, and perhaps mirrors how life has changed for the trio: the simplicity of home and family, so much at the heart of everything first time around, no longer seems the driving sonic force; instead, the journey into a wider, more modern world takes precedence, replete with all the self-questioning that such a significant transition entails. ALGB recently caught up with Natalie once again to learn her thoughts on the new record: the conversation encompassing the change in direction, 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.
Natalie: The majority of them were written in the year or two when we were touring Native Dreamer Kin. Some of them were in the last six months leading up to beginning to record. Planets was written a lot longer before — maybe right in the beginning when we started doing music — and Sweet Dreams was a little bit earlier as well, but those are the only ones.
With the first album, a lot of those songs had been written over the course of years, but we had had help from our friend and then producer, Andrew Stonestreet. He shaped the songs and took them from their elementary selves to what we really meant. That happened the summer before recording, but they’d been written so much longer before. A lot of these new songs were the products of co-writes, and it was a different thing to write a second album — it was like we had to start fresh, you know?
Natalie: Oh, my gosh! I remember where I was — Meegan and Allie weren’t with me for some reason. I was taking the tram in Minneapolis from our hotel to the airport. It wasn’t the whole album, it was just White Flag, and I remember thinking to myself — Meegan and Allie and I talk about this all the time — Do I love this? Do I believe in this? Because I’m about to get what other people think. It’s this butterfly kind of feeling, but grounded in this fortitude of: I believe this. I mean this. So, it’s a lot of feelings. I mean, it’s so nerve-wracking to work on those things and then finally have them out. You just kind of give it away, and it soars. It’s crazy.
Natalie: Absolutely. We didn’t have anything to lose when we released Native Dreamer Kin. At this point, with I’m Alone, No You’re Not, we had worked on music for the previous few years and had garnered a team and a small group of people paying attention, so you are curious what they’ll say. And there’s a whole lot more production on this, so I was anticipating people saying that it was too much and that it was a departure from the original: things like that.
Natalie: I would say completely, and not at all. When these songs came, it was like, “Oh, we need to dress them up in the clothes they were made to wear.” And we love pop music, so it doesn’t surprise me that a pop song came out. I love the pop form; I’m not ashamed to say that. So yeah, it wasn’t deliberate when we were going into the writing; it wasn’t like, “We’re going to make something with more pop sensibilities.” It was just once we happened upon these songs. S.O.S, for example, we just kept laughing. When we got out of that writing session, we were like, “This song is so great, but it’s so hilariously in that direction.” [laughs] We liked it, so we kept it and worked on it.
Natalie: Yes and no. I mean, the Internet’s a crazy place, and people love to give their opinion, so if you want to find negativity, you don’t have to go too far, you know? [laughs] It’s just there. So, we anticipated people having that opinion, and that’s completely fine. I made the mistake once of — have you head of Reddit? Well, I was not familiar with the concept of Reddit until a friend told me that our Tiny Desk concert had gone up on it. I was like, “Oh, what an honour. How lovely.” But you go on there, and you realise that the entire thing is just so people can give their opinion, and a lot of it is negative. I was talking to a friend the other day about that feedback, and you have to be strong in yourself and what you think it is — if those people don’t like what it is: “Move along.” [laughs] You don’t have to stand there pointing fingers and saying it’s terrible; you can just not like it and go on on your merry way.
I wish it didn’t affect me, but he made a great point — my friend, Andrew, is actually who I was talking to about this — he said, “Well, it’s likely that those comments they’re making have to do with an actual questioning, like if it hits a nerve.” And I think that’s what it is. I think we all do, as you do with any decision you make in your life — you think: Oh, should we have done that? Should we have stayed more stripped down? But in the end, regardless of criticism, I’ll always come back to the fact that I love what this album was. And I know that if we want to do something different, we can do that in the future; it doesn’t all hinge on this one thing.
Natalie: [laughs] Yes, exactly! That’s what I realised. I was like, “I shouldn’t be reading this.” They were making very personal criticisms about our appearance and our names. I was just like, “This is terrible. This is a terrible place.” [laughs]
Natalie: Yes: so much. I love the diversity of the songs, honestly. I feel really proud of both Meegan and Allie’s writing. There’s a rawness to it that I don’t think the first album had. I listened through the album yesterday, and I was so stunned by it; I was so grateful.
Natalie: Well, when we release the deluxe edition, we will have two extra tracks on it that are quite literally ‘off of the album’ at this moment. And the sequencing of the album will be different, because initially, when we collected the songs together, we realised it fell in this day cycle. What I mean by that is there were songs that felt distinctly like night-time, and songs that felt distinctly like morning. So, we had sequenced them in order of a day, starting in early evening with this worry of going into the night and going to sleep, then going into the night and the struggle, the things that you feel and that doubt that you face — I struggle with insomnia, so I have crazy thoughts at night-time — then the sleep, and then the morning and going, “It’s going to be okay, but I have to do my work today.” That was one thing that was different. The label was the one that had, not the final say, but we said, “Okay, yeah — we’ll go with your way.” And I think, to there point, it makes sense. If we have brand new people encountering our music, and it starts in this very subtle way, they’re not necessarily going to stick around to hear the rest.
That’s a concept that was hard for me; I didn’t want to sacrifice the artistic integrity of the work. But, I was talking to my dad about it, and he said, “No, no, no. Your pop songs are your front door. If you want someone to get in your living room, let alone your attic, and know all the deep things, you need to show them a front door that looks welcoming.” That has meant a lot to me as I’ve thought through, like, “No, you’re right — that’s a wreath on it is what that is.” [laughs] So, we started with those as the introduction to draw new listeners in; I’m not bummed by that strategy at all.
Natalie: I will say: what I just explained to you is the only decision that was made that was not our preference. To your point — [laughs] — it says something about my desire to control, because here I am talking about the one thing. But it’s been a really good partnership with them. I feel nothing but respected by our managers and our label — even more than I’m comfortable with, sometimes. For instance, you don’t think when you sit down to write a song that one day you’re going to be called upon to think of a visual production element to a TV performance. That never occurred to me! We’re on a phone call to the label, and they’re like, “Okay, guys, we’ve just got Ellen DeGeneres. What do you want the stage to look like?” And I’m like, “What goes into creating a stage? I’ve never thought about that.” So, they believe a lot in our creativity, direction and ideas — so much so that I’m having to give myself a masterclass on all these things so that I can be trusted, and have something to offer.
Natalie: I’d say that we always come to a point of agreement. In general, we tend to fill these very specific roles that we’ve learned a lot about this past year. Mine is the role of impulsive, head first, ‘let’s do it, don’t think about the consequences’ kind of mentality. Allie is a little bit more measured, but usually enthusiastic and on-board, and Meegan is calculated and considers potential harm in the future… thankfully. [laughs] She’s more the brakes of the situation. So, you can imagine what dynamic ensues from that: in amazing ways, and in ways of tension. We need it all though.
As far as the album goes, it’s such a crazy thing because it’s not static. I have a different favourite song all the time, and sometimes I don’t like certain songs at all. It’s just like anything else: you just constantly have a relationship with it that’s changing, and I think that’s true of all three of us. For the most part, we line up, but if someone’s really like, “This song isn’t hitting me anymore; we need to do something”, then we listen, and we change it — we don’t bull-headedly move forward. If you’re looking for a percentage, I’d say eighty. [laughs]
Natalie: That’s a great question. It is wonderful, but it’s not the whole story. I’d say that sometimes it’s hard to sing something triumphantly when you’re not necessarily feeling that. It’s been really humbling to me, especially lately, how many people have messaged us and said, “This song has been important in this trying time.” … I’ve felt rather defeated by what’s going on, and it’s been a challenge to feel that sense of resistance and hope against the darkness. So, it is a really humbling experience to have a banner that goes above you. You can’t just go in and half-heartedly sing, “Burn the white flag.” [laughs] You can’t. You have to scream it with your whole being, and it’s a mental exercise to really embody that each time. But yeah, it is thrilling to get to say those things, and to be a war cry against so many people’s obstacles. It is very humbling.
We have had some of the most moving emails. I had a person write to me and say that he had just heard it on the radio, liked the sound of it, but wasn’t really paying attention until the words ‘I’d rather be dead than live a lie’ came out. To me, I’m like, “That’s a very simple lyric; I probably borrowed it from a thousand other people”, but he said, the second that he heard that, he knew he had to tell his parents that he was gay. He’d been hiding that since he was thirteen — he’s in college now — and he knew that he couldn’t keep it in anymore. That was his moment of realisation, and to be a part of something like that is so astounding to me. To get to incite that moment for someone. It’s so humbling to know that that song goes outside of us, does it’s own work and becomes something for someone else. It’s amazing.
That was a very roundabout answer to your wonderful question.
Natalie: Has it? [laughs] What’s funny is, I don’t feel like I have a frame of reference. Honestly, Jamie, I’m constantly going, “Is this doing what you wanted it to do? Label? Management? Are we where you thought we would be?” So far, so good, but I admit I don’t know enough about how it all works. I’ve just been on the outside seeing certain things explode, or not. I guess, I’ll just respond by saying, “Has it?” [laughs]
Natalie: [laughs] It’s funny, I’m just learning so much about the business side of it. Coming from you or I, who are a part of this story and have seen it from earlier moments, it does feel like that. But the impression that I get from other people is that they’ll see one of those things, and they’ll not really care that much because they’re not invested. Or they’ll start to care based on one, and then they pay attention to the rest. What I’ve been told is: it’s not happening over and over for most people, except for the wonderful early-adopting tribe that has joined us. People will just see one or the other. It’s some fact that says it’s a certain amount of impressions, and then it becomes known to someone in their psyche.
So, I think occasionally. But we even found a way to switch it up. TV performances… Hmm. The sound, when you listen back — it’s just horrific. It’s absolutely horrific what a TV does to the sound of a song. Oh, man — it just reduces it. But we have tried to make it new and change the arrangement a little bit.
Natalie: Oh, thank you. It’s really for us so we don’t get bored. [laughs]
Natalie: Oh, my gosh! No. Jools Holland was my favourite. I mean, obviously, all of the American TV was such a massive honour — Are you kidding me? — and Jimmy Fallon was an existential moment in life for all of us, I think, but Jools Holland was so special. And it could have been they put us at a table and kept refilling our wine or something — [laughs]– but oh, my gosh, that was such a special night. Listening back: the guitar sounds thin, and there’s just these very tangible sonic things that you’re like, “Well that doesn’t come across exactly as it felt.” But I think, at the same time, it does, because there was something extremely special about that night, about that place and about that performance. It honestly did feel like there was a desperation about it; it just felt so real. And it was also the trio, and I usually don’t like that song as a trio, because it sounds more like a Mumford rip-off than an interesting song without the production but, really, there was a moment — I can’t even really describe it. It was special. There was a good response.
Natalie: They did. [laughs]
Natalie: Yes. We’ve had the last five weeks off. We did a two week thing in December, but in fact, we cancelled some dates in an effort to preserve our health. We learned our lesson the hard way, actually. That’s funny that I was saying that back then (August 2015) because what was ahead was really crazy. I really learned my lesson as far as being full sail ahead — that being my inclination in life in general. I realised that’s just my rhythm, and it’s an unhealthy rhythm: to go until you have less than none. When you bring other people into it — for instance, my sisters and my husband — these people that are giving beyond… It’s not healthy for even one person, and then drafting other people into that — I really learned my lesson. I mean, we had to do a lot of those things, and I’m so, so happy that we did and they’re done, but we have a different approach going into the new year.
Natalie: Our focus for the new year is to have the vision ourselves and be in charge instead of letting everything just happen to us. So, that’s an exciting new perspective. My dad told me this story that is a little bit heavy but really interesting. He said that he had a friend who was speaking with someone in charge of an Air Force group — I don’t know military terms — and in the interview this man asked him, “When you sent men out to battle, would you know, somewhere deep down, who was going to come back?” He paused for a minute and then said, “Yeah, I did.” He was asked, “How did you know?” He said, “The men who strapped themselves into the plane, I knew that eventually, whether it was this time or the next, it wouldn’t work. But there were men who would strap the plane to their own backs, and those men I knew I would see back here.” And I am so overwhelmed with that idea: like, you are the cosmic force moving a thing instead of being carried by this thing that’s out of your control. That’s been a perspective that this process has taught us.
Natalie: Completely. I mean, has being a year older changed your perspective of being Jamie? [laughs] That’s how it feels. Every new experience is altering how we see it, and there’s been such dramatic new experiences. I guess if you’re asking how it’s changed, I would say: Where do you want to start? I can’t even pick out one way that would seem more important than the others. [laughs]
Natalie: I hope that it revealed that we’re willing to be truthful, we’re willing to be vulnerable but not in a shock factor way, and that we have the full range of feelings: despair and doubt and fractured sense of truth. Not every single feeling has an answer. Not just the triumphant battlecry or the dutiful love song, but to also have songs like Hundred Ways that are this ‘I really don’t know and I feel lost.’
Natalie: I would say I’m Alone, No You’re Not represents what I hope is sophomore year of high school in this journey of, “Okay, we were really earnest and we really meant that, and we did everything to the best of our ability and made every decision that we could have made — now we take all of that into the next experience.” In sophomore year, you start doing sports and start proving your way to the older kids, but you’re still a sophomore: you don’t have any clout yet, really, but you’re getting there. That’s what I hope it means.Joseph featured onBeautiful Songwriting 2
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