Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Interview: Lovers

Portland-based musical trio Lovers arrives at The Saxon Pub about halfway into Walt Wilkins country-dominated acoustic set. Competing with the sound of whoops and sincere guitar strings, the girls explain to the bouncer that they are one of the bands in the evening lineup and finally enter the dusky bar with an understandable blend of confusion and concern sneaking across their faces. The walls of the Saxon Pub are plastered with photos Willie Nelson and his contemporaries; the bar is packed with cowboys and cowgirls drinking Texan beers — a pile of regulars that have come to enjoy a night like any other at this Austin institution. 

You wouldn’t expect to find a quirky, romantic electronic-tinged folk-pop group like Lovers tucked into a good ol’ venue like the Saxon Pub, so I was extremely curious about the arrangement.  How would Wilkins’ fan base take to the sequencers, electronic drums, and bright feminine energy of this Northwestern outfit?

I sat down with band mates Carolyn Berk (“Cubby”), Emily Kingan, and Kerby Ferris to chat about their recent tour, additional creative endeavors, their international musical beginnings, and (excellent) new album, Dark Light.

How did this incarnation of Lovers come together? This wasn’t the original lineup, as I understand it.
Emily Kingan: Kerby and I met each other a long, long time ago in Portland at a party at my house. Then Kerby and I were on tour with my old punk band, The Haggard, and we were playing at The Eagle in San Francisco. That was when we first met Carolyn. She was on tour with her band, [which] was Lovers at the time. Their band had blown up, and they jumped on the bill that we were playing. 

Kerby Ferris: After that, I moved away from Portland, but Emily still lived there. Cubby moved to Portland, so they became close. Then I went to Brazil —originally on another tour with The Haggard — and ended up living there for years. As luck would have it, Carolyn was going to Buenos Aires with her dad at the same time I was there on a trip with a Brazilian band. So Emily arranged for us to meet, which we did, and then Cubby came to stay with me in Sao Paulo and it was like friend magic, much like it’s been with Emily for like 10 years. Then maybe like a year and a half later, I had a lot of reasons to move back home (Portland), where those two were living. At the time, I wanted to have a creative project there. We were on Gmail chat one night and Cubby said, “Come play drums in Lovers.” It was an exciting idea, especially because I had been doing a lot of work with electronic music in Brazil, and the sound of lovers had always been a lot more analog. Cubby said that they were trying to go a new direction, kind of dance and stuff. So we had this plan before I moved back to Portland that we would play music together. Then when I came back the three of us naturally just kind of came together and reformed the band. 

That’s a much more complicated answer than I was expecting. So, do you speak Portuguese?
KF: Yeah. So does Emily.

EK: I spent a lot of time in Brazil, too. I didn’t live there, but I spent five or six months there, on and off. 

You guys should have done a Portuguese bonus track or something.
KF: Haha, maybe! We’d really like to tour South America because we have so many friends and so much community down there. It would be really exciting. Plus I think it’s such an exciting place for so many reasons, but especially in terms of the independent music scene. Especially in Brazil and Sao Paulo, it’s just really impressive.
You talked about it a little bit already, but what were you doing before you became a band? Did you always know you wanted to be musicians? Did any of you go to school to study music?
KF: I’ve never studied music, except maybe after the fact playing in bands. But the course of my life has always been guided by music and by bands, and it’s just sort of what’s always inspired me and moved me to act and has always been the common space in the communities I’ve found myself in as a teenager and as an adult. It’s been this common thread throughout all the moves I’ve made. It just feels like a natural outlet.

EK: I’ve played in touring bands for years, probably since 1997, but I wasn’t in any serious music project when Lovers started happening as the three of us. I’ve worked for probably 12 years as a bicycle mechanic, and then I also do freelance accounting work. I have my own business doing that. I mean, I still do those things, but that’s what I was doing before Lovers. 

Carolyn Berk: I’ve been doing Lovers for a long time.

KF: I guess to answer the question, before Lovers I had a couple of experimental electronic music projects in Sao Paulo. And I’m also a computer programmer. But the programming is also concurrent. 
How did you each decide which instruments you wanted to play?
EK: That was a bit of a trick, I think, when we first started playing. Originally, when we first started playing — Cubby, were you playing guitar? At the beginning? But then I was also playing guitar. But we weren’t playing guitar… together. And you were playing electronic drums. Since then we’ve morphed, and I’ve started playing drums. And I’ve been playing sequencer, this electronic instrument. Kerby’s been playing a synthesizer and an electronic drum pad, and Cubby is sort of freed up to sing and perform.

KF: Yeah, I’ve only ever played drums in projects before this one. Through our many iterations of what everyone was going to play, it kind of made sense for me to play the keyboard and that’s been really exciting because it’s been kind of a meeting of the computer brain and the music brain with the synths and synth programming. It’s been kind of cool to learn how to play a keyboard.

CB: I’ve just been doing Lovers for like 10 years, I think. Or maybe even more.

Since 2001, right?
CB: Yeah, that’s when the first album came out. But, I was doing it before then, just sort of figuring it out. I was in high school and then I moved to Athens, GA, being a kid, I guess. 
Your music has many elements to it. How do you know when you’ve reached the right balance? When do you say, “Ok, this is it. Let’s stop adding to it.”?
EK: It’s hard.

CB: I think we have good intuition. If it feels right, we sort of let it alone. It’s very easy for us to come to a consensus, I find. Do you guys agree?

EK/KF: Yeah.

EK: A lot of the songs on our new record, though, we were still in the process of working out the last details while we were recording, and it wasn’t until the record was totally done that we knew exactly how the song went.
How is this album different in terms of preparation and content from the band’s first four?
EK: You wanna answer this Cubs?

CB: Um, let’s see. Well, this is the first album that we’ve done as a three-piece. I think that the content is more… buoyant than what it’s ever been before. And I find that as I get older I write less about my — I have fewer demons to work out, almost. And I’m starting to turn a little bit more outward, just as I get older, and I’m less troubled, I think. You know?

EK: I also think that this fifth record is different from the first in the fact that we all feel more empowered; more like our hands are really sunk into the songs. It also seems like there’s a lot more joy in the songs in the latest record, as opposed to the first one. A lot more humor, too.
Having lived in different corners of the country — and, in fact, other countries — do you think the way you create music is affected by where you are living at the time?
All: Totally. Yeah, absolutely.

Which town are you referring to in “To Be a Dancer”? Is that a generic town or are you referring to a specific place?
CB: Uh, that’s my hometown. I felt pretty stifled in my hometown. I think we all did.

Is this Boston?
CB: Yeah, just outside; a suburb of Boston.

Which suburb? I’m from Ipswich.
CB: Newton.

EK: Everyone we meet is from Massachusetts!

CB: Yeah, we meet so many people from Massachusetts.

Emily, you’re from Massachusetts, too?
CB: Yeah, she’s from Bolton. We were just talking about this today, in the car: How I remember being a teenager and wondering how I was ever going to get to really be who I am, become myself. I wanted a really different life from the one that I saw, you know? And that’s what really drew me to music. That’s where I saw artists who seemed to be having beautiful lives. 

Kerby and Emily, did you guys have anything you wanted to add about how place affects the way you make music?
EK: I’ve only been making music since I’ve lived in Portland. I moved out there as a 17-year-old to go to college and discovered an amazing music scene. But I guess I saw myself reflected in the people that were playing music there. That strong feeling of identifying with those people really pulled me into the music scene, I feel. And it’s been super supportive ever since I’ve done that. 

KF: Yeah, I think when you asked that question it sort of occurred to me how true that is. I think the music I was making in Sao Paolo was much more frenetic and busy in a way that that city feels. And I think that Lovers, though it does have a lot of those electronic elements, has just such a different way and a different feel with them. Portland feels like a very feminine town to me, and Lovers has a very feminine feel to the music, and it’s nice to be just kind of doing harmonies and things that could have never come out of that space in the way I was experiencing it. So that makes a lot of sense. Also, it maybe makes a lot of sense with being older, but I’m not sure. That’s just my experience. 

Yeah, I’ve never been to Portland, but I hear it’s a fun town.
EK: I would say it has a lot of things in common with Austin, size-wise and the way the music scene is larger.

There seems to be a big back-and-forth between the two cities. I have a lot of friends that are either from there or moving there. Is it difficult translating your music from studio to live performance, or does it tend to go more from live performance to studio?
EK: I don’t think it’s too hard. We program sort of a backbone of most of our songs in the sequencer that I’m controlling, and so that is going to sound very similar to what’s on the record, because it’s directly represented in the live performance.

CB: I think the studio really followed what we had worked out for the live performance. I think that there were very few things that happened in the studio that weren’t already happening live. So that was an easy transition after we made the record, I’d say.
What are some of your favorite cities in which to perform?
CB: We had a lot of fun in Tucson.

EK: Yeah, we like that one.

CB: I think we’ve had really good experiences in San Francisco.

Where did you play in San Francisco?
EK: Well, we played in Berkeley, actually, at a place called The Starry Plough.

Oh, I know that place.
CB: I was thinking about when we played at The Hemlock, but that was not on this tour.

EK: We’ve had good shows in L.A., too, but we weren’t able to get an L.A. show this time.

Really? Wow.
CB: It just didn’t work out with our schedule, because we were sort of in a rush. I’ve enjoyed all our shows so far.

KF: We played Oklahoma City, and I had an awesome time there. I loved that show.

EK: We’ve had really good, supportive response from the audience.

CB: Yeah, nice feedback.
Most of your songs are about romance — and I noticed it was a bit more upbeat this time around. Are your lyrics/subject matter grounded in real experiences you’ve had or do they stem more from your hopes/imagination? Are you speaking to particular people with what you’ve written? 
CB: Yep. Yep, I think that it’s very helpful— it’s just the way that I process information. It’s very helpful for me to put things into a song. It’s just very therapeutic. So yeah, I draw from my emotional life, you know, and I have two rules of songwriting: Don’t lie, and don’t dumb it down. So I just work from there. But I love to sing and I find it very — it’s like an om. It’s like a prayer. 
Is Bridgette real?
CB: Haha, yeah! She’s one of my best friends.

What does a “no regrets” hand sign look like?
CB: Looks like this: (makes no regrets hand sign).
What do you hope your listeners will take away from your music?
KF: I think just a message of hope and love. I think that’s what this band has given me, and I love it when that just seems to pour out of our live performance. I think those are two awesome things that people can give each other.

EK: I guess I’d like people to take away the desire to share it with other people. I hope that people hear it and want to keep hearing it. I hope it resonates with people, but also… It’s what I want to listen to, and I hope that other people enjoy it, that it fills the hole of the record that they want to hear or something. I feel like sometimes it’s hard to find that perfect record.

CB: I tend to think with music that if there’s something in it that you need that it will sort of just check in with you, you know what I mean? So I feel like, if someone needs to share an experience or is needing to get into one of those moods or feel like anything is possible or a great feeling or a sad feeling or whatever, that this would just be a good sister or work like a companion; a friend. That’s what music has always done for me, my favorites.

By the way, my status right now reads: “I make alliances with my appliances.”
EK: Haha, I feel like that’s the lyric that’s had the strongest legs.

It’s so catchy! And so true.
KF: And so true.

In addition to making music, you appear to always pursue a lot of other creative side projects — perhaps most notably your hilarious “Man Times” series online. Let’s talk about that first. It’s something you’ve pursued for a while now. What episode are you up to now, 18?
EK: We’re up to 17.

Ok, so you’re getting ready to film 18, though.
EK: Yes.

What are you going to do for the next one? It’s going to get hard to top that now! You’ve already done chopping wood times and the feminist book store times…Where do you go from there?
KF: Into a car for a month! It might be “Man Times: Tour Times” haha.

What about taxidermy? There’s a lot of that in Texas.
EK: Taxidermy! We had the idea of “Going Shopping for Jeans Times.” 

Oh, ok. Yeah!
CB: It was actually a drunk girl at a wedding who had that idea. 

EK: But you wanted to know about our other creative projects?

Yeah, you guys are funny. I want to know what else you’ve been up to lately.

EK: I make a slew of movies. All the time. I’m starting to work on another Lovers video for the song “Don’t You Want It.” I’m trying to think what else I’m working on… More Lovers material… songs and stuff. I just made a little short interviewing my parents about feminism. It’s going to play at the Olympia Film Festival in about two weeks. I don’t know. I guess that’s maybe all that I’m working on right now.

What are you filming with?
EK: I have a little HD Flip camera that I always have with me, so I end up using that a lot.

I have the crappy first version of that. The thing won’t close and the USB keeps popping out awkwardly in my bag.
EK: Yeah, those are great little cameras, though. I also have a fancy video camera, but it’s really big, so I don’t usually take it with me. I just did a sort of comedy-slash —well, it wasn’t exactly a porno — for this porno competition called “Hump.” It didn’t get chosen, but I submitted that.

That will be nice to have, either way, right?
EK: Uh, I guess, haha. I don’t know! Kerby? Lavender Mirror?

KF: Well, I have another band called Lavender Mirror. I read a lot of, like, woo woo stuff, and I feel like that band is helping me get it out. We wear animal masks and chakra lights, and my band mate plays a hybrid electronic driftwood drum kit. She’s always asking for more driftwood in the monitor, which is one of my favorite things that’s happened live. And we do a lot of building microphones into masks and stuff so we can have these animal personalities. I’m also building a house in my backyard that’s like a tiny house on wheels.

Wait, why the wheels?
KF: That way I can be like a homeowner even though we rent. So, we’re renters, but I can also be a homeowner. Just tug it around. And then I’ve been drawing up plans for a microcontroller garden, because we are always leaving. So the idea is that you have this garden that you can water and light from your cell phone, and it can, like, Tweet, how it’s doing to you. Anyway, I got a little microcontroller for that purpose. That’s my big plan for my room when I move into the tiny house.

That’s really clever!

KF: Yeah, it’s so nice to be able to garden on tour! From a cell phone!

And what about you Cubby, what other fun side projects are you doing?
CB: Ok. Man Times. I do Lovers, I do Man Times, and then I do…

EK: You write a poetry blog. You paint all the time…

CB: Haha, yeah. I have those…

It’s hard to remember things when you are put on the spot.
CB: Yeah. I have this very slow-moving country music project with a friend. And I paint; I love to paint and draw. And I have a poetry blog, but I kind of keep it on the DL. I don’t give away the address because it’s not something that I edit or anything like that, and I haven’t worked on it in a little while. And then… I like dogs a lot. Haha, I love dogs. Yeah, I guess I’ve been doing a lot of traveling. I’m going to Buenos Aires in December, again. So that will be fun.
What is the most important lesson you’ve received from your experiences as musicians?
EK: I have one: Anything’s possible if you put your mind to it and you work hard. I mean, I was in this punk band and we traveled the world just because we wanted to. It wasn’t like we were super good or anything, but —
KF: You guys were super good!
EK: We weren’t that good, but we went to Australia and Brazil and Europe a couple of times and toured around the country a whole bunch of times. And we just did it because we loved it and we just found a way to do it.
KF: It sure did help me travel!
EK: Haha, yeah. We took Kerby with us. But I just think that — I mean, also I’ve got middle class background, so I guess that helps, but I think that you don’t have to be a trained musician or even know how to play your instrument that well to start a band or to go on tour. You just have to want to do it and reach out for the resources all around.
KF: We’ve talked about this before, but I think this band has changed my relationship to working really hard for something; I feel like this band and the success we’re experiencing right now has really helped me to understand how if you just keep following the kind of energy you want in your life, that the music follows you there. I used to think that maybe it was the opposite, or that I had to figure out exactly in my mind what I was going to make musically, and then the rest would follow; whereas, I think this band has taught me that I can just follow the kind of way I know I want to exist in the music, and then the music follows that, and that’s been a much more beautiful experience. And that’s a nice metaphor for a way to live.

CB: I would say that I’ve learned to trust my intuition and have faith. I’ve been doing this for a long time and it can be really hard on a person. You know, it can be a very vulnerable thing to do with your time, and there have been a number of times where I’ve almost put it down, or tried to, but I can’t. I’m just like, “Ok, I’m just doing this thing and somewhere in my heart it makes sense, if not anywhere else.”
What advice do you have for the broken-hearted?
EK: All you need is you.

KF: I think if you stick with a broken heart, honestly, it will make you stronger. It will make you smarter. If you don’t try to run from what happened, or why it happened, and just really just sort of hold your broken heart and be with it at the time it’s broken, then when it heals, you’ve learned all this stuff that makes you so much smarter. I think sometimes broken hearts can almost make the world a little bit easier if they help you to see the real nature of the world. It can be almost kind of a release. I don’t know. I would hate to have moved through life smoothly; I think I would have missed a lot of points. So I feel very thankful for my trail of broken hearts.

CB: I think one of the reasons why we called the record Dark Light is because the interplay of those two opposites — the darkness gives depth to the light. So it’s just a natural part of the human condition, I think. I try to enjoy it. You know, you’re not a spider, even though [it might seem] nice to be that [simple]. We’re a different kind of animal, and this is part of our beautiful experience. Write a song or a poem. Make it a beautiful thing.

EK: Make it “Man Times.”
CB: Haha, that was also very helpful. Yeah, jokes… jokes are good. Friends are good.

Which song off the new album is the most fun to perform live?
EK: I like to play “Don’t You Want It.”

KF: It’s like a neck and neck time between “Don’t You Want It” and “To Be a Dancer.” I feel like I can’t make it without those two songs live. So much fun!

CB: Yeah, I have the same answer as Kerby. Those two.
Now my one trashy question: are you all single?
EK: Just me.

KF: I’m in a very committed relationship with the Fox — no the Giraffe — in Lavender Mirror. I’m the fox.
Giraffe? Is that the one that plays the driftwood?
KF: Haha, yeah. The driftwood giraffe.

Nice… Oh, ever since I watched your show I can’t say “nice” anymore without feeling self-conscious.
EK: Oh, you mean from “Man Times”?

CB: Sweet, Dude. Nice!

Yeah! I can’t say “nice” anymore. I have to move on from that…
EK: Nice, Dude!

While I’m sitting in the front of the room for Lovers’ set, a gray-haired woman in a pearl snap shirt and large turquoise earrings directly behind me somehow links me with the band and whispers enthusiastically into my ear, “You guys sound really great!” 

She’s right. Even with the room half-full, the girls deliver a heartfelt, energetic performance with charming humility. The woman shouts, this time to the real band, “We needed this! This is what we needed!” 

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