Cellos, Peaches, Cool Cufflinks: An Interview with Ra Ra Riot's Alexandra Lawn
Recording their album in a peach field, unleashing secret Genesis influences, and more: speaking to PopMatters, Ra Ra Riot's Alexandra Lawn spills all about the recording of the group's acclaimed new album The Orchard ...
If you've never heard of Syracuse, New York's Ra Ra Riot and decide to give 'em a Google, you'll more than likely stumble upon a small batch of key critic points. First, you'll probably read about the heartbreaking death of original drummer/founding member John Pike, who is believed to have drowned after a Massachusetts gig back in 2007. In fact, that's probably what you'll read most about.
You'll also quickly figure out that they're pals with Vampire Weekend, that they wrote their latest album -- the quite incredible The Orchard -- at an actual peach orchard, and that...wait for it...they have a certified cellist and violinist in their band! No session string players here!
It's unavoidable that having string players as a part of your line-up is going to be a defining characteristic, and Ra Ra Riot is a band that manages to constantly find fresh ways of incorporating these instruments into their polite, dramatic, ultra poppy indie rock sound without ever becoming anchored or completely defined by them.
PopMatters recently had the chance to chat with cellist Alexandra Lawn just before the band's first full-fledged Orchard tour. Along the way, she touches on the band's songwriting dynamic, the joys of peach orchard living, and what it's like to step out from behind the cello toward the microphone.
First of all, where are you calling from, and what's going on?
I am currently in Ridgewood, New Jersey, relaxing for one final time. Yeah, that's about it ... we're about to be on tour. The tour officially starts September 21st with four dates in New York. After that will be a nationwide tour with a little bit of Canada and possibly Mexico in there. We're just kind of playing random one-offs right now. Next week we play "Occidental" California, and we're playing a couple shows in Canada next week.
So in these one-off shows, what has the response been like for the new material?
It's been hard, but we've been trying not to play too many of the songs from the new album, so our show on Friday is going to be our first show playing a completely whole new set. But everyone seems to really like it, and the crowds are enthusiastic. We're really lucky to have fans like that.
A lot of critics, including myself, have loved the album, and actually considered it your best work. Some, however, have thought of it more as a "grower" because of the slower, more reflective material. Do you think this album is a "grower"?
You know, it's funny -- I've heard about people saying that it's kind of a "grower" album. I always thought The Rhumb Line was more like that to me than this one. But I can see where that discrepancy is. You know, I was part of the songwriting, and part of what makes The Orchard so special to me is the intricacies and subtleties which you can't pick up on the first listen necessarily.
I agree. I think it gets better the more you listen.
Yeah, and I think if that's the case, it's catchy enough and interesting enough to make people want to listen to it a second or third time and allow it to grow.
You touched a little bit on the writing process there. I know this effort had more people bringing in songs. How does it compare to the writing process with the first album?
The writing process more or less was similar. It's always been very collaborative. Obviously, we had John for a few of the songs on The Rhumb Line, and that's another perspective and another musical talent that's not there anymore. But we kind of went about it the same way we always have, and, at times, it can seem overwhelming to people the way we do it. We all do just jump in and really write songs together. They always stem from some sort of idea from someone. It can be a more complete an idea than another, but it's very collaborative and hands-on. You have five, six people on top of the songs.
So whenever you're writing a Ra Ra Riot song, especially with your role as a string player, how do you really get your ideas in the song? Is it a big jam session, or do you talk about the way things should sound before?
It's pretty much attacked from every angle. There are definitely times where we will take a song and just jam on it because you need to know where you fit. Because having so many people and having what is already such a rich arrangement just for the sake of having five instruments playing at the same time, you do need to do those jam sessions just to know when to back off. What Becca [Zeller, violinist] and I do a lot of the time is we'll do a jam session, and what we'll do is we'll go into another part of the room and kind of just hash it out on our own, really build the string arrangements to build the song as a longer phrase and kind of make sense with that guitar part or just kind of grasp it a little better. But it kind of depends on which song, too, because we kind of just attack them differently.
I think the strings on these songs are even more special than they are on The Rhumb Line. I feel like on The Rhumb Line, you could almost see where the parts come together, but these new songs, it's more of a seamless thing. Each instrument belongs more.
Cool, thank you so much! Yeah, some of those Rhumb Line songs were written almost five years ago now, so I think The Orchard may sound too polished for some people, but I think what needs to be remembered is that, not only as songwriters but as performers and musicians, we are growing and evolving and maturing, and we've playing a lot together now. It's been almost five years! So we are more polished, and we're getting better at what we do. I think everything really fell into a comfiness of, "OK, this is what I want to do with this part", and kind of more as a unit ... I really don't know how to put words to it. I guess the songwriting came more seamlessly and the arranging. There was a fearlessness that happened more with this album and the production of it. There were no boundaries. We were in complete control, and we were all feeling creative at the same time when it was written. We all kind of grew into it, and this is where we are right now. We're all really proud of it and excited for people to hear it.
I think the difference between the two albums is that, with
I totally agree with that! I think both of those things are great, but I really love what The Orchard represents to us and what other people get from it, too. That really is where we are right now. Hopefully it's not too different from The Rhumb Line.
So many of these tracks have what sounds like a strong Genesis influence circa ABACAB. Who introduced this influence to the band, and was it a conscious effort to aspire for these sounds?
It was definitely not a conscious decision, but at the same time, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Steve Winwood -- that whole scene -- plus a lot of 80s pop music, is a common ground for the band, music taste-wise. We all come from different musical backgrounds, and we do have very differing tastes in what we like, but we do have common ground in those bands and Kate Bush and Paul Simon, U2, The Police. So I think, naturally, that is a common inspiration when we're writing together. It just happens, and everyone has very poppy tendencies. That's the music we grow up with, so when we think of a catchy melody, we're thinking of Police melodies, U2 melodies.
"What would Phil Collins do?" A good motto to have. Tell me about how Gabriel [Duquette] is fitting in with the band. Taking over the drum chair in such circumstances obviously could be a little intimidating.
Yeah, Gabe is an extremely talented drummer, and he comes from the kind of drumming that I find more musical. So it's really cool, and we're always open to more perspective and more creative insight than what you have because you can always feed off of that and always learn things, add things, take away things. He's been with us for awhile now, so it's definitely there, and he's doing his thing.
The production on this album is amazing. Each instrument seems to have more of a defined shape in the songs -- the drums are obviously huge on this album! The basslines really pop, too. Not that you guys are showing off, but it's almost like you wanted to say, "Hey, we can really play!" with this album.
Yeah, I hope it doesn't come off like we're showing off! We've all been playing our instruments for a really long time, and I think settling in our roles really allowed us to think about parts, and we had the time to think about these parts and write them. So if you have that time to build it and make it as perfect as you can at that time, a year from now, it's less likely to look back and think, "I wish I had done this!" But none of us are trying to go out and be like, "Look at what we can do!" or "Look how abstract we are!" We're writing parts because we think they sound good, which is really important to all of us.
You take your first lead vocal performance with "You and I Know". Tell us your thoughts on both the song and your performance.
Oh, gosh, well ... I'm not a singer! I've always sung in the shower or the car!
Oh, come on!
Yeah! But starting to do back-ups for Ra Ra Riot, that kind of opened the door to it, and slowly and surely, I built up a form of confidence -- not high by any means -- it's still kind of scary to me knowing that it's there, and I'm not trained or anything. I've been working on writing songs, and Wes was like, "You should sing this one!", and I was like, "Oh, my gosh! I don't know!" But I went with it, and I did it, and I can't wait to perform it! Hopefully, I'll get more confident as time goes on!
Surprised you were unconfident – it doesn't come across that way!
That's probably good! I am terrified! [Laughs] It's funny, though, because Stevie Nicks is one of my favorite singers, and Fleetwood Mac is one of my favorite bands, and I got really into her voice around the time I started really getting into writing songs for fun and whatnot, and I what I liked about it is that she has such a different voice. I always thought my voice was weird and annoying when I sang, but it was just cool how she just pushed it beyond even any physical means that she has. You can hear songs where she's just pushing it all out, and she doesn't care how her voice is sounding. It just sounds so cool, and it just started to help me open my eyes to that ... your voice can be weird! Nowadays, there are plenty of bands who have proven that your voice doesn't even need to be good! And that can be a good thing or a bad thing, but to each their own! I have fun singing, so I toyed with the idea of "Maybe you should write songs and sing 'em", so I started to, and hopefully, the confidence will keep slowly coming in!
There's definitely some star power behind The Orchard. What was it like working with Chris Walla and Rostam Batmanglij on the mixing?
Oh, it was really great! Like I said before, having more perspective and more creative input is something we really like. Rostam did Do You Remember, and Chris did the rest of the songs. It was just cool because they're listening to these songs, and they're adding things they feel should be at some point. They can either add something or take it away. I think that's important because you can get stuck in an idea as a band, and at the same time, you don't hear music the way other people do. It's impossible -- you can't listen to a song you wrote and say, "Gosh, I love that song! I love when that part comes in!" It's always a different criteria to you. You can definitely still love a song you wrote or were a part of, but you hear it differently.
You need that perspective.
Yeah! It's cool because they listen to it and add a whole other level to it! What I think is cool is that you can hear a difference between what they both added. I like that about the album, how Rostam's song does sound different from Chris's mixing, but at the same time, I think Chris did a really good job of mixing song by song, really giving each song a feel of its own and not necessarily trying to make it super "cohesive" sounding. I think the songwriting is cohesive enough that he had freedom to kind of push and pull things from the songs and make them different from each other in that way.
Can you think of anything specifically that Chris brought to the mixing, either adding something or emphasizing something?
In "Boy", after two verses, he adds this huge, bassy drum pop! It's during a break when no one's playing except the one booming snare head. I always thought that was really cool. He also added some fun echo to Wes's vocal in "Shadowcasting", where he goes "Oh, oh, oh [echo trailing]" It's so cool -- it just gets you really excited!
There are all these little details on the album. Each time I listen, I hear some new detail in the production or songwriting.
Chris did a great job -- it's like men's clothing: all the little details make it interesting and special!
Men's clothing -- right you are!
[Laughs] Like a cool pair of cufflinks!
"A Cool Pair of Cufflinks" -- that's a good title for this interview! Wes obviously has another outlet for his music with the side project Discovery, where he embraces a more R&B influenced sound. Do you ever find yourself wanting to explore other genres or projects outside Ra Ra Riot?
Yeah, it's definitely been a newer desire because, up until the band, I was a straight-up classical musician, and then this whole notion of songwriting came into my life. Singing on The Orchard really did open up the idea of that to me, so I've just kind of been working on my songwriting more for practice than anything, but one day, if I get enough material, I would love to put it together with something or make something of it! Music is really all I do and pretty much all I love. It couldn't be a bad thing to throw it out there just because that's just what I do and what I'm doing right now. I also love working with other artists and collaborating a lot, and I always get really excited when those opportunities come up, whether it be cello or something else. There's nothing set, but I definitely daydream about it lately.
So do you feel confident that, going into the next Ra Ra Riot album, you'll be contributing more, both with vocals and songwriting?
Definitely, yeah! I think so. I really haven't given the next album any thought, but, I guess you gotta start thinking about it as soon as you can!
What was it like writing the album at an orchard, and how did it influence the way it turned out?
It was a beautiful house, a beautiful environment. We were all living together under one roof for a long period of time, and there wasn't a sense of urgency. It was just a time set aside to write the album. We would cook and eat peaches like no other. And there was beautiful countryside to go running in or be outside. So there were a lot of outlets, too, to get a break. Everyone was in a really good, happy space, a creative space. Things were coming together so quickly and well, and it was just a really exciting and magical feeling, and I think that shows in the songs. I think there's a magic to them, in a way. A lot of them just kind of click. Maybe they're not as bouncy as The Rhumb Line, but I would never say that it's laid back. But it's definitely less urgent, and I like that about The Orchard. But I like the urgency about The Rhumb Line.
It's a nice contrast -- I'm sure it will open up some new moods in the live setting.
Yeah, definitely! We are so excited to play these songs live!