The Copper Trees (2021)
The Copper Trees (2021) | Photo by Ryan Cory, courtesy of Kate Neckel

An Open Season for the Copper Trees

Kate Neckel and Eric Lilavois discuss the joy of collaboration on Rêver, their debut album as the Copper Trees.

The Copper Trees
9 April 2021

When thinking of the Copper Trees two connotations came to mind: 1. communication, given copper’s importance to the old telephony form of conversation; and 2. connections, as trees evoke family and bonds. How did the duo, Kate Neckel and Eric Lilavois, come together musically this past year, given that the pandemic had not been so kind to socialization? 

I connected with Neckel at the beginning of her musical career in Infinite Color & Sound with Mike McCready from Pearl Jam. That group performed a couple of gigs at the Winston Wächter Art Gallery, where record producer and owner of Seattle’s iconic London Bridge Studios, Lilavois, was in attendance one evening. 

When Neckel sought to record her own material she enlisted Lilavois’ help. Lilavois, who had done a couple of solo records and had been in a band, felt a strong connection to Neckel’s work and wanted to be involved. The natural strength of their bond is apparent on the Copper Trees’s lo-fi debut record, Rêver, and even more obvious through our conversation which touched on the band’s process, thoughts on Zoom, and where the project might go.

“There was a moment in the studio I came out and Kate said, ‘I want you on everything.’ ‘That’s what I was just thinking.’ There’s something here, there’s just something deeper than you just hiring me to produce your record,” Lilavois says.

“It really was that simple, to be honest. It was a recognition of what the two of us had separately and together in that moment. I love this brutally honest and genuine approach that Kate has with everything, in her art and her demeanor, in the stuff that she’s writing. Our conversations were always on that level–very real– it was easy for to be vulnerable together and put this stuff together in a way that really made sense.”

As Neckel and Lilavois tapped into their new creative pool, the collaboration naturally gave the album an emotional breadth across 11 tracks. Lilavois notes, “The songs took on their own life, and then took on a whole new life within the context of the record. Kate uses this beautiful analogy of passing notes–we would send little phrases and words and sentiments to each other. It evolved from there.”

Neckel concurs, “Yes, I feel each song–It’s like this discovery process. With “Take a Seat in My Heart”, I woke up with this phrase and I sent it to Eric and we went back and forth with it. I feel they’re [the phrases are’ each like different members of the family or different characters and they each have something they want to express. ‘Concrete Veins’ [is] unapologetic empowerment, growth and evolution. It was organic how things evolved. We tried to respect the spirit of whatever the song wanted to express, and that would be that.”

The simple instrumentation, guitar, vocals, sometimes piano, occasional percussion, allow the songs to be “naked and vulnerable” as Lilavois puts it. He continues, “The way that we recorded it and the connectivity between, Kate and I, [the feeling] was evident from early on. That’s what [mood] the record and the band, in general, was setting the stage for us to create within.”

Neckel felt the songs in Rêver should be stripped down to the essential ingredients. “I prefer to add a foot stomp or slap my thigh before getting out the drum. I want everything to be intentional. The way this album evolved, we didn’t try and push it or add on anything else that would take away from the spirit of the songs. We wanted to keep it as pure as possible.”

A balance between the lyrics and music “came hand-in-hand” Lilavois says. Indeed, conversing with the Copper Trees, one sees how strong the bond is between the two as the topic of song-writing slides into Neckel’s main creative outlet: painting. Lilavois was the first to bring this up, describing song-writing as “very similar to painting, in terms of people asking, “When is the painting finished? When are you done with it?” The answer to that is–“

It calls you?” Neckel finishes the thought. Lilavois agrees, “It calls you. It’s the same with a song.” 

The organic nature of Rêver seems guided by genre construct, as some reviews of Rêver, and PopMatters‘ premiere of “Concrete Veins”, characterize the duo as indie-folk. Reviewers and listeners often use classification as a way to compare objects of art. The song “New Lane” reminds me of The Magic Numbers. But artists aren’t necessarily thinking that way. Have they moved purposefully towards the “indie-folk” genre?

“The genre suits what you’re hearing in this album,” says Neckel, “Our band will continue to shift and grow. This is just one ‘painting’ that we’ve made. I don’t think I want to be defined an indie-folk band. That title represents the sound of acoustic guitar and most songs and some vocals and pretty. I didn’t really think about that too much until I googled ‘indie-folk. What do you think, Eric?”

Genre is a tough thing to pin down,” he says. “There’s certainly folk inspiration in there. We have an independent, alternative spirit. The record is dreamy. Maybe these things lead folks to call it indie-folk. [chuckles]” 

Rêver is half positive/upbeat (“Hidden View”) and half cynical/wistful (“Eyes”). Could this dichotomy weigh more within either Neckel or Lilavois,or did they equally ascribe their sentiments to the work? Neckel responds, “That’s funny. I hadn’t really thought about that before. I think it’s both. You have to go through the dark and… through the hard times. Then you come out the other side. The light and the dark speak to the reality of our lives and our experiences and our growth.”

“We’re very yin and yang for each other,” says Lilavois. “Through these songs, at any point one of us was trying to talk the other off the ledge of either too dark or too light. But it’s not just going in one direction. It’s like there is this balance.”

Given the creative balance the duo has, it may ne unsurprising to those familiar with Neckel’s career (as a painter and in Infinite Color & Sound) that she and Lilavois ended up painting together in the music video for “Eyes. Was their collaboration only supposed to be a musical one? Neckel believes that was initially the case. But their relationshp quickly changed (and it didn’t hurt that Neckel had some extra paint). 

“Infinite Color & Sound was a whole other separate thing,” Neckel shares. “This was strictly music. I knew that Eric, had gone to art school [but] the art piece happened as our songs and everything else happened–organically. 

Ryan Cory shot our video “Eyes”. The day of the shoot, we were talking about painting or something, [and] we got to the studio and the owner said, ‘You can just have the whole floor, you don’t have to roll out any canvas. If you want to paint, you can just paint on the floor.’

We had never painted together, we had never really talked about it [so] we were just, ‘Let’s just give this a go.’ That was just one take. We painted together for the first time, just to create something in the space and to add a different component to the video.

I’m with [Eric] now because of my experience with Infinite Color & Sound and that evolution, but painting with him was a bonus. I had no idea that he’s a man of many hats. I hope we can do it again. We keep saying we need to bring some art supplies to the studio.”

The video for “Concrete Veins” was set against a bare brick wall. They and joke that the “bricks are now pink and purple” and how, “like when they dump the Gatorade at a sports event. We dumped a bucket of paint over Cory’s head!”

Infinite Color & Sound was excited to have Joseph Arthur join them on stage at a New York concert. They nod in agreement. Would the Copper Trees also welcome collaboration in a live setting? 

“We’re not ruling anything out,” says Lilavois. “The idea of even being out there and playing live shows just seemed so far away and such an impossibility throughout this whole last year. We’ve had conversations around the things that we were potentially going to do before the [pandemic] shutdown, and excited about when we have the opportunity [for them]. I’m sure we’ll be running into a whole lot of folks.”

“Yes, it’s always so much fun to collaborate and jam with other people,” Neckel says. “That’s something I had never experienced before and I love it so much. I look forward to pulling people on stage.”

How has the year of lockdown, a year of forced video communication, been for such extroverted people? Lilavois takes the first stab, “I think everybody is pretty ready to get back to seeing each other face-to-face, and those things called hugs. I miss those. I think that everyone’s pretty ‘zoomed’ out, pretty tired of it.

“It was funny to see at the beginning the frequency at which people would get together [on Zoom]. That seemed to slowly fade away because everybody had to be on this thing for work or for school or for all the other things. It’s just been interesting. One big antisocial experiment.” 

Neckel explains how the band took advantage of the platform. “For a few weeks, we were doing our “Three questions with The Copper Trees” and that was a great opportunity to [chat]. Whether it was with [photographer] Danny Clinch or Piper Payne, who mastered our record or Eric Craig, an amazing music supervisor down in L.A. These are people that we would probably not normally have been able to sit around and chat with. Creatively, that was fun… that was a surprise bonus of this time.” 

Neckel continues, “We’re both curious people and we love people. We love speaking with other creative folk and we missed that. We’re both normally hanging out with other creatives. It was a great way to get some early feedback about the album and then just learn more about what other people are doing and how they’re iterating their creative process during the pandemic, too, because we’re all in it together.”

Lilavois furthers the notion of the limitless nature of the project. “We certainly don’t feel confined by the idea of having to strictly focus on the record or the music that we create. We’re both interested in so many different things and we recognize that ability to collaborate on that creative level. It’s like open season on whatever we can dream up.”

Open season leaves room for a lot of opportunities. Neckel offers some examples, “We’re capable of creating soundtracks together. We’re talking about creating artworks in spaces like hotels and creating music to go along with it. We have many different areas that we’re interested in tackling together. Rêver is one stroke of it.”

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