Learning to Take a Picture: An Interview With Inara George
Inara George is unafraid to explore life's more difficult and tender moments. Discussion of her latest music, The Youth of Angst, leads to stories of working with Van Dyke Parks and getting David Lee Roth's musical approval.
The Youth of Angst
5 June 2020
Inara George's The Youth of Angst isn't an EP, and it's not an album. It's a collection of three songs that the singer-songwriter has dubbed "a bundle". Tracked with longtime friend and the Bird and the Bee bandmate Wendy Wang, it's exemplary of George's musical diversity and unique brand of songwriting. Though the music is decidedly contemporary, one can find various strands of the American songwriting tradition throughout, whether blues, radio pop or the brand of songwriting that elevated Cole Porter to a pillar of the form.
It's not exactly a pause in a career. Speaking from her home in California, George reveals that she and the Bird and the Bee co-founder Greg Kurstin are planning a Christmas album at some point in the future. There are other projects mentioned in passing. Of course, there's nothing ephemeral about The Youth of Angst; it's as rewarding as her 2018 LP Dearest Everybody, on which she explored, in part, the passing of her father, Lowell George, and its emotional aftermath. It's similarly as satisfying as any of the various projects she's undertaken with the Living Sisters (featuring Eleni Mandell, Becky Stark, and Alex Lilly) and the Bird and the Bee.
The three tracks of the new bundle include "Brother", which she wrote for her sibling, "1973", a tune penned for a close friend who lost a child, and "Sex in Cars", which has its origins in an art installation by Terry Allen at the Contemporary Austin. Though she tried to improve upon her original demo several times with Wang, it's the initial impulse that appears on The Youth of Angst. The result is a collection that further cements her place as a consummate performer who remains unafraid to explore life's more difficult moments and who also manages to render them less frightening as a result.
In anticipation of the release, George spoke with PopMatters about the collection's origins as well as some of the recent highlights of her recording career.
You decided to release these three songs as a bundle instead of an album.
Sometimes making a record can be super-fast, but it's never me sitting and pondering in the studio. It's more about finding the time; it's always a collection of these little stolen moments over months or years. I was talking to a friend who works at about the same pace, and she mentioned this idea of releasing a smaller group of songs than an EP. I liked the idea. When you record anything over a long period of time, the things that were important to you when you started writing have shifted. So, this was a fun idea of putting out music a little more swiftly, something that feels a little more like real-time. Although these songs took forever to record.
I know the thinking for many people of the years is that people don't immerse themselves in music the same way. They don't listen to albums the same way; they get their music through YouTube. Was that also part of your thinking?
I think albums are still worth making, but I don't have the kind of time I used to have to delve into making a full-length record in any sort of timely fashion. [laughs] This little bundle of songs can give you a hint of what a record might feel like, but you're not having to commit to the whole thing.
What made these the three songs to release at this time? Were they the ones that you had finished or did you feel like they were the ones that fit together the best?
They were the ones we chose to work on because they did have a sort of through-line. Initially, I thought, when working with Wendy, "We'll make a full thing, and I'll write more songs that encapsulate this feeling", but I didn't get around to it. I just felt like I wanted to release something, so we called it a bundle.
Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Wendy.
We made the second the Bird and the Bee record, Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future, and we needed a bunch of singers for live shows because we had these elaborate vocal parts. Alex Lilly, who'd been playing with us since our first record, recommended Wendy. She's been with us pretty much ever since. We got together fairly infrequently and worked on these songs.
Photo: Inara George / Courtesy of Fanatic Promotion
You mentioned how things change over the cycle of making a record: where you were at when you started writing may not be the place you're at when you're done recording. But then you have a cycle of press to do following the release, this whole period of talking about or explaining what you've done. Is there ever a sense of, "Well, it's not really done because now I've got to go out and talk about it for two months"?
There's something about promoting yourself, which is really awkward at first. Then you get used to it. Then it gets awkward again. If you're trying to do music for what you think is altruistic reasons, then doing interviews sometimes feels awkward. Sometimes I get to the end of an interview and think, "God, I talked about myself so much!" You want to put the music out and hope that the music speaks for itself, but that's not how it works. I don't have any attitude about it.
It's that thing of learning how to take a picture. You make this record, the label wants to put it out, and then they say, "OK, you have to do a photo shoot." What? At first, it's really awkward, and you feel dumb. By your fourth record, you say, "OK, I know how to do this." It's just part of the process.
You've made two Interpreting the Masters records with the Bird and the Bee, the most recent of which is a tribute to Van Halen. That was such a wonderful gift to have as a Van Halen fan, especially at a time when the band itself isn't releasing new music.
Great! I'm glad you think so.
What was your experience with their music?
If you think about it, 1984 was this huge year: It was the year that the Olympics were in Los Angeles. Prince's Purple Rain came out. Van Halen's 1984 came out. There was just something going on that year. I always feel like if someone says, "Oh, this major thing happened," it seems to have happened in 1984. I had this excitement/fear of Van Halen when I was a kid because they seemed so dangerous. [laughs]
I was 10 years old, right? MTV was new, and you got to see the people that were making the music you were listening to and what their personality was. David Lee Roth was this larger-than-life guy who was doing these kicks, and they were singing this music that was harder than I was used to. Those images and the music are imprinted in my mind. We thought that making a record of their songs would be challenging because of the musicality but also because our music tends to be so different.
With the Interpreting the Masters records, we feel like it has to be this music that imprints on you as a kid and is special for a lot of different reasons. You might become too cool for the music you grew up on, but there's a period where it's really embedded in your brain, and you have no choice.
One thing that happened with that record is that I have a new appreciation for David Lee Roth as a lyricist. I now know all the words to "Panama".
[laughs] I wasn't expecting to like the lyrics as much as I did. It's not like I'm listening to a Joni Mitchell song. It's music you're supposed to scream out. I found some of the lyrics to be smart and thoughtful. He's a highly intelligent guy. The thing about "Panama" is that I thought it was the Panama Canal. It's about a girl and a car. Which is what David Lee Roth is going to sing about.
Did you hear from the Van Halen camp after the record came out?
We got David Lee Roth's seal of approval. He really liked it.
You did a wonderful solo cover of Prince's "Condition of the Heart" in 2018. I thought that was an inspired choice.
I was a huge Prince fan when I was a kid. Prince was my favorite artist that I found on my own. Purple Rain came out and everybody loved it. I got the next record, Around the World in a Day, which had "Condition of the Heart". It remains one of my favorite Prince records.
What memories do you have of making An Invitation  with Van Dyke Parks? It seems like that was a major undertaking.
I remember I was at Van Dyke's 64th birthday. He had a big party for that birthday, with the Beatles' song in mind. We discussed working together at that party. About a year later, I had written some songs. I was on Everloving records at the time. We asked if we could do the project, and they kindly agreed. It wasn't a cheap record. I would write the songs and send them to Van Dyke.
I do remember Mike Andrews [Elgin Park] telling me, "If you send him a song, he's going to write to that song. If it doesn't have a click, it won't have a click for the orchestration. It'll be very fluid." I didn't fully believe that he'd do that. I was just sending him songs and saying, "Do you like this one? Do you want to write orchestration?"
Mike was right. I would send Van Dyke these rough demos, me playing the song almost for the first time fully, and what was amazing was that when we finally did the recording, and I'd come in to sing, it was the easiest time. It was completely in my organic rhythm. It was also a testament to Van Dyke's skill as an orchestrator that he'd create these measures of two beats to fill in where I was speeding up and slowing down. It was pretty unbelievable.
Do you remember your first impulse to write songs?
My dad was a musician, and I think I felt like that wasn't what I wanted to do. He died when I was a kid, and I felt like there was a lot of pressure because I could sing. I got this sense that people had this expectation of me to play music. I just didn't want any part of it. I didn't want the comparisons. When you have this larger-than-life figure who is your father, who died, it makes it even bigger. There are a lot of people who put a lot of energy into their love for him. I just didn't want that. So I studied acting for a long time and went to college for it. My friend had a guitar in our dorm room, and I just started writing songs. [laughs] That's what happened. I think it was the path of least resistance.
Did you have a relationship with your father's music while you were growing up?
I listened to it a lot when I was a kid. Then I stopped. I love his music, and I didn't have any resistance to it. I just didn't want to be compared to it. For about the first 15 years of my musical endeavors, that was one of the first questions people would ask me. Now, a lot of times, people who interview me don't even know who he is.
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