Katie von Schleicher‘s latest album, her first full-length release since 2020’s Consummation, certainly brings to mind aspects of her previous works. Still, A Little Touch of Schleicher in the Night feels more sophisticated than, say, her rough but terrific 2015 lo-fi album Bleaksploitation. Working with members of her previous band, Wilder Maker, there was a sense of camaraderie that gave the sessions a more relaxed feel. “It really is the least fussed over in terms of how long it took to do anything,” she explained via Zoom from her Brooklyn apartment. “We worked for five days in the studio, and we probably worked about five hours a day. It was about working with the right people with whom I have longstanding trust and confidence.”
The songs were also a result of a creative writing group von Schleicher attended during lockdown, where she wrote a lot of poetry without thinking about what genre it would fit in. Using those words for songs was a different approach for her. “It was a bit self-indulgent in a songwriting capacity because I wasn’t worried about anything except whether it was a song I could play along on a piano and still work,” she said. “Because, in honesty, a lot of the lyrics I’ve done in the past were written at the same time as figuring out chords and melody.”
Signed to a new label – Mike Caulo’s Sipsman imprint – and enlisting her friend and former Wilder Maker bandmate Gabe Birnbaum to arrange the sumptuous strings added another dimension not evident in von Schleicher’s previous albums. “I gave Gabe total control over the strings,” she explained. “I asked him to provide dissonance and to make unique choices as only Gabe can do. I also used the Randy Newman song ‘Guilty’ as a reference for him and wanted it to be both lush and strange. I just trusted him fully, and I trusted Sam (Owens, the engineer and co-producer) as well.”
The road that led to A Little Touch of Schleicher in the Night – yes, the title is a reference to Harry Nilsson, one of her songwriting influences – has been filled with the usual bits of long, thankless touring schedules and releases made everywhere from shoebox cassette recorders in practice spaces to standard studios. Raised in the small town of Pasadena, Maryland – about 30 minutes outside of Baltimore – von Schleicher didn’t have much of an opportunity to join local bands. “I knew one band, and they were like a Christian jam band,” she recalled, laughing. “I just didn’t see a music scene happening around where I lived.” She was interested in then-current divas like Whitney Houston and Celine Dion but was convinced that she couldn’t sing like them. “I decided one day when I was listening to Whitney Houston that I couldn’t sing like her, but maybe I could write songs for her, and that’s sort of what made me start writing songs.”
Von Schleicher later moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music, inspired by a popular artist and Berklee alum she liked at the time who shall remain nameless. Majoring in songwriting, von Schleicher found the Berklee experience disappointing. “It was all based on a Nashville-style program made for people who want to be commercial songwriters or staff songwriters.” Post-Berklee, she remained in the Boston area for a few years, getting involved in the music scene and eventually meeting Elio DeLuca (known for his work with Titus Andronicus), who owned an all-analog studio called the Soul Shop in the nearby town of Medford. There, she recorded and self-released the album Silent Days in 2012.
When von Schleicher met Birnbaum and joined Wilder Maker as a keyboard player and vocalist, she began experiencing the ups and downs of touring. “I left my apartment, and we went on this tour. It was insane,” she said. “We slept on the floor, made no money, and at the end, I had nowhere to go, so I went to my parent’s house in Maryland for a bit.” After fruitlessly emailing numerous labels in an attempt to get signed, she emailed Bada Bing Records in New York and asked for an internship, which she got. The internship soon became a full-time job when she helped assemble a Jackson C. Frank boxed set.
Working for a label gave von Schleicher the opportunity to put out an album on cassette, which Ben Goldberg – the head of Bada Bing – heartily encouraged. That was Bleaksploitation, which was eventually released by the label on vinyl (Bada Bing also released von Schleicher’s Shitty Hits in 2017). After a time, she began to move towards her current full-time job as a producer and engineer for Shahzad Ismaily’s Brooklyn recording studio Figure Eight. “I didn’t have the guts to really get into it full-time until the pandemic,” she said. “Working remotely and learning on my own time, it helped that no one would be there watching me.”
“It’s a really wonderful community to be a part of,” she added, “So that’s what I do, either at my house or at Figure Eight, or a combination of both on different projects.”
A Little Touch of Schleicher in the Night may be a reference to the late Harry Nilsson, but there are a whole host of songwriters – many of them from Nilsson’s era – that influenced von Schleicher on the new album. “I love these classic songwriters, and what I did love in college was the study of American Popular Song,” she explained. “We live in this world where you’re walking down the street, and someone asks you what band you’re in and what it sounds like, and you say, ‘indie rock’, which sounds so meaningless. We’re all genre-d out over here. A lot of the time, I just want to say, ‘It’s just American Popular Song’, like Irving Berlin 100 years ago. This is kind of my ode to that and giving myself the freedom just to be myself and not try to be cool.”
In addition to Birnbaum’s lush strings – which certainly take inspiration from arrangements on classic albums by the Rolling Stones, Elton John, and the like – there is a warmth to the recordings, such as on the low-key opener “Montagnard People,” which combines soft, chugging horns with slightly tongue-in-cheek lyrics like “Honestly, my tight five needs work / To get past hurts I’m alive / Watching movies at night / Only Dwayne Johnson helps me take that ride.” The widescreen, piano-led ballad “Texas” retains a sophistication and maturity that sounds like Josh Tillman channeling Warren Zevon. Von Schleicher’s shoebox cassette recorder days may be in the rearview mirror, but the songs themselves, as well as the disparate songwriting influences, are a large part of what makes A Little Touch of Schleicher in the Night so engaging.
“On this album, unabashedly, I can tell you what each song is inspired by,” von Schleicher explained.’ Every Step Is an Ocean’ is by Arthur Russell. Kevin Ayers was a really big influence on this record. Some of his songs just blow my mind. Other influences include Kirsty MacColl, Shuggie Otis, a lot of things I’ll never sound like – I love Sly Stone, but I don’t sound like him. It definitely influences me.” (According to the press release, “Cranked”, which combines horns with a retro-sounding drum machine, was written on piano with Ayers’ “Whatevershebringswesing” in mind).
A Little Touch of Schleicher in the Night’s closing song, “Jeanine”, is a gentle, acoustic guitar-driven ballad that the press notes describe as “a love song for assholes, written from the POV of an asshole”. Does this mean that von Schleicher should be pegged as a songwriter known for unreliable narrators? Yes and no. “I am an unreliable narrator in earnest,” she explained. “I don’t – although I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t like to – write from a total character’s perspective. Usually, the characters are parts of myself. I love ‘Marie,’ that’s probably my favorite Randy Newman song, and the narrator there is very unreliable, but it’s also very relatable – who doesn’t feel as if they have been an asshole to the one that they love and failed them terribly?”
While von Schleicher still tours as a member of other artists’ bands, such as Julie Byrne and Frankie Cosmos, and will perform a record release show in December in Brooklyn, the prospect of a full tour supporting A Little Touch of Schleicher in the Night is uncertain. “My booking agent stopped booking bands during the pandemic, and I’ve lost thousands of dollars over the years touring, so I’m on the fence about it,” she said. “I do believe you have to be scrappy and hit the road no matter what, at least a little bit, but I also feel like, in a certain way, I could just wait until there’s a packed show to be had. I’m kind of under the radar, and that’s OK. I just don’t want to lose a lot of money anymore.”