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Adam Green and Binki Shapiro originally wanted to form a band called Folkus. Instead, they launched a vintage-sounding duo under their own names, jettisoning the music they’d been playing with others — Green’s quirky anti-folk songs with the Moldy Peaches; Shapiro’s eclectic indie pop with Little Joy — in favor of romantic, ‘60s-influenced duets.
The pair will hit the road this spring with Father John Misty, another songwriter whose tunes mix poppy accessibility with West Coast bohemia. While driving to a warm-up show in Santa Cruz, Green and Shapiro called American Songwriter to talk about their self-titled album, their songwriting process, and those pesky Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood comparisons.
Both of you have been in bands with other songwriters. You’re used to the co-writing process. What makes this collaboration different?
AG: We have a special chemistry.
BS: I think we are forgiving of each other. When we were writing songs, we allowed each other a lot of freedom. That creates a safe space to throw more ideas around.
What sort of ideas?
BS: Adam helped me to be a lot less critical and precious about things. When it comes to writing songs, I tend to get stuck on stuff. He allowed me to let go of things.
AG: Binky would have an idea about what a specific song should be about. I tend to be scattered and bring a lot of abstract ideas into the picture, and a lot of the time, Binky would have a much more grounded understanding of the song, and she’d know how to center it.
BS: Sometimes, Adam would say something that seemed a little bit more abstract to me, and I’d want to understand what he was saying. In trying to get him to explain what he was saying, the song would develop a clearer focus, because he had to put words to his own thoughts.
What was it like writing an album while living on opposite coasts, with Adam in New York and Binki in California?
AG: At the beginning, we weren’t on opposite coasts. We both lived in New York and we’d just go to each other’s places.
BS: We were only on opposite coasts for the tail end of the process. I think people tend to get excited about the idea of a boy living all the way on the east coast, and a girl living all the way on the west coast…
It’s very “Sleepless in Seattle,” isn’t it?
Adam: By the end of it, though, the “opposite coasts” thing was true. I was flying out to LA to write with Binki at her house.
Where did you first meet?
AG: It wasn’t that eventful. I think it was a meal that we had at a Mexican restaurant about six years ago. The friendship was a slow burn.
So how did a Mexican meal turn into a songwriting collaboration?
BS: Adam sent me a message one day, asking if I wanted to make a record with him. I got immediately excited at the thought. We started working together, just picking up some beer and coming over to each other’s houses to write. Adam would bring over these flash cards with random sentences throw on them. We sat on the floor and just started working. It was natural and organic.
What sort of stuff was on the flashcards?
AG: Oh god.
BS: There was one that said, “Two squirrels kissing.” Another one said, “With jealousy as my witness,” which is a line from [the Adam Green + Binki Shapiro song] “If You Want Me To.”
AG: We had scraps of stuff on index cards. We’d lay them out on the floor and look at which ones had connecting themes. I had hundreds of different lyrics on scraps of paper that I brought over to Binky.
BS: Then we’d sit there and add to them and move them around like a game of Memory, to see which combinations were cool. We didn’t do that for every song, though.
AG: Actually, we did do it for every song.
BS: I know, but I’m saying it wasn’t just a process of tacking one index card onto the next.
AG: Yeah, it would just help us germinate the idea.
What did the “two squirrels kissing” index card germinate?
BS: Nothing, but it did make it onto my fridge.
When I play the album, I hear a certain time period. I hear certain artists, too, like Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. Did you record your songs with any specific influences in mind?
BS: [The album] just took whatever shape it took. Naturally, because of the tone of our voices and the way they contrast each other, I guess it’s similar to the way Lee and Nancy’s voices contrasted each other. But we didn’t model our sound after theirs.
AG: The only thing that’s really similar between our work and theirs is the part in “What’s the Reward” where we go back and forth with our rhythms, cutting each other off, you know? That part definitely has a Lee and Nancy vibe. But this album is just the product of what came naturally to us. We certainly weren’t pretending we were other people. With the Moldy Peaches, I was doing a lot of folk duets. I’m not a stranger to that format. If anything, me and Binky were wary of doing an album of duets together, because we didn’t want to make a cute record. It was a challenge to make a non-bubblegum record of duets. We wanted it to be poetic and artistic.