In the era of social media, fake news, 24/7 television broadcasting and universal advertising, it can be easy to feel as if reality itself has ceased to exist. Between the political turmoil, the economic hardship and the raging global pandemic, the role of media and entertainment is beginning to blur and we find ourselves at a unique intersection of human history. In this unprecedented time, we may find ourselves asking certain questions that we wouldn’t have asked in the past — what should music say? What role can an album play in one’s life? In a society’s life? What is the purpose of music in a society?
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These questions and more are floating around the frontal lobe of Molly Hamilton, the frontwoman and songwriter for Brookyln’s Widowspeak. On August 28, Widowspeak put out their fifth studio album, Plum, via Captured Tracks. Stepping into a new thematic direction for the band, Plum explores many of the themes that have been brought to the forefront of most American’s minds in the midst of 2020… which is an incredible feat considering that the record was written before the pandemic hit.
This incredible feat, however, comes from the fact that the experience of a working musician prior to the pandemic actually mirrors the reality of many non-musician workers within the pandemic. There is constant insecurity, instability and ambiguity over where your next paycheck may come from. While there are obviously many nuances between those two circumstances, perhaps focusing on their similarities may garner more solidarity than not. Hamilton — who was questioning of whether she even wanted to continue with music or not prior to making Plum — thought through these ideas in great depth in order to turn out contemplative, yet infectious, songs like “Breadwinner” and “Money.”
Which steps into another of Plum’s great strengths — not only does the record explore interesting themes, but it does so in a fantastic sonic atmosphere. After over a decade of playing music together, Widowspeak has perfected their formula, honing in on their distinctive sound that is equal parts indie rock, “classic” songwriter-y and just Hamilton’s own, unique melodic sensibilities.
In total, Plum is personal yet universal, introspective yet grooving. A few months ago, Hamilton sat down with American Songwriter to talk about the record and how it’s grown over its life. Our interview was recorded in early June, right as the George Floyd protests were kicking into high gear. Obviously, a lot has happened in our world since then — thus, the conversation we had with Hamilton comes from a world with slightly less perspective than the one we’re living in right now. Nevertheless, Hamilton offers great insight into her creative process and how she approached crafting songs which speak to these grand-scale themes. And — if you don’t mind me breaking the fourth wall of music journalism for a quick second — I’d even go so far as to say that our conversation represents a ‘time capsule’ of sorts, capturing a unique moment in history right before the ethos of our country changed forever. Through this lens, I think you might find our conversation to be a fascinating, culturally-significant slice-of-life which speaks beyond just the words on the page. In many regards, I think you can listen to the brilliance of Plum in the exact same way.
Personally and artistically, where were you when you started working on this album?
So, after our last tour — which was after our last record came out, in winter 2017 — we came back home. I was really exhausted with the process. Not being a musician, but the state of being unclear on where to go next. I wanted to have a personal investment in the idea of making music I care about. That’s not to say that I didn’t have that experience up to a point, but you don’t want to be doing the same thing over and over again. I think I just was tired of approaching music the same way. We’ve been around now for about 10 years — with that timespan, you have to keep revisiting the reasons why you do things. I’m continually more aware of everything else going on, like, everything beyond the noise in my own head. I think there’s a little bit of existential angst in there — I laugh about that because it’s funny how the weight of enormous questions can be made so small and seemingly ridiculous, like the meaning of life or time or death or money. Even the purpose of who we are. When you think about the idea of being a musician for your job or not being a musician for your job… you try to reckon with the fact that you’ve been doing it for a long time. I wonder “am I going to commit to music as a lifelong practice even if I have to put it on the back burner?” Especially now. I think that’s what was going through my head. Every time you write a new record, you commit to the idea of finishing it. I think the motivation of making another record was, like, “this is what I want to say right now — I have no idea.” The songs are kinda about that.
I think another reason this record came to be is that, in the past, our songs have been more about ephemeral emotions, or things that have happened to me. I was processing stuff. I think this record is more direct because I felt that what I needed right now was to write songs that had more of a tangible meaning. That was a new process for me.
You were quoted as saying that you “didn’t feel like [you] were succeeding at what music had become in [your] mind.” — what had music become in your mind?
Music is an expression of personal feelings and emotion and connecting to people. But, the digital realm and promotion and stuff, that’s how you get people in the room. When the band started, I had terrible stage fright. I’ve always had to reconcile the fear of not wanting to put yourself out there but also not wanting to edit yourself. So, there seems to be this tendency to curate yourself in order to go further and build a career, instead of having the ability to change your mind as you go along or to take moments to retreat. I had lost what my own motivation was. Things became harder to justify to myself. It was starting to become destructive. I didn’t feel great about posting things on Instagram. In a general sense, I can respect what other people are doing and see that it’s right for them — it can come from this place of being genuinely excited about connection. But, I also had to realize that I’ve never been an extrovert. I love playing shows and I do love that human connection — I love when people reach out and send us emails on Bandcamp and stuff. But, that doesn’t mean that the digital sphere came very naturally. For me, music has mutated into this thing in mind, but that “thing” isn’t necessarily what music actually is at all. But, the more you don’t deal with the “thing” and the more you don’t take care of your mental health, the more that gets distorted. So, that’s why we took a long break from touring. I’ve had normal jobs, Rob’s been working full time. We played a couple of shows in Kingston, but I didn’t want to launch right into another record process after our last tour.
So, you did go ahead and make another record — do you feel like you have any conclusion with that “thing?”
I’m really proud of what this record is and I’m proud of what the idea of record, in general, is. It’s an artifact, a musical artifact. I think that’s really important for our band, to record that time, literally. I’m also proud of the songs. But, right now is a crazy time. Everything is a little confusing in terms of how long things are going to be different, or if they’re going to be different forever. Live music is off the table for a really long come time. It’s hard to commit to that headspace of hitting the ground running. So, we’re in a weird time right now.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that we worked through a lot of the things that were issues years before, but now it seems that there’s always going to be something new to consider. I don’t think that’s bad. I think, if anything, we’ve recommitted to the idea of our band being around for a really long time, if for nothing else as a personal practice. We want to keep coming back to the reason we started writing music together in the first place.
Hopefully, there’ll be live music again. It’s just… when a record comes out and you can’t tour, it’s difficult to commit to the idea of making another one. Financially, you’ve got to figure out some way to pay your rent. I don’t know, it’s neither here nor there. Nobody knows, so I definitely don’t know.
What did the writing process for this record look like?
I think I always start writing songs with a little bit of intention. I remember making a playlist around two years ago of songs that were inspiring me, trying to build a picture of what our next project might sound like. We weren’t trying to rip-off people’s ideas, but you get inspired by little sounds and moments. I think I started writing songs then, but some of those got scrapped. But, “Breadwinner” was another of the first ones I wrote. That started as a mellow, acoustic guitar song. I think “Amy” was the second one we wrote — that was after listening to a lot of early 90s stuff and pop music that referenced hip-hop. So, there were all these weird sounds which didn’t even end up exploring that much, ultimately — but, the detour of exploring those different realms gave us the motivation to revisit our own songwriting processes. What we ended up with is a Widowspeak record with songs I’m proud of. But, it took trying to do something totally different in order to come back to what came most naturally for us.
Certain elements of the themes on this record seem to speak to the current global situation, yet the record was written entirely before quarantine — how does it feel to listen back to it now?
Some of the lyrics ended up coming out in a way that makes them almost uncanny in retrospect. Yet, I think the experience of being a musician in 2019, even, is sorta what a lot of people are going through now with other careers. Things change really rapidly and you have to take pause to process them and figure out where you’re going to go from there. So, I think that’s where I had set my camera up then. I didn’t know that there’d be so much change in such a small amount of time. From a personal standpoint, after the 2016 election, I felt like I needed to pay more attention to issues outside myself. I think that spending time with that was important. I’m still processing this record’s context — every day there’s a different world that comes into existence.
In that regard, does this record — or all of your work — feel living? As in, the meaning always changes?
Yeah, for sure. With “Breadwinner” — the meaning of that song is almost lost. The idea of even talking about work fades… I don’t know, maybe it means something else now. I’m hoping that people can like that song for a different reason than the thing I was trying to say at the time I wrote it. Sometimes people don’t even know what I’m saying in lyrics. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing — I think that music can be whatever you want to get out of it. In a certain sense, I’m not even going to fault the people who aren’t active listeners and just like for music to be in the background. I mean, I wish there was more active engagement with music, but, if someone’s going to put it on at all, that’s pretty good.
But, yeah. When I was writing up the lyrics for the album art, I was like “oh, some of these lyrics feel strangely relevant.” I’m glad that we did commit to making this record and putting out into the world, even if it’s a stranger world that it’s coming out into. Maybe the meaning of the record will change five years from now or 10 years from now. That’s something I’ve noticed with our old records. You think one thing when you write it, you think another thing when it comes out and then 10 years later you’re like “hey, that song! I hated it when we were recording it, for some reason we kept it on there and now it’s one of my favorites to play live.”
Watch the music video for “Money” off the new album Plum by Widowspeak below: