Interview: Erin Rae on channelling Bobbie Gentry with Jonathan Wilson

Credit: Bree Marie Fish

How to create cinematic songs and still keep the vocals upfront and disproving the difficult third album cliché.

There is an age-old cliché in the music business about the difficult third album where artists can struggle to maintain artistic and career momentum after exhausting their original ideas after two albums. Nashville’s Erin Rae has just released her third album, ‘Lighten Up’, which disproves this particular cliché as it shows continued development and growth from 2018’s ‘Putting On Airs’. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson met up with Erin Rae at home in Nashville over Zoom to discuss how she has given her new songs a cinematic and expansive feel with the help of musician and producer Jonathan Wilson. While her new songs may have been given more sophisticated arrangements she explains that she still wanted to keep her vocals upfront and that she channelled Bobbie Gentry to help her achieve this. Other artists who inspired the sound of ‘Lighten Up’ are the UK’s Scott Walker and ex-Byrd Gene Clark, and while Jonathan Wilson is a major presence on the record, Erin Rae explains that she felt empowered and in control of the direction the recording took. Like virtually every artist, Erin Rae missed touring due to the pandemic, and she lets slip that one of the memories that kept her going was having coffee in the UK and playing gigs in Manchester.

You seem to mix the best parts of the South’s musical heritage with a good dollop of West Coast ‘70s singer-songwriter, some country rock, and the UK’s own Scott Walker with a few psychedelics thrown in. How did you come to such an amalgam of influences on ‘Lighten Up’?

With the making of my last record, ‘Putting On Airs’, I think I got to see up close how sounds are created more in a studio setting, just the different instruments you can bring in. My very first record, ‘Soon Enough’, was a live tracked recording and we had been playing those songs for a couple of years at that point, so we had this very live band and we recorded it, and that was that. It was very special to me to do it that way, but the next go-round I had the songs and I got to experience fleshing them out with people in real-time. I was just exploring what is possible in a studio and I could then kind of imagine what was happening on other records I was listening to, and it made it all more tangible. I came from a very strong songwriter background and an americana focused world, but then over the last three or four years I have just really enjoyed listening to music in a broader way, getting into fuller band recordings, and records like Gene Clark and kind of down a psych-folk rabbit hole shortly after my last record came out in 2018. Yeah, I was just discovering the sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s and those influences are kind of what I bonded with Jonathan Wilson over. We got to talking about potentially making a record together, and we were sending songs back and forth like Scott Walker and the Walker Brothers, or Judee Sill, or Bobbie Gentry, such cinematic songs but with the vocal upfront. Then obviously just working with other musicians is a lot of what contributes to the sound of a record, and that is why I wanted to work with Jonathan because I knew he had a wide swathe of influences and experience, and he has the ability to bring these songs to life in a big way.

Did you already know Jonathan Wilson or did you just call him up?

We met through our mutual friend Mike Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger at Newport Folk Festival in 2019, we both performed at an after-hours kind of additional show that Mike put on at a chapel in Rhode Island. It was just this magical night of Anaïs Mitchell, Mountain Man, Gregory Alan Isakov, and several other artists but Jonathan was also one of the artists that played that night so I got to hear his solo songs in that format in this beautiful church. I played a few songs, and we just kept in touch after that, and he was just like, let’s make a record, haha, and I eventually said OK, haha.

You had your own ideas of how you wanted your music to sound, Jonathan Wilson is very skilled in the studio and has his own sound, so how easy was it to record the way you wanted to and what were the dynamics like in the studio?

I feel he toes this great line of being incredibly laidback in really facilitating an incredibly creative open-space. I was able to bring ideas forth and yet it never felt like we weren’t getting any work done and just hanging out. We recorded sixteen or seventeen songs I guess in like five or six days, getting the basics down in five days. We went back and Drew Erickson who plays keys added synth parts or piano parts on ‘True Love’s Face’, and we were inviting different friends in like Mike Duff and Kevin Smith but we got the work done. He works fast, you know, but I could still just go, “Hey, can we listen to this Don Williams song because I kind of feel I would like to lean a little bit more into this country feel on this song?”. That is the best way at this time that I know how to express those ideas, and he was always “OK cool, let’s try it.”, it was never like “That shouldn’t be like that.”, and one thing I think is cool about Jonathan as well is I was talking to Taylor Goldsmith and was saying he talked to Jonathan after a record they made, and they have made several, and Jonathan’s process is not to rework a songwriter’s song structure, his job is to bring each song to life and let the artist best decide what feels right to them. It wasn’t critical in a negative way, but just the critical shaping like, “No, that song doesn’t really have it.”. We definitely picked ones that were more favourites and stronger, but it was never like “Nah.”, haha. It put the responsibility on me to feel like I’m showing up and creating my best work and deciding that, and I think that is a cool responsibility to be presented with. Sometimes I feel I can defer and it is too easy for me to say “What do you think, you’ve produced tons of records, does this sound like a song to you that people will listen to ?”. It was all about just recording what felt good to record from my end, and then his job is to bring them to life.

Did you have the songs fully written before you went into the studio or did some songwriting happen in real-time and what is your approach to songwriting, are you disciplined or do you just wait for the muse?

Yeah, they were all there when we went in. I think it is definitely a little bit of both these days. It definitely requires more discipline, with this record especially, because I had been so busy on the road leading up to the pandemic. 2018/19 were more than I had ever toured before, and also it just requires me to turn my phone off, setting aside that quiet time to settle in, otherwise, I can get pretty distracted, haha, with the modern attention span and the phone and all that. The inspiration usually comes from something like a line or two which pop up every now and then, or from something I’m processing emotionally, or an experience I am having, or just an observation, you know, and wanting to dig into that a little more, and sing about it, haha.

How much has the pandemic influenced ‘Lighten Up’ with its broader palette of sounds and influences?

I don’t know if it would have happened with this record without the pandemic. I had a good batch of songs ready, about half, before everything shut down, but I think what the pandemic afforded me, for better or worse, was a lot of time to think and to try and figure out the next right move. It relieved some of the pressure from the machine, if you will, because my last record came out in 2018  so 2020 was like the time for a new record, but it has now been four years since my last record came out. I feel pretty fortunate that I was given that amount of time to relieve some of that pressure so I could write some more songs and explore different options. I think that is the main influence, too much time to think, haha.

Jonathan Wilson played multiple instruments on the record and you also had quite a few guests as well, so what has happened to the Meanwhiles?

The name The Meanwhiles was actually just me thinking it sounded cool to have a name like that, haha, Erin Rae and the whatever, haha. So when I started touring my first record it was with a different set of musicians from the ones that made the record with me, that group Corey and Graham Bechler, with Mark Sloane, and Corey and Graham were like the mainstays of that group and we never actually got to tour together, so it was kind of funny me using that name. It was just like a youthful naivete, not really realising that people would expect that to represent a group of people, like Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, haha, where you know who the band members are. So Jerry Bernhardt and Don Billet have been like my main touring partners, and yeah, I think with this band and this record, and of course, we made ‘Putting On Airs’ together,  and I love them and their music so much, and with this record which has a lot of layers to the songs I think it is yet to be seen what roles will need to be filled to bring that sound to life up on stage. In the summer I think that will be more clear, I just want to have an experience of just playing with people, and not necessarily be a set thing but it may turn into a set thing, you know, more will be revealed, haha.

Do you think you have matured as an artist with this album, is this the real Erin Rae?

I think they are all the real Erin Rae. Previous records were the real Erin Rae at the time, and I feel it is like that saying it takes a long time to be who you are or something like that. I was also reading this morning something that said you can never step in the same river twice like you can go back and record things but we are just constantly evolving and I’m finding more out about what feels true to me all the time. So yeah, I feel this is a true reflection of who I am at this point in time, and where I’m at. I felt like that about the previous ones as well, so hopefully, my music is growing with me if that makes sense.

Your new record is richer musically but your vocals are still pure so how did you record them?

A big reference point for me going in to record this record was ‘Courtyard’ by Bobbie Gentry which I sent Jonathan, and it is a very slow ballad and her vocal is right up high, just very close to the mic, very upfront but not loud. It feels almost like a whisper, which is not my intention to whisper, but I think Jonathan could speak more to that on his side. I just wanted the vocal to be out front and be me because that is so important to capturing the nuance maybe of how I am singing these songs. We got some mixes back where there was maybe more reverb added, or the vocal felt more spaced out, and I felt that it lost that gut connection for me. It is more about being able to hear the nuance and the storytelling. I just like records like that, haha, where the vocal is upfront.

As far as your own musical journey is concerned, which artists made you want to become a musician in the first place?

Most immediately it was my parents, my dad played music when I was growing up and that was presented to me as being normalised within my family, haha. They encouraged creative expression and so I feel the foundation was laid there and it was like this is something people we know do. I don’t know whether it was a single person or more of a collection of people, but Norah Jones, Kate Campbell, maybe when ‘The Swell Season’ came out, that movie ‘Once’ was around at that time and I was maybe a senior in high school and Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in combination with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings were also influences. It was singer-songwriter guitar music, but that has this romanticised story around it, and also those songs feel very connected to the soul, the emotions. I was like ooh, maybe I should start singing, haha, if I start strumming a guitar maybe I will start crying and a song will just come along, haha.

As you were developing the music for the new record did you give any thought to the potential audience, or was it just a matter of wanting to make the music?

I was talking to my friends Caroline Spence and Kelsey Waldon a couple of days ago about that push-pull of how there can be this idea of oh you are not supposed to think about the audience. There can be an idea that if I think about the goal for the music, then that takes away the purity of it, and I think for this record it was, no, the goal for this record is to have the music heard. I want it to reach people that it will feel impactful for, and so yes there definitely is a goal, and I didn’t have the audience in mind but I do want to find more people to connect with my music. I think making this record with Jonathan, and having it have a bigger sound, and even introducing and getting to collaborate with different people and their world is a really special part of it. It just feels really expansive and exciting.

You went to the West Coast to record ‘Lighten Up’, so how much has been based in Nashville helped your career?

Nashville is still home for me. I don’t know what the future holds, and I think I will spend time in different places, but the older I get, and a lot of friends are now buying houses here and it feels like the people I want to know for a long time are putting roots down here, and I also feel like I am very connected to this community. I don’t want to miss that, which I would if I went somewhere else for a long time and I definitely think living in Nashville has helped my creative development. I wouldn’t have made my first record if my friend Mike Rinne hadn’t pressured me, he was like, “You need to make a record, and we need to figure this out.”. He produced it, and the music business is here in Nashville, my friends like Anderson East who engineered that record, and so it is just a small world, and people are connected, there are other facets of the music business here as well. I think it helps to be here, for sure, I’m not going to turn my back on Nashville, haha, I just wanted to have an experience and see the sunshine.

‘Lighten Up’ is being released by Thirty Tigers, what difference have they made to your approach to recording music compared to Single Lock Records?

The way they structure their deals means it is more of a distribution service, and they have an incredible team and they also have offices where y’all are. I maintain ownership of my music and it also puts the responsibility on me I guess. It feels very similar to a traditional label, especially with the help I have from my management team in rolling out this record. I think I will continue to learn more about the differences between them and a traditional label. So far I’ve been very happy with Thirty Tigers, and Single lock who released my last record, both have been great.

You have the best record of your career, it is sufficiently different from your previous records, we are coming out of a pandemic, so what is next?

I think I might just quit, haha. I’m excited to be going on tour, I’m going to Australia with Courtney Marie Andrews who we love, and then with Watchhouse in the spring here in America, and I’ve got some exciting stuff lined up in the summer which is falling into place. I’m most excited about headlining in the fall and getting to take my band out on the road, and take out a friend, hopefully, to have someone to open the shows. I have gotten to be an opener for a lot of really generous wonderful people, and I’m excited to expand the show and make my own show better. Just play these songs out loud and see what shape they will take.

Will you see how your new songs develop when played live, or will you play them as they were recorded?

I think they will start as they were recorded, and then have that be the base for it, and then hopefully we all will get to explore some stuff as we are playing, the magic of live music. We will just go on some trips, man, haha, stretch out, haha. I’ve been really fortunate to play with really talented musicians who know quite a bit more than I do, so I can just keep on strumming that guitar and taking it to the sunset. I am excited, and I am excited to not know what it will grow to be and that there are more chances to keep growing, especially coming out of the pandemic.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

One song is ‘If It Wasn’t Broken’ by Sonny Ware, who is an incredible singer-songwriter so check that out and her other music as well because that is just the song that is in my heart right now. Next is ‘Is It Enough’ by Alabaster Deplume, and he has released a new song called ‘Don’t Forget You’re Precious’ and I really like the music he makes, it is really, really cool. I have a friend here in Nashville, Tristen, just a single name artist, and she put out a record ‘Aquatic Flowers’ last year, and I would say start with ‘Cool Blue’ but there are a lot of earworms on that record.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

I hope to be over soon, and we will be, it is just a matter of exactly when. There were so many times during the pandemic that I had these very specific memories of being in coffee shops, or just driving to different venues in the UK, and there is one in particular in Manchester. It is just this feeling of being over there with y’all and getting to tour, and I feel as if I have toured as much there as I have here, so I really, really have missed it and I’m excited to come back.

Erin Rae’s ‘Lighten Up’ is out now on Good Memory via Thirty Tigers Records.

About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments