(White Hinterland and S. Carey are playing Mayday in Northside December 11th)
Casey Dienel is all about changes. A few years ago, she declared that she would stop releasing music under her own name, instead taking up the moniker “White Hinterland.” This year, she and her songwriting/recording/touring partner Shawn Creeden threw off the orchestral, lilting sounds of Dienel’s previous work in favor of electronic sampling, abstract beats, and bit-crushed organs. 2010’s Kairos surprised critics, not just because of its haunting melodies, but because of the extreme willingness of an artist to switch things up while she was still introducing herself to the world.
For someone with such an adventurous musical reach, Dienel is something of a quiet person. Softspoken and cautiously optimistic, she carefully arranges her thoughts in ways she might arrange a string section: methodically and with purpose. In the days leading up to her winter tour opening for S. Carey (drummer for Bon Iver)’s solo project she spoke with Each Note Secure about the base elements of Winter Hinterland and how fuse to make the whole. They’ll be stopping by Mayday in Northside on Saturday, December 11th.
[Each Note Secure] Can I ask you about Kairos? It sounds a lot different from White Hinterland’s first album, Phylactery Factory. What went into your songwriting decisions and the recording process?
[Casey Dienel] It takes me on average about two years to make a record. It’s a really organic process, so if something shifts I tend to follow my instincts … kind of like if you were walking in the dark through a corridor and there was a dip or turn … if you just listen you know which way to go. I kind of follow that method musically. I never sat down to write an electronic or experimental album.
What I consider writing is that you’re a vessel and you extrapolate all these ideas out of the environment around you. [Around the time of Kairos,] I had been moving a lot and I decided I didn’t want to move quite so often because I tour a lot. I had moved to Oregon and I didn’t have most of my instruments and I had to build an entirely new band lineup. It was just Shawn [Creeden] and me and we decided to see how far we could take the arrangements when it was just the two of us.
[We tried to] imagine if a new instrument could take the place of a violin or a guitar. At first I was really scared when I listened to the first mixes and I started thinking, “wow, this is really different.” But I’m not the kind of person who’s afraid of trying out new things. I’m more interested in the quality of the work.
I don’t think the next record will be quite as different because there isn’t all the tumult that lead up to the recording of Kairos. It’s sort of quieted down some.
[ENS] Speaking of Shawn Creeden, can you describe how the two of you divide responsibilities within the band?
[CS] We have a unique partnership. The way we usually describe it is that I’m the director and arranger and he’s the auxiliary. I need to be alone with songs for a month or two to decide what I want from them and he comes into the studio and shines light on all the crevices. I show him the material for molding into the song and he has a bunch of tools in a witchdoctor bag he can use to turn the song inside out.
[ENS] Both of White Hinterland’s albums sound very lush. Kairos replaces Phylactery Factory’s orchestral fullness with electronic fullness. How do you accomplish these sounds in a live, touring context?
[CS] I think in my head I hear very big, orchestral sounds. It’s the nature of my background… I went to school for composition. It can be very frustrating. I’ve heard other songwriters and composers express a similar frustration where your eyes are bigger than your stomach… you can hear more but you can’t quite place exactly what you’re hearing at first. You have to put your ear to the ground and see what the song needs.
When I started I found the easiest place to realize the big dreams I had for the songs was in the studio. It’s an ideal vacuum to work out of because everything is chalk form. It’s when you tour that you realize it’s not easy to tour with a whole orchestra [laughs]. I think that’s part of the challenge as an artist; to realize your dreams without sacrificing too much but also to make them real. I was lucky on this album because we worked the songs out live first … we didn’t put them together in the studio. I was adamant on making these sounds that were very otherworldly but very tangible in terms of what our capabilities are.
[ENS] How did you get into music? Did you start at a young age?
[CS] I was about four years old when I started piano lessons. Before I started lessons I remember wanting to play. My parents were both musicians … my dad is actually an amazing guitarist. We had music at all times around the house. It felt like if you weren’t playing you weren’t in the thick of the discussion.
[ENS] I understand you attended the New England Conservatory of Music for a while. How do you feel official theory and composition instruction interacts with the creative process? Does that knowledge help with songwriting inspiration or hinder it?
[CS] Part of discipline is muscle memory, and that’s important no matter what you’re doing. If you’re cooking, if you’re an athlete, or if you’re a dancer you train your body to supersede the entire human form altogether. That’s also what you do if you’re a singer or musician: you can take these [musical] forms and without thinking about it you can go back to them and use them. It’s like having a toolkit. Having music training is like having a few extra tools in my kit.
When I’m writing I try not to over-intellectualize it. I don’t write based on complementary keys… I just see what comes naturally. What’s nice with the extra tools in the kit is if I’m stuck on something I’m rarely stuck forever. I can always figure out where the light at the end of the tunnel is through theory.
It’s magical and mystifying to me the way chords come together and overtone theory works. On a daily basis I’m completely mystified by all kinds of music, and that’s why I do it. I’m always thinking of something new or being astonished by something else I’ve never really realized before. I guess that has something to do with knowing theory but it also has something to do with being curious and exploring.
[ENS] Like many new artists, a lot of your exposure has come by way of online press. How do you feel the internet has shaped the arc of your career so far? Does it affect the ways in which you interact with your fans?
[CS] I think if I had my way I’d rather have people send me a letter to my house and we’d have a pen pal program. I don’t know how comfortable I am with some aspects of the internet, especially Facebook. I do like how the middle man is removed by some services like Twitter or through just our direct inbox email. I get a lot of emails where people seem to think they’re not writing directly to us, like maybe we have an assistant or manager fielding these things, which we don’t. Sometimes people seem surprised to hear back from us.
I like to hear how it’s going. I want to hear if someone is bummed because last night’s show was over-21 and they couldn’t get their friends in, or the sound was bad that night and they felt like they paid too much. They’re small things but they add up. A lot of times we’ll see someone at a few of our shows and get to know them … I think the internet is just another way of extending that olive branch.
[ENS] What do you have coming up in the world of White Hinterland?
[CS] We have a new release coming very soon. But that’s all I can really say about it because we’re still finishing everything. I think we’re going to decide in a meeting this afternoon.
I’m excited to see what happens in 2011!
interview by John Crowell @terriblesounds