Saturday, January 24, 2009

Musical Questions – Carrie Bradley

I’m really thrilled to present Carrie Bradley as this week’s Musical Questions interviewee— Carrie's someone I’ve long respected both as a musician & as a songwriter. I’ve been jazzed by her songwriting & playing at any number of Ed’s Redeeming Quality & 100 Watt smile shows, & continue to be amazed by The Great Auk, her collaboration with Bernie Jungle, which for my money is just about a perfect musical match-up; & I've been dazzled by her violin playing with the Buckets & the Breeders. Tho I’ve only had a couple of opportunities to play with Carrie at Spurs of the Moment shows (& a couple of very fun jam sessions chez Umbach-Hayes during our wedding celebration), I can say it’s a thrill: as with Lois Fry, her playing tends to lift everyone else up. But enough from me—I’ll just add that there are two videos at the end of the post: the first shows The Great Auk performing Carrie’s song “Love”; the second showcases Carrie with the Breeders performing the great Dom Leone-Ed’s Redeeming Qualities song, “Driving on Nine.” Enjoy! & thanks so much Carrie!

I grew up in Albany, New York, started playing violin at age 8, & studied privately through high school. Played in the community symphony while at college, then quit to play soccer and try to study more. Got lured down to the student pub one night and improvised by listening to a recording and a singer for the first time. Thereafter got called in by a few students writing their own songs and recording them on these things called “4-tracks.” Was pressed into composing for theater productions and finally into fiddling—mainly in the wrong key and with terrible double stopping skills and singing with a bad country accent—in a band called Timid Fiddle (yes, self-explanatory).

Went back to Minneapolis with a plan to quit music and prepare for entering graduate writing school (even though a poet friend of my father’s passionately urged me to switch to music. “Which is funner?” she said, eating me up with her eyes).

I promptly joined a punk rock band. Next, graduate writing school and another resolution to quit music. The first day of classes, met Dani Leone and within a few months started Ed’s Redeeming Qualities. That led to a role in the Breeders that carried me through much adventure and the end of the nineties. Simultaneously, I musiced and colleagued with a number of bands and artists in New Hampshire, Boston, and San Francisco. Including:

The Buckets
John Wesley Harding
Jonathan Richman
The Red House Painters
Love and Rockets
Granfaloon Bus
100 Watt Smile
The Great Auk

I still play with the Great Auk and the Breeders--in the studio and sometimes live
and have started playing in New York with Noah Chasin (formerly of Harm Farm), Jason Porter (of Captain Fatass), and the cutest drummer in the world (Marc Neves).

Was there a childhood musical experience (either listening or playing) that you believe influenced you later or led you in a musical direction?

Plain old: my parents. Neither of them did any professional time; my father sang and did theater in college and has continued to sing and play in some homespun circumstance or other, lo, the fifty years since, and to this day—community barbershop quartet, singing and ukeing at family and neighborhood and work gatherings, etc. But both of them are and have always been avid listeners, concert goers, and record buyers. The record player was always spinning in our house, always. I am sure I heard my first Beatles—and Basie and Benny and Beethoven and Broadway and Dylan—in utero, and I have dog-eared Kodak-coded black-and-white pictures of my dad sitting cross-legged on the floor, playing the uke, his mouth open in a choral O, to a baby wiggling on a blanket next to him (moi!). My parents danced, even just by themselves in the living room—I mean, cut a rug!—and my dad moved through the house with a lot of whistling and clapping, and leading us in a kind of extemporaneous, joyful interplay with music: conducting cues, mugging, musical jokes. Since I left home, I have never had a birthday pass without them calling me and dueting over the phone. I was issued a ukelele (as is almost anyone who spends enough time in our household, including my husband-to-be at the rehearsal dinner) at the age of five. This all combined, I think, to remove much of the intimidation factors in picking up an instrument or impulsive warblings, and generated a very emotional connection to music, as a force for involvement, definition, identity—gave me a view of music as a calling, a way of life, an act of love.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to play &/or compose music?
When I started playing, my challenges were laziness and shyness on the one hand, and perfectionism and a need for instant gratification on the other—I had a natural aptitude, so the first phases came easily, but not easily enough thereafter, and a classic frustration would dog me; I hated the noise that came out of my squeaky violin from underneath my sore fingers! Luckily, my parents enforced practice and didn’t let me quit. I can’t tell you how many adults I meet who hear that and say, geez, I wish my parents had been meaner about it, I quit when I was eight years old…

When it came to writing my own songs, which for me didn’t begin until I was in graduate school, I found that in spite of my comfort level with playing music, I still thought of writing it as a highly rarefied gift, the kind for which one is ordained by gods; or as an exotic skill, that surely would have emerged on its own by the time I was three years old if I had it at all. Which was odd because I had already embarked in school on my pursuit of some kind of career involving fiction writing; I think I got stuck in a perception early on that I personally had to choose prose writing or playing music; to do both would be downright supernatural. Luckily, that was when I met my friends, right there in writing workshop, with whom I banded to make Ed’s Redeeming Qualities. You couldn’t ask for an airier, shinier portal into songwriting: short, simple, rhymey, narrative, and personal were that band's, well, qualities, along with a blithe attitude towards rule breaking.

Do you have any superstitions connected with performances (or with the composing process)?

For shows, not really superstitions, but lots of ritual (though so often thwarted): Get plenty of sleep the night before and a nap, or at least a Zen moment, the day of, close to load-in. Find the right T-shirt and other accoutrements that create the perfect balance between (in my case extreme) need for comfort and identity and fun—or decide if it’s one of those shows where you should dress up or have an actual costume. Leave time to collect and arrange gear, paper and Sharpie, mailing list and merch, etc., all without hurry. Change strings a couple of days ahead and stretch and work in a touch of finger grease day of. Smoke enough cigarettes to put a psych on and get deep (that was the old days…ah…); have exactly one drink thirty to fifty minutes before taking the stage and one to put on your amp. I guess there was some superstition, too; I guess it felt ominous or cursed if there ended up being four other shows that overlapped “our” fan base around town on “our” date…or if a string broke during the first song…and I had a few “lucky” T-shirts.

As a composer, there seems to be an endlessly pulsating dense weave of ritual and superstition, involving a kind of manic dance with every object within reach of hand, eyeball, and powers of hallucination—a sorting and shuffling and rearranging of cigarettes (again, in the old days…ah…), coffee, wine, chair, bed, beach, car…if I was stuck, I often would get in the car and drive, preferably up and down hills, or walk, and watch, wait and listen, because every bird, bee, breeze, tilt of the earth, and/or crack in the sidewalk could be the potential key.

What comes first: music (melody or chords), lyrics, title, concept, etc?
With very few exceptions, music first, which I’ve mused on a lot, since writing words is so much easier for me. Maybe that’s where I’m superstitious—or maybe just neurotic. While a missing rhyme or the perfect line are always elusive, like Bergman’s silver fish slipping through the weave of a net, coming to songs as a fiction writer makes me pretty confident that I can fill a page, or at least a verse structure, with prose, and sift and tighten as it goes…but as a composer, no matter how musical I may feel or call myself, I am exceedingly insecure. Every time I write a melody I am convinced it will be my last, every time I start a new song, I feel the task of producing a fresh melody is hopeless. Then I take a shot and begin, sometimes on piano but usually guitar, and start thumping at the same three chords it seems I always play. Then, if I’m lucky, out of a discouraging dullness, a bit of a melody will emerge; it only needs to make one move that excites me—a loop or slide or back-and-forth or leap I’ve never made before—to get my attention, and I will obsess over those two or three notes for days if I have to. Usually somewhere around the ten- to twenty-four-hour mark, I commit to some phonetics—not words yet, but just vowel sounds first, then consonants... the ones that seem preordained... Finally, then, a single word or maybe two built from those and I can move on from what has surely by then become an annoying gutteral rut akin to the sounds of gorilla romance. That word or those words steers the theme, and then I can sink into the word-smithing in earnest. In a twist, though, choruses—both words and melody—usually don’t come until I have the theme clear in my head and the music and words settled for some verses. Are choruses brutally hard for everyone?? Not for Cole Porter, Burt Bacharach, Barry Manilow, Jon Bon Jovi, or Black Francis…I find a good chorus almost impossible. A bridge, for some reason, comes pretty naturally, and boy, is that a pleasure.

What attracts you to a certain song—what makes a good song?

A good bridge!

I guess I’d say I’m not readily attracted to highly experimental songs, unless they manage to thread in something inexplicably familiar…at the same time, an unmistakable element of originality always thrills me. I’m moved by a balance of timelessness and logical and soothing, shock-of-recognition intervals with surprises—odd textures, a personal vocabulary, a strange joke, dissonance, silence. I’m also very pig-headed about theme. Theme and vividness. I love songs that are metaphorical or even opaque, but with strong imagery, and I need a sense that the writer knows what it’s about, that there is a reason for each image and the order they stream in.

Any one or two of your performances stick out as more memorable? Any one or two incidents during a performance that stick in your mind?

Oh boy, I don’t know where to begin. I could compare big and small: 70,000 people at Rock am Ring in 1994 (I think that festival draws more like 150,000 now), with the closest row of audience twenty-five feet away behind a barrier of wood and steel and muscle men—and when I played my homely violin part on a bittersweet acoustic ballad in the middle of a rock set [“Driving on 9,” with the Breeders], a sea of arms went up, waving back and forth slowly, like kelp in the tide, and I felt like everybody all the way to the horizon was feeling something very private, and also understood my loss—my friend who wrote that song had died some years before. Later that year, on tour with Ed’s, I remember for some reason in particular a show we played at a coffee shop in South Carolina, and there were about four people there, and I was so uncomfortable, I couldn’t really see past the rack of novelty mugs for sale or feel the audience, even though heads and mugs were both so close to the tip of my bow I kept dipping and bobbing to avoid them. The point being, I guess, you never can predict the winds of connection or intimacy that are stirred when you're playing...".

In another example, I remember an early ERQ show where a heckler went ballistic on me because she thought my song “The Boy I Worked With” was making tasteless jokes about animal abuse, when to me it was an extremely strong and poignant indictment of abuse. By contrast, I remember a 100 Watt Smile show—for which I wrote pretty complicated lyrics, maybe overly—where it felt like everything was working—every laugh, every tear, every joke, every moment of poetry…and then I got off stage and every single person I talked to said, “Dude, too bad, sucky sound system, you couldn’t hear a single word.” You just never know…

When performing how much are you focusing on communication with the audience, & how much on the other members of your band?

Because I started out as a more-or-less clinically shy kid, it still amazes me every time I perform how comfortable I am on stage. And because I started my creative life as a fiction writer, it still amazes me every time how layered and complex the exchange between writer and listener is—I think I had assumed nothing could be as nuanced as a reader alone with their experience and the written word. So my focus is greatly upon the audience; I am totally nurtured by that communing, and have a lot of fun with it, the interaction and the immediacy. I would have predicted myself for a shoe gazer. Not that I don’t still get shy, and I can take it hard when an audience seems unimpressed.

At the same time, I am powerfully inspired by the connection I have felt playing with other people. Also because I started as a fiction writer, I think—and maybe because I started as a classical player and never played off the page until college—learning to collaborate was long and slow in coming for me. With each band, though, I felt more and more in an altered state while concerting, if you will. With Bernie, it’s distilled to a kind of telepathy unlike anything I felt before it, really. That’s a huge thrill, finding that in rehearsal and then being able to re-create it in the heat of a performance. It’s a dizzying combination of the private and the public.

Any instrument that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learn? What’s interesting to you about this instrument?

When I retired my last rock band (and turned forty the same year), I decided it was high time, and probably the key to eternal youth, to play the trumpet—the first instrument I remember really fighting for when I was a kid (no go). I lasted about ten minutes—it hurts your mouth! My current burning desire—and never mind eternal youth, either, one’s forties are such a great lesson in the beauties of age—is the theremin. For obvious reasons, as a violinist, but I also love its early electronica element, a retro modernity, how it is both invisible and a dance—a fascination and appreciation for paradox is kind of my defining approach to life and writing and music.

What’s on your playlist these days? What are you listening to?

M Ward, Bright Eyes, Unbunny, Andrew Bird, Architecture in Helsinki, Mirah, Papas Fritas, Rosa Ponsell, Sufjan Stevens, Dolly Parton, Duke Ellington. Also stream a lot of Anyone who doesn’t know it and works near a computer, check it out! Really great way to find new music.

Where do you see yourself in relation to music right now? How has your relationship to music changed over time?

I’m a little embarrassed to say it, but I think I’m working on a full circle. It emerged in my life as (paradoxically) a challenge, a siren song, and utterly, pleasantly incidental. Then it became a vortex within which I defined myself, both worrying and thriving, finding solace and staring into abysses (abyssi?). Then I got on the rock train and tried to write hits, I guess, to put it too simply but still. Then I tried to return to it as a labor of love with possible dividends—I mean the money kind. Now I think all that experience enriches my great sense of luck that music has been a friend and an adventure, and feel lucky once over that it continues to be a challenge, a siren song, and utterly pleasantly incidental. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t have a moment with it; other days will surely come where I play with Bernie again, or my new group of cohorts here in New York, or where I may write the best thing I ever have.

Where do you place yourself in relation to a musical tradition or heritage? Could you talk a bit about musical influences?

My influences were, in order, I think, first the pop artists. The Beatles generated so much joy and so much innovation. Then the purveyors of passion: Beethoven, Dvorak. So much articulation in dynamics and instrumentation! Then the poets, writers like Paul Simon and Laurie Anderson and Tom Waits, who helped me connect my writing goals to music. Punk and post-punk got me to dance, and that’s what helped me get to the stage, I think.

Do you have any advice for people who are starting out as performers &/or composers?

As with anything, it’s a matter of falling forward. Remembering anything is possible and mystery can be ridden like a bronco. You will never know what you’re going to write before you write it. And keep it personal. The most gratifying thing is finding out new pieces of self, not worrying about scissor kicks or brilliant patter.

Is there a question about music/musicianship you’ve always had a hankering to ask? If so, what is it, & what’s the answer you’ve wanted to hear?
Put to Leonard Bernstein: Because I am a good dancer, does that mean I could be a good conductor? His answer: Take my hand and I’ll show you.


  1. Right on Carrie!
    best from Sonny V

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. You can write me at -

    looking fwd to hearing from you, been a long time and a long trail!


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