Gravity Of Emotion: An Interview with She Keeps Bees
Andrew Darley spoke with Jess Larrabee of She Keeps Bees about their new album, Eight Houses, and the old-age emotions and history it channels.
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She Keeps Bees dig through history on their new record, Eight Houses. The duo, consisting of Jessica Larrabee and Andy LaPlant, have carved out their own blues rock since first joining creative forces and have potentially made their most realised and direct record so far. Eight Houses is executed with a definite, embracive energy. The ten winding songs are distinguished by an air of comprised chaos, which ruptures in anguish from moments of silence. Whilst writing the album they were taken by the injustices of the past. Its music and lyrics parallel personal battles and historical events in a way that explores the sense of self and what happens when its threatened. Andrew Darley spoke with Jessica Larrabee about the balance of rage and restraint that lies at the heart of their new work and the healing powers found in music.
Eight Houses is your fourth album together as a band. Has your trust with each other changed since the first album?
We have always supported each other with our artistic intentions. I think with each year we continue to grow together. A deeper trust allows us to exchange ideas with ease. I feel very blessed to have Andy – he is an incredible musician on all fronts. He supports the song completely with no ego. He also has impeccable taste in music.
Did you feel a desire challenge or push yourselves on this album?
Yes, when we decided to use a studio many serendipitous things happened. We knew we had found the right place to record when we met Nicolas. He had a very relaxed confident energy that Andy and I responded to right away. He stretched us – helped break down songs and build them back up. We definitely carved this album and took our time assembling the songs for it to speak as a whole.
The album deals with personal battles and also historical events such as the forced assimilation of Native Americans and other figures and events. Did you go in with the intention of exploring historical moments or did it happen organically?
While driving across the States for a tour I was struck by how long the drives were; it puts you in a meditative state. I started reading different accounts of American history. The more I read, the more I felt it was a universal story of “progress”. The Western world surrounding indigenous people – taking their natural resources, destroying their sense of self through assimilation.
Did you feel emotionally connected to these historical moments?
Yes, the more we confront our history and the dark truths, the more compassion, understanding and healing can occur.
Can you tell me about your songwriting process together? I can imagine it’s quite an intimate process.
I have journals and try to write all the time. I do enjoy being alone when writing with the guitar. I found myself in the laundry room for most of these songs. The emotions are gathered and I try to find the chords that speak with them. It is important for me to be aware of the waves of inspiration. It is all the rhythm of your own personal creative flow. If it’s present, I make time and listen. If it seems like I’m labouring, then it’s not the right time to be creating. I find something else to work on.
The album artwork is quite a striking and textured image, can you tell me more about it?
We bought an old family photo album at a thrift store in Wisconsin. We love the idea of taking the old and forgotten and giving it a new life. Our dear friend Romain Barbot assembled the artwork for this album. We are so honored to work with him. With each batch of pictures you watch the girl with the bubblegum grow up. It’s really beautiful.
Sonically, the music plays with the idea of restraint. There are very quiet and muted moments with bursts of emotion and pain. Did you feel an intensity whilst making this record?
Absolutely. We felt very exposed. It has always been just the two of us creating and recording our albums, so to have multiple people there with opinions – at times I didn’t know how to handle the pressure I was putting on myself. Wrestled with a lot of self-doubt. We were on time constraints as well, I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. I’m glad you can hear the intensity – good use of my anxiety!
Also, in terms of vocals, did you want to experiment with your voice or have an idea of how you wanted to communicate the song’s message?
It was different. There was more of a live energy because I had a couple of people to sing in front of. It is a nerve-racking thing if you don’t nail it within a couple of takes. That sends me into a spiral of doubt. Overall this is most open I’ve ever been regarding vocals. We left little squeaks and raw notes to hold the entire take’s energy. Sometimes I can be guilty of nitpicking my vocals which can deaden the way I deliver.
There’s a lot of pain and anger threading through the whole album. The lyrics in ‘Wasichu’ really stood out for me getting across that feeling of being oppressed or undermined on a very deep level. Were some of the songs difficult to write on a personal level?
I wanted to be a channel for it. I wanted the listener to hear these painful realities spoken to them. So much pain leaves a mark on all our psyches. Release is essential and I find music can be a vessel for that message to resonate and reveal. On a personal level I am hurt by my country’s continued ignorance of this suffering. I was born in Washington DC and I’m appalled and ashamed that our football team still uses the name it does, it’s totally inappropriate and makes me crazy with anger.
Was there a feeling of release once you had these songs written or recorded? Is making music cathartic for you?
Yes it was a birth. I want to be a healer so with that comes letting go in the end. The creation should have it’s own life which can be hard to detach after you’ve been so close to it. I feel singing and playing live is cathartic for sure. I am grateful to connect on that level and release my own toxins and allow the audience to release theirs. Together I hope our energy is heightened.
The album ends in a somewhat unexpected way with ‘Is What It Is’. It has this life-affirming lyric “I am worthy, You are worthy” which feels like an antidote to al the turmoil of the songs before. Can you tell me about that song? Did you know this was how you wanted to close out the album?
We didn’t think that would be the last song but a friend suggested it and it all made sense; when the weight of a situation leads to obsessive actions – do not to give your authority away. We are all worthy, even if it sounds hokey. It can feel like society is only interested in keeping us fearful. Small reminders to see the healing in the trials or the lesson would be lost. Honour the gravity of the emotion but do not be consumed. Be open to receive the message in the moment.
Sharon Van Etten also sings on the song. What was it like working with her? How did the collaboration come about?
She is such a beautiful, supportive friend. Her energy is naturally healing and it gave me strength and confidence as one of the first people to hear the new songs. We used to be neighbors in Brooklyn and would work on songs together. Her voice releases poison, I always feel better after listening to her songs.
What has it been like to play these new songs live?
We have loved it. We have played our older songs for the last 6 years. It is a lesson in restraint because some of the new songs are not as intense. I have to work on realigning my energy to keep the mood delicate. Working with our new guitarist Adam has been awesome, he understands what the songs need live. We feel very blessed to have found him.
Would you say that the arc of Eight Houses is about the sense of self and the emotions we feel when it’s threatened or under attack?
It is the journey I’ve been on and so I hope it is helpful to others. Some people would have us believe there is no solution; nothing to redeem us. I want to help people to vibrate higher and be immune to the low frequency distractions. Love and music are the true redeemers.
I know it’s early days yet, but have you considered where you want to musically go next?
We’re pretty open to whatever may come next, but we’re in touring mode right now so it’s hard to say.
Finally, what is it like to stand over the record now that it’s out in the world and people can hear it? Are you proud of this album?
Yes we are. It’s beautiful to feel proud especially of the collaborations with magical friends, Molly Donahue of Metal Alvin, Adam Schatz of Landlady and of course Sharon. We’re very grateful for the team of people helping us who have made it available to a wider audience than we’ve every had.
Eight Houses is out now through BB*Island. To buy the album or for more information about She Keeps Bees, visit their official website here.