A Conversation With Wild Harbors: Part II

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[Editor’s note: In case you haven’t heard, Chris and Jenna have worked tirelessly and done a terrific job with their Kickstarter campaign—their campaign ends at 9 pm EST/8 pm CST today! You’ll receive an immediate download of their record upon backing, so do yourself a favor and put your chips in with these kindhearted people. You can support them on Kickstarter here. Scroll to the bottom to watch their Kickstarter video and stream a song from their album.]

Drew: Another thing I noticed: your record—and the music video for “Monument” captures this—uses so much landscape language. Lots of overcoming the elements as a way of talking about emotion and changes in life. Your band name as well, Wild Harbors, is a thoughtful employment of landscape language. Is that something you saw bubbling up as you wrote individual songs, did you set out with that idea in the beginning, or was it both? How did that arise?

Chris: Yeah, we wanted to call the whole album Landslide but Andy told us there was already a song called that…

(laughter)

But yeah, I feel like you’re in our heads. That’s not something we’ve talked about a lot, but during the process of writing I found myself thinking, “I don’t know what’s next for us, but I feel like we should stay away from water analogies, because I really feel like we’re hitting our threshold for it…”

I’m aware of it, and I like it because it’s good imagery. Landscape imagery is very relatable, so it works.

Jenna: It’s not an intentional thing, but it certainly showed up.

Drew: And that’s why it’s effective. Because if you had set out with this grand idea to make every song utilize landscape imagery, it wouldn’t have turned out so nicely!

Chris: And that’s something I have to resist, because my brain tends towards ideas like that! As soon as I noticed we had a song called “House On Fire” and Jenna was writing a song about “Water,” I was like, “Oooh, what if we had a four elements concept album? We just need something about Earth…” And I thought that would be so cool, but then the next day, I thought, “Wow, Chris, that was a dumb idea.”

Jenna: That’s so funny, because I hadn’t thought of this in a while, but now that you say that, there were moments when we intentionally scrapped landscape imagery because we noticed it was so prevalent. We had to pick and choose.

Chris: Not everything can be an ocean of fear!

(laughter)

Drew: Well I think you really struck a good balance. It’s there, but it never felt like you were trying too hard. I keep thinking of “House On Fire” because it also captures the idea of adversity. Not just landscape, but confronting resistance as well. Is there anything you’d like to share about that secondary metaphor that keeps coming up? The song “Battle,” the idea of fighting the good fight?

Jenna: We spent a chunk of last year reading The War of Art, so go figure, it showed up in our songs. That book was so eye-opening for me to all the ways I stay blind to my own inner struggles. It’s so much easier not to look at it, so I continue in my own self-destructive patterns. So that showed up a lot as we recognized things about ourselves, wrote songs, and even ventured into music as a career. Fighting the good fight sums a lot of that up very well.

“House On Fire” was the first song to get finished and set a new tone for us. Sharing that song at shows garnered a different sort of reaction from audiences.

Chris: That was the turning point from, “Thanks for playing that song, it was so nice,” to “Wow, we really resonated with that. Thanks for sharing.”

Drew: And that’s such a palpable shift to pick up on with people. It’s very real when that happens.

Jenna: Yeah, and while the song is about pressing into conflict, I think learning how to co-write has involved that as well. For me, being a very emotional writer, I’ve had a hard time when Chris says, “I don’t know about that line,” and I feel myself reacting with, “Get away from my emotions! This is my baby, this thing I made!” It’s taken a long time for me to realize, “Oh, he can critique my song and it doesn’t mean he’s critiquing me and everything I believe and stand for.” We can evaluate this piece of art and I’m still an intact human being!

(laughter)

But we really learned how to do that by writing “House On Fire.” It began with Chris reflecting on the early years of our marriage, his reluctance to enter into any sort of conflict with the person he most cares about, and how to face that. Another thing is that I am very efficient by nature, so at first, co-writing for me felt like, “What are you talking about? This is terribly inefficient. I already have two verses and a chorus and this song is finished. Why are we writing it again?”

(laughter)

Which clearly does not make good art.

Drew: Results! Results!

Jenna: Going through that, both artistically and relationally, was such a humbling practice, and one that I needed very badly. Suddenly the answer to that question, “Why are we writing this again?” became clear. It’s fighting the good fight. It’s persisting in the work of marriage. This is why you do things that are uncomfortable: what comes out in the end is so much better than it could have been otherwise.

Drew: Which is fantastic. I mean there’s analogy upon analogy there. The songwriting process, marriage, conflict, life in general. Those concentric circles all come together in that long persistence and obedience involved in fighting the good fight.

We’ve talked a lot about writing, but I love that we’re also starting to talk about arranging. I noticed in “House On Fire” especially that you never settle for obvious harmonies with your vocal arrangements! And I’m a big fan of that. The way that Jenna comes in on the second verse of that song in particular, the lift of energy it creates as Chris switches to harmony underneath, that tension is so thoughtful. And I can tell that’s born out of a great meticulous whittling.

Chris: We’re pretty meticulous, yeah! And a lot of that is because with our shows, it’s just the two of us playing and singing on a stage together, so we want to make sure that’s an engaging, enjoyable experience for both of us. I had a moment a while ago at a show where I was looking at the set list and thought, “You know what I’m really excited for? That cover song we’re playing!” And I felt bad for not being as excited about the songs we wrote, but the reason I was excited about the cover song is that I really, really enjoyed singing it. So then I thought, “Why don’t you write a song you really, really enjoy singing?”

Jenna: I’ve always primarily been a vocalist. I studied that in college and instrumentation was always secondary. But vocals is something I can truly arrange when it comes to a band setting. I don’t know a lot about bass or lead guitar, but I love vocals, so I can be very intentional with that. I’m glad we’re not a band that just has one primary lead singer with another singer doing backup all the time. That’s not how our marriage works or how our partnership in the band works, so it just wouldn’t be us.

Chris: We’ve tried that sometimes, where one person leads the song, but we always end up asking the other, “Okay, so what am I doing in this song?”

Jenna: Like, “Jenna, look, I’m so glad you wrote another emotional girl ballad, but what’s my role here?”

(laughter)

Chris: Am I holding a tambourine? Am I shaking an egg?

Drew: Not the tambourine! Anything but the tambourine.

It really sounds like you enjoy arranging vocals. I can hear the joy of your arrangements through your recordings. At that point, you’ve gotten through the hard work of lyrics and song structure, so why not enjoy putting melody and harmony together?

Chris: That’s exactly how I feel. I think, “You know what we did? We got through the silly part where you have to write the words.” Everything else after that is like the parade for me.

Drew: Yeah! So much fun. And to touch on that a bit more, I’d love to hear more about your experience recording with Andrew Osenga. It sounds like he had some input in songwriting as well, at least with “The Ballad of Wallace and Jessie.” What was that process like, working with him? And of course Paul Eckberg. What an incredible human.

Chris: The whole thing was magical. Our brief snapshot version is that we went down to Nashville with thirteen songs and went through every one of them. We would play them for him (Osenga) during pre-production, and he would say, “I like this one, here are my notes,” or “I like this one, don’t change a thing,” or “I don’t really like that one.” So that meeting largely determined what made its way to the record.

Jenna: Our goal for that meeting—we primarily wanted to work with him because of what an incredible songwriter he is. For us, being at a point where we craved someone to tackle our songs and build them up with us to be as strong as they could be, he was instrumental.

And instrumentally, some songs came out just how I expected them to, while others ended up completely differently than I imagined. Which is why we wanted his leadership.

Chris: Working with him represented a sizable financial investment on our part, more than we had ever invested before, so we wanted to trust him in that and hold loosely everything we brought to the table.

Drew: That sounds like such a vulnerable and exhilarating thing, and probably exhausting, all at the same time. Like, “Hi, I really respect you, and here’s this thing I made. I hope you like it, but it’s okay if you don’t, because that’s why we’re here.”

Chris: You hit the nail on the head, yes.

Jenna: It was vulnerable and exhausting. We had spent a year amassing all these songs, and now we have this long weekend for Labor Day where we’re going to just change all of them.

Chris: One thing that helped for me is that I see songs like maps. So when you’re first writing a song, you have a thousand roads you could take, but by the time you’re in pre-production, really editing and getting them how you like them, your options have narrowed down to maybe four roads. So you know generally where it’s going. You know which thousand roads it’s not.

Drew: It’s really cool how each step you take in songwriting determines the next step, and it keeps tumbling out that way. I also love that you had this whole year for all the songs to happen on their own time, then the deadline. And to be able to engage with both of those disciplines faithfully is such a challenging thing.

Jenna: Andy’s instrumental knowledge so far surpasses my own—it was incredible to see how he heard ideas preemptively and let his ears guide him there. Trusting him with arrangement in that way was a tremendous thing for us. To put it mildly, he’s made some really good records, so we were in good hands.

Drew: Yes, I’ve been geeking out about The Painted Desert recently. It sounds amazing. And so does yours! That’s the thing. I love how Andy and everyone involved honored the songs. It never once got carried away in the sounds for sounds’ sake.

Chris: A lot of that goes to Andy’s credit and his direction for all the musicians involved. He’s very good at knowing when to say when.

Drew: Well guys, it’s been so much fun to be let in on this album. Thanks for telling me all about it. Is there anything you’d like to share with readers about this before we come to a close?

Jenna: With the Kickstarter, there have been people asking, “You’ve already made the record, so why do you need to raise money?” And the answer to that is all about investing deeply in people hearing the record. Andy’s wisdom in terms of what to do with the record we’ve made and how it can help us sustain the music we make in the long term, was so helpful to us. We want to serve the music well.

We did a little beta tour before recording the record and saw the beautiful conversations that unfolded as a result. So it’s not just about a music career—it’s about wanting to be an encouragement to others, to stir up good conversations. We believe in what these songs are about and the capacity these songs have to help those who hear them. We want people to ask themselves and each other what they care about, dream about, and are afraid to do, in resonance with our own experience of that questioning.

Drew: That’s such a Rabbit Room sentiment of art sustaining community and community sustaining art, investing in the long-term. Thanks for your good work.

Learn about Wild Harbors’ Kickstarter campaign (which ends tonight!) below:

Visit their campaign by clicking here.

And stream a song we talked about called “Battle” below:


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