The Ballroom Thieves photos by Shervin Lainez
The Ballroom Thieves Dig Deep For Clouds
The Ballroom Thieves recently released their much-anticipated new album Clouds via Nettwerk, having jumped back into live play and touring throughout the Spring and summer, including a triumphant return to the Newport Folk Festival. The story behind Clouds takes Martin Earley and Calin Peters’ personal songwriting to new levels as they grappled with the loss of employment as touring musicians, changes in the band, and the ways in which conditions in the world might impact their own approach to making music.
Working with a group of songs written mainly during the pandemic period, Earley and Peters moved toward a more stripped-down form of musical composition, as well as further honing their lyrics. Fans will notice that the biggest development may be the move from three-part harmonies to two-part harmonies and a more intuitive style that allowed them to track their vocals together live. I spoke to Martin Earley and Calin Peters about their experiences taking in so much live play in recent months and the significant transitions and discoveries in they made while writing and recording Clouds.
Americana Highways: I know that the new album Clouds was written at least partly longing for the experiences of touring and live performances. Since that time, you’ve played quite a lot, including just playing the Newport Folk Festival, and have plenty booked coming up. What observations have you gathered from playing a bunch of live shows lately?
Martin Earley: I think it’s, “Be flexible and be kind.” Be ready to change your mind and position on things, and don’t assume anything about people who are or aren’t coming out to see you. We’ve had to live in the moment a little more.
AH: Back in the springtime, when you were first going out, did you notice any differences in how you felt or acted having had a big gap of time off the road? Some people are saying there’s less of a sense of formality, for instance, because they had been connecting so much with audiences online.
Calin Peters: It definitely changed the way that we perform. I think we prepare a little bit more now. When we had so much time off, we had lots of room to think about how to improve things. Of course, we’ve always known that we were playing and singing to a bunch of loving humans, but we’ve now heard from them more because of social media. That became the way to communicate, so there was a lot more conversation. We’re even more aware now of who we’re playing to and how they feel about it. We’re all a lot more human. We’ve catered our show to that.
Martin: To add to that, you mentioned “less formality,” but I feel like everything up to the moment of actually stepping on stage is much more formal now, and it was especially true in the Spring. We really had to be very diligent about masking and about the venue. Even once regulations started loosening up a little bit, one positive test on our team would have meant the cancellation of an entire tour.
Even while people were starting to be more comfortable in spaces with others, we still had to be very strict about that and communicate it in ways that would be respected. That made for a more formal touring environment than before the pandemic. But once we were on stage, things got looser because the joy and the feeling of being back playing music again in a community of music lovers could take over.
AH: Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I have noticed a difference at shows I’ve been to. I’ve never seen so clearly that every band has been totally focused on the audience before. The planning and the thinking has been to communicate as clearly as possible with the audience and get that feeling of a real conversation.
Calin: That’s beautiful.
Martin: What I’m noticing across the board with bands of all sizes is just a gratefulness to be able to do this again. For a while there, we weren’t sure what the future would look like, so from the smallest bands to Bon Iver, everyone is just so grateful.
Calin: It’s funny how this world, in its current ugliness, has stripped away everything that doesn’t matter, and left behind gratefulness, community, and trying to be kind.
AH: I see a lot of development on this new album for you, in terms of sound, and also in terms of lyric writing. Rather than sticking with what might have been cozy and comfortable, this definitely pushes forward. How did this album get underway?
Martin: Most of the songs were written during the pandemic. There were one or two that were written before, but most were either written during the pandemic or right when we got into the studio. A lot of the songs deal with themes that we were dealing with personally, ourselves. There’s a lot of talk of mental health that creeps in, because we were having a hard time at home, like a lot of people. We were dealing with the fact that not only was the world falling apart, but we had lost our livelihoods, essentially. We weren’t sure about anything. We didn’t know if we would ever get to play again.
Calin: We didn’t know if people would even want to hear from us once things loosened up enough for us to go back out there.
Martin: We’ve always been personal songwriters, so those were the themes that found their way onto the record. Along with that, we also really love Harry Stiles, so there is some positivity hidden in there.
Calin: We did a different thing on this album for sure, though. We left all ego aside and focused on each song and whatever that song needed. If a certain singer or instrumentalist wasn’t featured anywhere on that song, that was fine, because it was just about what the song needed. Not knowing if people would care to hear from us after the pandemic made us just do this for ourselves, and for the sake of our songs. Everything else just went out the window. This one was for the two of us and for the songs we make.
Martin: We also tried to consciously strip things back a bit. On our last album, Unlovely, we focused on fleshing out the arrangements and adding a lot of bells and whistles. There was harp, and horns, and extra vocals. Here, we wanted something that went back to basics, exploring almost that Rock band sound of each piece being able to breathe. We created songs that we can perform live exactly in the way in which they were recorded. That was a fun challenge for us.
Songwriting-wise, I’ve been trying to be less wordy, and more concise with each record, and get the point across by using the least amount of words possible. Lastly, we really focused on singing two-part harmonies, and changing our harmony structures from these big, three-part “wall of sound” harmonies to more intricate and concise two-part harmonies and unison. We changed up our sound in that way.
AH: It’s funny to me to realize that this album is stripped down and concise, because within those parameters you’ve created a pretty big sound here! There’s a lot of texture to the music. I wouldn’t say it feels like a restrained album.
Martin: Because we approached the record from the idea of being able to play it live, we spent more time thinking about sonically filling up the space in a way that made sense. We made sure that the low end, the middle, and the high end was covered in different ways in each song. If the cello was covering the higher end, then the lower end would be covered with a sub-bass. If the cello was covering the low end, then maybe there would be no need for bass. We tried to cover all those bases. There’s a reason why a four-piece rock band is such a ubiquitous thing. It’s a powerful sound.
AH: I heard that with this album, you were thinking about pairing disparate things, like heavier lyrics with lighter sounds, which is something I think songwriters are being more daring about lately and can do really interesting things. One of the songs on the album that this reminds me of is “Worldender.” I love how that phrase gets deconstructed in the song and yet is still not fully defined.
Martin: The phrase and the chorus of the song was one of those things that we’d come up with a couple of years ago, partly as a joke. Then I couldn’t come up with the rest of the song or make it all make sense. Then we took this trip from Seattle down to LA after a tour and saw first-hand some of the destruction caused by the wildfires. It was disruptive for us, but we were just passing through while other people were losing their homes.
After that trip, we revisited the song and it made sense describing our experience. The idea was to keep it vague enough that people could attach their own meanings, but it would convey an image that pointed towards the effects of climate change, and generally, what political leaders are doing to our country and the world. We wanted to be broad, but not too broad.
AH: There are a lot of little images that you bring in that create small anchors to reality and build a sense of meaning, too. That way it doesn’t become too abstract, I think.
Calin: About the chorus, I agree that it’s an epic chorus about lots of things, but the verses are a simple story about the road trip. The choruses have a double meaning in terms of how one thing, whether it’s one person, one idea, or one thing, like fire, can have effects in very extreme ways. It’s everything. It can be incredibly positive and incredibly negative. That’s what we were trying to get across. Then the verses bring you back down to earth, hopefully.
Martin: We wanted to sprinkle in images on that drive from Seattle to LA that people might recognize if they’d done that trip, for example, the almond trees. They are unmistakable because there are miles and miles of perfectly planted almond trees.
Calin: It’s so visual for us.
AH: How did the sound develop for the song?
Calin: The chorus was so melodic, and sing-song, that we thought we should make the verses mimic talking and keep them very calm. We kept the music around the verses very sparse. That was very conscious.
AH: It is really a very calm feeling song. One of the things that occurred to me in the song is the role of elemental forces and there’s a balance between fear, awareness, and acceptance. That calmness feels like part of it. All of those possibilities feel present.
Martin: That was actually one of the songs that we did not show to our band or Producer until we got to the studio. They didn’t know where it was going to go and we didn’t really, either. We wanted that to be a journey in itself. The night that we were first running through it, we’d showed them the acoustic version.
We were running through it, and were going to come in the next morning to record it, but our Producer was recording those run-throughs, so the drum tracks that you hear on that final version were our drummer, Ariel Bernstein, in the studio trying things out. He thought he’d refine everything, but we were done.
Calin: We were so impressed with Ariel. Those stick-clicks that you hear throughout were created by Ariel while he was playing. It was all live in real-time.
AH: I wouldn’t have even known that sound was created by a human! Another song that makes me think of a rock band situation is “Borderline,” which is a very haunting song. It’s got a story to it, too, and its own sound.
Calin: I think that one was written pretty early on in the pandemic. It stayed in its acoustic version for a very long time, really until about a week before we got into the studio. We perform that song as a duo often, and we did perform it in livestreams leading up to the recording, so it had this other life. Just the two of us singing it, I think it’s a very different song than when the band is involved. The band makes it into a happier thing.
Martin wrote “Borderline” and I added the harmony. We originally wrote very low vocal parts and that made is sound sad. We then changed the way we sing some of it, jumping up very high, and that also affected the Clouds recording of “Borderline.” We sang it so much during the pandemic that I think it informed the way we approached the whole album and informed the way that we were going to move forward, singing as a duo. It really is the original duet of the next era of this band, I think.
Martin: It really showed us that we loved singing together. Usually, when we go into the studio we isolate the vocals and record them separately, but this time for a lot of the songs, starting with “Borderline,” when we went into the studio, we recorded them sitting together, looking straight at each other. We recorded both vocal tracks at the same time, and there was bleed. It gave the vocal track a natural feeling.
Calin: It gave them a realness. When we record vocal tracks like that, it means that if somebody messes up, we have to start over. [Laughs] I think in our previous recordings, that would have made us too nervous. But we weren’t worried. Because of singing “Borderline” and working together during the pandemic, we had learned to be one voice. I’m proud to say that it started to become rare to mess up our vocals. If one person could carry it, then the other person could follow along.
AH: It’s amazing that this song was the experiment that led to the next stage of development for you all. One image that comes up in that song and comes up elsewhere on the album at least once was something that I could relate to. It was this pandemic experience of feeling a disjunction between the body and the sense of self and not being able to fix that.
Calin: That’s definitely an experience that I’d had before, but it happened particularly during the pandemic. I’m not so great with social interaction. I don’t prefer to be around too many people at once. I thought that since I wasn’t doing that, I’d enjoy the space, and feel like myself, but I was out of practice instead. I had all this anxiety moving back into the world and having to communicate with people again. I felt like two different people and I couldn’t merge them. That’s just me forever now, I guess! [Laughs]
Martin: I had studied philosophy in college, so I’d done a lot of thinking about the connection or disconnection between your body and your mind, and all that lofty stuff. I had this view of things based on everything I’d read, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that I could actually feel what was going on in that realm and what some of these philosophers actually meant. I totally agree on this.
Thanks, Ballroom Thieves, for chatting with us. Find lots of the Ballroom Thieves luscious music and tour dates here: http://www.ballroomthieves.com