Claire Wellin of Youth in a Roman Field Wrestles with “Albatross”
Youth in a Roman Field will be releasing new album Get Caught Trying on November 11th, 2022, via Better Company Records/The Orchard, and ahead of that they’ve released two singles and videos so far, “Nightswims,” and most recently “Albatross.” The album has a long development period, like many pandemic-impacted records, but has come to fruition at a time when the band can have a record launch show at The Mercury Lounge in New York on December 1sr, 2022, and when violinist/vocalist/songwriter Claire Wellin, who is also a member of San Fermin, can also take up touring solo on the East Coast in November.
Some songs on the new album, like “Nightswims,” have a longer history between their time of writing, liveplay, and the album recording, while others are a bit more recent like “Albatross,” but the issues and ideas within them are still unfolding for Claire Wellin. I spoke with her about the development of both songs, how she tends to approach songwriting, and why physical movement became an apt analogy for the internal wrestling she faced with the song “Albatross.”
Americana Highways: I find this idea of combining Appalachian traditions with electronic elements on your albums really fascinating. It seems like it’s harder to decide to combine things than to stick within a particular tradition, so I appreciate that.
Claire Wellin: Thank you. It seems like it’s not that weird anymore to be in-between genres and I’m glad for that.
AH: Though you all may have been ahead of the curve on that! Is it easier to do that kind of experiment live since the audience are there, you have them, and can see their reactions? Recording it must require even more guts.
Claire Wellin: [Laughs] I actually don’t know what would work better. I have never really made music with approval in mind, I guess. I’m a trained musician, but I’m not a trained songwriter and when I started writing, it was very instinctual, but I really was writing, and have always been writing, from a traditional Folk lens because that’s so much the music that speaks to me. I think there’s some of that formula that just works.
Because that’s what I grew up loving and was inspired by, I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, will people think this is weird?” To me, it was still always rooted in folk writing tradition. Then it was about what was in my head or what I wanted to say. I guess I was making the music for myself in a lot of ways, so the parts of it that were more off the beaten path were not necessarily things that I was concerned that people should like. I don’t think it’s that weird, I guess! [Laughs]
AH: I know that, as a writer myself, there’s a certain kind of imperative that you have to follow in terms of what you know reaches your vision for something. If you don’t fulfill that, you really can’t get there anyway. You can’t put the horse before the cart.
CW: Yes, that’s a great way of putting it, and very succinct.
AH: I noticed that the song “Nightswims” had a longer life for you, going back to 2016. Is a song something that you can still make discoveries about over time?
CW: Oh, definitely. I for sure feel like I’m still making discoveries in it. But for that song, and a few other songs on the album, structurally and in terms of melody, they came out as whole cloth. For some of them, that’s true lyrically, too, for others not. So It’s more like I’ve been making discoveries about the song as I get to know the song more. The song is a kind of collaboration between my brain and my experiences.
AH: So it’s more that you may change over time in ways that then interacts with the song differently?
AH: That’s really cool.
CW: For me, the specific thing with “Nightswims” was realizing, “God, I just still really feel this sentiment.” I don’t know if I’d call that “cool!” Something I’ve engaged with people about on that song is that it’s a bit of an indictment on being an American, in some ways. When I wrote that song, it was as much about that as about heartbreak and wanting, not just a specific person, but the world to take a chance on me. Now, I don’t have as much faith that the world in which I live is going to take care of me, if that makes sense.
AH: Yes, it does. That’s a big realization and a hard one.
CW: I know that’s dark, but that is what I think. I think of the lyrics as being a little bit scathing but the music as being very warm. I’m not sure that I could have been as scathing with the lyrics if the music, melody, and instrumentation hadn’t been as warm.
AH: The lyrics and the music suggest a very close-up struggle rather than an abstract one. That feeling and that idea is something that I’ve come to understand more over the past few years. As Americans there’s such a reckoning now with the weight of the past and the present.
CW: It’s such a process.
AH: Do you think that your experience of being American is in common with your friends and colleagues?
CW: For sure, though my friends and colleagues are musicians, teachers, or work in the service industry. My partner runs a business, but I also see running a small business as so unbelievably difficult and, in a lot of ways, it feels like the same world as mine. I joined a couple of different groups in the summer of 2020 and have, through those groups and friends, heard everyone talking about their values all the time.
Whether it’s a creative writer’s group, an activist group, or a movie club, everything comes back to talking about your values. So many people in the same worlds are in industries who are not stable and feel trapped. They feel like they are caught in a capitalistic structure that was developed to justify slavery and genocide, essentially. It’s gotten so out of control. Speaking for myself, of course, there’s a lot one person can do in terms of organizing and education, but I feel that I can’t change the system that I operate in enough to make a big financial difference for myself. A lot of the people I spend time with are totally aware of this and there is a bit of a sense of helplessness. Going back to the song, “Nightswims,” I think that was the first time that I was able to express the anger that comes along with that helplessness.
AH: Do you write music first a lot on your songs?
CW: I try to write to way that I would want the violin to sound with my voice and vice-versa, so when I do write music first, it’s usually a melody line versus rhythm.
AH: What’s the history behind the song “Albatross” for you?
CW: “Albatross” is a song that I wrote while indirectly wrestling with something like generational trauma, but it’s more like generational patterns and cycles. I found myself repeating some of them and knowing that that’s not what my mom would want for me in the micro level, but also on the macro, wanting to break with negative cycles and family cycles. It’s about figuring out what issues are mine and what belong to other people. Am I carrying that in a way that’s not helpful? It’s about my relationship to my mom and other women in my family, but also about my relationship with myself. It’s about freeing myself from this idea that I have to suffer or settle because of what people in my life have experienced.
The video is very much a reflection of allowing yourself to just be. The initial idea was that we wanted a lot of dancers and choreography. That’s very expensive and we also ended up with a short time frame, so we had to totally pivot and scale back. The movements we’re doing are not exact, but they are based on somatic exercises. The idea of the exercises is to reroute the brain to body connection, and they are things like breathing exercises and relearning how to walk. It’s really shocking to realize how we’re not using our bodies in the way they can serve us. The video movements are a riff on that relearning to use your body and to enjoy using your body. That’s also a riff on, emotionally, what the song means to me.
AH: I also love the setting that you decided to use. It’s so evocative, interesting, and weird. It’s so fractured, and you’re both inside and outside at the same time. You also had perfect weather.
CW: I just wanted it to be five minutes of that! It was also so warm that day that we couldn’t wear the jackets we had planned. We had to go with it and that became part of that thing.
AH: That makes things seem even more natural in a weird way.
CW: It was a perfect example of what I was learning through writing the song and what led me to write the song, having to deviate from the plan.
AH: By the way, is the way that we walk these days wrong?
CW: I wouldn’t say that the way we walk is wrong, but with walking, you have an up and down movement and a rotating movement, the vertical and the horizontal. It’s a dual-plane thing, and a lot of us aren’t using any of that rotation. We’re using our hips to hoist our legs, for lack of a better way of saying it. Whereas if you use your back and the natural swing of your pelvis, it’s actually a lot easier to walk and walk quickly. The model-like walk, swishing the hips, is much closer to what’s functionally appropriate. [Laughs]
AH: That’s what you all are doing at the end of the video, walking forward, right?
CW: Yes, it was hard! We were doing so much twisting all day long. It was a core workout. The walk is an exaggeration in the video.
AH: How did you learn about this?
CW: Basically, when I was getting back towards playing and touring again, the physical therapist that I usually used had moved, so I was looking for a new one. There’s an organization called MusiCares and they had a program where you can apply to get around 12 sessions of free physical therapy. This spring, this therapist introduced me to Somatics and it was a total level-up, and exactly what I needed to begin to unravel all the stress of being cooped up during Covid. During Covid, because I was cooped up and not playing, a lot of my issues had come back. Something I love about Somatics is that it’s not money-making. I bought the used book for nine dollars, I read it, and I did the exercises. That’s it. It’s old school ideas of how to use your body properly. It suggests lying on the floor and not listening to music, or podcasts, or trying to do anything else.
AH: That’s really hard! Awareness is lost to us these days.
CW: It’s so hard! I know, and I could talk all day long about how desperate our culture is for quick fixes. They’ll pay anything for it even when they don’t have to.
Thanks for talking with us, Claire Wellin! Find more information and tour dates for Youth in a Roman Field, here: https://www.youthinaromanfield.com
Find Claire Wellin covered on another project, here: Video Premiere: San Fermin “Your Ghost”