Besides the addition of a new member, how did the process of writing and recording Spirit Duplicator differ from the making of the first album?
We took our time with the writing more, so Hannah Marcus didn’t feel overburdened as much. I wrote lyrics more slowly, and she wrote music more slowly. That meant more strategy and less impulsiveness, I suppose. We wanted to make a more sophisticated and less rudimentary album, and the first place to work on that was in the writing.
The main difference in the recording was probably the sophistication of everyone (save Nina) having worked together in the studio before. I, for example, had never recorded an entire album before making The Wingdale Community Singers. But as we approached Spirit Duplicator. I knew a lot more. This made the process easier. And we had more tonal colors available with the addition of Nina and her capabilities. We also used more freelancers, like Nadja Noordhuis, and Abe Streep, etc., to play the fancy parts.
The bench is very deep with this band now. There’s always someone who can come up with a fresh approach. That helped us get more sophisticated, as we wished to do. The short way to say it is: now we know better what we want.
Several of the songs on Spirit Duplicator are credited to “Marcus/Moody.” How did these collaborations break down, and was there any difference between your approach to these songs and the lyrics you provided for Desert Farmers?
Hannah filched stuff for Desert Farmers. We never sat down and worked together back then. She took bits of my prose work and set it. With the Wingdales we work a lot more closely together. For me, the best and most representative Wingdales songs involve Hannah and me in a room together, sometimes yelling at each other and trying to get each other to work outside of our ruts. She is a great editor of my lyrics, and I think I help her to attempt the accessible sometimes, when she wants to come at something more obliquely.
In one of your Swinging Modern Sounds columns, you address issues of authenticity in terms of artists who approach traditional music from a modern perspective. Has the music you’ve made as a member of the Wingdale Community Singers have any effect on this column (or vice versa)?
My Wingdales experiences are very very formative for me as a music writer. I have written a lot about music over the years, but I think I’m writing better about it now, and probably that has largely to do with writing and playing out some. As regards THE TRADITION, I could go on and on and on and on here, but I think the point I was trying to make in the column is that traditional material does not have to be about trying to duplicate stuff off the Anthology of American Folk Music. There can be other things going on. Look at the arrangements on Roseanne Cash’s new album, for example. I think the Wingdales start from a shared love of traditional music. That’s something that really animates us. But we are pushing further on this record, and I’m glad we are. We still have one foot in the music of the past, and we always will. But we do not have blinders on as regards the contemporary either.
Having seen you incorporate music into your solo readings, I was curious: are there any Rick Moody songs that wouldn’t necessarily work as Wingdale Community Singers songs?
You have no idea. I probably rate about one out of four in terms of getting stuff past the Marcus/Grubbs editorial commission. I have, in fact, an entire solo album all done. It was supposed to come out on a new label called Dainty Rubbish, helmed entirely by the very great fiction writer Nelly Reifler. Whether it will see light of day is up for grabs, but I recorded 16 or 17 songs for that project and boiled it down to ten, I think. So there are plenty of other songs floating around. I have written lots and lots of songs over the years.
There are a few invocations of religion on Spirit Duplicator — “Rancho de la Muerta” and “AWOL” in particular. Given that your essay “On Being a Christian Artist” is something I return to repeatedly, I was curious about whether you saw these songs as making a statement about religion or faith, or more as an element of the characters and settings for these particular songs?
The Wingdales do not all have my interest in this topic, so the references to religion on the album are probably happenstance. In fact, Hannah came up with the line “I’m going AWOL from the army of the lord.” Not I. I try not to make what is a very private subject for me into something that other people feel uncomfortable about. Religious hypocrisy, however, is easy to write about. And I expect on the two songs you mention, that is the topic, more than religion itself. I think the themes that come up in a group context are themes that are closer to reflecting the impulses of all the singers and players in the band. Maybe someday I will make a solo album that deals more frontally with the issue. I doubt the Wingdales would want to go in that direction.
Reading “Some Contemporary Characters,” I found myself thinking that the alternating narrators created a kind of duet feeling to it. Did you set out to write a story that was, perhaps, more overtly musical, or do you think that’s more a side effect of the format for which this particular story was written?
I always think my writing is musical and has a relationship with the musical impulse. The opening of Purple America is very musical, and was probably written under the star of La Monte Young (and also Blood on the Tracks), the story “Boys” is overtly musical. And so on. I like prose that has some interest in aural register. And this is the probably the case because I have played and written songs all my adult life, even if I only started being public about it recently. It’s the same way with Lydia Davis, who plays piano, or George Saunders, who is apparently a very good guitar player. Some prose writers listen a lot, and you can tell.
And thanks for reading! It always makes me feel good when a music person is a literature person too.
You spoke a little about the addition of Nina Katchadourian to the band. Given that I’ve also seen her name come up in connection with more art-related work such as The Marfa Sessions, I was wondering how (or if) that experience had a factor in the making of Spirit Duplicator.
I am already forgetting what I said earlier, but probably the thumbnail version of this story is this: Nina was recruited after I got to know her and to admire her singing and her spirit in The Patient Island Singers, a one-off band of all-stars who made an entire album of songs about Staten Island. I think we were doing a gig up in Saratoga Springs without David Grubbs, and we were experimenting with bolstering the lineup. It quickly became obvious that with Nina we had three-part harmony possibilities that we didn’t have before. We didn’t really think about her visual art abilities at that time, or her art world affinities, except insofar as she had another job like everyone else in the band. She did, however, make the jacket for Spirit Duplicator, and in a very Nina-esque way: she typed out all the lyrics on a manual typewriter.
Do you have a sense yet of where the next Wingdales album will go, musically or lyrically?
Well, a lot of it is written already. Nina and I both recorded a lot of solo material in the last three or four years, and I think some of that material is going to get pilfered by the Wingdales. We also stole one song that is going to be on Hannah’s next album, in that we enjoyed singing it so much we insisted on doing it, though Hannah was doggedly insisting it was more of a solo type of song. What binds all this new material together is probably that it all relies on an expansion of the harmony singing, so that there are often contrapuntal lines for various voices. In general, the new songs sound like the more sophisticated pieces on Spirit Duplicator, but even more so. I imagine the arrangements are going to be a little more sophisticated, as well, as we have been playing a lot with a very gifted jazz trumpeter called Nadje Noordhuis, and an acoustic bass player with a great ear, named Elissa Moser-Linowes. The big x factor right now is David. He’s finishing a book and petitioning for tenure at Brooklyn College. I am also eager to write a few more Marcus/Moody compositions, as those are often the center of the Wingdales experience, but Hannah has to finish her solo album, and she’s trying to changes addresses. As usual: we are all really, really busy. So when the recording will take place is anyone’s guess.
In terms of the relationship between your writing and music, has that shifted at all in the last few years, given your more prominent/public role in making music?
I’m writing about music a lot more (I have a small music blog-ish sort of thing on The Rumpus, and I’m about to compile a lot of that writing into a book, which will probably come out in 2011. It’s fair to say that playing music has made me a more confident writer about music. I know more exactly what I think, and I am less shy about saying it. As far as an influence on my more creative writing might go, I have always been very influenced by music (look at Purple America, for the most obvious example), I just didn’t talk about it that much. The novels are musical, or have a musical layer, and that is unlikely to be any different in the future. I don’t feel more prominent as a musician, by the way, because I was always playing and writing, I’m just concealing it less. I used to feel that I should keep my mouth shut, and now I feel that I don’t want to die having dissembled about how important music is in my life.
Whether it’s the episode recaps of the t.v. show The Werewolves of Fairfield County that appear in The Diviners or the description of your short story “The Double Zero” as a cover version, there’s been a recurring concern with blurring the boundaries of different types media within your fiction. Do you find that the more creative disciplines you have experience with, the more comfortable you are in writing fiction that borrows from those disciplines?
See above. The answer is absolutely, yes, and I think that cross pollination is very contemporary, and, for me, it’s rich terrain. I couldn’t live without it. I think the novel, e.g., is a magpie of a form, it borrows and adapts and steals and repurposes. My use of music is just one example of this.