Nat Baldwin: Interview
“I was the only person that was staying on to go on the next tour. Everyone else would leave the band.”
When I first heard upright bassist and songwriter Nat Baldwin’s music, I thought it was a gentler, mellower, and less abrasive take on the band Baldwin currently lends his four strings to: Dirty Projectors. At the time, it sounded, dare I say, safe. But what I overlooked is just how individual, experimental, and genre-bending Baldwin’s music really is. After witnessing a handful of live videos from songs off Most Valuable Player (TMT Review) — Baldwin’s exploratory and technique-stretching 2003 debut Solo Contrabass hadn’t yet fallen under my radar — I realized that Baldwin, as a songwriter and musician, wasn’t playing things “safe” at all. Instead, the delicate folk-pop I heard initially transformed into open-ended passages of cacophonous free improv, and while Baldwin describes it in this interview as “kind of schizophrenic,” I think it’s kind of brilliant.
Besides matters of schizophrenia, Baldwin reveals his thoughts on melisma singing, Morten Feldman, Arthur Russell, and playing in one of the most significant bands of the last 10 years.
So, you got back from the European tour recently. How did it go? What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed, over the years, touring in Europe in particular?
When I left Dirty Projectors right after we recorded Rise Above in late ‘06, […] the band started touring — as a four-piece — Europe a lot. Anyway, we’ve been to Europe twice since […] I came back in ‘09. So, I actually don’t have a ton of experience touring in Europe but, yeah, this trip was amazing. We finished it off [and] went to Japan for that Fuji Rock [Fest]. And that was a really cool way to end the trip. We were in Europe for about 5 weeks before that. Longer-style trip. We’re still recovering a little bit. [Laughs].
I’ll bet. What was the Fuji Rock deal? What was that about?
It was a really cool festival. It’s in this ski resort town about 3 hours outside Tokyo. It was really beautiful. The festival site was at the base of all the mountains. There were five different stages. It was just set up really nice. Really organized, really clean. The people were so pumped. It was definitely one of the coolest — if not the coolest — festival of the summer after playing a lot of festivals, y’know? It was pretty amazing. The last thing I did, there was this gondola ride — like attached to a zip-wire type thing, like a slow, slow roller coaster ride — through all the mountains. It was really awesome. It was a cool festival.
So, it was near Mt. Fuji, I take it?
It wasn’t at Mt. Fuji, as the name would suggest. I actually don’t know exactly where it was! [Laughs]. It was beautiful […]
“And the idea of the record was for it to be pretty sparse, and pretty minimal, and kind of live-sounding.”
You mentioned how you left the band and came back. I was curious about how things started — how long had you known Dave Longstreth? What sparked that initial collaboration, when you guys began playing together?
[…] I guess I started writing songs and trying to pursue that side of music in the summer of 2004. And, yeah, I just wanted to tour a lot. I was trying to gather as many contacts as I could. So, I started just touring living rooms — setting up these tours around the North East, mostly — with friends or alone. And, it turned out, Dave and I had a bunch of mutual friends that kind of expand over a lot of musical territory. He had this Pacific Northwest connection with the K Records dudes. I knew some of those guys through some other friends. And then he also had this New York, kind of experimental music scene, which I was much more familiar with from when I was younger and stuff.
So, we just had a bunch of mutual friends. He set up a show for me on one of my first tours playing songs. And we just played in this living room. And we kept in touch a little bit. I was just trying to tour as much as I could. It was only a few months later before I hit him up again and played in another living room in New Haven, where he was going to school. And at that point, it was like March of 2005. He had some tours coming up with Dirty Projectors. Which, at that time, even those two shows, it was a completely different band. Actually, I think one of them, he was just solo and the other he had like strings and a couple singers. There wasn’t a set group of people. At, that point, he asked me to be in the band. I didn’t have many other things going on other than solo stuff and I was just psyched to tour and psyched about his music. So, I think he had a radio show at WNYC, David Garland’s show. The first time I went to his house, I had to learn all this music. It was pretty challenging. Actually, it was a lot of Getty Address material. So, at that point, people were reading stuff and you were pretty exposed because it was only a few people. [Laughs] So, I hadn’t really done that thing in a while.
Anyway, I got down and, yeah, we just really kind of connected right away. It was just funny how many mutual friends we had and stuff. But, yeah, we stayed up until three in the morning talking and then we had to wake up at six to start practicing because the radio show was at noon. Anyway, that was really awesome and fun. And, then, only a couple months later, was the first Dirty Projectors tour I did. So, that was summer of 2005. And, yeah, I just went down to New Haven and kind of lived in this weird practice space that Dave was renting. [I] just stayed there for a couple weeks and practiced for a couple weeks before the tour. Sorry, that was the long version there. But that’s how we started hanging.
Over the years, being part of the band, do you ever find it tricky balancing the obligations to the group with your obligations as a solo artist? Making records, etc.?
Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I mean, that was a big part of the dilemma — what I was dealing with — which kind of caused me to leave the band that first time. I wasn’t fully prepared, I guess, to be able to do that or something. And the band was a lot different back then. I was the only person that was staying on to go on the next tour. Everyone else would leave the band. […] Anyway, it was difficult and, at that time, I did want to do more solo stuff and it just made sense to me at that time.
Since coming back to the band, just after a few years, I just feel better prepared, more equipped to be able to balance the two. I like going on tour with Projectors for a couple months and just putting everything I can into that. And then, coming back, usually I feel pretty ready and inspired to do my own thing after being away from it for a while. So, I kind of like that aspect of it — just going back and forth. Y’know, even if sometimes I get frustrated — we have been very busy the past couple years! But I know it’ll balance out and I love playing in the band. Since my time to do my own thing kind of shrinks a little bit […] it kind of makes, when I do have that time to work on my own thing, more productive and stuff. I’m more motivated [when] I’ve been away from it for a few months or something.
When it comes to your writing, I wanted to ask you about your process — in particular, the role improvisation serves in your music. Improvised music, to me, is very much about being in the moment. In your music, however, a lot of the stuff bridges the gap between improvised experimentalism and a very much pop aspect. When writing, do you consciously leave room for free improvisation or at least some improvisation when you perform the songs live?
Yeah, I mean the songs, themselves, are pretty set, y’know? I guess, for the live show, I have been getting more interested in incorporating improvisation. Before I wrote songs, that’s where I started out and I kind of left that world for a little while. But I’ve been regaining a lot of interest in it. It’s been fun incorporating it in my sets. In a way, it feels kind of schizophrenic, or something, going from this extreme, noise-based improvisation to these very melodic, repetitive, and structured songs.
I don’t know… [Laughs]. I guess I just like so many different kinds of music and it’s fun to put together. I don’t know if it achieves what I want it to or something, but it’s just fun to do. [Laughs] Yeah, especially if I’m doing a tour, it makes things a little bit more interesting [for] myself when I don’t have to just stick to the songs. […] [Laughs].
It’s cool you’re able to go between those two worlds and have them not be mutually exclusive or something. A little while ago you did a split with Extra Life.
Charlie Looker played on your record before (Most Valuable Player). Did you get to know him when he was part of Dirty Projectors? Also, do you have any plans doing something similar again with Extra Life? Another record? Tour?
Yeah, I met Charlie when I was in college in Hartford, Connecticut. He was going to school nearby in Middletown. I started playing music with him — playing his music. That was back in 2001. His bands, back then, that was my first experience touring or anything. Yeah, we’ve just been really close friends ever since then. I introduced him to Dave and stuff — kind of brought him into that. He was only on Dirty Projectors for one tour, one record. We had always talked about doing some kind of split and I’m glad that finally happened. He had a record come up a few months ago. It’s really awesome. I don’t know what their plans are coming up.
Are you talking about Secular Works or something newer?
[…] There’s another one that came out in March called Made Flesh.
Oh, yeah. I haven’t got the chance to check out that one as much. I only heard one song from it. The last one was amazing though. I’ll have to look into the newer one.
Yeah, definitely. It’s pretty awesome.
It was a while ago, but I got the chance to interview Charlie Looker and he talked about the technique of vocal melisma — where you stretch one syllable over a bunch of notes.
He was saying it seems to be a reoccurring technique common to a lot of different artists — at least more recently. He said he was working on some piece of writing on the subject. I don’t know if he’s written it yet. But I know a lot of people identify your singing with that kind of thing — also Dirty Projectors stuff. Is it a subconscious kind of thing — where you don’t think about it — or is this something you’ve picked up and honed over the years?
Yeah, yeah. When I started singing [and] before I started [writing], I never sang before or anything. When I got inspired to do that, I didn’t think about how. It just sort of happened and then it’s just been […] developing over time. Yeah, I was thinking about it the other day. Because the melisma thing, I mean, that goes [back] […] that’s the blues. [Laughs]. And even with Charlie’s stuff it goes back to Renaissance music and stuff. It’s a really common thing in music history. When people do that kind of thing now, it seems to be talked about a lot.
I was thinking, I started out playing jazz. Not that the approach [of melisma] is emphasized, stylistically, [in] jazz. But there’s something about having an interest in time and the elasticity of it. Speaking things out — just thinking about how to phrase things. That’s something that, when you’re approaching jazz music, you’re thinking about all the time. So, just my few years, when I first started playing music, I think that probably had some kind of effect, subconsciously, when I started out singing. I naturally would think about phrasing and singing over the beat, on top of the beat, and switching it up as opposed to something that was very straight and set. But yeah, it’s weird, I was thinking about that the other day. It’s not like I started singing and wanted to sing a certain way. I just started singing this way and, of course, it’s developed.
“I mean, that was a big part of the dilemma — what I was dealing with — which kind of caused me to leave the band that first time.”
I know you’ve covered Arthur Russell’s music every once in a while live. He’s one of the artists that folks seem to have an increasing interest in, especially since his death. When did you discover him? Do you have any thoughts on his music that you’d like to share?
Yeah, let’s see… Also, one of my first tours back in 2004, I played a show with Jens Lekman. After the show, he was complimentary and he mentioned Arthur Russell, who I’d never heard of at the time. He told me to check it out, said I’d be into him and stuff. After he heard my set, he figured I was aware of him. But I wasn’t. So, I checked it out and, as you know about Arthur Russel’s music […] [Laughs] every record is like a totally different thing! What did I check out first? I think I checked out more of his dancey music at first.
And it didn’t totally grab me, honestly. And then I didn’t think about it for a little bit. Then, I don’t know, his name came up a few more times and I found out about that solo cello and voice record, called World of Echo, and I checked that out and thought it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. And then, somehow, after having that experience, everything else [made sense]. I went back to the dance music and I totally got that. I totally appreciated it just as much and loved it just as much. But it took the introduction to World of Echo for me to actually feel a total and full appreciation. But I love his music and I definitely have gotten more into it in the past few years. And it’s pretty awesome that it’s finally getting out in the world as it should be.
On a slightly different note, on the MVP record, there’s a song called “Look She Said,” which I believe is named after a Christian Wolff composition.
I’m not too familiar with Wolff, in particular, but I understand he’s an experimental pianist that did a lot prepared piano stuff. Is there a certain place you’d recommend starting when it comes to checking out his music?
Yeah, Christian Wolff — he was kind of associated with that scene in the ’50s in New York that kind of grew. John Cage, Earl Brown, Morten Feldman, and Wolff together. And, actually, Wolff is probably the one out of those four that I’m kind of least familiar with. [Laughs]. [..] Robert Black — who’s an incredible bass player that teaches at The Hart School of Music where I went to college (I didn’t study with him but got to see him play a lot) — […] recorded the series of solo bass Wolff pieces and one of them, maybe the most well-known, is called, “Look She Said.” The lyrics from that, the rest of them, are taken from these Morten Feldman pieces. I’m more familiar with Feldman, but he had some pretty awesome things. Why Patterns? is pretty amazing and Crippled Symmetry is really awesome. I don’t know if you’re more or less familiar with Feldman or not.
It’s pretty awesome stuff.
I’ll have to look into more of his work. Are you planning on doing some more writing for a future solo record anytime soon?
Yeah. I actually just finished recording a solo record. In the spring, Dirty Projectors were in and out of town — playing at festivals, coming back to town. In between that, I’d get into the studio for a day or two. And the idea of the record was for it to be pretty sparse, and pretty minimal, and kind of live-sounding. So, it didn’t take many days to record, anyway. [Laughs]. But, so, I got that done in the spring and it’s being mixed right now. So, it should be done any minute. And now I just have to find somebody to release it which will hopefully happen, if someone does decide they want to do that. Ideally, I’d like it to be out early next year, early 2011.
Yeah, I’m ready to do some more writing. I’m doing a tour in November, just around the Northeast and Canada, and Baltimore with Travis Laplant — he’s a saxophonist, tenor sax player [who] plays in Little Women. He’s going to be playing solo sets as well as Kurt Weisman, who’s a songwriter from Vermont. Have you checked out his stuff at all?
I’ve heard about him. I know I’ve listened to at least a couple songs. I remember hearing good things about him.
He used to be in this band called Feathers.
His solo stuff is just my favorite music in the world. It’s amazing. And Travis is just incredible. If you haven’t checked out Little Women, I highly suggest doing so. And his solo stuff is incredible. Anyway, my new release won’t be ready by then but it’s just going to be a 10-day tour, or something, in November. And then, hopefully, if the release happens, I’ll plan a longer solo tour around that. Hopefully, early next year.
That sounds awesome.
Yeah, I’m pretty psyched.