Heather Jones unpacks pandemic writing, engineering, and new Ther album trembling

by Thomas Hagen

Ther is a special project in Philadelphia that I hope more people come to know this year, and I hope they hear themselves in trembling too. Heather Jones began releasing EPs under this name in 2015, bridging slowcore, alt-folk and pop breaking the world-cocoon, also running their own studio So Big Auditory in West Philadelphia. There they’ve worked on records by Deer Scout, King Azaz, They Are Gutting A Body Of Water, Sadurn, Highnoon, Noera, Twin Princess and so many more favorites. (One light in Ther’s disco is the split w/ sadurn from 2019, their longest release til now, lovingly dubbed here on Dead Definition Records.)


2022 brings trembling, the first full album from Jones and a gorgeous statement of purpose – here she’s the writer, multi-instrumentalist, producer and engineer at once. Intricate melodies interweave like lace in this mess of synth pop and indie folk, now more tense, wound by spinning drum machines, claps and thick bass. This electronic palette brings density I haven’t heard in Ther before, but Jones’ crisp mixes still leave room in the center for captivating vocal performances that foreground their lyrics. Characters among friends and family suggest, “you should go out and get some ice cream to mark the beginning of your treatment;” “you are smaller than you were yesterday.” Heather wonders about mental health and crises, wonders about the police, “who wants to wear that gun and hold up someone?”


But inside the vulnerability, between the ballads, and in spite of the title, this record really is full up with powerhouse pop climax. Jones explains they leaned into electronic production due to limitations – their quarantine period cut contact with other musicians and access to bigger rooms. But they also have two more LPs planned already, built respectively for solo performance and a full rock band. (I even got the pleasure of hearing three trembling tracks lit aflame by the five-piece Ther band for the first time ever last week, at Nick’s Snacks with Alexia Avina, Laura Wolf and Twin Princess.) When we spoke last month, Jones described an urgent need to get all this music recorded and released as soon as possible, not just living in her head anymore. On trembling track ten the distant, slowly fading rendition of Gillian Welch’s “I Dream A Highway” makes me wonder at the close: where does all the music go, after we make it? is it going away? or coming back?


Below is an edited transcript from my conversation with Heather Jones on February 17, 2022, the night before their first LP release. Find the album on Bandcamp, music video on YouTube, and physical merch on Moon Physics too.


therrr.bandcamp.com/album/trembling

www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERs_BmlTZnE

www.moonphysics.com/shop/p/sk8-011


When did you begin working on the tracks on trembling?


The short answer is that I started working on them on day one of Philly’s lockdown in March of 2020. But I guess the slightly more complicated answer is that, if that includes writing them, the oldest song on the album I started writing like five years ago! [“maureen”] is the oldest one.


I was at this point in the beginning of quarantine when I was sitting on three albums’ worth of songs [laughs]. I had started to plan how to get them all off my chest, out of my head and into the world, but the songs that ended up being trembling were the ones I had planned to do last. That was something I was planning to do a few years from now, because I felt not ready to do it. But we were coming up on quarantine and I was like, I don’t know how long this is going to last. I’m not gonna be able to record anybody so I’m gonna have all this time, I might as well make this album of these songs that I can make by myself. Because these tracks were for solo acoustic guitar and the other songs are for a full rock band, so this was the one record that I could do by myself. So I was sitting day one figuring out exactly which ones I was really itching to do, which ones fit best together in the kind of pop method that I was thinking about, imagining. I finished writing “swimming” cause I knew I wanted that one to be on there, but I still had to finish writing it so I finished writing it a couple weeks into lockdown.


What are some of the experiences that inspired the lyrics you sing on the album?


I feel like a lot of these songs are really more about states of mind rather than specific things, aside from “Maureen” is about being in a psychiatric ward very directly, and “resurrection sundae” is about a very specific piece of family conflict that overlapped with some trauma and some mental illness stuff in this weird way. So it’s kind of this funny thing where none of the songs are really about any event in particular, they’re more about things that I was chewing on in my head, like small theories of everything that I was just thinking about. And because I wrote most of these songs since I moved to Philadelphia, a lot of it has been about transitioning, and my politics changing, and developing drastically new frameworks of understanding the world and myself, and I guess a lot of these are like tiny little steps in those mindset shifts.


You wrote that these songs were recorded “various places” – could you share what any of those places were? Were they all in Philadelphia?


The big demoing and drafting phase of the record happened entirely where I was living on 57th Street. And then I lost my housing really abruptly and didn’t have time to find a new house, so I just moved back in with my parents in Connecticut, so that’s where the second stage of the recording happened. And then I still wanted to have Veronica [Magner] do backing vocals, cause I feel like their voice is part of what I imagine in my head, when I’m imagining a track to its conclusion that’s an important texture. They were coming along to a recording trip we were making to the Catskills to do the Sadurn album, and so we recorded these vocals on days off, when G [Degroot] was working in Philly and we weren’t recording Sadurn stuff. That’s how everything got tracked, so I feel like it was half in Philadelphia and half outside of Philly.


But then I mixed it all in Philly – well, the first time I mixed it in my parents’ house, and then eventually I didn’t really like the mixes and felt like, I can do this better. And then I mixed them a second time in my current apartment in Philly, and then I checked the mixes after listening to them in my studio space before sending them off to mastering.


You have run your studio So Big Auditory in Philadelphia for a few years now!


About four! I just had my four-year anniversary a couple weeks ago.


Did you learn any new lessons about studio work while completing an album of your own music for the first time?


Yeah! I’ve been trying to figure out how to put this succinctly. I like to think that I’ve been really sensitive and attentive to my artists’ needs when working with them because recording is an emotional endeavor, it’s not just a musical discipline. There’s a lot of stuff, a lot happens, it’s very trying, it’s very demanding on every area of a person. And I feel like I’ve tried to be very sensitive to people’s needs and what they’re going through, and I think I didn’t fully understand it til I finally went through it myself. I’ve made EPs, I’ve done singles, I know what it’s like to write personal songs and be insecure about them. But fully understanding the emotional – sometimes – torment of working on an album and putting all of your work and experiences under a microscope is really taxing and really draining, and can really cause you to doubt yourself and your worth and your abilities, and your talent and your skills and your knowledge. And I think having gone through it firsthand I have a much better understanding of what a client can be going through when I’m working with them. And then I have to imagine that I’m also charging them money, you know? Which is another element that’s also very emotionally difficult and can make things really really complicated. So that was one big lesson, being able to empathize with my client better.


And then also realizing at the same time that I kind of wish I did have someone with me to throw my ideas at and just someone who can be honest with me, someone who can tell me, That’s a bad idea, you shouldn’t do that! I really wish that I had had that. Going through it by myself was really hard because I had to go through the exhausting work of trusting my instincts – which, when you’re making a record, your relationship with your instincts can become really fraught! [Laughs] And very stressful. And both of those things reminding me that I really need to be emotionally attentive to my client’s state of mind, how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, where their morale is at, what kind of emotional trajectory they’re on, so I know how to be available to them. Whether it’s support as a validating presence, or as someone who steps in and takes charge when things are spinning out of control and I can see a client start to almost panic. And whether you do one or the other it’s hard to say, but being present with the client and having a good, trusting relationship with them can lead to making the right decision. And this is my longwinded way of saying the lesson I learned is basically an emotional one, making sure that I am emotionally available and attentive to my client that I am charging probably too much money. [Laughs]



Have you always self-recorded your past releases, or have you ever worked with another engineer?


I’ve only worked with another engineer a couple times: in college I had a friend engineer vocals for my first Ther EP, and then the next time a band I was playing in was recording at Headroom and Mark Watter was engineering. And then actually more recently, after this album was done I just spend two days with Mark at So Big, with him engineering and me playing, and that was the first time I had someone engineer me with my own music in six or seven years. And it was huge. I’ve avoided it because I generally don’t have the budget for that, because I don’t make a lot of money. But it really did pay off and I was grateful for the experience because Mark is really a lot of things I aspire to be in an engineer. I feel like a lot of the emotionally attentive stuff I was just mentioning, Mark is extremely good at that, very good at being present and being supportive and also taking charge when necessary. I’m kind of a hysterical person, I’m very emotional, I have very extreme ups and downs, kind of unpredictable and erratic. Mark has been very good about knowing when I’m burning out and he needs to take the reigns, and knowing when I need some validation and support, so it’s been nice to have that experience. He’s great! I really can’t say enough nice things about the guy. [Laughs] This is for the next Ther album, that I’m hoping to finish by the end of this summer.


You performed all the instruments on the album, aside from the contributions by Jon Cox and Veronica Magner. Were any of these instruments special to you? Any specific drum machines, guitars, saxophone?


Yeah John plays a guitar part on “a glove” and Veronica does all of the backing vocals. It’s funny, I feel like I use the saxophone on every Ther release and it’s usually only once, and it’s usually to make a whole bunch of noise [laughs] because I never got that good at it, but I did play it for a very long time. And so I did play on the saxophone I first used to audition for college jazz programs, ten years ago.


My – what is it? – a 2006 Fender Telecaster that I saved up for and bought all by myself in high school. My first electric guitar, I still have it, I did all these weird mods to it; it doesn’t sound like a Telecaster anymore but I like it, it’s a weird guitar that I love. And I played that one a lot, until I picked up a new guitar in the Poconos and I replaced a lot of the Tele parts with that one.


What was your approach to using the autotune effect on your own voice, and how did you decide which songs would use that effect?


Well the first time I used it was on “swimming,” and that was a complete accident! That was because I was tracking vocals on the song for the second time – I re-did the vocals on the whole album – I feel like everybody does this on their first album [laughs] – I was redoing the vocals and the melody is too hard for me to sing. I’m not a good singer, and that melody is very precise and important to that song, and I was feeling like, That melody is not right, it’s not feeling good, I feel like the song is better than I am, and I’m losing it. So I was thinking maybe it’s just a tuning thing, maybe if I Melodyne these vocals it’ll feel better, because I wasn’t sure if it was a pitch thing, if it was a delivery thing, if I wasn’t acting enough when I was singing, if I wasn’t selling the song. So just kind of on a whim I just slapped some autotune on it like, Does this feel better?? And it was like, YES! This DOES feel better, in fact I’m going to LEAVE this on here now. And so it just happened by accident. And then I was suddenly like, Oh it’s hyperpop now! It’s suddenly this genre of music that I don’t listen to or understand, this really hilarious accident turning it into something completely different.


And then for “100 winters” it felt like, it’s the spoken-word part of the album so you gotta make sure that it’s good and not pretentious, or else nobody’s gonna forgive you for it. So I was really really trying to make it feel good and important but not too full of itself. But one of the things I was trying to do was – because I think this was an important mental change that happened in myself over the last few years – get rid of the separation between humankind and nature. And how that division doesn’t really exist, it’s like the division between the mind and the body. It’s like someone decided that those were separate, and then we just developed systems of knowledge around it that way. And so I wanted to put the autotuned vocals, this very artificial thing, doing this almost Appalachian chorale, on field recordings of the woods, and create this synthesis of weird artificial human creation and also nature as it exists without human intervention, and having them coexist. That usage of it felt intentional and crucial for the message of the song.


Can you talk about the process for shooting the “resurrection sundae” video?


Yeah, two years ago I had a concept based on this square-wave tremolo that’s on the Rhodes and that’s the backbone of that song, where I imagined these series of shots of parts of Philadelphia, parts of the woods, that would oscillate between day and night, they would flicker between day and night, the same place, and I would be in the shot. But that was way too difficult, it would take so so long to shoot. But then I thought, What if I did that with a projector instead? And maybe if it used black and white photography, so the colors on the projector wouldn’t take away from the colors on me, and maybe if the photos used a lot of black in them so the projector when flickering on-and-off would create only space-dependent shifts in light, in some places it would stay black.


I was just really lucky where Amelia [Swain] and I went into her studio and set up the projector it worked perfectly, it was crazy, [laughs] I felt extremely lucky. And so we just took a few passes of me just lip-syncing the whole song at different angles. And we did mostly tripod shots so it would really feel stoic and statue-like in that way, where I was in the same place every time; it would turn black and then I would reappear in exactly the same place. And then Amelia did a couple of passes where she got up close and moved the camera around and did her thing. And then all of the B-roll and the shots of the lamb – which was just conveniently there and very thematically appropriate – she grabbed and was like, HOLD THIS [laughs]. And the shot of me playing the guitar was her idea. And we just did it in two or three hours maybe, if that, maybe like one or two. It didn’t take very long!


And then we handed it off to Pauli [Mia] from Twin Princess who’s a good friend of ours. Pauli does a lot of video stuff and I sent it to her cause she’s been doing all of the art for the album, and we’re good at communicating and there’s a lot of trust there. And then she edited it and really [laughs] – I feel like I told her and told a couple people – Pauli, by editing the video, made it a better song, and I don’t know how she did it! She just really understood the assignment and absolutely crushed it. I think we did two rounds of edits, and the final one was just unbelievable, it was so unbelievably good. Amelia and I were giving her notes because it was our kind-of baby, and Amelia does more video work than I do so she knows what to ask for and she has a better understanding of what’s possible than I do. I don’t really know anything about video, I’m a picture/photo person. But by the time we got to the end of the editing process we were both just stunned, it was just incredible. It really made me appreciate post-production work and how it can really tie something together, and how the right worker in the right job can elevate the source material through pure presentation. I’m really happy with how that turned out: my first music video.


How do you hope to realize these new songs in live performances? Will they sound similar to the recordings, or different?


Similar is not possible [laughs]. The reason I brought out the drum machine for the record was because we had started playing with it in our live performances between September 2019 and March 2020; we were figuring out how to implement it when it was just me Jon and V. And we were starting to get somewhere cool with it, but it was really annoying to set up and operate, very difficult to make work in a live setting unless you have a drummer there whose job is to either play the drums or operate the drum machine. And especially once something’s on a click and on its own internal clock it’s weird keeping up with it, because it doesn’t forgive you at all, it won’t work with you at all. It’s not like a bandmate who’s going to listen to you and respond to how you’re playing. So we are maybe bringing it back soon but right now we are just reinterpreting the songs. Like right now we’re playing “resurrection sundae,” “a mouse,” “$200,” and I think that’s it. We’re still trying to find a key where I can sing “swimming” without hurting my voice and it’s very hard – I dunno why I did that to myself.


But we’re reinterpreting it: “resurrection sundae” is now a classic slowcore vibe, and “a mouse” kind of sounds like Pinback. We’re erring on the side of reinterpreting, which I’ve had a lot of fun with cause I recorded these songs in the spirit of NO RULES! The only rule is that there’s no bad ideas! And it’s fun to do that again using those arrangements as a blueprint, but doing it as a band with some friends who I love and trust very much. Having this playful experimentation phase with them with this material, taking them apart, putting them back together a second time. Amelia is playing bass, Jon is playing guitar and drums, V is playing synth and singing, and Madel Rafter (of snakeboygang and Crooks and Nannies) is playing drums and guitar as well, so five-piece right now.


Do you have any other projects or future plans that you want to share about? You mentioned that you have already started recording a second album for Ther!


Yeah, I can talk about that! It was gonna be the first one I did. If you’ve seen me do my solo acoustic guitar set, it’s mostly songs that I like to do in that capacity: it’s a lot of the fingerstyle, tempo-less, meter-less stuff. It’s definitely a very acoustic, natural, organic vibe for this record. I’m hopefully getting [Laura Wolf] in Providence to do some cello for it; my neighbor is hopefully contributing some clarinet; Madel is gonna contribute some saxophone, and there’s gonna be piano, it’s gonna be very different, a very very different record from trembling. Definitely sparse; it’s about the same length, about nine songs, twenty-five minutes. Dealing with slightly different themes. But musically, something completely different. So that’s really exciting, gonna start overdubbing that soon. And then after that, in band rehearsal we’re already working on LP3 songs right now, we started working on a new one last week [laughs]. So I’m hoping that we can start tracking LP3 before 2023. Once LP2 is done I’m just needing to move onto the third one, I’ve just been sitting on these songs for so long I just want them to be out in the world and out of my brain. I feel like they’re taking up a lot of real estate in my brain.


Are you planning performances for that material as well, or just focused on recording?


I have kind of a tenuous relationship with performing: I have really terrible performance anxiety. I get really really nervous, my hands will shake so badly that I can’t play the guitar. But there’s nothing like the rush of playing a really good set and people talking to you afterwards about it, especially when people really connect with the material and you feel like you’ve done something important. I feel like a good set is when the music can feel less selfish, if that makes any sense, and those are really nice moments. But the studio is definitely where I feel more comfortable, and it’s easier for me to do because it’s my day job and I can set aside time for it whenever I want. Whereas scheduling shows and booking, and organizing band practice, not a particular strong suit of mine.

You also engineered the upcoming albums by Deer Scout and Sadurn!


Yes, those are two I’m very happy with. The Sadurn record I’m really excited for people to hear; it’s a really incredible collection of songs, I’m so grateful that I got to engineer it and be part of it. I think people are gonna be talking about that one for a while – it’s a heavy hitter. And on the Deer Scout one – Dena is such a talented songwriter. We’ve been working on that record for so long, we started working on it in the summer of 2019 and it’s only now starting to roll out. Dena has this remarkable capacity to honor a lot of traditional songwriting while also making it very contemporary and urgent, which I feel like is a very hard line to walk. I feel like there’s frequently two camps of people: there’s the musical pioneers, and the people who love the tradition and the classics. And I really respect people who have a foot in both camps and express that with their music.



Heather Jones unpacks pandemic writing, engineering, and new Ther album trembling

by Thomas Hagen

Ther is a special project in Philadelphia that I hope more people come to know this year, and I hope they hear themselves in trembling too. Heather Jones began releasing EPs under this name in 2015, bridging slowcore, alt-folk and pop breaking the world-cocoon, also running their own studio So Big Auditory in West Philadelphia. There they’ve worked on records by Deer Scout, King Azaz, They Are Gutting A Body Of Water, Sadurn, Highnoon, Noera, Twin Princess and so many more favorites. (One light in Ther’s disco is the split w/ sadurn from 2019, their longest release til now, lovingly dubbed here on Dead Definition Records.)


2022 brings trembling, the first full album from Jones and a gorgeous statement of purpose – here she’s the writer, multi-instrumentalist, producer and engineer at once. Intricate melodies interweave like lace in this mess of synth pop and indie folk, now more tense, wound by spinning drum machines, claps and thick bass. This electronic palette brings density I haven’t heard in Ther before, but Jones’ crisp mixes still leave room in the center for captivating vocal performances that foreground their lyrics. Characters among friends and family suggest, “you should go out and get some ice cream to mark the beginning of your treatment;” “you are smaller than you were yesterday.” Heather wonders about mental health and crises, wonders about the police, “who wants to wear that gun and hold up someone?”


But inside the vulnerability, between the ballads, and in spite of the title, this record really is full up with powerhouse pop climax. Jones explains they leaned into electronic production due to limitations – their quarantine period cut contact with other musicians and access to bigger rooms. But they also have two more LPs planned already, built respectively for solo performance and a full rock band. (I even got the pleasure of hearing three trembling tracks lit aflame by the five-piece Ther band for the first time ever last week, at Nick’s Snacks with Alexia Avina, Laura Wolf and Twin Princess.) When we spoke last month, Jones described an urgent need to get all this music recorded and released as soon as possible, not just living in her head anymore. On trembling track ten the distant, slowly fading rendition of Gillian Welch’s “I Dream A Highway” makes me wonder at the close: where does all the music go, after we make it? is it going away? or coming back?


Below is an edited transcript from my conversation with Heather Jones on February 17, 2022, the night before their first LP release. Find the album on Bandcamp, music video on YouTube, and physical merch on Moon Physics too.


therrr.bandcamp.com/album/trembling

www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERs_BmlTZnE

www.moonphysics.com/shop/p/sk8-011


When did you begin working on the tracks on trembling?


The short answer is that I started working on them on day one of Philly’s lockdown in March of 2020. But I guess the slightly more complicated answer is that, if that includes writing them, the oldest song on the album I started writing like five years ago! [“maureen”] is the oldest one.


I was at this point in the beginning of quarantine when I was sitting on three albums’ worth of songs [laughs]. I had started to plan how to get them all off my chest, out of my head and into the world, but the songs that ended up being trembling were the ones I had planned to do last. That was something I was planning to do a few years from now, because I felt not ready to do it. But we were coming up on quarantine and I was like, I don’t know how long this is going to last. I’m not gonna be able to record anybody so I’m gonna have all this time, I might as well make this album of these songs that I can make by myself. Because these tracks were for solo acoustic guitar and the other songs are for a full rock band, so this was the one record that I could do by myself. So I was sitting day one figuring out exactly which ones I was really itching to do, which ones fit best together in the kind of pop method that I was thinking about, imagining. I finished writing “swimming” cause I knew I wanted that one to be on there, but I still had to finish writing it so I finished writing it a couple weeks into lockdown.


What are some of the experiences that inspired the lyrics you sing on the album?


I feel like a lot of these songs are really more about states of mind rather than specific things, aside from “Maureen” is about being in a psychiatric ward very directly, and “resurrection sundae” is about a very specific piece of family conflict that overlapped with some trauma and some mental illness stuff in this weird way. So it’s kind of this funny thing where none of the songs are really about any event in particular, they’re more about things that I was chewing on in my head, like small theories of everything that I was just thinking about. And because I wrote most of these songs since I moved to Philadelphia, a lot of it has been about transitioning, and my politics changing, and developing drastically new frameworks of understanding the world and myself, and I guess a lot of these are like tiny little steps in those mindset shifts.


You wrote that these songs were recorded “various places” – could you share what any of those places were? Were they all in Philadelphia?


The big demoing and drafting phase of the record happened entirely where I was living on 57th Street. And then I lost my housing really abruptly and didn’t have time to find a new house, so I just moved back in with my parents in Connecticut, so that’s where the second stage of the recording happened. And then I still wanted to have Veronica [Magner] do backing vocals, cause I feel like their voice is part of what I imagine in my head, when I’m imagining a track to its conclusion that’s an important texture. They were coming along to a recording trip we were making to the Catskills to do the Sadurn album, and so we recorded these vocals on days off, when G [Degroot] was working in Philly and we weren’t recording Sadurn stuff. That’s how everything got tracked, so I feel like it was half in Philadelphia and half outside of Philly.


But then I mixed it all in Philly – well, the first time I mixed it in my parents’ house, and then eventually I didn’t really like the mixes and felt like, I can do this better. And then I mixed them a second time in my current apartment in Philly, and then I checked the mixes after listening to them in my studio space before sending them off to mastering.


You have run your studio So Big Auditory in Philadelphia for a few years now!


About four! I just had my four-year anniversary a couple weeks ago.


Did you learn any new lessons about studio work while completing an album of your own music for the first time?


Yeah! I’ve been trying to figure out how to put this succinctly. I like to think that I’ve been really sensitive and attentive to my artists’ needs when working with them because recording is an emotional endeavor, it’s not just a musical discipline. There’s a lot of stuff, a lot happens, it’s very trying, it’s very demanding on every area of a person. And I feel like I’ve tried to be very sensitive to people’s needs and what they’re going through, and I think I didn’t fully understand it til I finally went through it myself. I’ve made EPs, I’ve done singles, I know what it’s like to write personal songs and be insecure about them. But fully understanding the emotional – sometimes – torment of working on an album and putting all of your work and experiences under a microscope is really taxing and really draining, and can really cause you to doubt yourself and your worth and your abilities, and your talent and your skills and your knowledge. And I think having gone through it firsthand I have a much better understanding of what a client can be going through when I’m working with them. And then I have to imagine that I’m also charging them money, you know? Which is another element that’s also very emotionally difficult and can make things really really complicated. So that was one big lesson, being able to empathize with my client better.


And then also realizing at the same time that I kind of wish I did have someone with me to throw my ideas at and just someone who can be honest with me, someone who can tell me, That’s a bad idea, you shouldn’t do that! I really wish that I had had that. Going through it by myself was really hard because I had to go through the exhausting work of trusting my instincts – which, when you’re making a record, your relationship with your instincts can become really fraught! [Laughs] And very stressful. And both of those things reminding me that I really need to be emotionally attentive to my client’s state of mind, how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, where their morale is at, what kind of emotional trajectory they’re on, so I know how to be available to them. Whether it’s support as a validating presence, or as someone who steps in and takes charge when things are spinning out of control and I can see a client start to almost panic. And whether you do one or the other it’s hard to say, but being present with the client and having a good, trusting relationship with them can lead to making the right decision. And this is my longwinded way of saying the lesson I learned is basically an emotional one, making sure that I am emotionally available and attentive to my client that I am charging probably too much money. [Laughs]



Have you always self-recorded your past releases, or have you ever worked with another engineer?


I’ve only worked with another engineer a couple times: in college I had a friend engineer vocals for my first Ther EP, and then the next time a band I was playing in was recording at Headroom and Mark Watter was engineering. And then actually more recently, after this album was done I just spend two days with Mark at So Big, with him engineering and me playing, and that was the first time I had someone engineer me with my own music in six or seven years. And it was huge. I’ve avoided it because I generally don’t have the budget for that, because I don’t make a lot of money. But it really did pay off and I was grateful for the experience because Mark is really a lot of things I aspire to be in an engineer. I feel like a lot of the emotionally attentive stuff I was just mentioning, Mark is extremely good at that, very good at being present and being supportive and also taking charge when necessary. I’m kind of a hysterical person, I’m very emotional, I have very extreme ups and downs, kind of unpredictable and erratic. Mark has been very good about knowing when I’m burning out and he needs to take the reigns, and knowing when I need some validation and support, so it’s been nice to have that experience. He’s great! I really can’t say enough nice things about the guy. [Laughs] This is for the next Ther album, that I’m hoping to finish by the end of this summer.


You performed all the instruments on the album, aside from the contributions by Jon Cox and Veronica Magner. Were any of these instruments special to you? Any specific drum machines, guitars, saxophone?


Yeah John plays a guitar part on “a glove” and Veronica does all of the backing vocals. It’s funny, I feel like I use the saxophone on every Ther release and it’s usually only once, and it’s usually to make a whole bunch of noise [laughs] because I never got that good at it, but I did play it for a very long time. And so I did play on the saxophone I first used to audition for college jazz programs, ten years ago.


My – what is it? – a 2006 Fender Telecaster that I saved up for and bought all by myself in high school. My first electric guitar, I still have it, I did all these weird mods to it; it doesn’t sound like a Telecaster anymore but I like it, it’s a weird guitar that I love. And I played that one a lot, until I picked up a new guitar in the Poconos and I replaced a lot of the Tele parts with that one.


What was your approach to using the autotune effect on your own voice, and how did you decide which songs would use that effect?


Well the first time I used it was on “swimming,” and that was a complete accident! That was because I was tracking vocals on the song for the second time – I re-did the vocals on the whole album – I feel like everybody does this on their first album [laughs] – I was redoing the vocals and the melody is too hard for me to sing. I’m not a good singer, and that melody is very precise and important to that song, and I was feeling like, That melody is not right, it’s not feeling good, I feel like the song is better than I am, and I’m losing it. So I was thinking maybe it’s just a tuning thing, maybe if I Melodyne these vocals it’ll feel better, because I wasn’t sure if it was a pitch thing, if it was a delivery thing, if I wasn’t acting enough when I was singing, if I wasn’t selling the song. So just kind of on a whim I just slapped some autotune on it like, Does this feel better?? And it was like, YES! This DOES feel better, in fact I’m going to LEAVE this on here now. And so it just happened by accident. And then I was suddenly like, Oh it’s hyperpop now! It’s suddenly this genre of music that I don’t listen to or understand, this really hilarious accident turning it into something completely different.


And then for “100 winters” it felt like, it’s the spoken-word part of the album so you gotta make sure that it’s good and not pretentious, or else nobody’s gonna forgive you for it. So I was really really trying to make it feel good and important but not too full of itself. But one of the things I was trying to do was – because I think this was an important mental change that happened in myself over the last few years – get rid of the separation between humankind and nature. And how that division doesn’t really exist, it’s like the division between the mind and the body. It’s like someone decided that those were separate, and then we just developed systems of knowledge around it that way. And so I wanted to put the autotuned vocals, this very artificial thing, doing this almost Appalachian chorale, on field recordings of the woods, and create this synthesis of weird artificial human creation and also nature as it exists without human intervention, and having them coexist. That usage of it felt intentional and crucial for the message of the song.


Can you talk about the process for shooting the “resurrection sundae” video?


Yeah, two years ago I had a concept based on this square-wave tremolo that’s on the Rhodes and that’s the backbone of that song, where I imagined these series of shots of parts of Philadelphia, parts of the woods, that would oscillate between day and night, they would flicker between day and night, the same place, and I would be in the shot. But that was way too difficult, it would take so so long to shoot. But then I thought, What if I did that with a projector instead? And maybe if it used black and white photography, so the colors on the projector wouldn’t take away from the colors on me, and maybe if the photos used a lot of black in them so the projector when flickering on-and-off would create only space-dependent shifts in light, in some places it would stay black.


I was just really lucky where Amelia [Swain] and I went into her studio and set up the projector it worked perfectly, it was crazy, [laughs] I felt extremely lucky. And so we just took a few passes of me just lip-syncing the whole song at different angles. And we did mostly tripod shots so it would really feel stoic and statue-like in that way, where I was in the same place every time; it would turn black and then I would reappear in exactly the same place. And then Amelia did a couple of passes where she got up close and moved the camera around and did her thing. And then all of the B-roll and the shots of the lamb – which was just conveniently there and very thematically appropriate – she grabbed and was like, HOLD THIS [laughs]. And the shot of me playing the guitar was her idea. And we just did it in two or three hours maybe, if that, maybe like one or two. It didn’t take very long!


And then we handed it off to Pauli [Mia] from Twin Princess who’s a good friend of ours. Pauli does a lot of video stuff and I sent it to her cause she’s been doing all of the art for the album, and we’re good at communicating and there’s a lot of trust there. And then she edited it and really [laughs] – I feel like I told her and told a couple people – Pauli, by editing the video, made it a better song, and I don’t know how she did it! She just really understood the assignment and absolutely crushed it. I think we did two rounds of edits, and the final one was just unbelievable, it was so unbelievably good. Amelia and I were giving her notes because it was our kind-of baby, and Amelia does more video work than I do so she knows what to ask for and she has a better understanding of what’s possible than I do. I don’t really know anything about video, I’m a picture/photo person. But by the time we got to the end of the editing process we were both just stunned, it was just incredible. It really made me appreciate post-production work and how it can really tie something together, and how the right worker in the right job can elevate the source material through pure presentation. I’m really happy with how that turned out: my first music video.


How do you hope to realize these new songs in live performances? Will they sound similar to the recordings, or different?


Similar is not possible [laughs]. The reason I brought out the drum machine for the record was because we had started playing with it in our live performances between September 2019 and March 2020; we were figuring out how to implement it when it was just me Jon and V. And we were starting to get somewhere cool with it, but it was really annoying to set up and operate, very difficult to make work in a live setting unless you have a drummer there whose job is to either play the drums or operate the drum machine. And especially once something’s on a click and on its own internal clock it’s weird keeping up with it, because it doesn’t forgive you at all, it won’t work with you at all. It’s not like a bandmate who’s going to listen to you and respond to how you’re playing. So we are maybe bringing it back soon but right now we are just reinterpreting the songs. Like right now we’re playing “resurrection sundae,” “a mouse,” “$200,” and I think that’s it. We’re still trying to find a key where I can sing “swimming” without hurting my voice and it’s very hard – I dunno why I did that to myself.


But we’re reinterpreting it: “resurrection sundae” is now a classic slowcore vibe, and “a mouse” kind of sounds like Pinback. We’re erring on the side of reinterpreting, which I’ve had a lot of fun with cause I recorded these songs in the spirit of NO RULES! The only rule is that there’s no bad ideas! And it’s fun to do that again using those arrangements as a blueprint, but doing it as a band with some friends who I love and trust very much. Having this playful experimentation phase with them with this material, taking them apart, putting them back together a second time. Amelia is playing bass, Jon is playing guitar and drums, V is playing synth and singing, and Madel Rafter (of snakeboygang and Crooks and Nannies) is playing drums and guitar as well, so five-piece right now.


Do you have any other projects or future plans that you want to share about? You mentioned that you have already started recording a second album for Ther!


Yeah, I can talk about that! It was gonna be the first one I did. If you’ve seen me do my solo acoustic guitar set, it’s mostly songs that I like to do in that capacity: it’s a lot of the fingerstyle, tempo-less, meter-less stuff. It’s definitely a very acoustic, natural, organic vibe for this record. I’m hopefully getting [Laura Wolf] in Providence to do some cello for it; my neighbor is hopefully contributing some clarinet; Madel is gonna contribute some saxophone, and there’s gonna be piano, it’s gonna be very different, a very very different record from trembling. Definitely sparse; it’s about the same length, about nine songs, twenty-five minutes. Dealing with slightly different themes. But musically, something completely different. So that’s really exciting, gonna start overdubbing that soon. And then after that, in band rehearsal we’re already working on LP3 songs right now, we started working on a new one last week [laughs]. So I’m hoping that we can start tracking LP3 before 2023. Once LP2 is done I’m just needing to move onto the third one, I’ve just been sitting on these songs for so long I just want them to be out in the world and out of my brain. I feel like they’re taking up a lot of real estate in my brain.


Are you planning performances for that material as well, or just focused on recording?


I have kind of a tenuous relationship with performing: I have really terrible performance anxiety. I get really really nervous, my hands will shake so badly that I can’t play the guitar. But there’s nothing like the rush of playing a really good set and people talking to you afterwards about it, especially when people really connect with the material and you feel like you’ve done something important. I feel like a good set is when the music can feel less selfish, if that makes any sense, and those are really nice moments. But the studio is definitely where I feel more comfortable, and it’s easier for me to do because it’s my day job and I can set aside time for it whenever I want. Whereas scheduling shows and booking, and organizing band practice, not a particular strong suit of mine.

You also engineered the upcoming albums by Deer Scout and Sadurn!


Yes, those are two I’m very happy with. The Sadurn record I’m really excited for people to hear; it’s a really incredible collection of songs, I’m so grateful that I got to engineer it and be part of it. I think people are gonna be talking about that one for a while – it’s a heavy hitter. And on the Deer Scout one – Dena is such a talented songwriter. We’ve been working on that record for so long, we started working on it in the summer of 2019 and it’s only now starting to roll out. Dena has this remarkable capacity to honor a lot of traditional songwriting while also making it very contemporary and urgent, which I feel like is a very hard line to walk. I feel like there’s frequently two camps of people: there’s the musical pioneers, and the people who love the tradition and the classics. And I really respect people who have a foot in both camps and express that with their music.