An inside peek at how the record was made...

The Winter Room

STEVE – This was a song that was carefully crafted to reflect the brittle, misty, forboding cold that the title suggests. The drums are plodding and lethargic. The cymbals swell like snow squalls and the guitars are a blast of wind cutting through the trees. I think the whole neighborhood became intimately familiar with this record on the day I tracked my guitar parts. I recorded guitars for Art of Film and The Winter Room on the same day and the only way to get it right was to chain a bunch of amps together and crank them up. I'm not going to lie. It was fun. Too fun. And so I recorded 16 tracks of guitar just to make sure I got it right. And then included all of them on the final mix.

This was one of the first ones we worked on in the studio and it took the current form that it's in almost immediately. This may be due to the fact that it was recorded in the dead of winter and so the immediate inspiration was plentiful with each new layer of snow that fell that month.

Stephenie Halpert McWalters - Vocals
Steve Swartz - Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Drums, Percussion, Bass
Tom Currie - Electric Guitar Drones, Keyboards, Percussion
Phil Zott - Drums

Dark Western

STEVEThis one is an oldie. It goes WAY back to the origins of the group. For one reason or another, we never really got around to doing anything with it. I think we played it live a few times back in the 90s. (Wow! It sounds very weird to be saying that.) Well, considering the grittier and more organic direction these new songs were hinting at, we thought it might finally be time to bust it out and develop it more fully. This version is very different from the original. The original had more overt Spaghetti Western influences, which is a quality we tried to preserve some of. But considering how the other songs around it were shaping up, we thought it might be better to give it a heavier sound. Something more plodding. Darker. Tom had the great idea to have Phil make the drums pound in a steady tribal manner. That changed the song completely from that point forward. We tried to make the song as dense as possible without getting too busy. I got to have fun playing slide guitar really loud and Tom made a ton of crazy cool noises underneath everything. My favorite part of the song is after the slide solo where everything falls away and it's mainly Steph's voice and a really mournful organ part. Tom came up with the organ part and I think it matches the tone of Steph's voice too perfectly to clutter a lot of stuff around it. So we collectively agreed to make that passage more spare in it's arrangement. An excellent team effort all around.

Stephenie Halpert McWalters - Vocals
Steve Swartz - Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Slide Guitar, Percussion, Bass
Tom Currie - Bass, Organ, Electric Guitar, Drums
Phil Zott - Drums

The World Is Too Much With Us

STEVEThis was the song we wrestled with the most. I think largely because it's a little different from anything we've explored before. We wanted it to be a little rumbly and murky. We wanted some sort of percussive rhythmic element, but we didn't want it to be intrusive to the intimacy of what Steph was conveying with her vocals and the lyrics. This was achieved by Phil playing the drums with tympani mallets instead of regular sticks and it ended up being a trick we used a couple times on the record with very pleasing results. The song itself went through a few incarnations before we settled on the direction we ended up going in. The first acoustic version sounded like an instrumental Nick Drake piece before Steph got hold of it and gave it a more solid form. Once we had the song down, Steph and I thought it would be interesting to fill the song with vocals as the main musical element. I think it breathes some fresh life into a record that is still relying heavily on traditional instrumentation to reach it's main goals.

Tom had the great idea of inviting Anna-Lynne Williams of Trespassers William and Lotte Kestner to sing with Steph on the record and add more harmony to the backing vocals. We had corresponded with her in the past, but had been out of touch due to the normal things that life does to people who live so far apart. The song seemed to fit her voice well and we were thrilled when she accepted our invitation. Her voice has a presence of emotion and quiet intensity that we have admired for some time and we're over-the-moon happy to have her involved with this song.

This was also a song that was engineered to reflect the weight and weariness of the lyrics. The drums are swimming and washing like waves and the vocals are hoping to overcome the place that they are in. Trying to wade through the confusion and stake out a new place.

Stephenie Halpert McWalters - Vocals
Anna-Lynne Williams - Vocals
Steve Swartz - Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Drums, Percussion, Vocals
Tom Currie - Bass, Hammond Organ
Phil Zott - Drums

Bella Ballerina

STEVEThis was a song that decided to be an instrumental. I say that because when it comes to writing music and songs, one discovers after a while that songs tend to develop personalities of their own and they sometimes have a way of making up their own minds as to what they want to be when they are fully grown. This was one of those cases. We were trying to figure out what kind of melody or lyric could work with this idea and nothing presented itself. Once we abandoned that notion all together and tried to explore the space of the song with other instruments, everything else fell together straight away. We finally let the song be what it wanted to be and the wrestling stopped.

Steve Swartz - Acoustic Guitar, Electric Ambient Guitar, Keyboards, Drums
Colette Alexander - Cello

By The Stream

STEVEThis was Tom's idea. He had taken a guitar part from another song and slowed it down and flipped it in reverse. I loved it immediately. While we had Colette in the studio recording cello, we had her try a run through this track just to see what she might come up with. And she came up with nothing less than loveliness. I've been found letting this track loop for hours on end.

Tom Currie - Slowed Down Reverse Guitar
Colette Alexander - Cello

Art of Film

STEVEThis is a song that became what it is because of the fine drumming of Phil Zott. Tom and I demoed some possible drum solutions, but once we got into the nitty gritty of recording, they just didn't seem to be helping the song get to where it wanted to be. On the day we were recording drums for Dark Western and The Winter Room, we thought we would see what Phil could come up with for this song on the spot. He tried a few things but they didn't seem to fit the original waltzy idea Steph and I were exploring on the original acoustic demo. But then, out of nowhere, Phil said "I have an idea. Just hit record." Then he jumped up and ran to the drums. What you hear on the record is that exact moment. It was perfect. It trancended the original idea and the song was reborThat became the catlyst for what the song would eventually be.

Since the song is about film we consciously built it to grow with each section. The song was set up to sound more orchestral than a band normally would. Even the drums sound more like an orchestral percussion section than a person behind a drum kit. In the end, the song ends up bigger and bolder than it does at the start. Similar to some of the favorite heroes and films we have come to love over the years.

Stephenie Halpert McWalters - Vocals
Steve Swartz - Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Percussion, Vocals
Tom Currie - Bass, Keyboard Beeps, Vocals
Phil Zott - Drums

Genius of Escape Who Will Startle & Amaze

STEVEThis was the first song on the record to be realized and written. The story of the song is of local relevance to us and also serves as an interesting metaphor for things that go on in our lives. We wanted to preserve the intimacy and the delicate nature of the original version of this song so we opted to keep things simple. And since Steph's vocal melody is anchored to the acoustic guitar part, we decided to keep it acoustically focused. Then Tom and I had fun passing guitars back and forth adding floaty melodic ideas on top of each other.

Stephenie Halpert McWalters - Vocals
Steve Swartz - Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Percussion
Tom Currie - Keyboards, SK-1, Electric Guitars, Drums, Percussion
Phil Zott - Drums, Tambourine

Stella, My Brightest Star

TOMFor years, every time I would sit down at a piano this would be the first thing I'd play. Not sure why but it was always fresh in my mind. I finally tracked it for the first time in 2005. I had been working on a batch of songs for the first Leelanau album when we recorded this one. It just seemed to fit nicely back to back with Genius of Escape..., so we included it on this record. Last July, Ande Reinkordt came to visit from Nebraska and because I'm such a fan of his music, I asked him to contribute some guitar to this song. After throwing back a few Strohs, we tracked a few guitars to 1/4" tape in my dining room. It took us nearly 3 hours to position the amp just right so there wouldn't be any crazy buzz coming from his old Epiphone Comet. Crazy grounding issues in these old Pontiac houses was the buzz culprit. Also, I couldn't be more thrilled to have Jessica Bailiff sing on this song. I have been a fan of hers for along time and have always thought she is one of music's most underrated artists. The string playing by Rachel Allison and Allison Minando really put the icing on the cake for me.

STEVEThis song is named after something in the future that is yet to happen. That's all I'll say about that. This was a piece Tom was working on on his own and it managed to find a home on this record. He came up with a great set of parts on the keys and on guitar that we combined to make a floating, looping wash of tones. Rachel and Allie came to our aid to add some strings and give the track that little extra warmth and dimension we were looking for. Steph cut a couple vocal tracks, but the bulk of the vocal duties here are handled by our lovely and talented long time friend, Jessica Bailiff. She and Gary Murray came up to Detroit for a day to hang out, record and dine with us. It was a beautiful day with wonderful souls. Jess and I kicked everyone out of the studio and let her focus on the performance. And like everything else she does, it turned out fabulous and we're honored to have her represented in the mix. A lovely time indeed.

Stephenie Halpert McWalters - Vocals
Jessica Bailiff - Vocals
Tom Currie - Keyboards, Electric Guitar, Fender Rhodes
Steve Swartz - Electric Guitar
Allison Minando - Violin
Rachel Allison - Violin
Anderson Reinkordt - Electric Guitar

The Key

STEVEYet another song that came together quickly. It's a bit simplified from the original demo because it felt too busy when we played it back in the early stages. A more minimal approach seemed to fit this song better due to the structure of Steph's lyrics. The goal was to have the song retain the same dreamlike quality Steph was conjuring via the lyrics and vocals. I think we got it, but, I think you could say we're biased.

Stephenie Halpert McWalters - Vocals
Steve Swartz - Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Drums, Percussion, Piano, Synth Bass

Breeze In The Tree

STEVEHere is another song that chose to be what it is. The acoustic guitar part is the original demo that was recorded in Steph's house on a spring day with the windows wide open. I tried to play the song in the studio with the same amount of fluidity, but to no avail. Once it was decided that the best route would be to make the song an instrumental, I decided to use the demo acoustic guitar part because it had far more intimacy and character. I also found myself really enjoying the sound of the breeze that you can hear whisper through the background of the track. Then I based the rest of the arrangement around this idea of breeze drifting through the mix. Colette once again hit the ball out of the park with the cello part. It took the song to a level that we could not have attained without her.

Steve Swartz - Acoustic Guitar, Electric Ambient Guitar
Colette Alexander - Cello

Maps of The Sky

STEVEThe story of this song was already touched on in the "Story" section, so I'll spare repeating it here. However, the sound of this song is something I'm very proud of. The original version of this song was more strummy and busy, but we thought it would be more effective if it were stripped down and approached from a more minimal perspective. This turned out to be a good move. It made us approach the song with the reverence and pensiveness the lyrics required. It also left things open enough for people like Anderson Reinkordt to record some gorgeous drones to back Steph with.

We wanted to include some long time friends on this project and when it came to the ending, we all agreed that something needed to happen to make the ending really move. Well, we couldn't think of anyone who hadn't been moved by hearing the music of our friend Gary Murray. So we contacted him to see if he would be interested in playing guitar and singing with Steph. Thankfully he obliged. He laid down some subtle guitar parts in between Steph's vocal lines on the verses. And for those familiar with the work of Gary or his band, LN, there's no mistaking who's playing that lead guitar part after the song changes pace in the middle. He also sang with Steph on this one. They always sound so good together.

The piano was recorded in an empty church on Detroit's east side. It only made sense to record it there due to the nature of the song. The vastness of an empty sanctuary. The solitude. The quiet. No distractions. All the loud clanging voices silenced. Each note like a little light of hope piercing the fabric of the song. Personally, a comforting experience.

Stephenie Halpert McWalters - Vocals
Gary Murray - Vocals, Electric Guitars
Steve Swartz - Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Drums, Percussion
Tom Currie - Bass, Electric Guitar
Phil Zott - Drums
John Somers - Drones

After The Snowstorm

TOMAutumn had passed and we were all embracing for the snow. My grandfather was terminally ill with cancer. We had been making day trips up north to spend some time with him while he was still in somewhat decent health. We talked about the cabin in Evart, his childhood, the old International Harvester and my grandmother who had passed years earlier. Those times in his living room are times I will always hold very close. I sat down at the piano the day he passed and this is what came out. I swear if you listen close enough, you can hear the waves of Lake Michigan crashing on the shore.

STEVEThis is one of my favorite recording moments on the record. Tom's piano part sounds just like the live performance. No matter what set of speakers we've played it on, the piano always sounds like it's in the room with you. It was tempting to try to add a bunch of stuff to this piece, but we ultimately felt it would damage the intimacy. However, Tom had some connections with a couple of string players. We were fortunate to snag the talents of cellist Collette Alexander between tours with Josh Groban and Jens Lekman and violinist Rachel Allison. The results, to me, are quite stunning. Quiet frankly, we couldn't think of anything that could come after this track. So it was an easy decision to use it to close the record as it seemed to sum up all the emotion that went into the record as a whole.

Tom Currie - Piano
Steve Swartz - Electric Guitar
Colette Alexander - Cello
Rachel Allison - Violin

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