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Braids: Deep in the Essence

on April 23, 2015, 12:00am

Photo by Landon Speers

It’s funny what a retreat into the wilderness can do for a band. That was the situation Braids found themselves in while recording their upcoming third album, Deep in the Iris (out April 28th). Over the course of eight months, singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston, drummer Austin Tufts, and multi-instrumentalist Taylor Smith decamped to various houses in the wilds of Arizona, New York, and Vermont to connect with each other and produce an album that captured what the band meant to everyone involved.

“It was really important for us to be very vulnerable with each other on this,” says Tufts before leaving on the trio’s spring tour with Purity Ring. “Throughout the entire recording process, we were living together in these cabins in nature where there were no other external forces, just trying to be as comfortable and vulnerable in front of each other as possible.”

It worked. Deep in the Iris may be Braids’ strongest album yet. It’s confident, cathartic, and inspiring, a tour de force from a band that appears to have found itself after a tumultuous split with fourth member Katie Lee, who went on to perform in Port St. Willow. Lee left the band during the creation of 2013’s Flourish // Perish, the band’s second album, and the strain of losing a best friend was all over its icy tones and almost ethereal lyricism, the latter of which Standell-Preston admits was a coping mechanism. “Something that I found I was doing on Flourish // Perish was flourishing my writing as a way of deflecting from a point that I was maybe a little bit scared of displaying,” she says.

Now, a few years removed from that dark period, Braids have emerged into the sunlight, and their music has followed suit. Deep in the Iris sounds like the album Braids was born to make, and it all came when they themselves went and played what came naturally to them.

As Standell-Preston puts it, “As soon as you abandon expectation, your essence comes out.” Braids’ essence is out, and they aren’t afraid of letting the world see it.

Braids - Deep In The Iris album

Deep in the Iris is about to come out. How are you guys feeling?

Austin Tufts (AT): It’s been a big process leading up to this, obviously. This has definitely been the most enjoyable process front to back of making an album, so it feels a lot better being three weeks away from putting out a record than it ever has. Normally, we’re scrambling, and we’re working crazy hours every day to try and get all the duckies in a row.

Why do you think that is?

Raphaelle Standell-Preston (RSP): We’ve very consciously been trying to make sure that we’re enjoying it, and if not, trying to find ways in which we can. You can make that choice. You can be observant over what you’re feeling, and if things are going down a wrong path, you can try to change that, which we did constantly on the recording retreats and are trying to constantly do now.

Deep in the Iris feels like a more confident record, but it also feels like you guys are taking more risks. Was that a conscious decision, or was it born out of the recording process?

Taylor Smith (TS): What we really tried to do on this one was not to walk in with an expectation of what we wanted it to be. It was more about trying to focus on the experience of writing the songs. I think we ended up in a situation where we put the judgment of the material far after the actual creation of it and tried to remove that sense of judgment until much, much later. So, because of that, I think we ended up with things that feel really great, but maybe would be risky, as you said. Maybe if we had thought about what kind of record we were going to write going into the process, we wouldn’t have guessed what we would have gotten to.

AT: I think that automatically results in more raw energy. Depending on how you channel that energy, it can be very provocative. I think that can be seen as more risky or intense. It’s really important to note that most of that came out of a desire to be vulnerable.

Where did the idea for these recording retreats come from, and was it the right choice?

TS: Absolutely the right choice. The recording process was the best six to eight months that we’ve had in our lives together. We still feel the strong aftereffects of going through that together, in a really positive way. Spending that much time in nature was just so nourishing to us, and we’re still full of all the energy that we absorbed when we were out on those retreats. I think the reason we did it was very much pushing against the experience of recording, releasing, touring Flourish // Perish. We recorded [that] in our garage in Montreal, in a room with no windows. The desire to go somewhere that’s outside of what we know and outside of our comfort zone and take those external forces out, it was a really positive and impactful experience.

AT: Flourish // Perish, the whole process was a struggle from the get-go. We started writing it with four people, ended up parting ways with Katie — the whole thing was a struggle. Learning how to play those songs live was a struggle. Touring those songs and trying to inject some sort of live energy into a record that was solely created, for the most part, using a computer, with three people. We were just really getting our bearings. We learned a lot, and we also learned how important it is to enjoy the process and love what you’re doing because you only have one chance to do it. We went in search of the sun and a positive experience to set the ground and the tone for the new record.

How did switching from recording Flourish // Perish on a computer to this album, which has a more live atmosphere, affect the process and result?

AT: We all started listening to a lot more. We fell in love with Joni Mitchell, for example, when we were all on tour. Right before we recorded, on the drive down and just on our own personal time, we all started deep-diving on her album Blue. I think it was a really interesting rediscovery of human touch, because we had been listening to so much dance music and really interesting electronic music. I love that stuff still, but it was fun to come back to and rediscover the beauty of human fault and human imperfection in music. Joni Mitchell is just such a beautiful example of being such a unique character with beautiful flaws in her being, you know?

I don’t know, it’s just trying to bring out more of that in our music. Being OK with the weird stuff that’s coming out of you. We had the opportunity to record lots of really cool, interesting-sounding pianos and … you would never hear a classical music concert recorded on one of those pianos. It would sound terrible. These pianos had so much character, and we imparted as much character of that sound into the recordings as possible. Recording the rooms and recording the creaky pedals and the sound of the space that we were in, in order to really capture the vibe and the emotion of that human experience of the whole thing.

The lyrics of the album feel more immediate and more visceral than the stuff you guys have done before and, generally, a little bit darker.

RSP: It’s funny to me that you think it’s darker, because I find that a lot of the conclusions that the songs make are actually more hopeful and more positive and forward-looking than anything I had written before.

I agree that they end there, but they feel like they all start from this dark place, and it seems like that came from the recording of the second album growing into this third one. It’s interesting that you see them as hopeful. I also see them as hopeful, but like, rising from the darkness.

RSP: Is that a Batman movie? I wrote some Batman lyrics. [laughs] Yeah, I guess I don’t see it as being a dark place. I just see it as being a very real place. I see it as very human. I just tried to explain, or tried to lay out experiences that I was going through in a very honest way. I wasn’t trying to dance around poetically.

A good example of that is the first single, “Miniskirt”.

RSP: No beating around the bush in that one.

Exactly. It tackles rape culture and violence against women in a very straightforward way. I’ve seen it labeled as a feminist song. How do you approach that label as an artist?

RSP: It can absolutely be a feminist song. I think that it is, to a degree, because it’s standing up for gender equality and, in particular, for women’s rights, so totally! I have no qualms with having it be labeled a feminist song. People are really freaked out about it because there are extremes within feminism that people, I guess, get afraid of or don’t align with, but I think the basis of it is gender equality, and that’s something that all of us align with very wholeheartedly, and so I’m not really afraid of that word.

AT: I think many people, including myself, are sometimes afraid of … if we make a statement and somebody asks us if that statement is part of a bigger movement. Sometimes it’s very scary to identify with a bigger movement because as soon as you do, it gets grouped in with so much historical context. And all kinds of labels, and people who are academically trained on the subject of that context … let’s say feminism, for example, they all of a sudden perk their ears up and start bashing you because one line you said in a lyric is not in the dogma of the whole thing.

I just think it’s important that the song be recognized as one person’s personal experience and personal thoughts and feelings. If feminists are identifying with it, that’s amazing. If it’s raising awareness for gender equality and women’s rights and breaking down some of those barriers and the objectification of women in particular, I think that’s really fantastic. I think that any publicity the song can get from a feminist standpoint is great because it helps spread the word that shit’s not OK.

How does playing the new songs live differ from playing the Flourish // Perish songs or the Native Speaker songs?

TS: The songs just lend themselves a lot better to injection of live emotion. Flourish // Perish has beautiful production elements, but some of the songs don’t have a lot of meat and potatoes to hang on to when you take it out of a controlled studio monitor or headphone environment. Whereas now, this is our second time trying to take songs that were written in more of a studio way and then translate them in a live environment. These songs just fit that a lot better and have a lot more room to be torn apart or changed around or played on a different instrument.

AT: After touring Flourish // Perish for 100-some shows, we know that it’s so important to leave room for that personal touch, and not just become a glorified three-person sequencer. I think we succumbed to that a little bit with our last performances. I think that they were still great, and I’m very proud of what we did, given the circumstance, but this time we’re growing a lot from that experience and realizing that it’s really important to have that energy and have that emotion and that room to keep it different every night. At the end of the day, these are our songs and we don’t want to hate them.

It’s really important to foster a beautiful relationship with the songs, and that’s something that we did way more with the writing of them and the mixing of them. We were more careful that we didn’t burn out on them. We would keep our relationship with them a little bit more special. It’s like that lover that you get to see every once in a while — you get to have an amazing relationship as opposed to just burning out on seeing this person every single day.

braids21 Braids: Deep in the Essence

Photo by Landon Speers

How do you manage the balance between sticking to what you guys are as Braids, and just saying “screw it” and pushing those boundaries on new material?

TS: We kind of say “screw it” for the most part. [Laughs.] We just follow what is feeling good and feeling right for us. When we went away on these recording retreats, we wrote some rock songs. We never ended up loving them that much and pursuing them that much, but they were fun for the time that we wrote them.

RSP: Yeah! What was the project called that we started? Hillary K! We started a rock project called Hillary K.

TS: Right, but then we have a song that’s totally finished that’s way more R&B than anything else we’ve done. When it comes to picking a record, you kind of trim it down and you see how the whole all works together. In the process of writing and experimenting together, I think one of the things that really made the process of doing this record so much more enjoyable than anything we’ve done in the past is that we rejected the box that we wanted it to fit into. On Flourish // Perish, we were so deep into trying to do dance music, like, “This is what we want to write. How do we do this?” This time around, it’s just like, “We’re going to write whatever feels good on that day and if it happens to be reggae on that day, then we’re going to write reggae.” [laughs] We never ended up writing reggae, but the approach was very liberating.

RSP: We’re just writing music together. This record was very much about being ourselves in front of one another.

AT: I think that’s a super-important thing. On every record, the styles have been different and the instrumentation had been different, but as a band from the beginning, the most important thing has always been connecting as three or four individual people and really letting those voices speak. And yeah, we’ve grown and changed a lot, and that accounts for a lot of the sonic changes. The songwriting changes, but we’re still the same people. It’s a sort of glue. We’re never writing music to sound like a specific thing. We’re just being true to it.