Photo by Jacklyn Dyer
Growth has been part of Driftwood’s DNA from the start. The Binghamton, New York band was founded on the singing/songwriting partnership of Dan Forsyth and Joe Kollar, but eventually grew to include singer/songwriter/violinist Claire Byrne and bassist Joey Acuri, each adding a new layer of depth to their foot-stomping folk-pop formula.
Their fifth studio album, Tree of Shade, continues that tradition of expansion. It’s the band’s first record to feature drummer Will Sigel, and it’s also the first time they’ve shared creative control with outside personnel, bringing in producer Simone Felice (The Lumineers) and engineer Pete Hanlon (O.A.R., Rachel Yamagata).
You can feast your ears on the fruits of that team-up in their latest single, the disarmingly restrained “Lay Like You Do.” Driftwood hasn’t outgrown their talent for heartfelt writing and high energy arrangements, but they have matured in their presentation, leaving space between banjo rolls and slow, steady snare hits for the narrative tension to bleed out of Forsyth’s vocal.
Tree of Shade will be available April 5. In the meantime, Byrne spoke to The All Scene Eye about the recording of “Lay Like You Do” and the value of a decisive producer.
You recorded a live album over two nights at The Purple Fiddle in West Virginia. How did that come about?
It actually came about on the way down to The Purple Fiddle that weekend. We were brainstorming different ways we could come up with extra cash to put out our studio album, and so we thought, “we know the engineer really well down there, we’ve got two nights, so if the material doesn’t turn out well the first night, or we didn’t feel too good, we’ve got another shot.” We also know the crowd down there is always going to be really energetic and awesome, and a really good size.
It was kind of like a perfect storm to record an album; it just made sense to give it a go. We were literally en route, so we called up the sound engineer, and we were like, “hey Chris, we wanted to record both shows, and we’re hoping to get enough material for a live album,” and he was on it. He was really great.
Do you have a favorite moment or memory from those shows?
The second night was really good. Sometimes when you know you’re being recorded, it takes the magic out of it. You’re like, “oh, don’t mess up,” and you want things to come off a certain way and be perfect, and instead, they get kind of plastic, and you hinder yourself. The first night was a little bit like that, but the second was one of the most magical nights of music we’ve had, and a couple of our friends said it was the best show they’d ever heard us do, so I remember that night just feeling really good. It felt locked-in. We were jamming, and when you have a good night, you can take liberties to stretch out and know that everybody’s on the same page.
Now that the live album is out in the world, how do you feel about the results?
We felt great about it. Basically, what we did was a $15 suggested donation, but a pay-what-you-want type thing to download from Bandcamp, and we also got some physical copies. We had some great feedback though, and we made some good money to help us put out the record, so it did everything we wanted it to do.
We have one other live album we put out–I guess 2014 we put out a live album, but this time, it felt a little bit easier to let go of the mistakes that are inevitably going to be there because it’s live. It was a little easier to do the whole process.
You did this sort of retreat in the Catskill Mountains to work on the new studio album. Did you have all the songs going into those sessions?
I think we had nine of the eleven that ended up going on the album, so that was two left that we needed to pick. One of those songs we actually added a couple months after the retreat. Listening back, we felt like we needed one more tune, but we chose one of those tunes in the studio. The rest of them, our producer, Simone Felice, he chose those tunes. We went in in November, so he had us send in some demos of each of us just playing tunes that we wrote probably a couple months before that. He narrowed it down from there and chose tunes that he felt would work well together and that were strong for an album.
That was kind of hard, just give him the reins on that. We’ve always been very diplomatic and picked them together, and we would have picked different tunes for sure, but I think that’s part of the beauty of the album. Looking back now, I’m not at all unhappy with the tunes on the album, nor was I unhappy with them when we were recording them in the studio. When we first got the list, it was like, “wow, there’s not a lot of upbeat songs on here,” or “ok, that’s a really stripped down, really intimate song,” and some of those songs we would have normally shied away from, and probably would have never presented to the group, but because it was these demos we sent in, it was a bit of a different situation. I think we got a really cool collection of tunes, a really emotional collection of tunes, and I think that’s one of the really cool things about the album.
What was the energy like on that kind of recording retreat?
We were working hard. We had ten days set aside, and we were going to try and do ten songs in ten days. We got about 90% of the way there. We had to go back and do a couple things, like, a month later, but the energy was really cool. We would go in every day around 10:00 in the morning and work until about 10:00 at night. We had a little house, and we went back, made some food, and watched movies.
It was really relaxed on one end, having these super regular bedtimes. Early to rise, early to bed, which, for musicians, is not generally how we live our lives, but we worked hard during the day, so it was a really nice balance. In a way, it kind of–I had never thought of it as a retreat, although now that you’ve used that word, I would say it definitely was a retreat.
Once you got into the studio, what was it like working with Simone?
He was great. We had him and we also had our engineer, Pete Hanlon, working with us, and they made quite an efficient team. I think the biggest thing for us was having the direction from him. We’d never worked with a producer on that level before, so we created in a different way. We weren’t hemming and hawing over these decisions; we had someone that wasn’t stuck in their head guiding the whole thing. We definitely would not have been able to get it done as quickly as we did if we didn’t have that, and I don’t think we would have made some of the decisions we made either. We would have over-thought it and complicated the matters, for sure, and therefore complicated the music. He did a great job letting us know when what we were doing was really cool and when it wasn’t, performance-wise. We hadn’t had that before.
On your songs specifically, how did that feel to have somebody guiding you?
Personally, the first biggest thing that comes to mind is he gave me some great vocal tips. He told me at one point, you’re over-singing, and I thought, “oh, wow, nobody’s ever told me that,” but when I listened back to the take where I was over-singing and the take that we went with–less is more, generally speaking, and that’s something I’ve learned with my violin-playing but had not applied to vocals before, so that was really helpful. He was very helpful with arrangements, too, and encouraging that we were going down the right path.
When it’s your song, you want to get out what you have in your head. You want it to sound like what’s in your head, but you’re also–I don’t want to use the word self-conscious, but you have a tendency to doubt more than if it’s not your song. If we’re working on Dan or Joe’s songs, I’m not as attached to those songs, so I’m not going to doubt them the way they might, or might not. He kind of removed some of that doubt for me.
Speaking of Dan and Joe’s songs, the latest single from the album is “Lay Like You Do.” Dan described it as coming really easily in the writing process. Did it come as easily to the rest of the group in the recording process?
You know, it did. I think the reason, though, is because we had Simone and Pete working with us. That is a tune we definitely would have gotten stuck in our heads on. It’s got a really classic sound to it; it’s immediately something everybody can attach themselves to, in a way. That’s something we would have questioned. “Is it too classic? Is it too this? Is it too that?” We may have wound up doctoring it up too much when really it’s a simple tune as far as how Dan was referring to it. I think it’s also quite complicated, the subject matter, but the tune itself is relatively simple, and the feel is simple, and you just need to go with how it feels. Simone helped us with that a lot.
It’s interesting you mention that, because the lyrics take some unexpected twists.
Right, it makes you think.
I think keeping the music simple facilitates that kind of storytelling.
I totally agree.
Lyrically, this is an album where there’s a lot of references to the American South and West. California, Santa Fe, St. Louis, Las Vegas, all these places. Was there anything that inspired that focus?
I never noticed that, but it makes sense to me. Definitely being a New Englander, and maybe if you live on the West Coast too, or out in the Southwest, that area of the country seems very romantic. It’s vast, and for me in New York, it’s far away. We’ve taken a couple trips out there, and the driving is so long, and the land is so–you know, you look out and you can see for miles in the midwest, like St. Louis. They’re very memorable trips we’ve taken out there, and I think it’s also just really romantic, the idea of California or Santa Fe, you know what I mean? But had we not traveled out there a couple times, we wouldn’t have the material to write the tunes. It wouldn’t dawn on us to include those cities. We remember certain feelings on those drives that can be really nostalgic and play well into a tune when you’re trying to get a feeling out.
You specifically reference the sky in “Santa Fe,” and that’s really unique and evocative if you’ve been to that region.
Exactly, and especially coming from an entirely different area like New York. I remember at one point we pulled over just to get some service and make a phone call, and the sky was so big, and we were right in an intersection, way out, kind of like–maybe it was a ranch, and it said “Big Sky Road,” and I thought, “this is so appropriate.” It was so cool.
I don’t want to go too deep into an album people haven’t heard yet, but I really enjoyed the song “Conquering Man.” It’s a more pointed song than I’ve heard you do before. Can you tell me where that came from?
That song is about being a woman, and I think I just wrote it in a time of frustration, just personally, but also with some things that were going on in our political climate. It was just things I deal with as a woman, or that any woman deals with. Things you don’t even think about sometimes. Somebody gives you a crappy handshake–I think that’s one of the lines—and you see all the guys get an awesome, solid handshake, so you’re just not in the mood that day.
That was a hard song to write, because as I started writing it, I thought, “is this too aggressive? Is it too pointed? Are people going to dig this, or will anyone be offended?” But I thought, “I’ll just roll with it,” and the guys are really supportive of it. I really appreciated the band. That was the song we picked in the studio; there were a couple tunes we were thinking about, but we went with that one because we felt like it was a message that was necessary to put out.
Have you brought any of these songs out into the live arena yet?
Yeah, I bet we’ve tried all of them live. Some of them we don’t play as often, but rotating in the setlist always, we were playing all three of the tunes I wrote, “Hello,” “Lay Like You Do,” “Tree of Shade,” “What You Do To Me,” we’ve played “New Year’s Day” quite a bit. We used to play “Goldmine” a lot, and we’ll probably be getting that one back in again. Songs have lives, you know? Sometimes you need to take a break on them, and then you revisit them, and they’re like a new song to you. That one is kind of like that for us.
Is there one that stands out to you in particular as being well-suited to the live arrangement?
“Tree of Shade” is the first thing that comes to mind. There’s a couple that aren’t as well-suited to the live arrangements, which is probably why we don’t play them as often. They would just need some rearranging, or perhaps we just need to play them more, but as far as what just works right off the bat, definitely “Tree of Shade.”
“Santa Fe” has been fun to do as well, because that’s actually just the guitar and vocals. After the show, we’ll come out and do an encore, and we’ll do that one first and then we’ll bring the rest of the band back up. It was really nerve-wracking to do something like that, so stripped down. I’d have the feeling of being, like, naked on stage, like, “oh my god, what’s going on right now?” But it’s been a really, really cool tune to do. I never thought we’d put that on a record, and I never thought we’d play that one live. I would probably have never brought that song to Driftwood, even, because it’s not a full-band song.
What’s your goal for Tree of Shade?
It’s a very different record for us to make, so I’m really excited for people to hear it. I think people will be expecting your average Driftwood album with a bunch of upbeat tunes, kind of a bouncy, happy vibe, but I feel like people will really like how this album makes them think. It’s a thinker, for sure, and I hope that people will appreciate it for that.
There’s a track on the record about New Year’s Day. Do you have any musical resolutions for 2019?
My new year’s resolutions are just to keep writing, and just to do the best that I can. Practice as much as possible, write as much as possible, and give 150% when I go out and play. I have definitely been doing that, and it feels really good to do that. It’s funny, as a musician, you kind of create your own job, in a way, so if you’re home during the week, or you have a couple weeks off, you can just be like, “I’m just going to watch Netflix, or just go out with my friends,” but it’s important to keep that schedule for yourself, and it pays off one-hundred-and-ten-fold. It really does, and it makes you feel like you’re doing your art to the best of your ability. It makes you feel like a true artist. So yeah, my new year’s resolution is to stick with that and just continue climbing uphill.