Photo by Monika Rivard
Never underestimate the emotional power of a story told in song. Other forms of art can work wonders with words, but few share the uncanny ability of music to make you feel intuitively ideas and perspectives that you never would have considered otherwise.
Laura Heaberlin and Taylor Smith discovered as much on their debut album as Cricket Blue. Serotinalia sees the Vermont indie-folk duo push the potential of songwriting, making the most of the medium as they plant seeds of empathy for unexpected subjects.
Each of their characters–whether it’s a woman at the center of undesired attention or a harvest effigy on the brink of a fiery death–has a rich internal life ripe for the unraveling and a musical arrangement to help you slip into their shoes. On “Alicia From the Store,” strings serve as set dressing for the story of a jaded grocery store clerk. On “Straw Boy,” a lone acoustic guitar shines on a misguided artist like a spotlight in a dark theater.
Those kinds of complex human experiences don’t get written in one sitting, so it stands to reason they don’t come apart in one conversation, but for a peek into the notes behind the narratives, Heaberlin and Smith spoke to The All Scene Eye about the making of Serotinalia and the impact of empathetic songwriting.
When did you start working on this group of songs, and when did it take shape as an album?
Smith: The songs vary a lot in how old they are. The oldest is probably “Milkman” or “Elliott,” which are both going on four years old, so a lot of them weren’t written with the album in mind. We were writing songs to have more in our repertoire, and when we decided it was time to finally make a full-length album, we looked over the songs we were playing at the time and picked our favorites. We talked about, “what would we want to put on an album? Which of our songs are good?” and then noticed certain themes emerging.
Another thing we did, or mostly that I did, is put those songs that we had chosen into an order that would make a good flow. I’m really into albums that are structured like albums–not necessarily concept albums, although I like concept albums, but where the songs have a nice arc and it doesn’t just feel like a collection of songs. I tried to put our songs into an order that felt good, and then I realized there were gaps.
Heaberlin: And to be clear, the gaps that Taylor found–
Heaberlin: He came to me and he was like, “okay, we’ve got this album, but we’re missing the single and the pseudo-single and the closer.” Basically, we had all of the filler songs and none of the apex songs.
Smith: We were like, “we’ve got to go write some songs,” and we did that. We wrote some other songs that didn’t end up making it onto the album, but yeah, it sort of shook together into a form that we liked.
Did having that outline in mind change the way you approached those last few songs?
Smith: It did for me. Some of the last songs we wrote were “Alicia From the Store,” “June,” and “Burdens Down.” When I wrote “Burdens,” for example, I went into it being like, “I need to write a more optimistic song.” I wanted the album to end on that note, so it was directed in that sense.
One concrete thing is that Laura tends to write character songs very naturally, in the sense that the narrator isn’t Laura; it’s about some other person. Laura has a ton of backstory about her characters in a way that I think is super cool. It’s not a thing I do, but when I wrote “June,” I was like, “oh, cool, I’m going to do the Laura thing and write a song from a perspective that’s very much not mine.” The narrator of “June” is this, like–I think of her as a freshman in college, female, going through certain types of–well, I don’t know. I leak into there. Laura is smiling at me.
Smith: Some of June’s stuff about purity and calling on the saints is drawn from my past, but anyway, that’s me trying to write a song in Laura’s style that I thought would fit the record overall.
Heaberlin: Taylor and I had both independently thought of opening the album with some sort of a cappella thing, so when I was writing “Alicia From the Store,” I have that kind of weird, long intro before it drops into the song, but at the same time, Taylor was writing “Oracles,” so we just put them both in.
There are a lot of those musical bridges between songs. How did the transition from “Oracles” into “Alicia From the Store” come together?
Smith: I don’t remember if we just lucked out or if I picked the key of “Oracles” to make it work. I think we moved “Oracles” around, but not by much.
Heaberlin: I feel like a half-step?
Smith: I think I had written it in E minor because I was just playing it on an open guitar, kind of banging the bass note, and then we moved it up to F# so that last note would hold over into “Alicia.”
Heaberlin: That sounds right.
Smith: But a lot of the tonal bridges in the album–I mean, to some extent, that was a factor when we were picking the order, but mostly, we lucked out. These are songs we had been playing for a long time. We couldn’t really change the keys of them now–it would feel weird and unnatural. We just found places where we thought it was cool musically and where it made sense for the songs to be connected in some way. Like, the last note of “Straw Boy” rings into “Corn King,” and it worked really nicely.
At what stage in your process did the word serotinalia emerge?
Heaberlin: That was really late in the game. We had our album order, and all of our songs were written. I was writing little essays about how the songs are connected, and what sorts of themes kept coming up, like wildness versus domesticity, and we had talked about forest fires. How did this come up?
Smith: I think “Corn King.”
Smith: “Corn King” does a thing at the end where–I guess an actual harvest ritual people used to do is they would build this representation of the corn god and then burn it, and that was supposed to ensure a good harvest, so in one of the final sections of “Corn King,” he gets lit on fire. [laughs] There are these lines about how he gets consumed by the flames, and then he’s like, “well, I’m sort of dying so that my body disintegrates and becomes the soil for you to grow out of.” That was the impetus for us looking up different ways of plant cycles happening and relating them to fire. We were sitting in Battery Park–do you remember this?
Smith: Laura has this really beautiful park next to her house. We were just out there with my laptop sort of bouncing around articles about plants and different life-cycles, and one of us stumbled upon this term, serotiny, which is where a forest fire will trigger plants to release their seeds. We were like, “that’s wild,” like, “destruction literally triggering creation,” and then we were like, “well, okay, what would a made up word for a collection of serotinal things be?” Laura thought of it.
Heaberlin: We talked about calling the album Serotiny for a while, but it was too cringey. It was just like–
Smith: A little on the nose.
Heaberlin: Yeah. [laughs]
Have you had moments in your own life that felt serotinal?
Smith: I think so; I think a lot of growth happens when something shakes you up. When you go through a hard breakup or weird relational dynamic with your family or your friend group, when you lose people who are close to you or you undergo a profound change of mind that calls into question everything you believe. All of those are opportunities to come out, at least different, but maybe also more fully in bloom.
Heaberlin: And with more developed empathy for what other people might be going through. I think it’s hard to be a fully empathetic person if you haven’t had any pain in your life.
You were both solo artists before you joined forces. How has working together on projects like this changed the way you write?
Heaberlin: When we were writing as solo artists, we would write a song, and as soon as we were done, we’d be like, “okay, I’m going to play this tonight at the show.” Now we have a turbo revision process where if I write a song, I will send Taylor a recording and some lyrics in a very rough form, so I haven’t even really finished the song. He’ll take those lyrics, and we’ve got a tri-colored highlight system where green highlights mean “I really like this line,” red highlights mean “you need to change this line,” and salmon colored highlights are “you might be able to keep this line, but you’re going to have to show me why it’s good.” That kick-starts our revision process.
Smith: At a certain point, it becomes collaborative, which is new, but knowing that’s what’s coming has changed my process before that point too. Now I sort of have Laura’s voice in my head when I’m writing and I feel like I can anticipate what she will like or not like. She’s usually right, so sometimes I can just go ahead and make the change before she tells me to.
Smith: Also, the rule we have now is that you have to share as soon as you have a first draft. You’re not allowed to tweak it and try to make it as good as possible before sharing because that’s how you get attached to stuff, and it’s harder to kill your darlings later. That was definitely a problem I had a lot more before we implemented this practice. Also, having to defend my ideas to you. Sometimes I’ll write a line, and in the moment I’ll think it’s good, but then Laura will come back with a salmon-colored highlight and be like, “so, why this line?” And I’ll be like, “huh. You’re right.” It feels easier to get rid of when I never would have thought to cut it on my own.
Heaberlin: Sometimes it really solidifies how you feel about a line, in that a line is really important to you and you want to keep it, and that’s okay.
One place on this album where that idea of artists’ relationships comes up is “Straw Boy.” Can you tell me about that one?
Smith: “Straw Boy” is interesting. That might be the song I revised the most of any song on the album.
Heaberlin: “Corn King”?
Smith: Maybe “Corn King,” but only by virtue of the fact that, like–it wasn’t minor revisions. It was replacing entire verses. “Straw Boy” has that structure where I could have written 20 verses of it because it’s so effortless, or whatever.
Here’s another woman from here, here’s another woman from there.
Smith: Right, exactly, so I had a bunch of different ideas that at one point or another were in that song. It’s non-chronological and it draws from different things in my life–sort of like dream, fictionalized versions, but less fictionalized than other things on the album. Part of the personality of the dude in that song is taking this removed stance towards the world. He observes all these people–especially women–with an eye for them as characters in his story, like, “here are the features I’ve noticed about them because I’m a very perceptive artist type who has poetic thoughts.” Maybe that’s a mindset you have to be in sometimes as an artist, but to make that the central archetype of your life is maybe not very good for normal human relationships. It’s better to remember that you’re just another person among people who are all as complex as you. You don’t necessarily have any grand insight into them, or into anything. That’s a problem that Straw Boy has, and it’s a problem I diagnose in myself from time to time and try to avoid.
Aside from serotiny, there’s this other running theme through the album of gender and circumstance. How did that come to be part of this network of songs?
Heaberlin: I’m definitely very interested in investigating and thinking about gender, so that comes through in a lot of my songs. I don’t want to write a didactic feminist song where I say, “we should all do this thing and burn our bras,” or whatever, but I do like to highlight the ways in which gender differences might be difficult and ways they’re nuanced, like the female experience that you might not be able to guess from the outside. What would you say?
Smith: I think the difference between men and women is one of the classic ways in which one others people. To the extent that one of the thesis statements of the album is that like, trauma helps you develop empathy, and empathy is ultimately what is good at making you stronger and healing you, then–like, one thing maybe every person at some point needs to overcome is their difference from people of a different gender, to conceive of them as equally complex and not alien. Like the “Straw Boy” thing. There’s this thread in poetry and art made especially by men–I think it happens the other direction, but I’m more attuned to it going from male to female–that goes all the way back to this Petrarchan thing. When you write a poem or a song about a woman, it’s idealized, right?
Heaberlin: It’s just like a list.
Smith: Yeah, it’s just like a list.
Heaberlin: A list of her body.
Smith: Yeah, or even when it’s not her body, it’s still idealized, right? She’s the gentlest, kindest–it’s like you’re creating this mythological figure rather than attempting to know a person in a nitty gritty way. I think that’s a mental move that happens really naturally, especially for people who are making art about another person. In a fundamental way, that’s a super weird thing to do, right? You’re going about your life, you have friends and lovers and acquaintances, and they’re these complicated people, and then you’re like, “I’m going to distill you into this thing that I made and claim that I’m describing something true about you.” That’s kind of arrogant in a lot of ways, and I think a really salient version of that is dudes writing songs about girls.
“Elliott” is a track where somebody’s on the receiving end of being looked at in an uncomfortable way. Can you tell me about the tone and the development of that song?
Heaberlin: When I was writing “Elliott,” I really wanted to write a song about all the feelings you have when someone is pursuing you who–you don’t necessarily want them to be pursuing you, but culturally, since you were a kid, you’ve been taught to be validated by this kind of attention. You have these conflicting emotions where you kind of need this sort of validation, but at the same time, it makes you feel really uncomfortable and scared and gross and angry–there’s a lot that goes into it.
Elliott is a character who doesn’t particularly cross any lines that you can call him out on. He stays right south of that border of creepiness, so you can’t really tell him to go away. His attention makes you feel flattered at the same time that you feel scared and you’re always second-guessing whether you should have treated him more kindly. When you do treat him more kindly, you feel like you should have been a lot colder to him. I was 25 when I wrote that, and I didn’t feel like there was an acknowledgment of the validation piece that feels like it needs to be fixed in our society in how we raise women.
What’s your hope for what these stories and songs can do?
Smith: I think Laura touched on this, but one thing that character songs and that short stories are really good at, as you say, is the snapshot of more nuanced aspects of human interactions and relationships. You can narrow in on one really specific thing that people who haven’t been in that situation wouldn’t even know is a thing. Like Luara’s thing about how even when you’re creeped out by a dude, you maybe feel some sense of validation because you’ve been trained that, “oh, when a dude is making advances, that’s because you’re somehow worthy, and the lack of that would mean you weren’t worthy, so in a sense, this is good.” That tension within one’s self.
If you’ve never been in that situation, if you aren’t a woman or something, you might not know that’s a thing, and I think learning more of the things that make up the variety of human experience is helpful on the way towards empathy. In the optimistic world, maybe that’s one good thing these songs could do.
Heaberlin: I think the songs are going to do different things for different people, and we’ve kind of created this ink blot that we hope will spark different reactions. For instance, in your review, you write that “Elliott” makes you feel afraid for the protagonist of that song. We’ve had people react to that song and say, “oh, it’s so nice that you treat Elliott with so much empathy.”
Smith: [laughs] Yeah.
Heaberlin: Which is pretty wild. There’s a full spectrum of what people can see, and there’s one thing that I meant when I wrote it, but I am interested in all the different things it could mean to a person.
Smith: I think we both believe once the song has been heard by somebody that’s not you, it’s not really yours anymore. Whatever it ends up doing for that person is valid. Sometimes people have asked me what particular lines mean, and I always am like, “eh, what did you think about when you heard it?” I don’t want to give the word of the author or something.
What’s the unique benefit of songwriting as a medium versus, say, short fiction? For you, what is it that only a song can do?
Smith: I think all mediums have strengths and weaknesses. For me, the big thing about songs is that you can simultaneously present an idea or a situation and directly hack how a person feels about it using the music. You set this tone with music, which plugs directly into someone’s emotions, and then you juxtapose it with an idea or a person or a situation, and that makes this weird multimedia type of statement about the thing. Maybe film does that in a lot of ways, but a short story just has its words.
Heaberlin: There’s definitely a lot you can do, even just thinking about major and minor chords, or timing, or just subverting people’s expectations and making them feel confused. They’re all tools that we have access to that you would have to go about differently in a different medium.
Smith: Timing is a really interesting one because someone reads a short story at their own pace, but with music, you can force them to dwell on a particular line by making it longer or by making it the chorus. You decide what to emphasize in a way that you don’t really have if you’re just presenting text to a reader.
Heaberlin: Not that we have any choruses on our album. [laughs]
Smith: That is a fair point. [laughs]
There’s so much thought put into the theory of the music that you make, and on this album, the arrangements as well. How did you come into that particular skill set?
Smith: Well, I really lucked out. My dad went to get a masters in music when I was nine, so from the time I was nine to 11, he would be coming home and teaching my sister and I music theory, like, “here’s what I learned in class today.” I was super into it, and it caught me at a really formative age, so that’s really how I learned. I then went on to study jazz and stuff. Saxophone was my instrument for a long time. That’s all improv, so you do learn theory doing that, but I don’t really have any background arranging for a band or an orchestra, or whatever. I don’t know what we’re called. [laughs]
Heaberlin: Chamber band.
Smith: Yeah, so that was all really trial and error; the string trio that plays on the album were very patient. We’d bring in a draft of the arrangement and play it, record it, listen to it, and be like, “eh, this sounds weird.” Sometimes, you don’t know why it sounds weird and you just tweak it until it doesn’t sound weird. It forced me to dredge up all these old rules that I’d forgotten, about parallel fourths and stuff. Laura, had you written for strings before.
Heaberlin: Yeah, so I’m not nearly as theory-minded as Taylor. I grew up playing cello in orchestras, and in college, I got a music minor with an emphasis in composition, so I did a lot of composing for string quartet, or flute and strings, just because that was part of my college experience. We were also in our college a cappella group together. [laughs]
Smith: We did arrange a bunch of a cappella music, so probably that helped. I still use the weird a cappella syllables sometimes.
Heaberlin: Oh, really?
Smith: Yeah, I mean, as a little joke to myself.
Heaberlin: Oh, okay. [laughs]
Smith: Like “djen,” you know, or like, “din dah.” You know, it’s good.
You did an album release show with those orchestral players. What was it like bringing all that work on stage?
Heaberlin: Oh, it was so fun. We didn’t have the exact lineup that we had on the album, so we ended up with some different players. We didn’t have a flute, and we did have a synth, so there was some last-minute rearranging.
Smith: We tweaked it to try to replicate as much as possible, but man, it was cool. We had only played a couple of times before that with our string trio live and we had never played with this large of an ensemble. We even brought a wine glass to get some of those high ringing sounds. [laughs] That was fun, figuring out how to use a loop pedal on that. It was the kind of thing you wish you could do for every show. It’s not logistically or financially feasible, at least right now, but it was a very cool night.
So what’s next for you all after the release? What’s the plan for those songs when it’s just the two of you?
Heaberlin: We’ve only played one show since then, and we did miss the string players dearly, especially on the bridge of “Alicia From the Store,” but we’ve been playing most of these songs as a duo for a really long time, and they feel good.
Smith: Some of them feel a little different, but the core of the thing is still there.
Heaberlin: I’m a little worried about “Corn King” going forward because there’s so much build and release in that song that going back to just the two of us might–
Smith: We’ve just got to bring it. We’ll be fine. We’ll figure it out.
Heaberlin: In terms of what we’re going to do, I think the two of us are just going to tour around. We’ll try to do shows with more musicians also, but touring with two people is really practical and convenient because you split the money two ways. Hopefully, that’s not how we do things at all. [laughs]
Smith: But yeah, fewer ways.
Heaberlin: And you can fit in one car.
Is there any chance we could hear the saxophone come out on a Cricket Blue album?
Heaberlin: [laughs] I could imagine that.
Smith: Way back in the day we had one song where Laura played cello and I played guitar, and one song where I played saxophone and Laura played guitar, and both of those fell by the wayside, mostly because bringing an entire extra instrument for a song was hard. That was early on before we’d sort of solidified where Cricket Blue was. We really dig the guitar interplay stuff we get to do now, but on an album, where you can overdub things, yeah, we could do that.
Heaberlin: Taylor tells me that we have to put out one more acoustic album before we do an electronic album.
Smith: I mean, I think the band progression is like, debut, then you solidify your brand or whatever, and the third album is where you’re allowed to deviate. Don’t hold us to that. I have no idea what we’re going to do for our next album.
Smith: It could be anything.
I mean, if you want to think of albums like single, closer, filler tracks, why not think of a career the same way?
Heaberlin: Exactly. Thank you for knowing what we’re talking about. [laughs]
If you could tour with any artist, who would you choose, each of you?
Heaberlin: Anais Mitchell has a lot of resonance with us, so she feels like a really obvious answer to give.
Smith: She’s kind of our group answer, though. I would also pick her for Cricket Blue in a practical sense, but what’s your deep dream?
Heaberlin: My deep dream, I want to tour with Darlingside. I’m obsessed with their new album and I think they’re getting better and better. They’ve got the harmonies, they’ve got the string stuff happening.
Smith: They’ve got the weird futurism-humanism mish-mash.
Heaberlin: Radical empathy.
Smith: So good. My answer for this used to be The Decemberists. They were really formative for me, and I also feel like that would be a really fun band to hang out with, but it would be a weird match musically. Man, if I’m shooting for the moon here, Sufjan?
Heaberlin: Oh, I would be well pleased if we could tour with Sufjan. [laughs]
Smith: Yeah, Sufjan Stevens. That’s the one.
You’re going to have to find your own set piece to work with the balloon suit and everything.
Smith: Exactly; we’ll have to up our prop game substantially.
Heaberlin: From zero to something extravagant.
Smith: I brought one little piece of coral as a prop for our release show.
Heaberlin: Actually, you brought your whole–you brought a nightstand.
Smith: A little cabinet. It’s the beginning of an illustrious career with props for us.
You could do an “Impossible Soul” thing with “Corn King” and act out the various stages–the festivities, the burning, and all of that. You could have pyrotechnics.
Heaberlin: I like the idea of “the burning, and all of that.” [laughs]
Smith: You know, the burning! [laughs] Yeah, we’d have pyrotechnics, and it does the “Impossible Soul” thing where there’s a quiet ending after the big finale, where all the feathers are still dropping from the ceiling.