When Jenee Halstead moved to Boston in 2006 to try her hand as a singer-songwriter, she was surprised to encounter a scene that was in someways a little foreign to her off-the-grid ways. Caught in that familiar middle-ground between pop and folk (we can both thank and blame Bob Dylan for that chasm), she leaned more towards the rootsy, folk story-teller side in her first five years in the city. However, a new album, Raised By Wolves finds the Pacific Northwest native taking a sharp right turn to the wild pop sounds of her alter-ego.
The story of Halstead's third-album begins last year when she had an 11-day recording session booked with Evan Brubaker; a Tacoma-based producer that the songwriter trusts for not only his production skill, but also his knack in artist development and working with female singer-songwriters. However, as Halstead and Brubaker started to work together, the singer decided to scrap almost every song she had prepared for the recording sessions, except for two. It was time to start over.
"It was like the pressure of a thousand pounds," says Halstead from a Cambridge coffee shop as she recalls what it was like to know that she had just a limited amount of time in Tacoma to write and record new songs. A sensitive and emotionally intelligent writer by nature, Halstead's new direction would be based on not turning the lens on others as she had in the past--but on herself, and her own complex landscape of emotions, past relationships and past traumas.
"My inner world was the elephant in the room," says Halstead. "Evan told me to go away and come back and see what I had. I maybe came up with 20 or 30 songs." Because she had already worked with Brubaker on her first album (2008's River Grace), Halstead and the producer worked from an established trust to open up the singer's world. The two would co-write as much as possible to make sure that the album was done as quickly as it needed to be to avoid any overly-critical self-editing. "We were literally across from each other on our laptops on Google Docs," says Halstead, on what it's like to co-write on the fly in 2012. "And he would be like 'what about this change, or this different word??'"
"Building You An Alter" is one of my favorites here (and also available on Halstead's Bandcamp site below--click to the 3rd track). In it, Halstead leads the listener like a snake-charmer down a place very similar to the way Wanda Jackson's stomps through "Funnel of Love." Her raw sensuality is mixed with fun sound-affects...like bouzouki-esque modalities being plucked against clacketty hand percussion, and a bridge that quickly ripens with synth-strings like the swell of a sudden storm.
New ideas in instrumentation are one of Halstead's big keys here, as the singer relates that many of the songs on Raised By Wolves were written on the ukelele; an instrument whose unique voicings lent itself both to new ideas and to the singer singing in a higher range than she had since college. Halstead and the musical friends she assembled for the album's recordings sessions also used a lot of unconventional touches, such as amplified guitars, electronic drums, and traditional folk instruments played out of context (ukelele, banjo, dobro) to create a fresh backdrop for Halstead's liberated attitude.
On the title-track, Halstead relates the trauma of being abused as a child to the idea of being raised by wolves. Here she shows the more tender side of her voice as she intones "nothing can hurt me now" with a bell-like clarity that cuts through the ambigous atmosphere of the song's glassy arrangement. "I wanted to speak to the deeper, more inarticulate aspect of the self--the Jungian side--to explore what happens when we are in survival mode and the whole emotional world that comes with that," says Halstead of the songs dark yet hopeful nature. "I realized one day that no one could ever hurt me like that again."
And how does Halstead feel now looking back on the whole Tacoma adventure?--the scrapping of the original songs to make way for the new ones that she wrote and recorded in a matter of weeks to create Raised By Wolves? Did she scrap the write songs? Did she feel too rished writing the new ones? Would she change anything? According to Halstead, any imperfections are perfectly fine with her.
"I feel like everything was tied in a little bow. I just brought every aspect of myself to this, my singing, my heart, my soul, etc. I felt like something was on the line."
Oh, and what do you know...Halstead has a CD release party tonight. Having the Russians on the bill will be a nice tonic for the big night. The Russians have been releasing a stream of 'b-sides' online lately, including this cover of Teenage Fanclub's 1991 fan-fave, "December":
with Dan Blakeslee and the Russians
May 25th, 2012, at 9:00 PM
$10 at door
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About the authorJonathan Donaldson is a Boston-based musician, writer, and second-generation music junkie. An Ohio native who moved to Boston in 1998, Jonathan's musical loves include R&B, psych, punk, bubblegum, country, electronic, More »
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