Last summer, Eleanor Murray released the fourth album under her own name, the stunning Bury Me Into the Mtn. The album is strikingly spare, with nary a note misplaced, I think Eleanor’s most intentional work to date. I sat down with Eleanor to discuss her creative process for this record. Presented here is a transcript of our conversation. The music was beautifully captured by studio friend and sometimes Dub engineer, Nic Wilbur, up at the Unknown in Anacortes. Hopefully a future interview with him will reveal some of the technical dimensions of the record.
Sam: Where did the process of writing these songs start?
Eleanor: Well, a lot of those songs actually came from my time – I did a music residency in Iowa, through this organization called “The Beauty Shop” and they basically were housing artists for a month and then, you would just do your work, do your art there, and then teach as well. So a lot of those songs came from that time of having a month where I was only thinking about songwriting, and I didn’t have any distractions. It was a wonderful experience. And then I was also teaching about songwriting, so I feel like a lot of those songs came from that place of being in Iowa and only thinking about songwriting.
S: Do you have goals when you are writing new songs or things you are trying to work on? Or is it more like waiting for inspiration?
E: I definitely had goals with this album. I think other albums were a different experience. This one, even before I went to Iowa, I kind of made a list of things I wanted to do with this album, basically I made a list of other albums that I really really like and just tried to figure out what it is they do that’s so powerful, and also with the type of recording to, figuring out what the sound I like is, but also the songs that really move you. What are they doing that’s so powerful?
S: What were some of your goals?
E: One of them was to have sense of mystery, which is kind of broad. One artist I focused on a lot during that time was Damien Jurado. I just really appreciate how he writes these songs that are stories, that are so…they’re really powerful stories, and I always just end up wondering: What happened? Did he experience that? Did he just make this up? I feel like he has this sense of really honest storytelling, but also there’s this mystery that goes along with it, that as a listener it’s not clear where the story comes from. So that was one of the goals, to not have it be so connected to my own experiences and try to have some distance between myself and what the songs are about.
S: Any other goals you remember?
Let me think, I had a whole list…I guess musically, I wanted a…in that list of albums that I thought were really good as a whole, they have these themes, these threads that go throughout the whole album and I think before in my music I tended to treat each song as its own thing, but that was one of the goals, to have some connecting thread throughout the songs, whether its how the lyrics are written or how the songs are arranged, just to kind of view the songs as a whole instead of individual projects.
S: Do you think you accomplished your goals?
E: I hope so! I like this album. It felt more intentional from the beginning as opposed to the previous albums. I tried to be really clear about what I wanted it to be from the beginning. I love how it turned out.
S: I remember hearing a lot of these songs way before the album was recorded and they changed significantly from when you first debuted them to the recording, even after the record they are still changing. And some of that was really significant, like completely new lyrics. Could you talk a little bit about why that happened and your process for refining the songs?
E: Well part of the reason that they change is there is a certain version of it and I play it alot and I just get tired of it. So that’s why I want to keep changing them even now. An example is “Summer Song”, that started out very…there’s a part of me that felt like it was punk, even though its not punk at all, but that was my version of punk, and now its definitely mellowed out. But the changes come to have fun and keep it interesting to me. Because I tend to get to get tired of songs pretty quickly
S: Are your songs ever finished?
E: Some songs feel finished…for now. Other songs feel like they’ll always be changing. I think most of them will probably change, just so that I feel fresh with them. Its more for selfish reasons.
S: What were you drawing lyrical inspiration from for these songs?
E: Most of them I was trying to compose a story or paint a picture, that weren’t about my direct experience. Or trying to express an idea that does come from direct experience but paint a picture for it that’s outside of me. That’s what I was trying to do. An example is, Lyla, is it called Lyla?
E: No, it was called Lyla…Support, that’s what it’s called, I’ve had like 5 titles for it. But that song the picture is a family at a dinner table with two girls and the relationship between the sisters. And I wanted it to be about… to encourage support, for women to support each other instead of being in competition with each other. But that narrative of the dinner table is just made up. I wasn’t there.
S: Well that’s pretty punk, girl-love and girl-hate.
E: Yeah! I wanted to call it Girl-Love at one point.
S: This album is pretty different sonically too, the instrumentation is really different. I thought I could ask you about that. Pam [Margon]’s not on this album.
E: Well, no one from Olympia is.
S: Oh yeah, that’s true
E: It was just – I recorded in Anacortes – and worked with people who were available at the time.
S: Was that intentional?
E: No it was more like…One of the goals of the album too, was to write songs that I felt could be strong completely by themselves because I had the idea I would tour solo with it, which I did. With the songs I have a whole band backing me up, when I play them solo I just don’t feel confidant about them. So that was one of the goals in the beginning, to have these be solo songs. I went to the studio with all these ideas for overdubs, but I wanted to keep it really subtle. I guess I just wanted it to feel okay without those overdubs too; not feel like I need them to be able to perform the song. With the people that did play on it, it was just a nice opportunity that they were available, but it was more just feeling out what was available in the space.
S: On “Great Carving”, the marimba is the base to that track. Did you play the marimba on that?
E: I did.
S: Did you write that part in the studio? Or did you come in already having it worked out?
E: I wrote it in the studio. Originally I wrote it on the guitar, but I was curious how it would sound on the Marimba, so I actually worked it out in the studio.
S: Did you do a lot of figuring out arrangements in the studio?
E: No everything was very…all the guitar overdubs were written out and…the one other thing that happened in the studio was Phil Elverum’s part – he plays drums on the end of that song – and that was totally just feeling it in the moment. Everything else though, besides the wind storm and things like that, everything else was pretty much written out beforehand.
S: You played some lead guitar on this album, which I hadn’t really heard that before. Did you have to practice and develop new guitar skills?
E: Definitely, the year before recording, that was another goal, just practice guitar alot. The lead parts were actually easier to play then some of the melodies in the main guitar part.
S: The fingerpicking?
E: Yeah, that took a long time to do, but it was important. The whole year that was another goal: to learn the guitar better.
S: The chords seem more interesting, incorporating upper extensions…they’re not just I-IV-V songs. Were you working on that?
E: Yeah, just in a couple songs it comes out, but I was trying to experiment with more jazz chords.
S: Where were you learning them from?
E: Just by playing around and listening to music. And that’s been so much fun. I love experimenting with those chords.
S: Well, that’s all I got. Is there anything interesting about the album you want people to know?
E: I don’t know. It’s available on my website!
S: That’s a good thing to to tell them! What’s your website?