Carol Cleveland Sings is more a multi-discipline art project than a band in the traditional sense. The brainchild of Thomas Hughes of The Spinto Band, and now a collaborative partnership with Gretchen Lohse, the duo recently released its debut album of self-described “pyschedelic bedroom pop” and crafts accompanying music videos with the help of talented visual artist friends, as well as snippets designed specifically for the Vine video app.
The Philadelphia duo, which will play an album-release show for “Effervescent Lure” on Oct. 21 at Boot & Saddle (1131 South Broad St., Philadelphia) with Miniature Tigers, recently chatted with Highway 81 Revisited about the unique process of completing the album, the approach it takes to its live performances, some film score work and offered an update on The Spinto Band.
Tell me about the writing process for these songs.
TH: For this album in particular, it started with a self-imposed writing retreat inspired by one of my friends, where I tried to write and record at least one song a day. It was during a kind of lull with other stuff and I just thought it would be a good motivation to continue writing and wrap up songs and experiment just to keep it loose, really. I did not succeed in my goal, but I came out with a bunch of songs. Not all of them made it onto the album. At that same time I started working and playing and writing with Gretchen, and then we worked together to finish the songs.
Gretchen, how familiar were you with these songs before you got involved?
GL: I was pretty familiar because I was usually there when Thomas was working on the songs and writing them, and I kept pretty good tabs on what he was working on each day.
How did you go about deciding what you would contribute?
GL: I think having started playing in bands doing strings and writing string parts, doing instrumentation is natural and coming up with different beds of sound for the songs comes naturally.
Can you give me a rundown of all the instruments you used on the album?
GL: A lot of it’s pretty digital.
TH: It’s a good mix of digitally sourced stuff, but a lot of it is whatever was lying around in the bedroom at the time of recording. I have a pretty substantial collection of small Yamaha keyboards, so whatever is closest by would often end up on that track. Gretchen played viola on it. A handful of guitars and basses, samples of old keyboard instruments, such as the Mellotron and Chamberlin often played a big role on the record.
GL: This whole process started about three years ago (laughs). And the recording has been done for a while. More recently we’ve been working on, you were doing the album art and we’re waiting on vinyl.
TH: Making videos.
GL: So it’s not super fresh in our memory, so I apologize (laughs).
TH: Part of the challenge with this was mainly writing as you’re recording, and recording as you’re writing it, in a way. A demo would be whatever my first impulse in the first hour would be, which would be the backing track, and then I’d say “OK, that’s the song,” and maybe I’d revisit it, maybe Gretchen would revisit it like a few days layer, sometimes a few months later (both laugh). But the basics of everything were done in kind of “Oh, well while I have four hours to record something, here’s what it is.” Lots of things changed. Stuff like maybe you won’t hear the original guitar track, but you’ll hear what was put on top of the original guitar track.
How did you know when the album was done?
GL: When I said it was (both laugh).
TH: Yeah. I have a tendency to overthink things, remix stuff. With the incredible help and encouragement of Gretchen, it was really necessary, because I don’t think I would have finished it if it wasn’t for her.
GL: Aww. Well, I think it’s hard with your own songs to know when you’re finished. Even with my own I feel like you can tinker away for years. Sometimes you kind of need someone else to step in and say, “These are good. You don’t need to touch it any longer.”
The release show for the album is Oct. 21 at Boot & Saddle opening for Miniature Tigers. What is your approach to live shows with this project?
TH: It’s a bit different. It’s kind of stripped down. When I was playing with Gretchen for her album and her recordings and her music, it was really great…And also coming from other instance of playing with bands with more than five people in them, it gets really complicated to schedule things, and that was one of my main priorities, having it really easy to schedule rehearsals. We play with just the two of us, and our friend Eric Hartman, who plays keyboards and does a lot of cool backup tracks for the songs. So in a way, it’s different interpretations of what’s on the record.
GL: I think the sound is pretty full, though. It doesn’t just sound like three people. And it is nice, I also have played in bands with like eight people, and as fun as it is and all your friends are there, but trying to schedule anything is sort of a nightmare. Now it’s like, we just need to know three schedules.
TH: I want to go back to that: I love playing with big bands and they’re my favorite people, but due to the nature of scheduling, and when all of your friends are like in five other bands (laughs), it gets multitudes more difficult.
Let’s talk about the multimedia aspect of Carol Cleveland Sings: the music videos, the Vine videos and so on.
TH: We made one music video for one of the songs. We’re very, very lucky to know, in addition to knowing some talented musicians, we know some very talented filmmakers, video makers and art makers, and they were nice enough to offer to make music videos. So we have my brother Albert Birney and this great artist Anne Horel made music videos, but then on top of that, Gretchen and I have been making some new videos for the video app Vine, which is sort of related, because it’s the two of us, but is its own medium in and of itself. So we’ve been just doing short, quick cuts, musical compositions, sort of like combining music-making and video editing, combining two of our loves, because we both have backgrounds as visual artists as well that maybe not many people know about, but we’ve gotten to utilize both of our musical backgrounds and our video backgrounds. That’s the longer answer. Gretchen, what do you have to say?
GL: I guess the shorter answer would be that just because of Thomas’ brother we knew about Vine for about two years and sort of toyed with the idea of making something at some point, and there was a contest, and we were at home and we just decided to make a video for it, and we got hooked. But it’s a really neat outlet because it’s nice to have other ways to address art and music and creativity, and a lot of people who do music on Vine will play guitar or piano or sing, and that’s awesome too, but we’re thinking about how can we make music in a totally different way that’s specific to Vine, as opposed to recording something for an album or playing something on YouTube or anywhere else online.
TH: That’s such a better answer than I gave. Delete my answer. (laughs)
[You can see Carol Cleveland’s Vine videos here.]
What does the name of the band mean?
TH: It was just inspired by the vinyl records that you could find for 25 cents when I was first discovering music. Sort of obscure artists from the ’50s or ’60s as a young boy, I had no idea who they were, but the albums were so cheap and the covers were so beautiful and oftentimes the album titles would have these really most direct names: “So and so Sings,” and it’s such a beautiful, direct thing. I actually started recording under that name a really long time ago. I think I just wanted something that was a little bit mysterious, because Carol Cleveland is not my name, it’s not Gretchen’s name, it kind of creates a mysterious persona that I was attracted to when I was buying records as a kid.
GL: Plus, if we do anything terrible, we can blame it on Carol Cleveland (both laugh). We get lots of emails that are like, “Hi Carol.”
One of the descriptors you use for Carol Cleveland Sings on Facebook is “Epcot pop.” What does that mean?
TH: The Epcot Center represents a bounty of culture but not necessarily exact or authentic by any means. It’s more of like a weird plastic representation of those cultures, very inauthentic, and it’s something I just think late one night when I was filling out my Facebook profile it came to me, and it just stuck there. It seems to be representative of some of the music we make.
What other projects are you each working on outside of Carol Cleveland Sings right now?
GL: I’m recording some new songs for sort of a solo project. We’ll see what happens, it’s hard to say.
TH: Another undertaking is Gretchen is actually one of the composers for a film soundtrack called “The Pine Barrens” that she’s been working on with four other Philadelphia musicians.
GL: On that same note, Thomas’ brother Albert just made a movie (“Sylvio”) and we scored that film.
GL: It was really fun. It was fun to do instrumental music and not have to worry about lyrics, it’s a totally different process.
What’s going on with The Spinto Band right now? Are you guys kind of on a break?
TH: Yeah, our recording studio that we recorded the last two records at, unfortunately our landlord kind of sold the property and bulldozed the entire thing, so since that happened, all of our gear has been redistributed throughout all of our personal collections. We have recorded stuff. And the main thing that we’ve been working on is a reissue of our first record, “Nice and Nicely Done,” which you might hear some never-before-heard music. I don’t know if that’s been announced at all (laughs).
Well, it has been now!
TH: We don’t know how much information we can give, but that’s a project that we’ve been working on. We’ve been doing that and we have recorded some stuff, but due to the nature of everyone’s other projects and schedules, we haven’t had anything that we’ve been ready to put out there yet.