INTERVIEW: Robert Earl Thomas of Widowspeak

Widowspeak dove deep into a murky landscape and emerged with six hauntingly beautiful songs that comprise their forthcoming EP, The Swamps. The new release serves as the bridge between Almanac, the band's second record, and their "to be recorded" third album.  

We spoke with Widowspeak guitarist Robert Earl Thomas as the band drove through the southwest for a tour stop in Phoenix, AZ. Rob gave us the full scoop on The Swamps, discussed its role in Widowspeak's discography, and detailed the songwriting process between with frontwoman Molly Hamilton.

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Rob playing Captured Tracks' CT5 in Brooklyn.

ChunkyGlasses: It was a pleasure seeing you guys at CT5 about a month ago. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were hearing songs from The Swamps. Did you guys just start playing those songs live or had they been played earlier while you guys were writing them?

Robert Earl Thomas: We just started playing them live about a month ago. Literally, we got back the day before Captured Tracks fest, but Molly and I, we had toured as the two of us around Europe to do some festivals – it was kind of like a logistical reason that we didn’t have a whole band – and that’s where we started integrating a couple of the Swamps songs. It was sort of a good way to practice them, actually, ‘cause we had kind of a writing period for The Swamps, and we wrote them all and recorded them, and then we kinda had to figure out how we were going to translate them live.  So we used the little duo tour as a way to experiment just the two of us and we just kind of like, changed them on the fly a little bit. And so, the Captured Tracks fest was actually the first time we had played...we had not played “True Believer” live in the United States before and the last song we played, “Smoke and Mirrors,” which is also on the EP, we had never played before live. So, yeah, that was kind of like the coming out [for The Swamps]. 

CG: It was definitely a treat! Since you two are from Tacoma and Chicago, and you now live in Brooklyn, did you encounter the swamps while you were on tour? What was your first exposure to the swamps?

Rob: Neither Molly nor I had been to the southeast until Widowspeak’s first tour, right after the first record came out. I think that was the first time that either of us had actually been in swamps before, or at least muggy swamps. So that was really cool, we were really excited to travel to the south on that first tour with Vivian Girls. And that was our first kind of, like, experience. And then Molly had a fascination with the swamps as a song subject matter for a while and before we did that European tour, we also did a duo tour opening for this country guy, Jason Isbell, who was in the Drive-By Truckers, and that was a tour of the south. So we used that, actually, as a way to, I guess, do research slash kind of just sightsee. That’s when we wrote most of the EP, was while in hotel rooms as we were doing that tour. So we purposefully tried to route ourselves back in to the swamps so that we could kind of, like, you know, get the vibe.

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Louisiana swamps.

CG: Well, I'm from southern Lousiana, so I have a connection to the swamps, and you know, I never was that moved by them until I moved away and returned home. So I found it interesting that someone would want to write an entire EP about them. And you kind of touched upon it that Molly was infatuated with the swamps, and I’m guessing she had lyrical inspiration? And you provide the music part? I’m curious about, in general, your guys’ songwriting experience. 

Rob: I think Molly had in the back of her head…was sort of daydreaming about a whole record for The Swamps, or maybe even calling another band The Swamps. She had toyed with it for a while, but then it came time and we were writing songs, and we didn’t have a whole record. We were planning a record, but we had some songs that didn’t really seem like they were going to be on the new record, but we didn’t have a big enough collection to make a whole record, and we wanted to make a release, so the swamps idea kind of resurfaced. And it also seemed like a really good transition, because Almanac has kind of a nature vibe, but it’s more in the northeast, so it’s more like wooded area and fields and that kind of thing, and maybe even farmland a little bit. But there’s something about the swamps that’s a good bridge between the nature and nostalgia, but also…I don't know, not more modern ideas, but just moving forward in terms of our own thought. So, yeah, I think Molly liked the stagnation feel of it. That’s sort of something that was hinted at on Almanac, because Almanac has a lot to do with nostalgia, but I think, maybe, then, the backlash from that, in a way. You know, you can’t be too nostalgic, you can’t get caught in something like that. In the swamps, you feel sticky, and slowed down, and caught. And in terms of our music, we’re never like a really fast, loud, band, so the sort of oppressive feeling of all that humidity and haze, and wading through the water, was sort of a cool translation for our music, we felt like. 

CG: Yeah, I agree! I was actually thinking that your music in general is more in line with the slower pace of the south and it juxtaposes really harshly, I think, with the fast pace of Brooklyn, in particular, and just the northeast as a whole. So, yeah, I think the swamps are a great thematic element for you guys to write about using your music. 

Rob: There’s also a lot of, like, mysticism in it, too, you know? Kind of like, voodoo and magic, and not that we talk about those things explicitly, but that permeates the whole vibe and culture of that part of the world, which is really cool, I think.

CG: You were talking about how Almanac has the same sort of recurring nature elements and that’s continued on The Swamps, so do you view this new EP as a continuation of Almanac? Or is it more an indication of what’s to come with the next album? 

Rob: I think we meant for it to be a bridge into the next record. And I think it sides probably a little more toward Almanac. It’s kind of, like, the coming out of Almanac, and the starting to come into the next record. In terms of the next record, we’re more like…I can’t say really what it’ll sound like one-hundred percent, but we’ve been laying it out sort of thematically. When we make a record we tend to go into it with a lot of ideas upfront – images, colors, smells, things like that - that we want the record to build with. And then we kind of build the song selection around that. But, yeah, I guess The Swamps is probably a little bit closer to Almanac in terms of its content, but it’s definitely part of the transition into what the next record’s going to be. I also think it’s probably closer to Almanac, too, because of the way it was recorded. It was like studio recording. We used demos and then built on top of those in the studio, and so it’s a lot of us playing all the instruments as opposed to it being like a live band setting, which is pretty much how Almanac was recorded. So in that way, it's like Almanac. I think we’ll move forward with the next record and maybe cut some more live recordings. 

CG: I’m definitely looking forward to hearing it. Is there an expected release date?

Rob: No, definitely not.

CG: So just focusing right now on The Swamps release and touring?

Rob: Yeah, totally. We’re on a big tour right now. We had an awesome opportunity to play like a week and a half with Iron & Wine in Canada, which was really cool. So we went to to the farthest upreaches of Canada – [laughs] the exact opposite of the swamps. And then we came down to do ACL. We were in Austin for a week, which was super rad, and now we’re driving through the southwest, and we’re going to California and the northwest, and then eventually come back around to New York. We’ll be back in New York at the very beginning of November, and then I think we’re going to kind of cool it for a couple months and just work on this record at a good pace. We spent most of the last year on the road, so between band tours, and me and Molly doing solo tours, and playing festivals, we could stand to have some relaxing time. We’re actually thinking about transplanting to the south - we talk about it every time we go on tour - if only for a certain period of time, but it’s fun to get away and write and record in a place that’s not New York. We spent so much time in New York prior to being in a band that we don’t feel like we have to be there anymore, you know?

CG: Which of the The Swamps songs was written first? I kind of have a feeling it would be the first track, “Themes from the Swamps,” and then the final track, “The Swamps,” which kind of serve as thematic bookends that the four other tracks fit into. 

Rob: Well, the swamps, like the motif – the da, da, da da da da – that thing, Molly came up with a long time ago, but it was just kind of floating, and so that was sort of the impetus for the EP. We were like, “Oh, that’s a cool motif, we want to build things around that.” But the first song that actually came together was “True Believer.” We needed to have the first track to release as the promo track done before we went on a tour, and that song was kind of the most finished in terms of a full, complete song with lyrics and all the parts and everything. So we actually ended up recording that one before we went on a tour, so that was just the one that was finished first. But yeah, the song “The Swamps” and “The Theme of the Swamps” – they existed first. They were kind of the jumping-off point. We were like, “Oh, cool, we got a little musical motif, we can kinda turn this in to a whole project." I love soundtrack style things, and I love title tracks, and so the idea to bookend the album with a hint at what the motif is and then ending it with a full song was a really fun thing to do. And, also, it was fun because we didn’t know how we wanted the song to necessarily sound, we just knew that we liked the melody. To have two chances to do it was kind of awesome. So, yeah, I guess “The Swamps” was the first song that existed as an idea, but “True Believer” was the first one that was actually finished. 

CG: In regards to “Calico,” one of our writers recently reviewed that single - was there a particular incident or memory that inspired that song?

Rob: Speaking for Molly, I don’t think that there was a specific incident that inspired the song. I think a lot of times we write songs around words or phrases that seem like they have a power or meaning or a catch to them. So the word “calico” was really awesome, and I think that song, for her, has a lot of references to things in her life, but it’s not necessarily about any specific thing. I think some of the images, the house and stuff, do relate to her life, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a specific incident.

CG: I’m curious about whether an EP, as opposed to an LP, maybe helps you focus on a ceratain thing like the swamps? Would you have been able to make an entire record about it, do you feel? Or is there something particular about the EP – it’s shorter, therefore, you can focus on one thing more?

Rob: I think, in theory, if we had really gone for it, we could have made a whole record out of The Swamps. But, yeah, some ideas are better lived out in shorter form. I like the EP, not just because we’re making them. I like making an EP because it’s a different set of restrictions. You’re working on a smaller time frame. The turnaround’s quicker. The amount of actual recorded material is less, so you can kind of flirt with ideas that you maybe wouldn’t have to commit to for a whole record, you know? So I enjoy that. Music business types think that EPs aren’t as good as records just because they’re not a full thing to push. But that being said, I like it. It was fun to do an EP for this. I think it was the perfect thing ‘cause we wrote it on this two week tour of the south and then we recorded it in a week and a half, and then it was done. It was really cool because we really wanted to have more recorded material out, and there just wasn’t the time frame or the resources to make a whole record, so it was the perfect way to be able to make something new, to have new songs to play, to have something to promote, but not eat up such a huge time frame. I mean, the time span to make Almanac was pretty big in terms of the amount of time it took out of our lives.

CG: Can you tell me about the album art for the EP? I can't really tell...It looks like a painting, or a photograph of a painting... 

Rob: It’s rad! It’s a swamp that Molly made. We were talking about it and we wanted to take a picture of a swamp or something, and I was like, “Dude, you should make a diorama,” and she totally ran with it and it’s really cool. While we were staying in upstate New York in Kingston and they had a hobby shop and she went and bought all the things she needed. And then we photographed it at night at the studio and it was during the super moon, so the moon in the picture is actually the real moon. We just held it up and photographed it at an angle, so it’s the swamp diorama with the real moon in the background. I’m glad you thought that, though, because it plays into the whole haziness of the swamp, so you can’t really tell what everything is all the time.

CG: Do you ever contribute lyrics? Or are you more about the guitar parts and the music as a whole?

Rob: No, I don’t really contribute lyrics. I tend to be an editor, but sometimes I get eye-rolls for my comments. So, yeah, I deal more with the music aspect of it. Like, I played all the instruments on The Swamps, actually. And, yeah, I do the arrangement stuff. We have a nice symbiotic relationship. So, yeah, I deal more with doing the instrument parts and the arrangements and Molly does the lyrics. Molly definitely does all the lyrics, we just have to talk about the vocal melodies and flesh them out. It’s pretty hard, I find, for someone to write the melodies not singing it, so I try to keep my nose out of it. [Laughs.]

CG: Has your songwriting process and collaboration had to evolve at all as you grew as a band?

Rob: Well, it started as me, Molly, and Michael, our original drummer, and when we started the band, it was a solid trio mentality and every song was like...maybe Molly had an idea for some lyrics or something but the songs were really conceived "in the lab" style where we all sat around and tried to figure out what was the best way for them to be. And that’s kind of how the first record turned out. But then Michael left the band on good terms – I don’t think he liked being in a band, a touring band, at least. But anyway, at that point, Molly and I kind of delved into this songwriting relationship that, I think, has grown over time. I don’t think it’s changed as much as it’s we’ve gotten better at it. We kind of know how to read each other and understand what each of our musical and melodic tendencies are. So we have this nice kind of set up where most of the writing goes...we’ll come up with abstract ideas – colors, smells, movies, photographs, that kind of thing – and then we’ll be like, “Oh, well what can a song have that can make you feel the same way as these things?” So Molly will have a snippet of a melody and maybe a couple chords. She’ll show it to me, then I’ll work around it and try to come up with different versions of songs and we’ll just go back and forth until we nail what the song should be like. If anything, I think we’ve streamlined the process. Before, we took longer and longer and now we can read each other really well and know where to go. Also, what’s cool is the more recording that we do, and the more we realize that we have all these opportunities to record, it almost, in some way, takes the pressure of each individual song. So we can be like, “Oh, let’s try this thing with this song ‘cause we’ll have another song where we can try another thing.” You know, you don’t have to fit it all into one song. The same way recording projects work that way. We can be like, “Oh, this will be The Swamps EP, and that’s what it’ll be like, and the next record will be its own thing.” 

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The Swamps album art.

CG: You mentioned that Michael left the band, and that it had to do with not enjoying touring. Do you and Molly enjoy touring?  

Rob:I love touring. I think we both love touring. I grew up in Chicago, moved to New York, and I had literally never been anywhere else in the country or the world until I was in a band. The past year, I’ve seen all of the United States and western Europe, so, for me, it’s an awesome opportunity to be able to travel and see all these things. And, I mean, there are downsides, obviously. You spend a lot of time in a car, or you only get to see a city for eighteen hours, you don’t get to really take it all in. But, overall, I think we both really enjoy touring and it’s just a matter of, like songwriting, getting to know ourselves the best way. Like, what’s the best type of tour and method of touring? How do you break it up? How do you plan it out? But, yeah, we love it. I love playing live, too. I think we’ve gotten to be a really good, consistent live band, so in that regard, it’s a lot of fun. Yeah, I would not give it up yet. Maybe I don’t have twenty more years in me, but as of now, I’m totally cool with it.

CG: How, for you, is playing live different than recording? Do you enjoy how, maybe, a song is bigger live? What about it do you love so much?

Rob: When we record, especially with the last few things – like I said, they’ve been more studio efforts, so any given song…”Calico” has five guitars on it and keyboards on it, and all this other stuff that’s all buried in there. But live, we strip ourselves down and it’s a fun challenge to find the heart of the song. For starters, we’re like, “Okay, we’re going to play it. Where does this song live? What are the most important things that need to be translated to get the point of the song across?" So that’s a fun moment of experimentation. And it’s always rough. You know, sometimes you play songs for the first couple nights and you’re like, “Eh…,” and then it kind of eases into itself. So that’s a lot of fun, that way of reinventing a song. And then also the way that our band is structured – I don’t necessarily play the songs the same way every night because there are so many parts on the record, I’m only kind of like hinting at all of them. I’ll be like, “Ah, tonight I’m going to do it this way.” Or, “Tonight I’m going to do it this way.” And it’s always within a box, but there’s a lot more room for live experimentation. Not that we rework the songs into completely new ones, but it’s not as boring. Some people say how they hate playing the same songs every night because it’s just the same thing over and over. And even though we play the same songs every night, it doesn’t feel as repetitious.

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The Swamps EP comes out Oct. 29 on Captured Tracks and can be preordered here. Catch Widowspeak on tour now with Pure Bathing Culture.