Pacific Northwest-based string band Kristen Grainger and True North recently released their new album Fear of Falling Stars, a collection that really builds on their tradition of emotive storytelling and off-the-beaten path observations that ring very true of modern life. With Kristen Grainger on lead and harmony vocals, as well as plenty of songwriting, Dan Wetzel on a variety of instruments including guitar and banjo, Martin Stevens on mandolin, fiddle, and more, and Josh Adkins on upright bass, the group has plenty of resources to build nuanced music, and their particular goal is to attune orchestration to vocals and lyrics rather than creating contrasting elements.
To attune those worlds, Dan Wetzel, whoâ€™s also a luthier and Graingerâ€™s husband, spends a lot of time teasing out translations between Graingerâ€™s piano-led songwriting and the instruments at the bandâ€™s disposal. The careful stages of development are clear in the outcome on new songs like â€œExtraordinary Grace,â€ which gently conveys grief over lost confidence in our country, and even relationship songs like â€œDonâ€™t Take Me Back,â€ which eliminate the typical protagonist/antagonist set up in break-up stories. Dan Wetzel, notably, contributed more of his own original compositions this time around and applied his methods to explicating his own inspirations. I spoke with Kristen Grainger about the bandâ€™s ethos of collaboration, how she sees her own songwriting, and why emotion is so key to both lyrics and music for this collaborative project.
Americana Highways: I understand that on Fear of Falling Stars thereâ€™s more shared songwriting between you and Dan, which is a development for you. Were there particular things on your mind during this period of songwriting?
Kristen Grainger: I wrote five of the songs, and Dan and I co-wrote one, then Dan wrote three, and we have one thatâ€™s a cover. For my part, some of the things that came out of the pandemic are in my songs, reflections on what happens when I canâ€™t do whatâ€™s important to me. Whatâ€™s my contribution or role in this world will I have? What will my legacy be?
[Laughs] Iâ€™m always the one whoâ€™s kind of a downer at a part, the one thinking about the hard things. I overanalyze everything, and though I wouldnâ€™t say thatâ€™s true of our bandmates, Martin and Josh, but they are super-musical and play just about any instrument, as well as being great singers. I certainly wouldnâ€™t want to make them feel like Iâ€™m a downer, but I do give them a different perspective on the world, and they keep coming back. Iâ€™m really honored by that.
AH: Iâ€™m sure that diversity in ways of thinking and personality, and even outlook, is a benefit in a group of people.
KG: I think thatâ€™s true and is reflected on the album. The way that they engage with my songwriting, and I think with Danâ€™s, too, is that they think deeply about the songs and what Iâ€™m trying to say. They arenâ€™t going to put a jolly mandolin part on â€œDonâ€™t Take Me Back.â€ Likewise, what Dan brings is contributing and elevating the material. They want to do everything they can, instrumentally, to convey that story.
AH: When you gather together to work out orchestration, how do you record those choices for performances and studio work? Do you create demos or just rely on memory?
KG: Actually, we do both. We try to work out the parts, or the arrangement and try to play it through. Then we go back to our respective practice situations and work on it. Then we come back with new parts. Weâ€™ll do a voice memo recording of the new pieces until its ready so we can refresh our memories. We have all these little terms that we use, too, to communicate. Martin and Josh are really creative during that stage, and Dan is really amazing in talking to them, as an instrumentalist, about the trajectory of a song.
On â€œExtraordinary Grace,â€ a that sounds like a brokenhearted love song, but is really about me being brokenhearted with my country, Martinâ€™s mandolin solo in that is deliberately beautiful, sad, and spare. Sometimes mandolin players like to go crazy, but he really does this almost weeping thing with the mandolin. We talked a lot about the harmonies on arranging that song. There is room for three part harmonies throughout, but we wanted to deliberate build that up to be effective in conveying the mood of the song.
AH: I noticed the mandolin solo that youâ€™re talking about and I feel like it really gave a lot of space to the emotion of the song.
KG: I agree. Itâ€™s not traditional bluegrass in any sense of the word, since we really arenâ€™t traditional bluegrass, but his interpretation there was just making us say in the studio, â€œOh my God! Thatâ€™s so good!â€
AH: I think allowing room like that suggests that the emotion goes beyond the ability of words to convey. It gives the song even greater power.
KG: Thank you. Bluegrass is fairly famous for having these rather gritty stories set around these bouncy and jolly music parts. It sounds really upbeat. But maybe thereâ€™s something really scary about these songs. Thatâ€™s one of the ways in which we depart traditional bluegrass because we try to use everything in our power, from the words, to the way that the song is sung, the harmonies, the layering of instruments, and the vibe of the song. Everything is absolutely telling that story.
AH: Thatâ€™s something I noticed about the album as a whole. That contrast that can exist between the sound and the lyrics is actually really popular across the spectrum of genres right now as younger artists seem to discover it as a possibility. But I noticed that your instrumentation has a sensitivity to it thatâ€™s keyed into the story.
KG: Frankly, I never know whatâ€™s popular! [Laughs] If you look at â€œAcross the Mountains,â€ on the album, the song that Dan and I co-wrote, that has a more traditional, old-timey, upbeat sound, but itâ€™s more about running away. Itâ€™s a revenge and run story! So it gets a swift tempo.
AH: Are you always writing and then just select out of that material for albums?
KG: I got a late start in songwriting and now I canâ€™t really stop them from coming. With my songwriting, though, itâ€™s a little like making a pie crust. If you work it too hard, it becomes grey and inedible. The secret is not to handle it too much. So if I start working on something, and itâ€™s just not coming together, I put it aside and then come back to it. Sometimes Iâ€™ll pilfer it for parts! Right now, Iâ€™m working on two new songs and finished one a couple of days ago. I had a song that was written two days after the album recording was done. I thought, â€œDang it!â€ Iâ€™m always writing stuff.
Now Dan has always been a songwriter, but this is the first album that heâ€™s contributed tracks to where he wrote specifically for the album. I think thatâ€™s mostly because heâ€™s been really focused on bringing my songs to life and helping Martin and Josh arrange them. He said that his goal, early on, was that if someone heard one of our albums, they would think that I was playing my own guitar because it was so in line with my singing. Itâ€™s an incredibly wonderful thing that he does. But this time he did contribute three songs and he focused on making space and time to finish them. That was a great thing for us.
AH: That ties into what we were discussing about creating that relationship between the music and the lyrics as you all prefer to do.
KG: Itâ€™s a total gift to me, really, because I am a piano player. I write on the piano. Iâ€™ve written a couple songs with a string approach, writing with a ukulele, but I donâ€™t necessarily perform them on a ukulele. But Dan also builds guitars and built four of the instruments on the album. Theyâ€™ve all got this signature Dan Wetzel sound.
AH: I have to ask: If Dan builds a new instrument and brings it into your band situation, is having a new instrument a good or bad thing? Does it need time to be seasoned by playing?
KG: Itâ€™s kind of both. They do need time to acclimate. He ends up adjusting them along the way, too. He has a wonderful guitar based on an old Gibson that heâ€™s taken the neck off a couple of times and adjusted to make it sound exactly the way he wants it to sound. I donâ€™t know that heâ€™s ever brought in a brand-new instrument, but he has brought the mandola, the resonator guitar, the guitar, and a mountain banjo on this album. Itâ€™s called a mountain banjo because it has a wood ring instead of a metal ring, so it doesnâ€™t have that jangly sound. You hear that on â€œAcross the Mountainsâ€ and on â€œPent Up.â€ He built them but they are all a few years old, so he didnâ€™t bring them into the studio brand-new.
AH: Do you and Dan have totally different approaches to songwriting?
KG: His approach a lot of times has to do with a particular riff or hook that heâ€™s discovered, but not always. Neither of us has a specific way of doing things. For me, I always write the lyrics and melody at the same time. For me, the melody is key in conveying the story. I donâ€™t want to just add an extra word to make a line work, but I want the notes to be chosen for the words. They come across and bring the story across. The melody reflects that. Thatâ€™s just my way and what I try to do. When I bring a song to Dan or the band more widely, itâ€™ll be written on the piano and Iâ€™ll talk about the vibe that I have in mind and the progression. Iâ€™ll give a sense of it on the piano, and I can see the cogs turning in Danâ€™s mind about how to translate it onto the guitar.
For that first track, â€œDonâ€™t Take Me Back,â€ thatâ€™s one of the ones where we had a great arrangement that took us a while to get there with guitar and mandolin. It made a big, fat, acoustic, but almost orchestral sound. Itâ€™s a beautiful sound that signals the seriousness of the story. When I was playing it on the piano, and was telling the guys, it was very hard to convey the sound. I said that it couldnâ€™t just be strummy, but had to be bigger. Those are the deep notes on the piano that come out. Dan came up with the open tuning on the guitar and the octave on top of it on the mandolin, which made it even more rounded sounding, like a bell.
AH: A bell is exactly right. I was thinking about that song before and I noticed a kind of sub-structure to it, that like you said, is incredibly solid. The lyrics are really shaped around that. I was thinking that if it was a rock song, there would be a hell of a lot of bass and drums in that song. But you all donâ€™t do that, so what youâ€™ve done is create this textured core thatâ€™s able to give that deep feeling.
KG: Thank you for noticing these things! Most people just listen to the main melody and vocal, but we put a lot of time into making these other things comes across.
AH: Something that may be obvious, but Iâ€™ll mention about that song is that when there are relationship songs where thereâ€™s a guilty party, itâ€™s usually the guy who is guilty in some way. Then hereâ€™s usually a female perspective, shaking off the dust from that relationship. The actual lyrics of this song are ambiguous, so it doesnâ€™t necessarily have to be gendered, and the speaker is the guilty party. Or at least the one who feels that way. Thatâ€™s all unusual, so I enjoyed those elements.
KG: It is when someone is thinking, â€œWeâ€™ve hit rock bottom. We canâ€™t sink any lower than this.â€ But the other person is saying, â€œOh, no, we havenâ€™t. Thereâ€™s worse things to come. If you have any self-respect, you are not going to open this door.â€ [Laughs]
AH: Talking about the less simplistic aspects of relationships in songs is also rare. Those are things taken from real experiences of life. But itâ€™s hard to contain so much in a song, so the nuance really stands out.
KG: The part Iâ€™m proudest of in that song is â€œTime will surely show, The Devil that you know, is never betterâ€¦â€ The double entendre is there, as if â€œBetter the devil you know than the devil that you donâ€™t know.â€ Meaning, there could be someone else out there for you, but they could be worse for you. You donâ€™t know. But also, the devil that you know is in rare form, theyâ€™ve never been better. [Laughs]
AH: That really highlights how hard the decision is in that relationship. In a broader sense, I think that song testifies to brokenness in relationships because it admits a lot.
KG: Thatâ€™s right. And thereâ€™s codependence. Itâ€™s toxic. We need to be the saint and the other person the sinner, or vice-versa, in order for this to continue working.
AH: The song â€œPent Upâ€ is one of Danâ€™s compositions. It sounds spontaneous, but on the other hand, it sounds so considered. Was it written before the studio?
KG: This was a Dan Wetzel brainchild. He wrote it in 5/4 time. He was thinking of thinking of this one progression he really liked, the idea of it. Itâ€™s kind of hard to play and itâ€™s outside Bluegrass parameters. It has this great entropy to it, but you can see and hear the structure. It feels extemporaneous, or like one jam after another, but there was a lot of thought about who did what where. Dan was playing guitar and banjo, and Martin was playing mandolin. Josh was on bass. Josh was saying in the studio, â€œYou know what, the Mission Impossible theme is in 5/4 time also!â€ So, Martin kind of brings that in as a wink to Josh in his solo, too.
Thanks very much for chatting with us, Kristen Grainger. Find more details on the bandâ€™s website here: https://www.truenorthband.com/
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Kristen Grainger & True Northâ€™s â€œGhost Tattooâ€ is Wonderfully Performed