Suz Slezak may be best known as an integral part of the indie-rock-folk band David Wax Museum with her husband David Wax, but with the solo release next month of Watching the Nighttime Come, the singer and fiddler steps out into a new role, that of gentle lullaby artist.
Watching the Nighttime Come successfully balances many challenges with lullaby albums -- sonically interesting without being distracting, making old songs sound new (and vice versa). Slezak, who's handling preorders for the album via PledgeMusic, chatted via e-mail about her musical upbringing, creating an integrated musical and family life as a musician, and all you really need to have when touring with a baby.
Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?
Suz Slezak: It's hard to say what my first musical memories are since music has been so integrated into my life since such an early age. Here are a few: demanding piano lessons at age three when I found out my brother was going to start taking them; listening to my favorite record, "Seven Little Rabbits," on the record player; playing the piano with a pacifier in my mouth; singing rounds in the car with my whole family; hearing fiddles and banjos through the walls of a tent while camping out at an annual old time festival down the road from my house in Central Virginia.
What made you want to make music for a living?
Honestly I was well into my twenties before I thought making music for a living was a real possibility. I knew I wanted a life that was interconnected -- I wanted my kids and my partner and my work to all be intertwined. I also wanted a creative job that included travel and community. So I feel very lucky that through playing music, all those things have become a reality.
Your new album grew out of a collection of lullabies you'd recorded for friends who were having babies -- what were some of the songs on those handmade CDs and how did you record those?
That first collection was made in one evening in a tiny studio in Somerville, Massachusetts. I recorded everything myself: the vocals, the fiddle, the harmonies, the fiddle harmonies, and a simple guitar part too. Some of the songs included "Tender Shepherd," a favorite childhood round; "Ubi Caritas," a chant from the ecumenical community in France called Taize where we visited as kids; some of my favorite fiddle waltzes; and "Say Darlin' Say," a traditional song recorded with my first old time band, Mill Pond Nine.
Besides recording it in a studio, how did writing and recording Watching the Nighttime Come differ from those early lo-fi recordings?
The main difference is that this new record was really a collaboration between myself and two amazing producers, Josh Kaufman and Nate Martinez. The first recordings were really just me, my fiddle, my guitar and an engineer pressing play. Watching the Nighttime Come has textured electric guitar and synth sounds, ambiance from a simple percussion set up, and playful woodwinds and harmonica. It's got David's voice in there plus gorgeous harmony vocals by Lauren Balthrop. And half of these songs are written by me, so it's exciting to have them come alive.
How did becoming a mother yourself affect the recording?
Oh gosh. Well, being pregnant was one of the reasons I finally hunkered down and made this happen. I knew my time would become less my own once the baby was born, so there was a pressure of getting it done before she arrived. However, after the first session in the studio when I was six months pregnant, we realized we were getting into a bigger project than we'd originally thought and knew we needed more time to work. So when our daughter was just a few months old we traveled by train back to Brooklyn and, between naps and nursing breaks, finished the record. I think becoming a mother also puts a new spin on the significance of making music, especially recordings. I love that my daughter and maybe even her children and grandchildren will be able to listen to them one day and imagine me singing to them -- which I am!
Your PledgeMusic video shows you giving a video tour of the David Wax Museum's touring van. Did you pick up pointers from touring with a child before starting the fall 2014 tour? What did you learn while on the tour?
We are so lucky to know a small but growing posse of touring moms. The person we owe a great deal to, however, is Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She has been an inspiration to me for several years, not only traveling with two kids, but even using cloth diapers on the road! She taught us that you really only need two things: diapers and the carrier. The rest you can do without. Coincidentally, Rhiannon is releasing her own solo album (with the renowned producer T Bone Burnett) on the same day (February 10).
Anais Mitchell is another touring mom who advised me before Calliope was born and reminded me how flexible little ones actually are. And I'll never forget an article I read about Ani DiFranco who said touring was actually easier in many ways than being at home since you have a whole host of helping hands when you're on the road. And I've found that same thing to be true. Not only does the baby nap well in the car, but there are plenty of loving arms to hold and entertain her any time of the day or night. We call the band members her Runcles (Road Uncles) and they've been a big part of her life.
And of course we couldn't do this without the amazing help of my dad who retired last year and comes on most of our tours to watch the baby. He's named himself Nanno (a male nanny) and puts up with smelly green rooms, late nights, and long, long drives for the good of the family band.
What's your favorite song (or two or three favorite songs) to sing to your daughter?
You know, I end up humming to her more often than actually singing, which means I'm making up new tunes each night. But one of my favorite songs is "Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby" that Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris made famous in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. It's got such a great soothing, rocking rhythm to it. The words are a little sad though, so I've been making up my own more baby-friendly lyrics.
What's next for you?
Well, my main project, David Wax Museum, is putting out a new album later in 2015, so we're gearing up for another couple years of touring with that record. So that's the realistic next step. But we're often fantasizing about ways to spend more time in L.A. and Mexico. And I'm always trying to figure out how to make more fiber art. But for now, I'm looking forward to my "Sweet Love and Lullabies" tour to release Watching the Nighttime Come. We'll be playing shows in New York, Boston and Northampton on Valentine's Day weekend.
Photo credits: Jo Chattman