When I was trying to get singers who were not dudes to sing on things for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK early on and having bizarre, rotten luck, Steven (he of Tire Swing Co.) suggested I talk to Natalie Westfall. He also told me she was looking for someone to record some of her songs and he thought I might be the guy for the job. Turned out she was a fan of INAMORATA and the way it was recorded, so we were on the same page before we even knew we were reading the same book.
After Steven, Natalie was the first singer I was able to get to show up, and that was the beginning of my luck taking a very sharp turn into less crummy territory. She came in having memorized the words for the chunk of a song I asked her to sing lead on, to the point that looking at the words on paper threw her off a little, because she already had them in her head.
I’ve had some great people sing some beautiful things for me. But nothing like that has happened with anyone else.
Recording her album followed a similar process to recording the Tire Swing Co. albums with Steven. We’d get down her guitar (sometimes acoustic, sometimes electric) and vocal parts. Then I would go to work adding different things. The one exception was California, where I ended up playing all the instruments.
The only guests were singers and clappers. On Howler, Natalie, James O-L, Caleb Farrugia, and I all gathered around a single microphone and let loose with some group harmonizing and howling. Then we did it a few more times for a nice stereo spread. On Strange, Jo Meloche sings lead in Natalie’s stead, and Erin Armstrong sings backup. It makes for an unusual and interesting contrast. Jo’s got this jazzy, smoky quality to her voice. She’d be just as at home singing torch songs as she would singing idiosyncratic folk music. Erin is an opera singer.
You wouldn’t think those two voices would work together, but they do. And Travis is in there too for a hot minute during the instrumental break, clapping and cheering along with me and Natalie and Jo (his celebratory cheer is hilarious).
One of the great things about Natalie’s music is how deeply-felt and varied it is. These are songs for family members, for animals, and in one case for a younger version of herself. And her voice is beautifully her own. I think on Cold Hands, Warm Heart — one of the more uptempo tracks — she sounds a little like Neko Case. Aside from that, she doesn’t sound like anyone but herself. Harmonizing with her just feels good.
The one cover tune is Piney Wood Hills, which becomes sort of a country folk song, with banjo, melodica, glockenspiel, and lap steel blanketing Natalie’s plugged-in ukulele. I don’t think you could ask for a better closing track.
As for my own contributions, I feel like this is up there with INAMORATA in the pantheon of the best work I’ve done recording and contributing to someone else’s music. No real extended guitar solos this time, but I got to have a lot of fun doing a lot of different things, from the piano lines that weave in and out of a few songs like Howler and California to the electric guitar counter-melodies and leg slaps on Cold Hands, Warm Heart. I cut out some moments of us joking around but left in a bit at the end of Cold Hands where Natalie cracks up at my goofy reading of the song title, because it’s a great laugh and one of those human moments I’m fond of holding onto.
I’m really glad I got to be a part of capturing these songs and their beating hearts.