The music Casey Dienel makes as White Hinterland has always resisted categorization. The first record, 2008′s Phylactery Factory, was a jazz-folk-pop record, heavy on the Rhodes. It was followed two years later by Kairos, which traded the ukulele for heavy bass and minimalist looping.
Baby is the first White Hinterland album in four years and it continues on the same path as its predecessor, with time given to deep bass, synths, and echoed layered vocals, along with her familiar stripped-down piano setup. Dienel’s voice is stronger, and it’s especially in the a cappella moments — notably in opening track “Wait Until Dark” and the single “Baby” — that the growth of her singing shines. Baby documents the transformation from meekness to mastery both vocally and in her command of production.
As Dienel tells it, she’s now more at peace than ever after moving from Portland back to her hometown of Scituate, Massachusetts, a change that allowed her to write and record with minimal distractions and reconnect her to her roots. She returned to the home she grew up in and lives with her parents, who she considers best friends. “I live on the beach, so obviously it’s not as much of a bummer as it could be,” she explains. “We’re a small family, but really tight knit.”
That doesn’t mean Baby was without its difficulties. Dienel trashed three versions of the album before finally finding one that “clicked.” That she produced the record on her own gave her the freedom she needed to experiment and follow the kinds of impulses she might have been too self-conscious to attempt in front of another person.
“There are special golden moments when you’re alone in the studio,” she says. “You don’t have to feel self-conscious barking like a dog, or singing as if you’re at the bottom of a pit of awful despair.”
Katy Henriksen talked with Dienel about moving back home, learning to produce and the power of the human voice.
This is your first album since 2009. You really dedicate yourself to something to make it right instead of just releasing something new every year. What’s it like to have this album finally coming out, after all the work you put into it?
Surreal. Because for two years, I thought it was never going to come out. I was in denial that we were going to have this Baby. I’ve put out things in the past and have been meek about it but not wanting to brag, but I worked my ass off for this one. I really, really worked hard, and there’s a certain type of satisfaction that comes with that that I’d never felt before. I feel very confident and proud in saying, “Yeah, I did this, and I did it exactly the way I wanted.” I hope people like it, but I can’t control it. All I can control is how I feel about it, and I love it. It was definitely hard — it was the hardest and took the most to make of all my recordings.
There were three full versions of the album that just didn’t feel right somehow. I could have put out a record every year. It is not lost on me for one second how lucky I am that I get to do the thing I set out to do. When it comes time to pull the trigger and say, “This record is done,” I always want to make sure it’s something I’m really proud of. In the past, I cut corners. I wanted to feel like I wasn’t simply filling a quota.
So, how did you know the one that was going to be the album?
It’s a “click,” is how I describe it. There’s a click that needs to happen. And it always happens, especially as time goes on. I’ve been writing songs for 20 years, and at this point I’m happy to trust it. Ten years ago, I had so much anxiety. I’d think, “This is the last song I’ll ever write.” I’d go into the studio and think, “This is the last song I’ll ever record.” All that anxiety is so harmful to A) having fun, which is really important, and B) doing your job to make it sound good.
Very rarely do things come about by force. At one point, I was in Wisconsin mixing [an earlier version of the record] that I’d been working on for three years and it was as close to completion as it could get. I was with my friend Justin, and that’s when I stopped and said, “This isn’t good. It isn’t me. It doesn’t sound exuberant.” That was the thing. I just hadn’t captured myself, or what I’d set out to do with the album. And that’s when I decided to move back to my hometown.
I’d been studying production for about a year and wasn’t even trying to make a record at that point. I set up a studio and just wanted something to take my mind off feeling like I was a massive fuck-up, basically. I thought maybe if I just made a big racket for fun and got back to my natural environment, it’d help. I was in a really bad car accident right before the move — I had to give away most of my stuff. I’d been really depressed for three years going in and out of that.
Back home, I started from scratch and then, of course, it just showed up. It was really fast, too. That’s the crazy thing — once I let go of the idea of having to make something really great, all of a sudden something really great showed up. Typical. I came home and studied production [videos] on YouTube a lot. I was getting really great advice from other producers, and by the end of the summer I pretty much had Baby. I rewrote a lot of it. At one point, I was working from around 40 songs. It’s great, because now I know how to do all this stuff and I’ll never have to start from that point again. That’s the most exciting takeaway, because I went out in the wilderness and won’t have to do this again.
You’ve made a huge move from Portland back to Scituate. What’s it like to move from the city back to your small hometown?
I think Portland is the kind of city that’s a home to a lot of people who are running away from something. It has a distinct optimism and escapism embedded in its cultural DNA. In some ways that’s nice, because you can create anything there. You can be an obsessive about beer or chocolate or songwriting. Basically, the show Portlandia hits the nail on the head. It’s very accurate. I think for that type of specialization, it’s pretty unique. There also aren’t many jobs there and tons of qualified people. The cost of living there can be pretty low, though.
I found trying to juggle an outside job with doing music as a professional, not just as a hobby, is really difficult. I didn’t want to be a part-time barista playing in bands. For a lot of people, that’s not a big deal, but I’m kind of a monomaniac and not good at doing a lot of things at once. I’m better when I restrict my focus to two or three things, which for me is music, family and friends. The rest, I don’t care about. If my parents wanted to live in the desert, I’d probably live in the desert.
I’ve always loved Scituate. It’s definitely a townie town. Most people don’t leave, and there’s really good community. I just think indie music can be such bullshit, so it’s great walking down the street running into people who don’t care about that stuff. It keeps things in check. If I’m starting to stress out about tour or my record, it takes me out of that when I see people taking their kids to school, or taking grandma out for a day from the nursing home. It’s nice to be a part of that.
In Portland — I don’t know if it was the way my life was set up there…I mean, I don’t think it’s totally the city’s fault. It felt like there was this Neverland vibe that sometimes made me a little uncomfortable. I think for me living in utopia is not as interesting as trying to take a place that needs some work and doing what you can in some way. I don’t know if I want to look out and see people who see and think act and believe in all the same things I do. When I was younger, I really did want that. It’s refreshing to talk to someone who admits to not liking my music.
I want to go back to a term you’ve used yourself, “meek.” I’ve seen you grow as an artist and come into your own with your voice. You’ve completely unleashed it on this album. How were you able to do that?
When I was a kid, I wasn’t in any way introverted. As a teenager, I stuck out a lot. I was always the freak or geek in my school — I was a hybrid of the two. It wasn’t on purpose, but I wanted to disappear. You carry that with you. You think that you don’t, but then you notice the patterns you carry with you to feel a little smaller.
I’m not bossy, but I’m definitely particular, and I like to give people who work with me a very clear idea of what I want to accomplish. Basically, what happened was I hit the threshold — I couldn’t be meek or shy anymore. It was just getting in the way. Somehow, that came out musically.
On a lot of these songs, my voice is really expanding to fill the extremes of my dynamic range, and the main reason is that it feels really, really good to sing that way. Weirdly, the more you come out of your shell and stop pretending you’re something you’re not, more the doors open up to you.
This album is really diverse, but it’s also very cohesive. There are stripped-down moments of just you and piano, right up against these sound collages with a lot of beats. How did you fold all this together for Baby?
I took a lot of cues from other artists who have self-produced, like Prince or Kate Bush. When you self-produce, you don’t have anyone question why you want to do something a certain way, and I’ve never experienced that before. I’ve never been the only person in the room when the tape was running, or when it was being edited. That’s hugely freeing. I think for women this is rare and it’s really sad. I’d love to see more. It’s such a gift, and it’s not as hard as people think it is.
It was always intimidating to be the only girl coming into the studio, usually, and see a bank of gear in front of me and wonder what did what. I think if you’re in the minority, you’re less likely to raise your hand and ask a question because you don’t want to get called out for not knowing something, or be seen as an amateur. I’ve definitely felt that way. It’s been very humbling to go into a situation starting from scratch, but I know what I want, and I know what I want it to sound like, and I’ve had a lot of support from producers such as my best friend Alexis Gideon. I don’t think some of the crazy stuff on Baby could have happened if I’d had others around. I would have been too self-conscious.
There’s also something about femaleness, femininity. We’re definitely socialized to be pleasing and to please. There’s that part of me that’s a pathological people-pleaser that’s at odds with the alpha music lady in me. In some, ways men aren’t socialized that way: You make a bunch of noise, you don’t have to apologize, you show up late or messy, but that’s OK, it’s a guy thing. In my experience, women are so conscious of other people’s boundaries, it’s amazing how sensitive they are. That’s one reason I love working around women. We’re more apt to notice something like “Oh, she really needs a nap, I’m just going to get out of her hair right now.” Or, “Oh she seems really stressed out, maybe I’ll go help her because she’s having a tough day.” On the other side of the coin, we can be so accommodating that sometimes can hold us back, because we give too much. How much can you give away before you go crazy?
The thing that precipitated Baby was that I was giving away much more than I was taking for myself. Self-care to me, at that point, was equivalent to being selfish. Is it selfish of me to hide out and just take a bubble bath all day, or watch a crappy movie and not call anyone or not do dishes for someone today? Am I bad? I think that just may be my human condition.
Speaking of alpha music people, I know you love Nina Simone and Erykah Badu. What drew you to musicians like them?
The voice is what drew me to them, because the voice is my favorite instrument. I think it’s something underrated, sadly. When I was in music school, the way that people talked about singers was really disrespectful. I mean, think about how hard it is to use your body for that every single night? Nina Simone in particular has really come through for me in dark periods. It sounds like a voice calling from the darkness, telling you it’s going to be OK. Also, her Live at Montreux band is pretty much my dream band.
Why is the voice your favorite instrument? Why do you think it’s underrated?
I think it’s underrated because we can’t see all the things that go into it to make that sound come out. If you watch me play piano, or watch someone play bass, you can see the effort in front of you, and that’s really beautiful and part of why the instruments are so compelling.
With the voice, it’s all internalized. People take the voice for granted — and by people, I mean music scholars. The voice is the most direct conduit between two people. If you’re across room and I sing to you, I’m using this very human muscle, and you can also do it right back to me. Growing up playing piano, I’ve noticed there’s more of an observer/audience connection there.
Singing is like being an actress. You’re an interpreter. You’re carrying all the emotional information of the song. Whether you wrote the song or not, you’re doing a lot of heavy lifting. For every Cole Porter song, the way a singer can imbue it with a completely different personality or attack is — I mean, I think it’s relatively recently that we’ve wanted songs to be written by the same person who’s performing them. It really wasn’t until Bob Dylan or the Beatles that that became industry standard. Donny Hathaway didn’t write a lot of his songs, and I think he was one of the best singers in the whole world.
Growing up listening to a lot of R&B, soul, Motown, there was an amazing factory of people specializing in a product for the greater good — and I say this as someone who wants to do every aspect of a song myself. Personally, I would love to write for more singers. It’s fun to write for myself, but I’m working off a huge back catalog of things I’ve never put in the world, and I think there’s use for them with other people, people who could probably do things with them that I couldn’t.
I think that’s the most fascinating part of music — it’s so personalized. I’ve seen a few covers of my songs and I’m like, “Oh my god, I never would have taken it there,” and I’m always really impressed. You get lost in your own world, especially living where I do and working where I do and working the way I do. A lot of the smartest musicians I know are singers.
The last thing I want to do when I’m on stage is think about what I’m doing while I’m doing it. I want to just be in the moment. What I don’t like is when something becomes so math-y, it’s almost turgid. It’s very rare that I’ve listened to something described as “smart” and come away feeling really touched by it. There is no “right” way, and I don’t think my way is the best way, but I’m not really looking for that. I’m looking for a different set of fireworks. I just want to cry.