By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of SoftSpot
The Brooklyn-based indie-rock foursome SoftSpot isn’t afraid of intimacy–their sound unabashedly invites you right into their hearts; their souls; their namesake.
Lifetime friends and founding members Sarah Kinlaw and Bryan W. Keller began the project in 2009, and were later joined by friends Blaze Bateh and, most recently, Jonathan Campolo. At once deliberate and intuitive, SoftSpot’s melodies methodically deconstruct rock into its most basal elements, then build them back together into a nearly unrecognizable new. The process naturally creates a sort of tidal ebb and flow, that ends up drawing you deeper and deeper into an atmospheric ocean. Their last album, MASS, explores love, blues, and pick up lines with layers of ambient riffs and echoing siren vocals. With the edition of Campolo, their next release promises to be even richer.
BTR caught up with Kinlaw and Keller to chat about incorporating movement into music, and recording in closets.
Let’s start with your background as musicians…
Sarah Kinlaw: I grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, with Bryan, and I started out singing in a lot of choirs and taking voice lessons for choral and classical music, mostly working on film and musical theater. Bryan and I met in kindergarten when we were five, we’re a friendship based around music.
Brian W. Keller: Yeah, similar story–I grew up in North Carolina but was never really too much involved in classical music as much as I was playing with bands since middle school. We’ve been pretty much around each other our whole lives and had a really strong musical tie, so when we started making music together it just made a lot of sense.
Tell me about the evolution from your earlier projects to you r most recent release, MASS.
BK: Well this album in particular is different because it was the first one we made as a three-piece band. In comparison to the other two releases we have done, we recorded MASS in a more focused amount of time and in a specific location, whereas Enso and Nous were recorded over longer periods of time from home in Brooklyn. So those specific differences make it… a little bit more developed I guess.
What would you say are your major influences?
BK: Anything that has a sense of pure, honest purpose behind it conveying like a non-vapid, visceral feeling. A lot of the music I listen to even just in high school, when I was feeling things really intensely, still kind of informs me, along with a lot of poetry and anything with a great story line. I like things that have to do with interpersonal relationships with people and just being a human and dealing with time passing and relationships changing. It’s really a wide range of stuff.
SK: I’d say our influences span farther than just other bands. We both read a lot of poetry, like right now I’ve been reading a lot of Anne Sexton, and I’ve been really intrigued by and participating in a lot of movement and dance based projects. Really into work by Tazu Ono and Meredith Monk, Chris Cunningham and often we’ll go to the symphony or we’ll go see sacred choral music, we try to do a lot of that together and see as much classically-oriented music as we can afford–we were all speaking earlier about the city in general and taking in performances. All of our friends are so varied and often well thought-out and well put together, so a lot of influence comes from that as well.
Can you expand on that intersection between dance, movement, and sound?
SK: Sure yeah. I think I can speak for the band when I say that we’re all really visual in the way that we approach music making. Often times I think of movement as just another aspect to storytelling, which is also the way I think of making music. Especially for me in terms of performance, recently I’ve been experimenting with creating movement and dance into our set. That’s something that’s just now starting to surface for people who are coming to our shows, but it’s been a long time coming, I think.
BK: I think it’s just important to take in different forms of art than the specific type of art that you’re trying to create, because it lends a different type of perspective on the creation process and you can find really interesting things that you like, whether that’s like going to a gallery show or a regional show, and it just helps you hone in on what you want to do with your craft.
SK: Yeah and in terms of emoting, which is–I think at the end of the day SopftSpot is an emotive project–utilizing different tools and different ways to express ways of thinking or feeling is very useful and should often times be combined within the same medium.
Album artwork for MASS.
What was the recording process like for MASS?
BK: That’s always really fun because it’s always in the family. Our buddy Collin who used to live at our house, where we practiced, recorded it for us. We recorded it in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. My grandparents have this house on top of this place called Frozen Hill Ridge. We were thinking about going away to record because we’ve always done it sprawled out and at home, but we wanted to focus. So we tracked all the drums in New York because Blaze couldn’t get away, and then me and Sarah and Collin all went and posted up in this house for eight days and just did everything there. It was a really nice family affair.
Do those close quarters and working so hard ever become trying? Or is it a positive experience?
SK: Oh no, super positive. We’re all used to spending long days together so if anything it’s just… us.
BK: It was also really comfortable with the scenery, which is really beautiful… as opposed to where we live.
SK: Yeah we gave ourselves more than enough time too, I think. If we ever started feeling overwhelmed just by being inside for too long we would take a walk or go have a glass of wine or go to the farmer’s market. There was all sorts of stuff to do so even just walking down the mountain and walking back up you’d feel amazing and ready to go again.
You guys seem very composed and positive–was it always like that?
SK: I know for sure that we work on the relationships within our band just as much as we do other ones. It’s really important to us to keep communication alive and to figure out how to communicate as best we can as individuals. And no it hasn’t always been this way. Like anything else, you have to work on what you do, work on your project. I’ve calmed down quite a bit over the past few years. We started touring so early on… really the project was developed just as a means to travel and not go broke, so we started touring way, way, way before we should have. Which is fine! I have no regrets, but I think that I wasn’t mentally equipped to handle touring and setting up shows and booking all of these different cities at that time, and I was definitely a little bit more stressed out than I should have been. So I have come leaps and bounds in my relaxation percentage.
BK: Also if you really care about something you’re not going to perpetuate some sort of negative process, you’re gonna find a way to make it work.
Bryan what was your experience of touring as a new, young band?
BK: For me it was really fun! I think one of the things we had to work on was evening out the workload of scheduling shows and booking everything because when we started off it was just Sarah taking the reigns on that and it created a bit of imbalance. So, ya know, I was just like along for the ride and it was pretty chill! But eventually I realized I really care about this and should probably be working a little harder in certain areas. We had really awesome times, we made great friends, and it was really fun and made me realize what I need to do to make what I care about happen.
And what’s your writing process like?
SK: We all spend a lot of time writing and creating as individuals and we generate a fair amount of material just as people and there are certain things that we will write and start and create that we feel like is appropriate for the band and when that happens, we work it as best as we can individually and then present it to the group, and then it just goes from there.
BK: There’s variety of ways–there’s no way to concisely answer what you asked because there’s no set process for like lyrics or melody. If somebody has something to contribute then we can usually work it as a band. As far as the actual baby ideas that end up turning into songs come from many different variants.
SK: Generally though, the bulk of the songs for previous work, and also the record we’re working on currently, is mostly ideas from Bryan and I. But Blaze and John both contribute. We were discussing earlier how funny it is that we all sort of send cell phone recordings amongst each other. We might get an email from John one day where he’s singing out a baseline or he’s, ya know, singing a drum beat and doing weird pop wrists over top of it and we’ll pull that out as we start practicing.
Let’s talk about that new record!
SK: YEAH!!! YES!!! We’re working on it! I’m really excited, we’re organizing our material and recording it in the basement of my home in Brooklyn in Bushwhick where we practice. Bryan is recording it for us. We’re recording vocals in a closet filled with sweaters and it sounds good! We’re all feeling super positive and excited about it and already daydreaming visuals and video accompaniments.
BK: We have about six songs that are nearly finished and six incomplete, and we’re always working with a lot of like segue, atmospherical pieces for tying together and continuity’s sake. So we’re gonna kind of cap it at that and see what we’re vibe-ing on then. It’s also something we recorded as a four-piece, which is very excellent, because our band has changed so much since adding John. We added him because we wanted to fill out the space for when we perform live and John has always been really close to us, he’s done our artwork in the past. We’re getting along, we have another recording session soon and we’re gonna have everything hopefully by the new year.
So how come sweaters in a closet, to deaden the reverb?
BK: Yeah that’s kind of the idea…
SK: [laughs] Because it smells so good!
BK: We are using a really really nice microphone and that was a space that we could place it in that was really really sound proof because of all the stuff in it. It sounded like a vocal booth, which was great.
SK: I have to say as the individual that’s stuck inside the closet most of the time… that space has quite a way of making you deal with your thoughts and really stay focused and true to your feelings your words you melodies. There’s certainly nothing else going on in there.
I feel like that could be a really useful pre-performance technique for actors and musicians – just go in a closet!
Any upcoming shows?
BK: Yeah we have one in early November at the Silent Barn in New York. And we’re also doing a performance at a film festival in North Carolina in the middle of the month. Sarah, being a director, has made the past couple music videos for us for MASS, we have one for a song called “Pick Up Lines” and one for a song called “Back Room Blues”, and both those videos they got accepted to a film festival there. So we’re gonna do a couple songs and sort of a weird theatrical piece as a duo that we’ve been working on.
SK: It’s gonna be really great I’m gonna dress like and alien and dance and sing! It’s gonna be so fun, I can’t wait!!