America is having an identity crisis. As the talking heads on national news programs remind us daily: we’re in the midst of a pandemic that is calling into question the very foundation of our state. Releasing new music during this time (especially music that had been written pre-Corona) seems like a fool’s errand, but the new single from The North Country, “Starting Over,” proves that some songs may be predetermined for the moment at hand.
“Well if you don’t make a move / Everything stays the same / Nostalgia is a crutch / Don’t be afraid to make a change,” bandleader Andrew Grossman sings, his voice carefully mingling with bandmates Laurel Halsey and Margot MacDonald, gently encouraging the listener to expand their point of view. The D.C. band’s lineup has changed over the years, but currently includes Grossman, Halsey, and MacDonald, along with Austin Blanton (bass), Jon Harmon (guitar), and Kirk Kubicek (drums). The project is largely Grossman’s brainchild; the D.C. native developed an interest in music back in high school, after being gifted with a guitar at his bar mitzvah.
Chatting via Skype with Grossman, I wanted to dig deep into the religious imagery I’d heard on their albums and really understand what drives the existential nature of the band’s work. He admitted that initially his songwriting slanted toward the playful music he was drawn to in his childhood, like They Might Be Giants; it wasn’t until college that he began to explore the more heady, thought-provoking music The North Country would be known for.
“There’s an old Miles Davis quote: ‘It took me a while to learn how to play like myself,'” Grossman says. “It took a while for me to kind of figure out what The North Country was supposed to be. You listen back, there’s hints along the way of where it was heading. I think it’s [gotten] there within the last two years.” That evolution comes full-circle on forthcoming LP America and Afterwards (out June 26th), though unfortunately the SXSW appearances and tour they’d planned to promote it had to be cancelled in light of the pandemic.
The band’s rotating lineup of musicians doesn’t reflect an egocentric lead singer or volatile romantic interludes between band members (Grossman is happily married and lives with his wife, a dog, and a cat). Instead, Grossman’s changing musical style and evolving subject matter is mirrored in who he worked with in the project and when. Listening to the band’s evolution is, in many ways, listening to Grossman explore a variety of styles and musical motifs: bluegrass, Americana, psychedelia, electronic. “The synth thing is definitely a more recent development. The guitar, I had mined it for most of what I was gonna find in it. I had found it. A friend kinda turned me onto synths. There was a whole other way of approaching music, thinking about music, and it was unmined,” he says.
On the band’s Facebook page, Grossman has been exploring electronic work through live solo shows (even covering Bach’s Prelude in C from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 on a synthesizer). In regards to sound, synthesizers initially proved difficult to manipulate; Grossman’s wife was mildly skeptical at his baby synth steps, wondering if the hours of “exploration” would eventually turn into music she could listen to. He said it didn’t take long, however, for him to begin incorporating these new elements into his work. His explorations have always been the framework for The North Country songs; Grossman jams out, exploring sounds on guitar and synth alike, keeping an ear out for a “spark” that will eventually lay the foundation for lyrics.
When I asked him if this time of turmoil has been one of contemplation or creation, Grossman said he spent one week binging on Netflix, then he got to work. “Starting Over” was a song the band had already been working on, performing it live at shows last year. It was a piece they were saving for their next album, but with COVID-19 derailing their tour, it seemed like the perfect moment and the perfect song to work on together at home. “The day after we cancelled, we got on a Zoom call with everyone,” Grossman remembers. “We’re like: What do we do? We can’t tour, we can’t see each other, but we don’t want to do nothing.” Grossman described the surreal aspect of months of planning and buildup to SXSW, only to cancel just a two days before they were set to leave: “It was like driving in a car going at like 60 miles an hour, and then all of a sudden I’m standing still.”
The video is a visual representation of feeling stuck. Little boxes containing pieces of a band. Each performer recorded their part solo, then the individual videos were stitched together to make a whole. “Starting Over” is a pleasant, gentle reminder we all need: that no matter how trapped we feel, the way out is always through.
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