PREMIERE: “Starting Over” Sees DC’s The North Country Doing Just That

Photo Credit: Mauricio Castro

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.

Follow The North Country on Facebook for ongoing updates.

TRACK PREMIERE: Sara Curtin “Or So It Seemed”

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Photo by Amanda Reynolds (Plume Photography)

Sara Curtin’s music is pretty darn dreamy. Her voice creates a tapestry of delicate sound. Half of Washington D.C.’s The Sweater Set, Curtin’s solo effort takes that precious quality and gives it a little edge.

“Or So It Seemed,” the title track off her new EP, is darker than her usual fare. Curtin said she channeled her “inner Jack White” while writing the track, which explores “the mind’s tug-of-war as it comes to grips with understanding perceived memory vs. reality.” “Oh what a waste of time, to hold on to what used to be mine,” Sara sings, reflecting on her own artist’s journey. It’s a song for a subway ride turned hour-long reflection; a song for creative people who doubt the road that got them to where they are.

We sat down with Sara at talked about her writing process, the D.C. music scene, and her past life as a fishmonger.

AF: Tell us a little bit about growing up in D.C. Did you live in the suburbs or the city?

SC: I grew up in the city, not too far from where I live now. I left D.C. to go to college (University of Michigan in Ann Arbor) and then lived in Brooklyn for four years. I’ve been back in DC for about six years now.

AF: What is the vibe of D.C.? Does it have that NYC swagger or is it more laid back?

SC: D.C. definitely has it’s own vibe. It’s a smaller city, so it is a bit slower paced, but there’s a lot going on here. The music and art scene is really exploding. There’s a lot of political energy here, too.

AF: Your mother is a musician, as is your brother. Are you three in simpatico when it comes to music? Or do your tastes differ?

SC: We do have different taste, but my brother and I overlap and we share a lot of musical sensibility, too. We both do production work and often discuss arrangement choices. He made a cameo on this new album, actually! He played theremin on the last song “Run If You’re Ready”. My mom was my first teacher. She taught me how to sing in harmony and how to play the guitar.

AF: Many people may know you as a half of the duo The Sweater Set. How would you define the differences between The Sweater Set and your solo efforts?

SC: For me, making solo albums apart from The Sweater Set is about exploring the possibilities of different sounds. The Sweater Set has been predominantly acoustic and this solo project is driven predominantly by electric guitar. I also arranged these songs with the full band including bass (Ryan Walker), drums (Brendan Polmer), and lead guitar (Olivia Mancini). Maureen Andary, who is my partner in The Sweater Set, is also singing on this album!

Like I mentioned before, I also do production work, so one of the most exciting parts of making recordings for me is always sitting down at my computer, with my voice and instruments and exploring different arrangements. That’s a very personal process and I love taking the time to develop the songs in this way.

AF: Tell us about “Or So It Seemed.” It’s the title track off your new album, and has a very different feel to it than a lot of your earlier work. The opening notes have an aggressiveness to them that I really enjoyed.

SC: Thank you so much! That makes me so happy. “Or So It Seemed” was a hard song for me to write. It began as a tender, pretty song on acoustic guitar with this delicate fingerpicking pattern in 4/4 time. The words were the same and when I was finished writing it, it just felt like something was wrong. The darkness of the lyrics was not coming across. The music was boring and it almost felt dishonest. That’s when I sat down with my electric guitar. I turned my amp up really loud and thought to myself, “What would Jack White do?” I think he’s great and I wanted to make something that felt raw. That’s when I started playing the new guitar riff – almost like a bass line. The time signature is all wacky – my band and I have disagreements on how we count it, actually – and it’s a little bit unpredictable. It felt perfect for the lyrics. Thematically, the song is about reality vs. perception; what percentage of our remembered experiences actually happened the way we remember them? The repetitive and slightly jarring rhythm of the new guitar riff stuck with me as a good representation of what it’s like to feel like you think you know what’s going on one minute, and then be a bit disoriented the next when reality suddenly presents itself in a new light.

AF: Do you normally start with the lyrics? Are you someone who begins a song with a concept, or a line?

SC: Usually, when I sit down to write, the music and lyrics come out together. Then I continue to edit, but normally the skeleton of the song stays the same. This one was different and it took me a little bit longer to land the plane. I’m glad that I threw the first draft away, though.

AF: You launched your own record label, Local Woman Records. You’ve said you wanted to share your experience and “help other artists lighten their load so that a little more of their day can be dedicated to creating and playing.” How is the venture going so far?

SC: I feel really great about LWR’s first release – “Hi From Pillows” by Kaeley Pruitt-Hamm! We were able to work really closely with this release and combine efforts in a way that I’ve never done before. I look forward to working with other artists in the near future! This business is so much about building relationships and surrounding yourself with good people, so I hope I can continue to be that support for others.

AF: You’ve spoken a bit about how supportive the D.C. music scene is. Who are some local D.C. musicians that we should keep an ear out for?

SC: Oh man, there are so many active bands and artists right now! Just this past weekend Black Alley won the first annual Battle of the Bands hosted at Paisley Park in Minnesota. Good friends of mine The North Country are also about to release a new album this fall and I’m really excited for that.

AF: I read that you were once a fishmonger in Brooklyn. Can you give us some details on that?

SC: So, I was a fishmonger in Brooklyn for three years and it was my favorite job. I worked for Blue Moon Fish which is a husband and wife run operation. I worked for them at their market in Grand Army Plaza on Saturday mornings. They actually just released an incredible cook book with beautiful photos and stories!

There’s a line in “Or So It Seemed” that was inspired by my time as a fishmonger: “Made a million dollars, or so it seemed. Serving lines, wiping counters. Make ends meet.” At that time in my early twenties I was living in New York, working the farmer’s market and at a pizza restaurant (both are near to my heart). I felt rich and full. It was wonderful and it was a struggle.

AF: Sounds very Just Kids like to me.

SC: Loved that book! I was living in NY when it came out and I devoured it.

AF: I once bought that book full price and harassed my best friend into meeting me in Union Square to give her that book. Because she was struggling with being an artist and I knew she needed it. One of those “artist to artist, you need this” moments.

SC: I probably would have stood on the corner shouting passages from that book.

AF: You have a few other music projects currently in the works. Can you give us the down low?

SC: Right now I’m performing with this solo project (we go by Sara Curtin Five when we play out), The Sweater Set, and I play with Justin Jones (guitar and vocals in his band), as well as sing with The Cowards Choir which is a folk seven-piece with lots of harmonies and a string section. My lead guitarist Olivia Mancini also has her own badass band and I occasionally jump in with them, as well. Like I said, D.C. has a lot going on! There are local shows pretty much every night of the week here!

AF: Other than shouting Patti Smith’s poetry, what advice would you give a young fishmonger looking to make music?

SC: Did you see the new St. Vincent promo videos?? She says the advice she would give to young musicians is “Go into the film industry.” I’d still like to encourage people to make music, of course. It’s been ten years since I graduated from college and started really performing and recording original music. This will be my third solo album (with four others by The Sweater Set). I guess the advice I could give is just to be patient. Finding your sound and getting to know yourself takes time, it takes mistakes, and I’m still figuring it out. Sorry if that sounds trite. I often need the reminder to be patient.

Sara’s new album Or So It Seemed will be released October 6, 2017 on her own Local Woman Records. Want to see Sara live? Check out her tour dates below!

​Sept 29 – RICHMOND, VA. Hardywood Brewery
w/ Anousheh & Sammi Lanzetta. 6:30 pm.
Sept 30 – BALTIMORE, MD. Holy Underground
w/ Heroine. 8:00 pm. $5-$10 donation.
2021 Maryland Ave. Baltimore, MD.
Oct 6 – BROOKLYN, NY. C’mon Everybody
w/ Adios Ghost & Ruby Rae. 8pm. $10
Oct 21 – ANN ARBOR, MI. Canterbury House
Solo Show w/ Zach Lupetin (of the Dustbowl Revival)
Oct 26 – WASHINGTON, DC. Black Cat
w/ PNMA & more tba. Tix on sale NOW.
Nov 6 – LOS ANGELES, CA. Hotel Cafe
Monday Monday showcase. Solo Set.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]