All The Love I Make Is What Will Stand: A Conversation With Joseph
Originally published on Slant.
It's difficult to listen to a Joseph song without coming down with a serious case of goosebumps. The reason? The three Closner sisters, Natalie, Meegan, and Allie, know their way around a soaring harmony or a tender ballad. Their songs, which often start small and patiently build toward a "give-it-all-you've-got" climax, talk about pain, patience, joy, and unshackling one's self from the burden of doubt.
Roots run deep with Joseph, as the eternal bonds of sisterhood and family mirror the Closners' strong connection to nature (in songs like "Cloudline," "Tell Me There's A Garden," and "Wind"), as well as their fans. There's kin, and earth, and feeling in every Joseph composition.
I had a chance to talk with Natalie, Meegan and Allie ahead of their run of shows at SXSW, as well as their upcoming full-length LP that will be released in Spring 2016.
SD: Where did you guys grow up?
J: We are from outside of Portland, Oregon. We usually just say Portland because we lived all over out by the mountains.
SD: How did you guys start getting into writing and playing music? Did you guys all start doing this together or was it something that kind of happened separately?
MC: Natalie is the oldest sister and she was doing solo music for a couple of years and did a few tours. Then, on her second tour of singing the same set over and over again, a friend of hers over in Chicago said, "It doesn’t seem like you believe in what you’re doing and what you’re singing, and why would you give anything away that you didn’t believe in or that you didn’t want to rush into people’s hands?" So, she was like, "You’re right. Okay, what do I do about this?"
So, on her way home from tour that time, she had the wild idea to ask her twin, younger sisters who were in college at the time to be in a band with her. Al and I always looked up to her so of course when she texted us we thought she was kidding. We were like, "Yes!" Because, secretly, we always wanted to sing along with her, but never thought it would be a reality. We started singing backup for her own music and then we decided we wanted to start writing together, and if we wrote together, we would all be singing lead. That was about three years ago at this point.
SD: What is the writing process like for you guys? How do these songs kind of come into existence?
NC: In so many different ways. There’s no one formula. It has been really crazy because Meegan and Ali had never really written before this and I’ve been working on writing for a while. So it was really amazing to see their natural instincts without trying to follow the rules of how something should be done.
AC: We could probably learn a few more rules, though (laughs).
NC: No, no. It’s been really amazing. It’s changed everything because I kind of came at it from this angle of working on it for a while and I was like, "Oh, this is how it should go, right?" And there’s just been some really amazing experiences. Really, every song is different. There’s no two songs that have the same story of how they came about.
AC: Meegan and I, neither of us play instruments, really. Meegan, a lot of times the way that she writes songs is just by plucking one string on a guitar over and over and over, just making a melody over it. So it’s literally anything. Or like Ali will have some lyric or something and I’ll just say, "Well, how does this sound?" Does that sound like what it feels like? What are the colors that you’re hearing? What does it feel like?" I’ll play through a few different things and then she’ll sing a melody over it. On the new record coming out, we did a lot of co-writing and we learned so much from that experience. It was really, really cool to get to collaborate with a lot of different people.
SD: Speaking of collaborations, you’re working with Mike Mogis who’s had a pretty amazing career and been a part of a lot of amazing projects. What’s that experience been like?
NC: He’s a genius. He really is amazing. It’s been really cool to learn from him and see how he does music and how he creates something. It’s pretty epic, actually. There’s a huge learning curve for us, so it really helped in the long run. We’d never done an actual, official recording with anyone. The last record that we did was with friends — which I guess is definitely an official recording, but we had never done it that traditional route of like, pick a producer and make it with support and everything. We’ve learned so much through the process. He’s brilliant. And he’s super kind and funny. Fun to be around, too.
SD: Is there any creative pressure, like, "Okay, we have these great songs and now we have to do a whole new batch for this big production," or not really?
NC: Of course. I think you just touched on one of the biggest emotional struggles of the project. You really have to separate what it is that you want vs. what you think your team wants vs. what you your audience wants. I think that it can be really overwhelming thinking to yourself, "Okay, what is this thing?"
I remember when we first started writing the project it was like all these feelings that I need to write something anthemic, or I need to write something hopeful. That’s what the people who’ve connected to it really want to hear. And I really didn’t get anywhere with that because when you start with what you’re trying to conjure up it’s not as sincere.
AC: And we didn’t really feel anthemic or hopeful.
NC: No, we didn’t at the time. We really didn’t.
MC: We were just mostly scared.
NC: So, it really just took a change of process to start listening to ourselves more.
MC: I think we were experiencing some hopeless things and a lot of our friends were at the same time. So the first song, which I’m not sure if it’ll end up on the album exactly, but the first song we wrote was just saying, "Stay awake." Whether or not we know there’s going to be a good ending, just stay awake for it and keep hoping.
AC: I think it was our mom who walked in the room and was like, "What’s up guys?" or something and it ended up just being like, "You guys got this. I don’t know what you’re feeling and then to start writing those feelings down," and then she was like, "I’ve been thinking about you guys tonight and I think something really good is going to come of it." And then it did, and it was awesome.
SD: Your music’s very rounded out and full on the record, and it’s rich live, but in a more sparse, exposed way. It's just the kick drum and the three voices and the guitar. Is the new record going to sound more like the live show? Is it going to sound more filled out with drums and bass and stuff like that? Was there a conscious decision to go one way or the other?
NC: We’re really excited. Actually, today is our last rehearsal with our band before we go out on tour with them. We are making a shift and we’ll still have just the three of us with the guitar at some point in the set, but the new songs are really full and really giant sounding. Mike did an amazing job just making it sound huge. So we’ll be having a band out with us for those songs to kind of make that transition from kind of listening to the record to the live show just a little bit more seamless and we’ll still have those more paired down, sparse moments. But it’s going to be a lot bigger live.
MC: I think it’s not just huge and massive, but I think one thing we were trying to accomplish in this record is that the highs would be higher and the lows would be lower. The dynamic is much bigger in that there are really huge moments like Natalie was saying, but there is a lot of spaciousness in the record that also allows for quiet moments and the three vocals that we are known for. So I think it varies, but I would say the highs are higher and the lows are lower.
SD: How have you guys tried to connect with fans? There are so many avenues you can go down with Spotify or something like Kickstarter to really connect directly with fans. But there’s also so many bands competing for that attention. What ways have you guys gone about to try to separate yourselves from other groups that are vying for that attention?
AC: My first answer is that we just got in people’s faces in a good way. We started out the first album by releasing it on NoiseTrade and from NoiseTrade, you get tons information about where folks are listening and downloading your record. So we took the areas that had the most downloads and we just sent out a mass email to everyone. We were like, "Okay, we’re coming to ya. Who wants to host a house show?" So I think we literally got in people’s homes and just spent time with people.
I think from the start, it’s been a kind of organic togetherness and connection with people because we made a ton of friends over that first house show tour. That kind of laid the groundwork, I think. One thing I always think is I really love getting in people’s home and stuff where you are standing on the same level, or like a backyard show, with the people before we took the next step to get up on the stage. It was really cool to make connections with the humans and make friends and stuff before we stepped into the next stage of venues and whatnot.
NC: The whole thing about doing music is so you don’t feel alone. I listen to music so I can hear someone else put to words what I felt before. Similarly, I hope that people get the same thing from our music. It really is about that connection. It is about someone else saying "me too." And so, honestly, we just take whatever opportunity we can to connect with people. It never ceases to mean so much when someone sends an email and says, "Hey, this is what the music meant to me." You know? It always blows me away, every time. We’ve just tried to connect with people and whatever opportunity we can.
I mean it’s true that there are a lot of people vying for attention, but if you think about starting from that point, then you’re only going to be trying to say something that you think people want to hear, the same way that we started out. All you can do is say your honest truth in the most true way that you can, and if that connects with people then awesome and you keep following that. That’s been the strategy, if you will.
MC: Yeah, every song we tried to write for this record that was for someone else and not because of something we felt will not end up on the record because they all suck. They were so bad. We were like, "Oh, we’re going to get up and preach to you for a second because we think this is what you want to hear." And we we just got down on our own level and said something that was honest and true to what we were feeling. It was like, "Oh duh."
SD: What music are you guys listening to right now?
NC: Most recently pretty floored by AURORA. I think she’s Scandinavian, that young blonde girl.
AC: She’s such a badass!
NC: She moved me a lot. I’m forever over-analyzing Ben Gibbard’s lyrics so the new Kintsugi record has been really special to me personally.
MC: I’ve made this playlist that I’ve been listening to on repeat that has like four artists on it that I love. That would be Rayland Baxter, Blake Mills, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, and the last one are some friends from Texas called the Duncan Fellows who are just wonderful.
AC: I’ve been listening to oldies but goodies.
SD: You’ve been at this for a little while and you’re obviously still very fresh and still new, so this next phase is going to be even crazier and different. What’s some advice you’d give to your younger selves knowing what you know now and having these experiences?
NC: How does it work sometimes and it doesn’t work sometimes. I think I was asking a lot in the beginning like, "How do I even do this? This is a dream that I have and how do I make that happen?" Everybody in music has a different path. There’s no formula and so I would just say to keep listening, listen to yourself and say the thing that’s true and have that be the guiding thing. And then say yes to opportunities in front of you and enjoy meeting people and enjoy learning from the people around you. Keep following that and keep going.
MC: I think I would go back in time and tell myself to do it all over again because it has been such a life-changing experience for me as a personal, human being. You grow up and you become braver and you have a lot more confidence because you do a ton of things that you were really scared to do. It’s been so good and I don’t regret anything that we’ve done. Even like the things where we messed up or had to redo do things or try again or say sorry. All of it has been such a good learning experience.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Cover photo: Justin Bond