Jun 24, 2016
Notes On Odetta Hartman’s Cyber-Folk Breakout 222
There are few things better than listening to someone who is in love, and at the moment, Odetta Hartman is in love with her entire world. The native New Yorker has been immersed in the world of folk and Americana for years now, but since the release of last year’s 222, her music has taken on a new sheen. It isn’t her first album–she self-released a couple EPs she dubbed “cowboy soul” before this, Tally Marks in 2012 and Bark in early 2014–but that was all before she met Jack.
Drawn to the energy of a live take and the comfort of working with large ensembles, Hartman collaborated with hosts of other musicians on her initial releases. But it was the 222‘s producer, Jack Inslee, who pushed her to release a true solo album, a collection of work that featured only her on all the instruments and sounds produced for the album. Inslee, who was the executive producer of Brooklyn’s own Heritage Radio up until last week, met Hartman when she was a guest on the Heritage show Gunwash; she played musical accompaniment and backing violin for her friend Emily McMaster’s Navajo ghost stories.
The two struck up a relationship that spans beyond the studio, they’ve been a couple for over three years now and feed off each other’s energy creatively and otherwise. Forming a partnership in every sense of the word, Inslee opened up the world of Ableton to Hartman, and it’s this sense of digital production that imbues her fairly traditional folk sounds with a cyber undercurrent. After culling hours of field recordings, vocal tracks and plenty of stringed instruments into 222‘s succinct, crackling 22 minutes, the pair found a home for the record with the Brooklyn-based experimental indie label Northern Spy Records, who released it last fall, initially only on cassette.
Though they are already working on the follow-up to 222, the album continues to draw in new fans and eager listeners, namely NPR’s All Songs Considered and BBC Radio 1’s Huw Stephens, who gave Hartman and co. a huge boost at this year’s SXSW. Stephens’ interest in booking them at one of his showcases in London eventually sparked an entire European tour, and they’ll embark on that endeavor in a few weeks. Tied to this, 222 is getting a vinyl release, and the album’s second single “Dreamcatchers” has a brand new video, composed mostly of childhood footage of Hartman. Today we’re premiering that video, which you can watch below, and earlier this week I met up with Hartman at Carroll Garden’s lovely Cafe Pedlar to talk love, New York City legacy, and the spiritual and superstitious themes that inhabit 222. By the time we’re done talking, it becomes more clear than ever that this is a significant artist at the beginning of what will be a long and lovely career. So light some sage to clear your aura and sink into her story below.
Since a lot of people reading this will be discovering your music for the first time, let’s talk about your musical background and what’s lead up to where you’re at right now.
I started playing violin when I was four years old. My parents aren’t musicians but they love music; they were filmmakers and my mom was a dancer, so they were funky people who came to the east village in the 80s. My mom is from West Virginia and my dad is from Long Island, which I think is kind of explains where the music comes from. My dad was a CBGB punk kid and would sneak into the city on the weekends, he was at all the early Talking Heads shows. Growing up we had a jukebox in our house, which had a combination of Fela Kuti, weird British invasion rock and a lot of classical music on it too. I studied classical violin every Saturday from age 4 to 18 basically, but didn’t start writing my own songs until high school. I don’t really know how it happened, it just kind of started and then never stopped.
Although 222 is your first solo album, it isn’t technically your first release?
I made a couple of records before 222 but they were much more… traditional I guess I would say. But still really diverse. I used to call the music “cowboy soul” because it was very Americana and very R&B. My first EP Tally Marks came out in 2012 and was self-released, the second one Bark was just about a year later, and it was through this Brooklyn Collective called Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen. They were really far out before but now they’re based in Bushwick. For Bark I had a whole ten-piece band and we did a show at the Standard’s basement in the East Village. I had a full horn section–I’m really close with some of the guys who play with the Daptone band, so I had the Daptone horns–and my brother and sister on violin playing a string section. It was a huge ensemble.
So what changed to make 222 so different from those releases?
That’s right when I met my partner, I met Jack Inslee as a guest on the radio show Gunwash and he is the producer. He challenged me to try to make a record as a completely solo artist–because he recognized that I could play all these different instruments–but my recording process had very much been about the live take. I feed off of that energy, playing with other musicians and I had never really experiment with digital tracking techniques. A lot of my friends are music nerds who record to tape, analogue, old vibes. I started working in Ableton with him and experiment with sampling and field recordings too, and that just totally broke open my style. But it’s still very much rooted in an Americana vibe, and I think that’s the beauty of our collaboration, that it’s sort of digital but also rootsy. He produced the album but all of the sounds on 222 are sampled from my playing. So even if you hear something that sounds like a bass, that’s actually my violin that’s been tuned down two octaves. Or, we would take a tiny little sample of my voice and create a synthesizer from it.
Why did it become so important to you to for 222 to have all the sounds coming from you in some way?
To prove to myself that it could be a totally independent project, and that I didn’t need everything and the kitchen sink to make a recording powerful. It was definitely an introverted process which was so difficult for me because I was used to more of a jammy kind of thing. But it was a great lesson–to learn that I could be totally self-sufficient. Jack helped me beyond measure. Through watching him work I picked up Ableton, so now I can teach that. I teach digital music production at the LES girls club. I never really had a project or a concept or a truth to hold myself to before, so having that restriction of everything coming from me was also helpful for the creative process. A lot of the field recordings were from camping trips we’d go on, we’d hear the birds in the morning from our tent as the sun was rising. Working within that kind of rubric was really earth-shattering for me.
It’s funny you were talking about playing the violin for your friend playing ghost stories, because I remember writing about the record and feeling like there was such a spiritual ghostly undercurrent. Partially because a lot of it is chopped up samples of you doing stuff, but it feels like all these sounds from the past that are inhabited by this modern cyber energy.
Especially for this project and those songs, we’re exploring themes of superstitions and spirits. It’s hard to choose which track I’m most proud of, but there’s one, “Batonebo,” that’s actually coming from a Balkan tradition. I was hosting these Balkan singing ensemble classes at my house with my friend Eva Salina, and she taught this song that women used to sing in the bedrooms of children that were sick. It was this idea that if a kid got sick it was because a demon was possessing their body. So all the women in the town would come and they would decorate the room with roses and violets, and sing these lullabies and that were supposed to exorcise the demon out. I loved that as a concept, and that song was my own way of cleansing myself. But looking back, a lot of the songs on 222 had to go with ghosts and spirits, which I definitely believe in.
And the title, 222 has some significant spiritual implications too, right?
It is! Well it started off being a silly inside joke with Jack, because I’m born July 22nd, so 22 has always been a lucky number for me. The first night we were hanging out I asked him what his lucky number was. Three is his and 22 is mine–right then we looked at the clock and it was 2:22 AM. Then the number started following us, like every time we looked at the clock it would be 2:22. Even today, I picked up my phone and it was that time. So it was just our placeholder title at first. Then, we had an idea to do a DJ project with the album–because Jack is involved with a DJ collective called Full Service and I’ve become friends with all of them too and we’ve collaborated some–so we decided to do remixes of every track on 222.
Our friend who did the remix for “Dreamcatchers” was like ‘You know 222 is like a really powerful number?’ And he started telling us about it. Apparently it’s the master builder number, it’s an angel number, and he read us this whole list of what it means. It’s all about following your creative visions and manifesting your true potential. It basically was the thesis for the record and we didn’t even know. So it plays into that superstitious bent of how the number chose us and came to us in what was a silly way, but then turned out to be a much more meaningful symbol of everything that I was working towards. It’s kind of become a mantra now and has and come to describe the collaboration between Jack and I, or this new sound that we’ve cultivated. We’re everything romantic, collaborative, and think it’s part of the story and the mythology of it. We definitely fell deeper in love throughout the course of making this. It is difficult at times working with my partner in the studio. There would be moments where I was like ‘I just need a hug,’ and he’d be like ‘I’m your producer right now, not your boyfriend.’ But we’ve been together over three years and there are so many levels to our partnership. Now that we’ve developed that vernacular we’re already working on our next project and it’s a lot of that same kind of language that we’re using.
Here are their full European tour dates:
7/08 East London @ Campfire Club 2016
7/11 London @ Sofar Sounds – http://www.sofarsounds.com/
7/12 London @ The Social – http://www.thesocial.com/
7/13 London, UK @ Servant Jazz Quarters – http://servantjazzquarters.com/
7/15 Henham Park Southwold, Suffolk @ Latitude Festial, Lake Stage – http://www.latitudefestival.com/
7/30 Snaefellsbaer, Iceland @ The Freezer
7/31 Rekjavik, Iceland @ Boston Venue
8/19 New York City @ Emerging Music Festival, Bryant Park
222 is out now via Northern Spy Records–the vinyl edition is out 8/19. Get it here.
All photos by Nicolas Maloof
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