It’s almost the middle of February now as I write to all of you from this metaphorical foxhole in this ever-expansive musical battlefield. And, much like the weather outside this time of year is known for being almost as barren in activity as the leafless trees standing guard outside my window. The animals and insects have disappeared, the sun has gone behind the clouds to converse in silence with itself, and I’m left to piece away at time and daydream of warmth and the comfort of hammocks yet to be.
Thankfully, in an effort to perhaps snap me out of such monotone poeticisms, the musical community has once again chosen to send me a heat wave. Some lightning in a well-spun singer-songwriter’s bottle if you will. And that lightning comes in the form of none other than a New York musician by the name of David Rothschild. He and his band The Downtown Local are new on the scene (having only just formed in 2014), but they already have two EP’s under their belt and are just releasing their 2nd (entitled Carolina Seems So Long Ago) on this very day.
Carolina will be hitting the digital shelves of their Bandcamp, iTunes and Amazon as well as being available to stream over on Spotify, plus the band has an EP release show planned for tonight in New York City over at The Studio At Webster Hall. Thankfully, I was able to catch up with David beforehand and get a few minutes of his time to discuss the new record, get a bit more info on he and his band’s background, talk about the lyrical/creative process and discuss what lies ahead!
1. Now I know you formed your band The Downtown Local in 2014, and released your first EP (called Simple Changes) not long after in February of 2015. What was the origin of your band and what brought it all together? Did you have a batch of songs ready that you needed to build a band around, or was it just something that happened to come together with friends/fellow musicians in the creation process?
(DR): Forming the band and watching the band grow has definitely been the most rewarding part of this whole process. It all started with a few guys jamming at my friend’s apartment, at first just two guitars and a pianist, then I invited my buddy who played bass, and another friend who liked to sing showed up, and it was very informal. We’d hang out and play a bunch of jazz standards from a Real Book or pull up some other covers that we all liked, but eventually after a few months of sporadic jams, I sort of went out on a limb and asked, “hey would you guys wanna try one of my songs?”
I had always written songs, but never really put them out there — but I’d been writing a lot of late and had this batch I was really proud of, so I went for it. I kind of “proclaimed” I was going to start trying to take this music thing seriously, and pretty quickly over the course of a couple months we went from jamming in the apartment, to a trio of us playing cafes, to booking consistent gigs as a 6-piece band.
The interesting thing, though, was that I started recording “Simple Changes” sort of as the band was still coalescing, so there are a bunch of session musicians on the album. And so what makes this new record, “Carolina”, so special, is that after these sessions there was a moment where we all looked at each other and felt, “wow, we’ve officially found our sound.” But long story short, we were a bunch of friends who like playing music, and I’m really lucky to have friends who supported me and bought into what I was doing…and who also happen to be incredibly talented.
2. I know it can be thought of as kind of a tired question, but I’m always fascinated by musical influences. Not only in how they bring an artist into music in the first place, but how that dynamic works within the committee of a band. What were those deciding factors for you, and how did that change or evolve as you got older/worked with other musicians?
(DR): So this is something I actually find really important to our sound: we all have pretty unique influences, and are very much our own circle in the venn diagram, but each member overlaps with the others in their own unique way — so one of the things I love is hearing how everyone brings their own thing to the songs, most of which are not from influences I originally shared. It’s funny because I think the big unifying overlaps for all of us is a love of jazz and soul — which is not really the music we play at all.
I came from this country/folk place, Alex, our bass player, is more a funk kinda guy, Tim on drums loves to joke about bringing out his double kick pedal and metal-ing up the tunes, and the influences I share with James on guitar are very different from what James shares with Alex or James shares with Christian on keys. And still we’ve all found this great common ground that takes what could easily be described as musically un-interesting — I’m a folk fan through and through, but it’s not always the most musically complex of genres — and brought some cool flavors to it. I think we’re listening to a whole lot of everything, so it’s been great to feel out all those commonalities and take advantage of the differences.
Personally, I grew up on a mix of singer-songwriters — my parents were big James Taylor, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell types — with a lot of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye thrown in, but I also grew up playing saxophone, so everyone loved to buy me jazz albums when I was a kid before I could even appreciate them. I was all over the place, but I think I really began to find my voice as a songwriter when I stopped worrying so much about writing fancy guitar parts, or out-there chord changes, and started focusing on the storytelling.
I called that first EP “Simple Changes” because pretty much all of them were straight-ahead, four-chord songs. As I began to work with other musicians I learned that I didn’t need to supply all this complexity, but that I could allow my bandmates to create it naturally by bringing their own style to what I had written.
3. And speaking of influential music, what led to Paul Simon’s song “Graceland” being included on your soon to be released EP Carolina Seems So Long Ago? It’s probably one of my most favorite songs (as well as records) from Simon’s solo catalogue, and I love what you guys do with it on the record as sort of a building uptempo jam.
(DR): I will actually give all of the credit to (our guitarist) James on this one, he suggested we do some Paul Simon. We’re all big fans of his, of course because he’s got this incredibly diverse discography, from the very folky stuff to the Afro-Carribbean and everywhere in between. So when James suggested we play a Paul Simon song, it clicked pretty quickly that we should do “Graceland,” because it was written like a song straight out of the American Roots catalogue, but it was played by South African musicians who brought their very unique interpretation to it.
I write a lot of songs that are meant to sound like country western tunes straight out of the American Songbook, and the band ends up interpreting them uniquely — it was an easy fit. We started playing it like a rockabilly Elvis tune, and of course all those other sounds just naturally came out.
4. Now I love your lyrical work on this EP. And I could make comparisons to Dylan and any other folk singer from the last 50 years (though I am sensing some early Bruce Springsteen vibes, which I really dig). I won’t slap on those labels though, because the point is, I really like how you approach YOUR songs as such a storyteller. From “Caleb” to the title track (which might be my favorite on the record) your stuff is very cinematic. Tell me, does a lot of that come from true experiences, or are you able to place yourself in a position where you can create characters and scenarios and your own stories?
(DR): Always appreciate when people say they hear early Springsteen. I am in absolutely no place to be compared to that, but I do listen to a whole hell of a lot of him. If vinyl was still a thing, his first three albums would be my most worn down for sure (Editor’s Note: Someone send David some Bruce vinyl and a turntable stat, it’s still a thing!).
“Caleb” is probably the exception that proves the rule, in that it’s one of the only songs I’ve written that doesn’t come from a very personal experience. It happens to be one of the songs I’m most proud of, but I’m not sure if that means anything. It also started as a lyric from something I’d jotted down a really long time ago… well, before I wrote the rest of the songs we play. I finished it later on, but that idea was first written down when I was a freshman in college. I guess I could give credit to the fact that I was an English major, and that jackass who thought he was going to write the Great American Novel.
But again, I think I started to find myself as a songwriter when I just broke things down to simple images and straightforward stories. Of course, if you get too straightforward, you get boring — but even a song like “Solitary Serenade” that doesn’t really have “characters” like most of the other songs, is still built around something concrete and has it’s own kind of “plot.” The first rule of writing is show, don’t tell, so I just think it’s more interesting to express myself through a story than through a soliloquy.
Nobody wants to hear me explicitly sing about my problems because, even if they’re relatable, it can come off as self-indulgent; I think it’s much better if you just lay out a story and let people take from it what they will. For the most part, yes, they’re all some version of my own experiences, or at least a thinly-veiled roman-a-clef…so I guess let’s all just be thankful that they’re not all about an ex-girlfriend anymore.
5. And as far as the lyrical process goes, is that a journey you embark on alone and bring it in to form and shape into a finished product with the band? Or is that a process where someone suggests a part or a line or different melody and a song you thought was going in one direction initially becomes something else?
(DR): For the most part I write lyrics by myself, just because that’s the only way I’ve known how to do it. A lot of them are very personal, but I’ve gotten better at letting people into that process, which has been really nice. Typically, I will write a song on my own, bring it to the band with a good idea of how I hear it in my head, and then let them go wild with what they want to bring to it.
I’ll suggest something here and there, or try to give some shape or direction, but the challenging — and also fun — part is translating what I hear in my head into how the band wants to attack it. Lyrics though are just something I do alone pacing around a room over the course of several days, mostly just by hearing things in my head. It’s just hard for me to bring someone else into that, as much as I’d like to. I simply don’t know how yet.
But what’s been amazing is, as we’ve grown as a band, the other guys will bring songs to the group — either lyrics that I’ll help put to a melody, or a progression that I’ll help put lyrics/a melody on — and we’ve now begun to collaborate even more. I’ve always considered the band to be a big part of the songwriting process, just not necessarily at the stage of lyric writing — now we’re starting to figure out how to really write things together.
6. And when it comes to the music as it blends to the lyrics, is there a singular process where the music comes first and the words shape themselves out of it? Vice versa? Or is it sometimes just a mix of the two as it grows in the studio? And also, what is the process like recording live in the studio compared to other methods? I know you do that on this latest EP, and you can really tell with how full the sound of the songs are.
(DR): It can go either way — it used to be that I’d write up a guitar part or a progression first and then try to hear a melody or a hook out of that, but these days more often I just hear a hook in my head with some sort of words on it, and then can naturally build the progression out of that. It’s not very common, though, that I just have words without an idea of how they sound — if the words come before the progression, they typically come with a melody line that naturally has its own changes. There is definitely always a moment, though, usually after a verse and chorus are written, when I know, “okay, this is how this song goes.”
As far as recording live, this was just a very different experience from the first record because, as I mentioned, this was the first time we really recorded songs that we had built together in full. The first set of songs we kind of built and arranged as we recorded them, piece by piece, but these four were songs that we’d been playing for a little while. There’s always something nice about having multi-track recording and being able to overdub here and there, but it was really cool to go into the studio and just play through the songs a bunch of times until we felt like we’d nailed it. A lot more instant gratification that way as well.
7. When it comes to making music, whether it’s creating the instrumental side, the lyrics, the collaborating as songs grow in the studio…. what is that music to you? Does it represent a catharsis and a way to really unload an emotional weight, or is just that you have these stories in mind that just need to be told? What keeps the spark going in you that keeps that creating fresh and inspiring?
(DR): Again, I think a little bit of both. At different times in my life there have been very specific things that I needed to get out: “Carolina,” the title track, for instance, was written very much at that quarter-life crisis stage of my life when I was trying to figure out where the hell I belonged and what the hell I was doing, so I wound up writing a very nostalgic song about simpler times. A song like, Caleb, though, just kind of came out of the aether — I heard it, got an idea of what it was, and just ran with it.
In any case, though, it is very much a catharsis just to finish a song. Whether I’m writing something deeply personal or just a fun rocker, I can sort of get lost in the process and then feel really refreshed when I come out on the other side. Sometimes it’s a real grind, and I’ll drive myself (and my roommates) insane just pacing around trying to figure out that next lyric, but I’m really fortunate to have found an outlet that I sort of know how to use.
8. And finally, I know you’re just getting starting with the release of EP number two and getting that out into the world. But, do you see any future plans on the horizon for doing a full LP at some point? And do you have more songs waiting to go in the pipeline regardless of the type of record you want to make next?
(DR): We’ve definitely got more in the pipeline! Not to plug to shamelessly, but we’re finishing new songs pretty regularly, so odds are if you catch a show, we’ll be playing some pretty fresh stuff mixed in. No real plans for an LP at this point, but in this day and age of music consumption, the medium of the album itself doesn’t mean too much to me. Whether it’s four songs or six songs or twelve songs is really only a matter of how many songs are ready to be recorded.
These two albums felt very much like their own batches of songs that easily fit together — it wasn’t like we specifically wrote the songs for these releases, but just came to a point where we just organically felt, “these 4 songs fit together.” I’ve already got a bit of a sense of a next batch, songs we’ve been playing live for the last little bit that represent a unique stage of the band, but I imagine when the time comes, we’ll know what we have.
A big BIG thanks goes out to David Rothschild for doing this interview with me! As I said before, his new EP Carolina Seems So Long Ago is due out today, so get out there and buy it up on Bandcamp, iTunes and Amazon, stream it on Spotify, and be sure if you’re in New York City to go see David and The Downtown Local play their EP release show TONIGHT at The Studio at Webster Hall!
And be sure to check out my review of Carolina in the post up above!
Photos are courtesy of the band’s Bandcamp and Facebook page.