Courtney Swain of Bent Knee on the Boston art rock band’s new album and adapting to the times
Adaptation has been a key word for a year-and-a-half during the COVID-19 era. Restaurants, bars, and various other establishments have had to change to keep people safe, while artists, musicians, and creative types have taken on new processes to complete projects and show their skills in fresh ways, whether in digital or physical form, or both.
Boston art rock ensemble Bent Knee did some adapting of their own to complete their sixth album, Frosting, due out via Take This To Heart Records on Nov. 5. Lead vocalist and keyboardist Courtney Swain, lead guitarist Ben Levin, bass guitarist Jessica Kion, drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth, violinist Chris Baum, and synth player and rhythm guitarist Vince Welch each worked remotely in various settings while Welch also handled production and mixing.
Swain and I recently spoke about the process of making the new album, working in different studios, the tour that Bent Knee is currently on, and what she hopes people take away from Frosting.
With Frosting being made remotely, how was this process for you and the rest of the band? Were there a lot of file sharing and zoom chats going?
Before the pandemic, we were already planning on making a new album, but because of COVID-19 we couldn’t really get together, so each of us decided to work in our homes. We did have some meetings to talk about certain songs that we were excited about, but I don’t think any of us had any in-depth talks until the album was pretty much done. It was an experience where we were able to improvise together while being apart as the songs each came into their own. It was an interesting time and a lot of us in the band really like Radiohead, especially OK Computer, so we’ve always dreamed of having a similar evolution in sound. In a way, this approach made it possible because our process entirely changed because of the circumstances.
How were you able to record the album using different studio spaces at Big Nice Studio in Lincoln, Rhode Island, the Record Company in Boston, Tiny Telephone in Oakland, and Woolly Mammoth in Waltham, along with your own home studios? Was it simply because of each of you being in different places while it was being made or was it due to something else?
Big Nice was where most of us were at in one place and we were there in October of last year. For the other ones, the Record Company and Woolly Mammoth are two of the best studios to get recordings done in the Boston area. We did a lot of vocal recording along with some piano and keyboard kind of stuff at Woolly Mammoth, I’m a huge fan of the grand piano they have there which was originally owned by Mark Sandman from Morphine. By the time we went into these studios to work on the album, a lot of it was already written. When the Record Company reopened at the beginning of this year, we were able to lay down some percussion tracks and the finishing touches.
Musically there seems to be a lot of vocal distortion, progressive noise bridges and elements and an abundance of electronic tones. What inspired this approach to go down this sonic route?
A lot of it is from the music that we’ve all been listening to collectively. It’s not one thing in particular, all of us have very different tastes and influences, so this is kind of a culmination of all of that. The vocal harmonizing and production were a big part of the project from day one, it made sense to have that evolution be visible. This record is very special because there’s more of a variety within the songs that reflect from all of us in various moments as well. The writing process involved a lot more of each of us fleshing out our ideas, and when we’re usually in the same room we only try one idea at once.
This time we could actually hear somebody’s vision of the song in a really fleshed out way. It’s a result of the way we were working where each of us were isolated either at home or in the same studio while playing our instruments and contributing our parts, it gave us more freedom to experiment with various tracks due to the way we were writing than what we did before.
You’re currently on tour with Willimantic, Connecticut indie rock act the World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die and you’ll be coming to Brighton Music Hall on Nov. 11. How has it been being back on the road?
For me personally, I had an inkling of how much performing live affects my brain chemicals, my general mood, and that kind of stuff, but it was really striking how different I felt once we started playing shows again. I almost felt benevolent in a way but at no point during the lockdown I felt like I was missing part of myself. When we came back to performing I did feel like it was a part that I had archived, it’s been really nice to realize how much I’ve enjoyed and currently enjoy playing and touring. I think we all have a new appreciation for coming out to play shows; I also think that not everybody is ready to see live music yet, but despite that there’s been a lot of people who’ve been coming out to see bands every night. It’s been really humbling to look around and see people wearing masks but they’re also singing along to our songs; it’s different, but in a way it makes us feel grateful that we can do this again.
What do you want people to take away from Frosting? What are you the most proud of about the album?
I think we managed to create a polarizing album. It goes back and forth between being bi-polar, tri-polar and there’s a lot to shift around. My hope for the people who listen to it is that they come back to it numerous times because for me, this album has been done for months and months since the start of the spring and I’ve come back to listen to it again and again and each time I appreciate it more. I feel like this is an album that I’d love people to go into without any preconceived notions from either music reviews or word of mouth. It’s kind of like when you go see a movie but you don’t read the plot at all, you go in without any prior knowledge and take what comes back at you. That’s how I feel about it.