Seattle scenester Gretta Harley’s debut solo album is a true treat for the ears on several levels. It sounds great, thanks to fantastic production by KRAMER but there’s a lot more to this whole project than that… there’s an intimacy and a real sense of one person sharing themselves with another. You really feel like you’re right there in the room with Gretta as she’s playing, moreso you feel that you’re there with her in an alternate realm that she has created through her musical craftsmanship. It’s in the fine details that the real beauty of this album, and this artist, are exposed. We were so curious about the making of Element 115 we sought out Gretta who graciously answered a few questions for us here.
RUST: Gretta thanks for talking to us here and congratulations on a job very well done. We’ve been spinning your vinyl and we’re particularly enthralled with the closeness that comes through. Were you prepared to be so open and to go so deep with your ideas when you first imagined the whole album?
GH: First of all, thank you so much listening to the record. I am so happy that you like it. These days I think it’s a tall order to ask someone to listen from start to finish to a 45+ minute song cycle in one sitting. That’s how it was written to be heard, so thank you.
Yes, the record is very intimate. And I think for some, almost uncomfortably at times. When I played this piece to an audience for the first time with the 10-piece orchestra at the release concert in June, I could feel people squirming during the first few songs—and I think it’s due to the intimacy of the lyrics and also the bareness of some of the arrangements. But as the music unfolded I really felt the audience relaxing into the place that I had hoped to bring them to. It was always my hope that in revealing a large amount of vulnerability, and strength, and with some degree of humor, I might have the honor of earning the listeners’ trust—in recognition that we all have those dark places that we never or rarely admit to.
Perhaps I read an abundance of Joseph Campbell in my youth, but I have always been fascinated with uncovering the dark underbelly that lives within the layers of our being human. Specifically to the themes on the record we are collectively so ashamed of weakness, and rejection (which we’ve all felt), and I think that the associated shame can come out in destructive ways. I have for a long time held a curiosity around the questions of what happens when we reveal those dark places and go deeper? Does naming them take their power away? Does it give you a key? If you open that door and go down the hole do you learn more about yourself and find your superhero power? Anyway, it’s just a theory and I could happily go on a long time about this topic over a bottle of wine and some good interactive company.
To speak on a less ideological and more technical side to things, when I first started sending demos to KRAMER, and talking with him about our approach, it became apparent that the record would sound very intimate. He kept asking me to sing softer. He wanted to hear the songs with just piano and voice or just guitar and voice. In the studio with the use of his pre-amp and custom microphone, and with his consistent reminders to sing even softer, we were able to create this kind of almost one-on-one conversation to the listener. The music itself is letting the listener into the heart and head of someone talking to herself after she got dumped so unexpectedly. Each song addresses a different moment or day inside the mixed up head of the broken-hearted. Some days are better than others. At first you’re devastated, sad, then humiliated. Then you get pissed off and go between blaming yourself for being so open in the first place and then pissed off at the person, and then you decided he is making a big mistake (in your head). Ultimately you need to find your way back to yourself in order to forgive. It’s kind of an exorcism. We’ve all been there, right?
RUST: Technically, this is such a treat for the ears, what was the working relationship like between you and KRAMER while the songs were being compiled?
GH I came to KRAMER with the song cycle nearly completed. He didn’t have input in compiling the songs or the order of them, but his signature is all over the recording. Working with KRAMER was a pleasure and an honor, because he truly is so good at what he does; plus he is really funny, very smart, and he travels with delicious imported teas. We liked each other right away. We quickly discovered that we work similarly in that we both do a fair amount of sonic painting, improvisation and experimentation. We are both perfectionists to some extent, but we also sing praise to the Eno wisdom of unintended consequence. We each have no trouble putting out a bunch of crap before it gets good. Every suggestion that either of us made was tried, and most kept and a few mutually rejected. We are both good at working long concentrated hours and we both love the recording process. We both adore comedy, too, so when we needed a break we’d retreat to a dose of British humor.
RUST: Now that the album is out, how do you feel about it? Was it what you had envisioned or did it go into different directions in the studio?
GH: KRAMER absorbed all of the demos I made in my living room and I felt that his ideas brought to life the style and voice I was going for, except he made it all so much better than I could have imagined. He didn’t redesign anything. He helped to broaden the colors and make them brighter and more dimensional. He got me. He got my humor. He got my freakiness. He got my intention. And he encouraged that timbre in my voice that I hadn’t used a lot in my heavier rock music. “Sing even softer.” And that was right.
The recording process was truly a splendid experience. I had always envisioned making a record with no day-to-day distractions. It was just the two of us with the music all the time. There are always things you have to let go of in terms of performance and production when taking limited time and money into account. That’s a given. That said, I think it sounds great. And it looks great. (The artwork is something that I worked very hard on with Tim Silbaugh and these visuals play a strong role in the vinyl experience, and the live show. There is a visual collage on a screen behind the orchestra that plays adjacent to the music in the same way a good film score would support a film but never detracts.)
RUST: Who are some of the other people that helped make Element 115… what was it about them that made them so right to join you in the creative moment.
GH: The writing of the songs was just me. The instruments on the record are played by myself and KRAMER only. However, during my writing process my friend Elizabeth Kenny listened to almost all of the demos as I made them, and in those birth moments that are sometimes accompanied with self-doubt it was great to share the music with someone who got what I was doing. Even when I wasn’t sure what I was doing, she encouraged me. (Creating is always a process and this record certainly unfolded itself to me.) She turned me on to an NPR story about Element 115 that I eventually used as the title to the record.
Xian Fulghum, the owner of the now defunct Fin Records was the first person who said, “Yes, this is great. Let’s make it happen.” Although his label folded during the pre-production and he wasn’t able to release it in the end, his willingness to do so and his initial financial support got the ball rolling. Emotionally, the music was so vulnerable to me too, and it was fuckin’ scary to play it for people and have them go, “Um. I don’t get it,” which did happen. So Xian’s support was key.
Before and during the recording process with KRAMER (which was two sessions over a span of 6 months) I put together a rock band called Mettle. I never let these guys hear the work I was doing with KRAMER because I wanted the band version to be its own thing. (The analogy I used in my head was the theatre version and the film version of the song cycle.) Dave Pascal, Mike Katell and Ben Morrow (and for a short time Brian Emery) played this material for almost a year in a little practice space and a few shows, and I am sure that what we did together influenced some choices I made in the studio with KRAMER.
RUST: Is there anybody that deserves some special thanks for helping you along your journey to get the project finished?
GH: YES! I created an IndieGoGo campaign. There were over 130 donors who made it possible for me to press and release the record myself. Their names are published in a blog on my website. Also, my brother and his wife, Glenn and Jackie Kramer (no relation) had just bought their house in St. Augustine and generously loaned it to us before they moved in. KRAMER and I thought it a fantastic studio situation. Also I was first introduced to KRAMER by a mutual friend, musician, Matt Menovcik who heard the songs in the making and thought KRAMER would like the music.
RUST: OK, last question, what’s happening for you in the next moment in your life? Will you be touring? More recording? Thanks!
GH: I am playing this music in a solo set in NYC in September (The Bitter End on 9/13/15). I am writing another song cycle now and talking with KRAMER about it. We definitely want to work together again.
I am also plotting ways in which I can create another live multi-media experience with this music and the next song cycle. These productions are expensive to put out there, so there are logistics to work out and money to raise.
Thank you so much for giving this music attention and giving me an opportunity to talk about it with you and your readers. You guys rock!!
Get more info at http://www.grettaharleymusic.com/