Interview: Alec Coiro
The parlor is both the name of the band and the name of the recording space in the farmhouse that they’ve shared over the course of a 20-year partnership that began over a box of Nerds in an elevator in college (more on that in our conversation). From within this parlor they compose music that are intimate, personal, and gently beautiful.
The Parlor consists of Jen O’Connor and Eric Kranz. On their latest album they have expanded the horizon of their folk influenced approach to include a more electronic approach, which turns out to be the result of a self-sampling technique that they explain in detail below.
Kiku means chrysanthemum in Japanese. The flower bloomed on their farm at a serendipitous moment, symbolizing the triumph of life. Their choice of title calls to mind Whitman’s words on the newly grown grass, a message of hope and understanding for those in the grips of grief.
Tell us about the parlor at The Kirk Estate.
The parlor is our recording space, practice space, and where most of our writing gets done. It’s a grand living room with an ornate gilded mirror that was rescued from the Albany train station before it was decommissioned. The mirror gets foggy sometimes for no reason -it’s capable of being vibrant and clear one day and sentimental and foggy the next. There’s a lot of energy in that room. We live in an old farmhouse that was built in 1870. It’s been in my (Jen’s) family since 1904. This room has seen a lot. Playing here feels like we’re connecting to the history of this house, and the history of the family. Making music here and tending the farm feels like etching that groove of history even deeper.
What is the collaborative process like between the two of you?
We’ve known each other for 20 years and we’ve been writing songs together since we met. Over the years we’ve developed a process that usually starts with Eric coming up with melodies on the guitar. He’ll work something out over a period of days or weeks, playing it until it becomes the soundtrack to both of our lives. Once he has a vague idea of something he likes he comes to find me working in my office or out in the gardens. He’ll just carry his nylon string guitar out to wherever I am. Some of the ideas get worked up into demos, and the ones that interest us the most get fleshed out entirely. For Kiku we performed parts live and also created a lot of samples from various instruments which we overlaid on top of the songs to create rich textures. At some point I transition into editor. I organize the song linearly and add counterpoint melodies where needed. We used to get into healthy arguments about ideas and direction and sometimes we would labor over songs. For Kiku, the writing and recording process felt effortless, like the songs wrote themselves. We’ve learned to trust each other, and also to trust the songs.
This album seems particularly connected to a personal experience you’ve gone through. Being personal, I’m not sure how much you’d like to get into it, but I am curious about how directly the experience shaped the songs on the album.
Our personal experience always plays a big role in our songwriting. We use music in an effort to make sense of what’s going on in our lives at any given moment. Being life partners as well as music partners this tends to be easy for us, since we have shared experiences. Although this album was quite a bit more personal than our previous records because the songs were inspired by our experiences trying, and failing, over the course of many years, to build a family. When we started writing these songs we did so because it’s the way in which we process our grief and struggles and sadness. We didn’t think about how at some point in the future (now) we’d be explaining that we wrote these songs because of our struggles with multiple miscarriage and infertility. It’s an incredibly painful and personal topic, made even more so because it’s so rarely discussed in our society. We’ve been inspired by so many people who have shared their own painful stories. These are devastatingly personal topics where you are opening up your most vulnerable self to the world at large. We are probably never going to fully heal from the grief of the three losses we experienced. But we decided that sharing Kiku is the next step of the healing process for us. It’s important for us to share what these songs are about, what this album is about, because the one thing we wished we had known before is that we’re not alone. These losses have taught us something. They’ve helped us to fully appreciate how fortunate we’ve been elsewhere in our lives, how lucky and privileged. And when something wounds you to the core you come out of it with a deeper sense of empathy, a fresh set of eyes and ears that allows you to see and hear other’s struggles more clearly. We’ve joined a club of people who have experienced grief, pain, and disillusionment and we feel a responsibility to listen to those struggles and offer our experience as support.
What was behind the choice to have all single word track titles?
In the past we’ve always had somewhat long track titles: “Diamonds in the Seabed of the Sun,” “You Are You Were You Can,” “My Teeth are Falling Out in My Dreams,” “A Sister and Brother in the Kitchen Trying to Fly Like Eagles by Jumping Off of Counters.” This record felt vulnerable. We felt that giving these songs long titles would feel like we were trying to hide behind something. We wanted the songs themselves, and the way in which they were presented, to feel vulnerable too, the same way that we were feeling when we made them. The best way we knew how to do this was to strip them from their long titles. To make them feel raw and naked. Each word bloomed when it stood alone. And they started to form an austere minimalist design that resembled pruned floral arrangements in a cold steel room.
Compared to earlier works by you guys, it seems as though you’ve added new instruments to your approach. What was it like working in this new mode?
With each successive record we try to challenge ourselves. To write songs in a different style or incorporate new instruments and technologies. We don’t stick to one sonic pallet. That can be a problem for some fans of our music. But we have a deep appreciation for musicians who explore different genres of music, different song composition styles, or different collections of instruments from album to album -like Bjork, David Bowie, Beck, Nina Simone, The Beatles, Serge Gainsbourg, David Byrne. We appreciate that fearlessness. When we start working on an album we pick up the instruments that seem interesting to us at that time. Some of those instruments start to stick. They appear in almost every song in the cycle, every song on the album. On Kiku we were interested in the interplay of the synth bass, the nylon string guitar, the tines, electric guitar, synth strings and a combo of live drum kit and the electronic drum kit. We performed everything ourselves and created a series of samples out of these performances for the recording process and for playing the songs live.
I understand the two of you met in a college dorm elevator. Can you elaborate on the story?
We both lived in the same 22-story dorm our freshman year in college. One day we found ourselves alone in the elevator together. There was a box of Nerds candy involved. One of us offered candy to the other. We were both raised not to take candy from strangers. But given how creepy a quiet elevator can be, an awkward offer of candy came across as charming. We started writing music together pretty quickly after that.