Rachel Brotman and I first met as students at Tulane University in New Orleans. Though I rarely performed my own music much back then, Rachel led up a trio playing mostly her own compositions that was well known around campus. By our senior year, we were even in a band together for a little while - she on keys and vocals, I on trumpet. But once we had graduated, Rachel soon moved back to her hometown of NYC. We recently reconnected in November when, by chance, we were booked for back-to-back sets at Rockwood Music Hall.
Rachel's music is patently elegant and subtly ambitious. She and her band have soul and always seem to be looking for even more of it. Though she probably most often gets Norah Jones comparisons - and rightfully so - that doesn't tell the whole story about Rachel. Her vocal work has an intimacy and surefootedness similar to Gretchen Parlato, while her penchant as a lyricist for near-mantric repetition can sometimes remind me of Feist. Her band in its current form has a modern vibe. At first glance, you might decide it's essentially a traditional jazz piano trio with a vocalist; but then upon further listening you'll realize the drummer is singing while playing a South American percussion instrument during a Dirty Projectors cover.
Rachel just released her album Anecdote, which is available at bandcamp and iTunes. She and her band will be performing at DROM this Sunday, the 10th. I recently sat down with her at V Bar for a conversation over drinks - the following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Rachel: It was a combination... I was both very calculated and quite impulsive about this. Last year around this time, my band was really becoming solid and I just felt like we have to record this, I don't how long this is going to be like this. I knew Tommy [Bassist Thomas Eskew] would be out after the summer. My hope was to record while he was still in the band. And it just felt like this is so -- this is happening right now, I have to just get this down. So I knew that I wanted to do it for a while. But I met this guy Andrew Sheron at this sort of showcase-singer-vibe thing, and we totally hit it off and he called me in to sing on something for a producer he was working with, and at that session [I] was like, "do you wanna produce my record?"
R: I just had a feeling about him, and I also knew that I wanted a producer. I wanted - I needed - another pair of ears. I had a great engineer that I’d been working with for years, but he is so even. I'm always like "how was that", and he's always, "that's great Rach, sounds great!" And I love him cause he's so great, he makes us sound amazing. But I needed someone who would also say, "you can do better", who could really push me.
R: And I just got this idea that that was [Sheron] right when I met him. So once we were a thing, another engineer friend of mine - I used to run a recording studio, did you know that?
M: Yeah, in Williamsburg?
R: Yeah, exactly. So another friend of mine from this studio had gone to NYU... he said "there's a way to get free studio time at NYU's amazing studio. do you want to do that?" And I was like “yes!” And so he set that up, and I had Andrew, and the stars just kind of aligned. In August we got a date, and Andrew and I were like okay we're going to pick songs now. We did a lot of pre-production: we picked songs and then I worked the shit out of them with the band and really worked the arrangements, and thought about all the little ways to make it not a live record. ‘Cause we record live. All of the base instrumental tracks - piano, bass, drums - are live as is. Very minimal post-production. And then I did my vocals on top of it and then we added some overdubs. But I didn't want it to sound like a live record with overdubs, I wanted it to sound like a pre-meditated thing. So all of the sudden we were making a record.
M: So you guys were workshopping material. Was it like 10 tunes, was it like…?
R: I picked the tunes. I sent andrew a whole lot of songs and we had a couple meetings about what songs seemed ready and what songs would need a lot of work… And then one day it occurred to me that this was going to be called "Anecdote" - which is the name of one of our songs - and that I would have to include "Anecdote". (I probably wouldn't have if I didn't think that that should be the name of the record.) And then I made this flow chart with five bubbles of all the different options of how I hear it, how it could work, and I just edited that chart for like a week and it was just clear. When I write set lists I feel like it's the same thing… I mean, unless something's happening in the moment to change it, it's like "this is exactly what should happen tonight". And that’s sort of how this felt. Like -- “this is exactly the way it's going to go”.
M: Your music - and my music too - it's kind of on the cusp of... We could [both] play on a big stage outside. Is that something you're interested in?
R: I think yeah.
M: Yeah, I figured. I mean… Anywhere?
R: Yeah, I feel like we have enough material that we could write a set for anything, which is a great feeling to have. We could do a small room, we could do a jazz room, we could do a festival. That was a great, minor goal - but as it became more of a priority to write and arrange covers that way, it makes me feel so confident about booking, you know?
R: Dude, I want to do a show together so bad.
M: I am definitely interested in putting bills together.
R: Yes, bills!
M: Multiple bills!
R: "Bills, bills, bills." Hahaha --
M: Hahaha, yeah… so, have you ever played at DROM before?
R: I have not played at DROM. I am pumped!
M: When is that?
rachel: So, it's February 10th. Diggs Duke - who we are playing on the Drom bill with - is just, I am just in awe. I just think he's so amazing. And he's also been so kind and supportive. I wrote him, I found him just looking up people online, and I came across his stuff and I just wrote him in earnest asking if he's touring, or “are you coming to NY and could I open for you, or…?” And he just wrote back and was like, “let's make a show, let's do this"! He's just the best... And John Oliver is spinning the hour between the sets at DROM. He's crazy awesome. So, yeah, it's turned into a nice little night. I'm pumped!
R: And yeah, I don't know if I’ve ever been able to say this: that though [my album release show and the DROM show] are the only two shows I have booked in the future, so many things are in the works! And I know we've talked about this before, but I really want to do bills. I'm not really hunting down the random [gigs] right now. I really want to curate and create a whole experience - a really good, fun night of music for our audiences. And I want people to walk away full, and not get shuffled through or have to go to another bar because another band came on that we don't know is going on.
M: Right, like that weird, revolving-door vibe you get at a lot of venues.
R: I know, which was great for starting.
M: Sure, and it can be nice sometimes, but…
R: Yeah, I mean we met a lot of people that way.
M: Yeah, it can be great sometimes. I think we are both in the same place.
R: I have found my favorite nights have been nights that are three hours long and not even just with friends. Just with common folks that have common thoughts or threads… good, even contrasting material.
M: Last time we talked you said you liked the idea of putting a bill together with a female voice and then a male voice, so [the audience's] palette doesn't get over-saturated with one kind of sound. I like that idea a lot.
R: Totally. And also, for us, guitar-centric music and piano-centric music. I think that's great for a roster. Like, we did a bill at ShapeShifter Lab with Andrew Sheron Band. And the sound was so contrasting, so different sonically in terms of instrumentation, but the spirit was so similar. I mean, he draws from East Asian influence, but still is super soulful - like Jeff Buckley type of soulful. And so many of my friends were like, "I wouldn't have expected it, but this stuff's so great to see together."
R: I think that's the key, you know? To give people good experiences. Like, I loved performing for your crowd after you guys played. I felt like there was this space, this room, where people could really soak up the stuff. You've got some fans - your folks are dedicated! I feel like you and I are similar in that we put in a lot of work on our time, quietly, in our own space. A lot of people do it publicly.
R: And I think that's kind of a beautifully accepted way in this city - that you play open mics, you work stuff out in the open. People come here in such an earnest pursuit of a place to perform. And i feel like maybe because you and I both performed in New Orleans, it didn't feel like "oh my god, give me a stage". It felt like, "this is powerful, but let me hit it when I'm with it". You know what i mean?
M: Yeah. Yeah! I count my lucky stars that I had time in New Orleans to sort of workshop myself, get my mic etiquette together, get my stage presence together, just play countless, countless shows....
R: Yeah, to learn like what to say to the sound man…
M: Right. Or do a show with horrible sound, you know? So that you can be really grateful when there's good sound!
R: Totally. I also am a firm believer that, in this world that is increasingly transparent - or under the guise of being totally transparent - it does nobody good for that process to be that transparent. Like to put up videos of your first show. I mean, people are so focused on to get their media together so they can start having presence. And sometimes, I think people are so focused on having this presence, that I think then the content suffers. You're letting your process be so transparent and it doesn't leave you enough room to grow. I mean, I played some really weird stuff when I first came home [back to NYC]...
M: How much weight do you put into social media at this point? Or do you feel like, "my time is better spent on the product?"
R: I am… learning. I mean, have you seen my phone? It doesn't do anything! So the problem is I can't get any of my social media sea legs en route. It's happening on my computer when I should be on my piano, and that’s bugging the shit out of me. But I am resistant to get internet on my phone because I also want my life to be my life, and if I didn't have that then my music wouldn't be my music. And if I was on the internet all the time, it would be a problem. I feel very much that I have to be living and present and not always on the cyber in order to write the music. I think they are mutually exclusive. I'm also not good at sharing anything… I mean I can say things like "I just saw this awesome band" but I can't tweet on my way to rehearsal. If I am in a moment when I want to tweet, with the technology I have it takes forever. So I am working on it. I want to get better at it because I think there are perks. But I don't think I will ever get true satisfaction from likes or follows… I am not sure anyone really does. But the internet is a beautiful place - you can find amazing things there, and I want to be someone that's findable for other people. So i need to get better at it!
M: Yeah, totally.
R: Like -- this is totally getting tweeted when I get home! This is definitely tweet-worthy! Haha!
Interview and writing by Mike Brun. Follow Rachel on Twitter. Follow Mike on Twitter. Top photo and album art by Shervin Lainez. Music video videography by Brett Schlesigner. Special thanks to Jo Lampert.