Headed to town for a show Tuesday night at Lincoln Hall, I spoke with multi-instrumentalist and Uh Huh Her co-founder Camila Grey about the electro-pop duo's new album Future Souls and the future of music itself from somewhere in Iowa amidst an Uh Huh Her spring tour of the midwest...
In a pop music world dominated by the producer, it's difficult to get by on actual musical talent alone. Artists and creativity are often pushed to the side in favor of pop sheen. Female pop artists have it tougher still in a landscape where making headlines is frequently more important than making music.
These are stereotypes that Uh Huh Her is all too familiar with. Both are often recognized just as much, if not moreso, for their previous projects as they are Uh Huh Her: Camila Grey handled bass and keyboards in the band Mellowdrone and has worked with artists like Busta Rhymes, Dr. Dre, Tricky and Adam Lambert. Leisha Hailey co-founded alt-pop duo The Murmurs in 1991 but is probably best known for her role as Alice Pieszecki in Showtime's The L Word.
Coming of age in an era defined by empowered female artists (The Murmurs toured as part of Lilith Fair in 1999 and Uh Huh Her takes its name from a stellar 2004 PJ Harvey album), Grey and Hailey have gone to great lengths to ensure the integrity of their music. They play their own instruments, record in a home studio and since approximately 2011 have gone it their own forging ahead as independent artists in control of not just their musical legacy but their business affairs as well.
In an internet driven era where the single is king, Future Souls is a fully realized album and maintains, albeit in a far more subtle manner, the rock mentality and backbone of 2011's Nocturnes while returning to Uh Huh Her's electro-pop roots. I spoke last week with singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and Uh Huh Her co-founder Camila Grey about the new album, where exactly music is headed and what it's like for an independent artist on the road in 2014 as she battled the elements amidst a spring tour somewhere in Iowa...
Q. Uh Huh Her had some dates last month in Europe and you’re back in the states now – how’s the tour gone so far?
Camila Grey: It’s going well. We’ve been out for a week. We’ve played four shows. We’re at the baby stages of the tour because we have forty-five dates so we’re just kind of getting into the swing of things. We’re doing smaller shows in the Midwest. I love the smaller shows. I love the smaller shows because you can check them out at a cool dive bar and rock out. We have a cool light show happening and lots of fog and all that going on. So it’s been really fun. We’ve been wanting to kind of play markets that we’ve never been to. That was kind of our goal on this tour: instead of skipping the smaller towns, we wanted to actually stop in and play them because it’s fun.
Q. Obviously most fans identify with Uh Huh Her as a duo but what's the touring lineup looking like right now?
CG: Right. Just a three piece. We have our old drummer Josh Kane and he’s been with us since 2009 or 2010. He’s an amazing drummer and he’s definitely worth watching. I would just watch him if I could. But I can’t. So it’s the three of us.
And we’re bringing a DJ out as an opener because we wanted to make it feel kind of more like an evening, an event – not a bunch of bands opening up for us. We’ve done that in the past and it works but we wanted something different – a more fresh, easier outfit to take out with us.
Q. Let's talk about the new album. Future Souls was released in March and in terms of overall sound, there’s definitely a diferent vibe than your last album Nocturnes. Where that record seemed to have a bit more of a rock edge, this one seems to lean decidedly toward electro-pop (though there’s a lot of different sounds on it). When it came time to start writing, was there a concerted effort to sound any particular way or was this kind of a natural growth?
CG: It was definitely us wanting to revisit where we started from which was electronic pop with Common Reaction. We wanted to get back to a glisteny, kind of tight sounding, synth based music that we kind of started out with in 2006. So it was certainly a concerted effort.
Q. When it comes to pop artists, I think people tend to have some pre-conceived notions... While I hate to ask the influences question, after listening to the new album I get the feeling you might have a pretty diverse array - What are some influences you have that might surprise people?
CG: Neil Diamond? No, I’m kidding. Really, I’d say Roy Orbison. Classical music. I’m a huge Chopin, Debussy, Mozart, Samuel Barber – anything classical influence. I think the melodies are so strong in classical music. That’s kind of always where I’ve been coming from. If you can put those kinds of melodies over pop music or cool beats, that’s kind of where I come from in terms of that kind of stuff.
In terms of bands that are popular that I listen to, that we’ve been listening to that seep in… I love the new Phantogram. I love bands like The Knife and Pet Shop Boys. Depeche Mode – that’s a real obvious one there I think. James Blake’s record is amazing.
Q. It seems so often now when it comes to pop music that people are more concerned about who produced a song than who's actually playing on it (if there's playing) and influences are an afterthought. But you guys play your own instruments and recorded the new album in a home studio, so how does that stuff manifest itself when it comes time to record (as well as in the finished product)?
CG: I mean, we’re still produced… But it starts with a cool beat and a really cool arpeggiator usually. That’s usually how they start. Then we go from there and we add layers. I love those old New Order records where it’s layered. It’s not just a shiny penny that Max Martin put out. We wanted to kind of make it a little more organic than that and put some soul into it. I think that’s what’s missing a lot in music. Everything kind of sounds homogenized and the same – because it’s usually the same three producers that are churning out all those songs (generally speaking).
I miss having that kind of soulful approach to music. I don’t know how you would inject that. I don’t know how you put that into words or articulate that, putting that into music. But I think that because we make our own music and we play all of our own instruments, it’s kind of got that human-like quality to it where it’s not all machines. And I think that’s what differentiates us: because we play live instruments over all of that music – on the record and live.
That makes a difference. That definitely makes a difference. We’re not just two people hitting buttons on a machine onstage like most people do these days. I think that’s what makes us a little bit different. And we have a live drummer. So we kind of bring those elements that are electronic to life in the album and onstage.
Q. I agree that that human element is crucial. That said, every child now has a computer at a young age and every computer comes equipped with something like Garageband. As a result, it would seem that every kid has access to electronic music at an early age now – certainly moreso than a guitar. Where do you see music heading?
CG: Welcome to the title of the record, man [Future Souls]. I’m like, “Where is everything going?” And not to say – because I feel like an old person [saying it] – “Ah these kids today!” It’s funny how that happens because every generation thinks their generation was the best. But I think that the music – musical people rather – are in danger of becoming obsolete or not appreciated because they’re not keeping up with the times, you know? And that’s scary.
And I’m sure there will always be that underground approach to music. And to say “underground” meaning “play your own f---ing instruments.” But the fact that that [could] become rock n’ roll is really scary to me. It makes me sad actually. It makes me sad that we’re losing touch with the soulfulness of music.
Again… pushing buttons… I push buttons too and whenever I do it I’m kind of like, “Eh.” There’s nothing like playing a guitar and getting your hands on an instrument and playing the sh-t out of it.
Q. Around 2011, Uh Huh Her moved away from a major label to release Nocturnes, dropped your management and really seemed to embrace the idea of the "DIY" indie artist. I imagine that’s a transition that's probably empowering but takes some getting used to. How do you feel about it so far?
CG: (Laughs) We went on a firing spree, yeah. But speaking of empowerment, it’s so great to know that we can run a small business – because that’s kind of what it is – and know the ins and outs of it and still have a really great team behind us: a great booking agent, great internet people, etc. And know where everything goes and know where our efforts go and know where our money comes from and how to control how we spend it and what we want to spend it on.
Whereas when you’re with a label – bless them, because they’re great – or they can be – you don’t know where any of your money is going. You get bills. These exorbitant bills! I just got a bill from Nettwerk from when we were signed and they were like, “You still owe us $105,000.” And I was like, “Great!”
And that’s kind of the position they put artists in because of artist naivete and because they’re so excited to be helped. Every artist is like “Oh yeah, a little help! We want to be pushed into the limelight.” And that comes with a price. And I think a lot of people think it’s glitzy and glamorous… and it really isn’t. It’s just a really big loan that you’re getting from a bunch of sharks. And some people win at it and some people don’t. I think that it’s really great that in this climate, with social media and having direct fanbased business, that you can kind of see where your efforts go.
And that’s the good news. The bad news is that we have a really big AmEx bill because we don’t have a label. AmEx is our label! We should be sponsored by them! Because we’re getting a lot of points. I’ll put it that way.
I love knowing the business and I think that’s really important. If I could give any advice to artists, it’s know your business. If you’re an independent artist, know that that’s hugely important.
Q. I think that’s such an important point of distinction. Because I think so many people see a band out on tour and get totally the wrong idea. In your case, they see your partner on TV and probably assume the money is just rolling in…
CG: Oh yeah. I mean, it’s our job. It’s like going to work every day. That’s how I look at it at this point. I didn’t used to. I was like, “This is great and glamorous and fun! Tour buses and blah blah blah blah.” I’ve been on tours like that. I’ve played as a session musician on those kinds of tours. It really ranges from van to bus to fly dates. It’s certainly not as glamorous as it looks. It’s a really fun job and we’re getting to do what we love. But it’s still a job.
And I think there’s a misconception there about how [musicians are] just out having a good time and we never sleep. No. We have to wake up every day and prepare and do interviews. It’s fun. It’s a great job. I’m not going to complain about it. But it is a job, yeah. And if I didn’t do this, I’d be at a desk somewhere playing someone else’s music as a session person or something. Which is fun – but not what I want to do.
Q. Everyone loves to talk about your past projects as much as your current one – does that get annoying or is it a good way to expose the band despite a DIY budget?
CG: Sure. I think it’s both. We have Adam Lambert fans coming still – people that I’ve worked with. It definitely spills over and I think it’s great. It’s a double-edged sword though because sometimes you can be marginalized by those things and not grow your fanbase because the same people keep coming and you’re not reaching new people. And that has to do with marketing and not being on a label, etc.
But at the end of the day, we’re just happy people are still coming. And we have really loyal fans. They’re kind of the best. And as cliché as it sounds, we wouldn’t really be doing this if they weren’t still coming. So amen to them.
*** This interview was conducted by Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
(Details on Tuesday's Uh Huh Her show after the jump)
(Jim Ryan also hosts "The Rock N' Roll Radio Program" Sundays at 6PM central on WIMS and WHFB - streaming at wimsradio.com and via the free TuneIn Radio app for the smart phone or tablet - Just search "WIMS" to find it on TuneIn)
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Uh Huh Her
Tuesday, May 6, 2014
2424 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60614
Also performing: DJ Kim Anh
Click HERE To purchase tickets