Casey Dienel doesn't sing like some indie rock grumbler or some cutsey K-Records sweetheart. A music-school dropout, under the moniker White Hinterland, she sings lute-clear, with a tone that's huge and choral and gothic. Swoon! All over last year's Kairos she warbled and oohed, like some kind of siren singing you to shipwreck. "I think of it as a drum and voice record," Dienel said from the cruddy basement of a club in Minneapolis, where she was halfway through a tour to promote Kairos alongside the two-piece's brand new EP, Eidolon. "Like it's pretty much just about those two elements -- like these very masculine heavy beats with voice that's much more feminine and light."
At 25, Dienel is on her fifth full-length record -- each a 180 from the last. One is folk (Wind-Up Canary), one is sung entirely in French (Luniclaire) and another (Phylactery Factory) was reviewed over and over as a jazz record. (Dienel: "It's not.") The last launched Dienel and Shawn Creeden, her collaborator, who toys with synths and texture, into a kind of indie fame. Woozy single "Icarus" featured on Project Runway (during the finale of the ghoulish Gretchen), in It's Kind of a Funny Story (during the film's most touching montage), and most recently, in a Jessica Beal ad for Revlon that's been hogging the Holiday airwaves. When she sees the ad, Dienel doesn't even recognize her own voice. "I'll be like, 'Oh that sounds familiar -- what is that?'" She'll be wondering that a lot more.
You grew up in Massachusetts and your parents were musicians. What instruments did they play?
My mom plays piano and she sings. But she never admits that she sings. But she does! And my dad is a really ripping guitar player... He loves the Grateful Dead and Graham Parson and Emmylou Harris and Jeff Rhodes. My mom likes Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell, Vince Gill.
And you were somewhere in the middle?
I was really weird as a kid. I liked classical music. First, I was really obsessed with ballet and classical music. I think it was just so the opposite of what they were into and that was just the music that I chose.
I liked R&B a lot. I had a Janet Jackson record. I think that might have been the first record that I bought. I think I didn't even buy it, I stole it. I didn't want to get caught with it because it was like Janet, the record, and she had her pants unzipped and I think an arm is behind her holding her bosoms. And I think for a nine year old that's pretty racy. I was like, 'Yeah! That's rock and roll, that's me I like this!'
You covered that Monica song on the new EP. I'm interested in the connection between R&B and indie -- whatever "indie" is. It seems like they're shifting closer right now, or there's more of a rapport. Which is a very broad question. But did you find connections?
I don't think it's new. I think rock and roll -- the fundamentals -- are based on rhythm and blues, so it's it's well established. And I mean, I'm gonna put this out there -- it might sound like a controversial statement -- but I don't think it is: the best contributions to music in America have been made by the people that we brought here...
So indie rock -- I'm kind of off topic, but I think what indie sometimes lacks is a relatable sensuality, the pleasure of life and the joy of life even when life sucks. Whereas in R&B, that's what it's all about. Life's a party.
I think there's a lot of kids that grew up with access to R&B or hip hop from a really young age. I mean, I was probably seven years old when I first heard hip-hop or R&B and I just feel really lucky that no one ever set me down and said, "You have to choose your favorite one." I think that speaks to a certain eclecticism I think is generational.
I don't want to put any words in your mouth, but it seems there was a racial divide and that in a way it's bleeding together more.
Yeah, it's not just white musicians appropriating. Like the Brandi album Aphrodisiac. I mean this is not an indie rock band, but she's sampling Coldplay. Or the new Kanye record.
And Big Boi sampling Joanna Newsom. And Solange Knowles covering the Dirty Projectors last year.
I don't think it's just like a bunch of white college kids re-appropriating. I think it's just so cool that we can express how much we appreciate what's come before us by incorporating it and taking that with us whatever we need to go on. I think that the DNA of my music has so much to do with other peoples' music...
There's this connection between your work and R&B and I had read that you have little musical prompts that help you write and one of them was, "How would Rihanna write this song?"
(Laughs) Yeah, I suppose.
Which is just segueing into... what are some of your musical prompts that have ended up with songs that people have heard?
Lots of Arthur Russell... I really like listening to World of Echo when I'm stuck. But also a lot of renaissance music, actually: Guillaume de Machaut, Josquin de Pres, Hildegard Von Bingen, who's really cool. She was like this mystic nun and she wrote all this music and she claimed that God came down from heaven and gave her all these melodies, which is just like, I think, the ecstatic experience of music. And I can feel that...
You said when you're writing lyrics sometimes you edit yourself back from being florid. And I'm interested in what you edit in yourself. What do you hate that you do?
Personally or musically?
Well I was thinking musically but you've opened it up so...
Personally, I wish I wasn't so shy. But I'm really afraid of karaoke. That's a really unreasonable confounding fear of mine and I wish I could just get over it but...
Your album covers are all illustrations of you or seen through a gauze -- it seems you're very reluctant about putting yourself on camera. And I think that's funny if we're talking about shyness.
I just like unclear artwork. I think that is what is cool about lyrics. With lyrics I think I'm more interested in the image itself but what is surrounding the image, describing everything else around it to give this -- not to paraphrase you but -- this gauzy shape. I think it's really interesting to it's really interesting to give people a space to put themselves when they're accessing the music or looking at an image. I think sometimes if you don't edit, you give too much away. And it just doesn't seem very welcoming to me. Being welcoming is important. But I guess some people would argue that if you're too vague, it's a put off.
But I guess musically what I don't like is if I'm lazy. If I ever get like lazy I really don't like being lazy. But sometimes in life you can't help it. Like, I have to finish the project that I started out or it's really gonna nag me.
[Casey's collaborator, Shawn Creeden, popped into the interview and weighed in...]
I want to ask a really obvious question, which is how did you meet, how did you get together?
Casey Dienel: We were both playing with other bands. In 2004?
CD: I lived, I think, in New York. Or really, I was about to move there.
Shawn Creeden: If it was 2004 I was living in my car in New York and I was selling drawings on the street in SoHo and just sleeping in my car in a park. I was straight up homeless.
CD: I had just dropped out of college. I was like, 'I'm going to go make it big in New York!' My parents were like, 'No, graduate!'
SC: I was playing in a very technically-proficient like post-rock Godspeed wannabe band and I was like on the floor making cassette noises and banging on pipes and stuff and I played musical saw. I was in that project and a project whose name was just a drawing of an upside down cross -- like dark spooky occult shit. And so I was in those projects and the first band, the post rock band, played with Tiger Saw and Jason Anderson and Casey was playing with them. We did like a short New England tour and we started talking and we were hanging out.
CD: He was working at the merch table too.
SC: And she had some of her CDs out.
CD: And you were embroidering these shirts and I was like, 'Who is this guy? Who are you? What are you doing hanging out with all these metal kids?'
SC: And then after that, Casey invited me to play at some of her shows -- like musical saw.
CD: I think I just made him come hang out. We had a really weird band line-up. It was always changing. At one point I think there were five of us! It just really spun out of control. Musically I didn't feel in control -- like not in a control-freak way, but in a 'This just doesn't sound like the music that I want to make' way.
SC: Well when I joined her thing, I was in this very productive mode of playing with these bands and recording cassettes upon cassettes. I was like 'Of course I wanna come do something with you! That sounds awesome!' But I was also like 'Holy shit everyone here is like a consummate musician. Everyone is so virtuosic. And I'm like the weird off-beat clanger in the background who can't read music.'
But I think that now I've kind of grown in confidence about my relationship between Casey and other musicians. With her super-trained background and hearing and her abilities with melody and instruments and my tinkering in the basement fuzzed out -- or whatever it is I'm doing -- the exciting thing is the spark that comes when those two things rub up against each other.
You guys recorded Kairos together in a friend's basement. What was the schedule for that how long did it take and what was the process?
CD: I started writing alone in January-ish and then we probably started in may like May or June. We were trying to make the summer record. But it came out sounding very actually, well, winter-y. We just recorded at his house. We were kind of sick of waiting. We thought of going into some studios. And it jut felt like the time was ticking away and it was better to seize it.
SC: And we were no longer thinking about things in the same dynamic size as before. We didn't need to go somewhere with a piano and we could all go in there and fit at once. The two of us were now making more electronic-based music. So we were like, 'Who around here knows about that stuff?' And Alexis, that's what he does...
CD: And we wanted the time and really didn't want to rush. In the past I've made records like in three weeks. And it just so hard rushing through in three weeks. So you go in and like in three weeks you have to capture the ephemeral magic of two years of writing. I think a very specific personality can handle that. But I think we benefit from simmering for longer and toying with things.
And you were trying for a more hi-fi sound?
CD: We didn't want it to sound DIY.
What do you think of glo-fi, chillwave, or bedroom recording right now?
CD: I think it's great! I mean a lot of that music is the closest in spirit to what we do. I mean, I don't remember any time in my life where there was contemporary music that I felt like such a strong affinity for... The main thing is that the songs were so personal and had such clear intention and intensity that we didn't want anything to really get in the way of that we wanted. Any extra -- whether adding delay or reverb soaking it -- we just wanted that to add to the lush atmosphere and to deliver all the clarity in the voice. I think of it as a drum and voice record. Like it's pretty much just about those two elements -- like these very masculine heavy beats with voice that's much more feminine and light. And I think hi-fi suits when you're trying to work in contrast.
There's no middle ground.
CD: Yeah, I think if there's a lot of fuzz and hiss it would just detract from that end game.
Speaking of how this record is about the contrast between the voice and the beats, I'm really interested in how every record you make feels very different from the last, and that you're still experimental. So many bands try and hone to a sound that they reproduce over and over again. And why did you decide to not do that?
CD: Fear of boredom! And I'm really restless, apparently. Curiosity and probably like a lack of vanity about what White Hinterland is. I think White Hinterland can be whatever we want it to be. I think part of it is when I had a period when I was kind of tumultuous. And to be honest about that musically, there's something going on that's going to bleed into the music. Rather than fight that and pretend that I'm the same, the world is the same, I think I'm more interested in each record acting as like this memento of wherever Sean and I were at that time...
I never sit down and say, 'Oh I wanna make an electronic record!' The melodies have to come first and then whatever they tell me they need, I find. I know it sounds really creepy crystal lady, but that's what happens: they show up when I'm showering or walking or talking to the cat or I don't know. And I go over to Sean's house and we hang out and I say, 'Hey! I have this idea.' And Sean says, 'Cool, let's jam.' I mean I really think musicians are given way more credit for their creative processes than they deserve. I really wish I could see what I was going to do next or see where I was going to be, but I can't.... I have basically a dream catcher, like a notebook, where I just write tons of ideas. I get them out and we kind of wait and then I have to write 30 songs to write 10 great songs. And then I take them apart and I do a lot of reconstructing and collaging. I guess most songwriters probably do that. But it's never something we planned on.
What's the experience of seeing your songs in a Jessica Beal ad or onscreen? Did you see the Zach Galifinakis movie, It's Kind of a Funny Story?
CD: We were kind of embarrassed but proud at the same time.
SC: And you were like, 'I hope everyone in this room knows!' And then you were like, 'I hope no one knows!' We were with a bunch of friends. We all went to go see it. And like at one point Lahaina, who took the photograph on the cover of our EP, she was like, 'EEEEE!' She could not contain herself.
CD: It's a very moving scene.
SC: Yeah, it's a scene where you kind of love it anyway. It's very well placed. Thank you to whoever did that!
CD: The Revlon thing comes on when I'm cooking a lot. Like I'll be like, 'Oh that sounds familiar -- What is that?'
Wow, that's a weird reaction.
CD: I think maybe I just like I have a weird dissociation because there's this other image that's so disparate that's attached to it... I'm really interested to see how music is used outside of its original context. Sean and I both have playful personalities. Like we both just are really curious to see what happens when you take X and Y and make Z.
I'm sure you've had to argue this against people who are like, 'Oh, you sell out!'
SC: We say, 'Oh did you buy our record? Or illegally download it?'... And better our cool song than someone's crappy song!
Why do you have all these cryptic album titles, like Luniculaire and Kairos?
CD: I have to have this feeling I need to know... and for whatever reason I've liked Greek names. For the new EP, I liked the idea of doppelgangers. Black Swan, hell yeah! I got really interested in the idea of a genius. Have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert's TED conference speech? Her speech is so good actually. If you can -- watch it.
You're like the third person who's told me to watch the Eat, Pray, Love woman's TED talk.
A genius used to be the idea that every artist or philosopher or creative type had one in their studios. In the walls, there was a genius. And it's the genius who delivers the creative work. So if you weren't doing so well, it wasn't that you weren't a genius. It was that your genius wasn't showing up to work... I think there's something kind of daring about that. It's a lot of pressure to put upon yourself... You want to beat yourself up when you dont have a good idea but according to other beliefs, there's a tiny gnome in your refrigerator and he slept in that morning! I don't think my ideas are from God or are genius. My ideas come from outside me. I am really lucky to have them.
White Hinterland's new EP, Eidolon, dropped on Dead Oceans on Dec. 3rd.