Rebecca Pronsky hails from Brooklyn, New York but is no stranger to playing in Wales having appeared here alongside Lucy Wainwright Roche and she also produced one of 2011's live highlights when she appeared at Cardiff's micro venue the Pot Café. Rebecca returns to Cardiff in January when she appears alongside rising UK act Toy Hearts and so we thought now would be an ideal time to feature her as our 'artist of the month'.
What music inspired you to start singing and playing guitar?
I've been singing since I was very young, but I don't think I got interested in music that was all that special till I was teenager. There were a lot of disco records in my house growing up, and not much else -- it was a bit of a music desert and it wasn't till I discovered the singer/songwriter lexicon that things got interesting. I decided to play guitar and I taught myself by attempting to play Beatles tunes. I used a songbook that was not really made for guitar so it was super confusing, but I persisted. I started writing songs with the chords I learned as I suddenly had things to say, being a teenager and all.
You started early receiving vocal training in New York as a child and then studying ethnomusicology and jazz singing. What did this training and studying involve and how has it impacted on your subsequent singing and song writing?
All of these experiences helped me to learn about and appreciate the great variety and history of American music. My vocal training was mostly in musical theatre and standards, but I also studied jazz later on and all the while I was developing an appreciation for song form and melody. My studies in ethnomusicology taught me about musical cultures around the world and their influence on American music, through diaspora and cultural fusion. That background has certainly shaped the music I write and perform. My songs combine traditional folk elements with modern ambient sounds, twangy guitar riffs and vintage jazz styles.
How do you approach your song writing?
I don't have much success with "trying" to write so I haven't developed a methodology or routine about it and I've never successfully written anything that was based on an assignment, topic, or event. For me, using that type song writing tool has always turned out material that felt disingenuous. I'm better off just seeing what comes out of my brain when I have a guitar nearby. I also try not to get too attached to anything I come up with. Sometimes an idea is really great but it's just not linking up with anything else and I need to let go of trying to control that as soon as I can. There's nothing wrong with writing a great chorus or riff and just leaving it at that. Not everything has to be a song.
Tell us about your new album 'Viewfinder' which has been described as having "sweeping soundscapes that range from broodingly ambient to upbeat twang."
A lot of critics saw the album as a "coming of age" record which is pretty spot-on. The songs really echo the complex and somewhat paradoxical feelings I had about turning 30. In some ways, I felt much more contented, but in others, I felt more angsty, especially politically. There's a potent element of suspicion and dissatisfaction throughout as well as expressions of gratefulness for being where I am at all.
You work closely with Rich Bennett. Why him and what does he bring to your music?
Rich is like the man behind the curtain. For a long time he's been responsible for fleshing out my songs into the soundscapes that they become. Over the years that we've been playing together, my song writing has developed along side his guitar sound and now we really work together on creating the mood and nuances of the songs, bringing a cohesive style to the project. Also he is a kick-ass guitar player, so he keeps the live shows moving and rollicking.
What can we expect from your performance with the when you play with the Toy Hearts in Cardiff in January?
Rich and I will be playing songs from our recent release "Viewfinder" plus more recent material that we intend to record on our next album. I think the arrangements, especially for the new songs, have gotten more dark and lush since our last UK visit. We are also planning to coordinate a song or two to play with the Toy Hearts.
You have played in Wales a few times in the past few years. Any lasting impressions of the place or the people?
Sadly, when you tour it's all very fast paced so I haven't gotten to spend as much time being a tourist as I'd like, but everyone we've met in Cardiff has been super friendly. The audiences are lively, full of great listeners and people seem to be really well attuned to my lyrics and our musical style. What has made the biggest impression on me about Wales, however, is the language. The first time I played in Cardiff I was touring with Lucy Wainwright Roche and as we were driving west into Wales she said something to the effect of "check this out, get ready!" and put on BBC Cymru. I could not believe my ears. Last time through I did the same to Rich as soon as we could pick up the station and he was similarly stunned by the sound. I have never heard anything like Welsh. It is so foreign sounding that the closest language I could even relate it to in the way that my ears perceive it is Hebrew, though I know that is way off.
You have spent a lot of time on the road in recent years working with the likes of the Bowerbirds and Lucy Wainwright Roche. What are the best and worst aspects about being on the road?
I really dig being on the road. It is definitely stressful but I enjoy the intensity. Travelling is one of my favourite things anyway. I love discovering new places or, once I've discovered them, getting to revisit them now and then. It's nice to have a favourite taco place in one town and a favourite coffee shop in another. Rich and I enjoy trying out weird local foods (yes, we even tried Haggis on our last UK tour) and we absolutely love stopping at M&S for lunch while in the UK. One major drawback to touring is the expense. Just the sheer size of the US and the price of gas makes it so there are entire time zones I've never toured in. The flight to London is about the same amount of time as the flight to LA so I haven't toured the west coast in four years. On a recent tour, we left New York, drove 7 hours to West Virginia, played a show, drove 6 hours to Cincinnati, played a show, and drove 5 hours to Pittsburgh, played a show, and the accents barely changed, the culture was nearly identical, we never left the time zone, and we barely made a dent in the country.
What plans have you got for 2012? New album? Gigs? Festivals?
We will be touring as usual, beginning with the UK and Germany, heading back to the west coast in March, and hopefully beginning work on our next record by fall 2012, but probably the biggest plan of 2012 is that Rich and I are getting married in June.
Finally, is it true you are addicted to chocolate mini eggs???
It is true. Anyone who has been across the pond knows the Cadbury in the United States is completely different and nowhere near as good as Cadbury in the UK. I really hope that Easter candy is available in late January.
2012 UK Tour dates:
19 th January - Green Note, London
21 st January - Dale Road Music Club, Croydon
22 nd January 10 Feet tall, Cardiff
23 rd January - Hen & Chicken, Bristol
24 th January - Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton
25 th January - The Musician, Leicester
27 th January - The Wheelhouse, Barnsley
28 th January - Jumpin Hot at Cluny 2, Newcastle upon Tyne
30 th January - Celtic Connections, City Hall, Glasgow
Video embedded code:
Departures & Arrivals (2007)
The Soft Hearted Scientists
Misty's Big Adventure
Jam with RoBina
The Rumble Strips interview
Battle of Land and Sea