Earlier this year, The National released their eighth album I Am Easy To Find. But it's more than just an album, it's also the soundtrack to a short film of the same name by director Mike Mills and starring Alicia Vikander. And it's not just The National either! This time around the iconic Ohio band brought in an array of accomplished female vocalists as well as taking writing contributions from writer and editor Carin Besser – who also happens to be married to lead vocalist Matt Berninger.
As such, the album is the band's most ambitious and adventurous yet – which is saying a lot considering the body of work the band has already created. As KEXP's DJ Cheryl Waters airs a special pre-recorded performance on her radio show (July 18 at 12 PM), we're sharing an interview she did with the band's Bryce Dessner. In the conversation, the two chat about the band's desire to stretch themselves, centering women in their record and performance, and what it means to constantly be evolving as musicians.
KEXP: Bryce, it's so exciting to be here with you and I am super excited about this new record, 'I Am Easy to Find.' It's a film and a record. I saw the film before I heard the album and it made me cry. So beautiful. It's a woman's life from birth to death. It seems so simple and so bare, but it's so poignant and there's so much packed in there – it's just over 26 minutes. How did you feel when you saw it?
Bryce Dessner: You know, it's been this kind of serendipitous moment of meeting Mike Mills, the director, and it was so inspiring that someone enter into our creative process and then give us this beautiful... people talk about The National's music being cinematic – and we've had movies in films – but we've never had this process of creating in this way where the film really informed all the songwriting and even the arrangements. There was a dialogue between the filmmaking and the music making and then to see that kind of blossom from our work... it was very inspiring. Mike was deeply involved in the making of the record and the way we got to hang out and work a bit with Alicia [Vikander] as well, which was really neat.
He's an incredibly inspiring artist on his own and I'm curious to know how that relationship started. It sounded like he reached out to you at a very auspicious time – you had just finished touring for 'Sleep Well Beast' and were gonna take a rest and then he reached out and it changed the trajectory for the band. Overall, I'm guessing that was a welcome thing, but what were your feelings about that at first?
Yeah, I mean, he reached out to Matt and we had some songs that we'd been playing around with, including 'Rylan,' in which we played for you all at KEXP in the live session – people really like that version. Once Matt gets an idea – we all love the idea – but once Matt is excited about something and is willing to kind of write and get into it – because that tends to be the hardest part of finishing songs is finishing lyrics – so he was so excited. I think we were all kind of ready for a new energy in the band. We often do that, where we have friends come in and play. We're not a closed unit, we're very open. But in this case, we gave Mike quite a lot of creative input and it gave us new energy. I think we were all excited about the making and the working. I think the releasing of the album and touring is the thing that's harder because we are still kind of recovering from the last... all the crazy trips and the intensity of that campaign. It is a lot, but I guess we're lucky at this point in our career to have new energy still.
A lot of people think of you, The National, as the five of you but, as you said, for a long time you've brought other people into the mix. Of course, the horn section. You've had other vocalists on the album before but never anything quite like this. These are not guest vocalists, per say. I mean they're front and center on the stage. Talk a little bit about the people that you work with, some of them old friends and people you've worked with before, but how it's different on this record.
So we we're writing these songs and then Mike made the film, which is the story of one woman's life and the death, which is so beautiful. We were hearing Matt sing these songs, which were really written for the film and there were even moments of the lyrics that were collaborative with Mike's script. But we asked the question and some of our close collaborators and wives and female friends were asking, 'Well, why aren't we hearing from women?' And we all felt that strongly. So my wife Pauline, who was onstage last night, [also known as] Mina Tindle is one of the voices – she's the voice on "Oblivions." She's a French singer. And Kate Stables, [whose stage name is] This Is The Kit, an English folk singer. She also lives in Paris, so Kate sings the title track. We took the songs and we had, along with a few other friends, spent a couple of days creating versions of them where the women were leading. We knew right away that this was going to work. People always say that the National is kind of...you kniow, Matt's voice is The National.
So to have the songs live outside of his voice felt like it opened up a new language for us and new meanings and actually kind of resonated in a powerful way. And so eventually then we kind of branched out. And we were quite intuitive about who we were asking to sing. We didn't want it to just to be kind of special guests. I mean obviously we could have, we have a big Rolodex. We could've called any number of people, but we really wanted it to be voices that we felt would fit and also pretty much everybody in there we have a personal connection to. So it started with Pauline and Kate and then we reached out to Lisa Hannigan, who was really the kind of primary female voice on 'Sleep Well Beast' and we've worked with and known her for a long time. Gail Annn Dorsey, who was Bowie's long time bassist and collaborator. We met through some political events in upstate New York and she's sort of the lead female vocalist on the record. In a way, her voice was this incredible foil to Matt's. She's a very deep voice, very powerful voice and she is extremely professional. That was a really beautiful collaboration.
I've seen you live bring vocalists to do like a guest song onstage. But having these vocalists be so much a part of the show, how has that felt for the band?
It's felt amazing to have women on stage. I think for the longest time, some of our peers – bands like Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene or some of the bands that we've come up with – have a stronger female presence onstage. And so over the years, we've asked that question. I think because of the nature of Matt's voice, we felt we were giving him kind of primary voice for a long time. He's actually been really gracious about it. For someone who's, as he's gotten older and as the band's gotten more better known, he's kind of grown into this proper rock star in a way. So to see him up there sharing space with female vocalists and really trying to listen, it's been really inspiring for us and I think a good change of pace.
Another thing that he's been vocal about sharing is the lyrics. I understand his wife Carin [Besser] wrote quite a few lyrics here, which isn't totally new for him and the band, but it seems like a bigger role here. He seems very proud to share that information.
Yeah, Carin has been involved... They met, I believe, towards the end of 'Alligator.' And so really [from] 'Boxer' on, she's a brilliant, brilliant writer, poet and was a fiction editor at The New Yorker for 15 years and she's kind of this brilliant mind. They're a team. She's been there, often in smaller ways – finding words and occasionally a line or two – but definitely in this project there's whole songs that she's written. 'Hey Rosey' being a great example of that, of a song that she wrote for Matt. 'You Had Your Soul With You' is I think a lot her. I asked her about ['Not In Kansas'] yesterday and I was like, 'How did you let him do that?' She was like, 'Oh, I had nothing to do with that.' Which is a great song, actually, but it's clearly a Matt one. But people ask, 'Is this The National's #metoo moment' or something. I think that the answer is that the film really brought... Mike always makes work about strong female characters. He came from a really matriarchal family with a strong mother and sisters. The mystery of women is what interests him and so he made this movie and we were really inspired by it. The truth is that we have strong women in our lives and Carin especially has been a part of our creative process for a long time. So bringing her sort of forward felt really natural.
I was talking with someone about The National last night and they were saying, 'They just continue to surprise us.' And I sort of felt like watching you that you maybe surprised yourself on this record. How does it feel to continue to grow and to have the freedom to do that?
I can speak for me personally. Early on, we were trying to find our sound and then once we had it we were trying to grow and there were the economics involved in trying to survive. [I] really empathize with young bands who were in this sort of 'How do you create good work and believe in your art when you're also struggling with this thing of how do you also develop your career?' We've been really lucky with that, just navigating. For me personally, I've sought quite a lot of work outside of the band that tends to be in the less commercial space, where I can really... It's kind of just pure poetry it can be just an hour of complete avant garde music or something. Actually this new record, for me, has kind of scratched all the itches at the same time where it feels like, 'Oh this is exactly the kind of ambitious, creative project, working in collaboration with a lot of different artists, pushing ourselves to the absolute kind of edge of what's still The National.' That for me is really rewarding and at age 43 after 20 years of doing this and eight albums, it feels very exciting. Like a kind of new beginning.
Well, speaking of the work that you do and how you're able to put yourself in scratch all those itches, there's choral and orchestral arrangements on almost every song which is of course your wheelhouse. Do you feel like you were able to stretch in a different direction on this record?
That's always been there and we all bring what we bring. My brother and I write sketches together, so they're kind of elemental song ideas but then typically he might handle more of a bigger production and I'm doing the orchestration. It is foregrounded on this record because when we made the film, the film was...he took a string arrangement I had done for 'Quiet Light' with it kind of the Sandee strings at the end – which is really quite bracing – and featured throughout the movie in this really foreground way. All the songs, with the exception of hairpin turns have large strings on them and also work on them thinking it's not just icing on the cake, this is actually going to be driving this particular section of the song. So I'm glad that we did it. It was a good challenge. Similarly, experimenting with the female vocalists in Paris. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus are a group that I've worked with a lot in the past and so they became a kind of key sound on the record as well.
It's a magnificent record. 'I Am Easy to Find.' It's so fun to talk with you and I absolutely love the new record.
I Am Easy to Find is out tomorrow, May 17
The National share the third single off the record, “Hairpin Turns,” via a black & white video from Mike Mills. Mills is also directing the companion short film, I Am Easy to Find, which will screen in select theaters this month.