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July 18, 2013

Will Boast Interviews the Members of Fox & Woman

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Will Boast is an author, his debut short fiction collection Power Ballads won the Iowa Short Fiction Award and was published in 2011. He is also a member of the band Fox & Woman.

Fox & Woman is an orchestral-pop band based in San Francisco. The band recently released the album This Side Dawn, which was recorded at Tiny Telephone in the Mission. Listen at

Author/musician Will Boast Interviews the members of his band Fox & Woman (and vice versa):

Will Boast: I've lived in San Francisco for the last five years and for much of that time, alongside my writing, I've been involved with the Bay Area music scene, playing drums in bands, recording, and going out to shows. I'm not sure when I heard about Fox & Woman, a new project my friend Emily Haltom was involved with, but I was immediately curious. Emily and I had played in a couple other bands together, and I knew that she was writing songs with her friends Jess Silva and Andrew Paul Nelson and that they were playing small shows at readings and at the raucous and sometimes highly chaotic street poetry gatherings at 16th St and Mission. Somehow every time I got down to that corner on Tuesday nights, the music was done, and the slam poetry/free-styling/drunken prophesying had taken hold. For a few months, Fox & Woman expanded to a five piece and started playing regularly at a secret underground venue in the Mission (whose importance to SF music I can't overstate), but I think I first saw them play a full set at Slim's, a big club known for metal shows, at which they killed with just strings, ukelele, guitar, and voices. Someone wrote soon after that Fox & Woman could be heavy without being loud, and that rang true to me. They were playing songs that you might call "folk," but which had more scope and ambition than almost all of the revivalist/Americana stuff that's been popular over the last few years.

And, in fact, Fox & Woman didn't really want to be folk at all. Their influences were broad but somehow complimentary, finding the common threads between acts like The Knife, Little Dragon, and Sufjan Stevens, along with strains of 90s R&B and the more math-y realms of indie. Their songs were not simple verse-chorus stuff, nor were they deliberately complex. There was a desire to stretch out a little bit, try out some unconventional structures and some more exotic harmonies. I'd just played my last few shows with an R&B/soul band, and I knew Fox & Woman wanted drums on the EP they were recording at Tiny Telephone, so I came aboard in Oct. 2011. I think we were collectively pleased with the self-titled Fox & Woman EP but felt that it no longer represented the way the band had evolved over just a half-year or so. Early in 2012, a new bunch of songs were coming together that were more orchestral, for lack of a better word, more compositional. We began recording them, again at Tiny Telephone, in June of 2012 and spent long chunks of almost a full year layering on new parts (harp, French horn, harmonium, *many* violin tracks...), tweaking, and mixing. Lord knows I'm no objective judge of the resulting album, This Side Dawn, of which I'm very proud to have been a part. When you play drums, you long to have inventive, sensitive, and exacting musical partners, and to get to work on an album like this has always been a dream of mine. I have always been a fan of music that does not explain itself immediately. Density and detail are of great interest to me, and so, if I could make a humble suggestion about listening to these tracks, it would be to hang with them for a while, throw on some headphones, and listen for the musical and lyrical themes that echo through these nine songs.

As a sort of interlude, I also want to include here a brief interview I did with my bandmates. Okay, so the idea of a band interviewing itself is somewhat bizarre. Because, believe me, we've talked about these songs at great length and over a long span of time. Yet I was surprised myself to learn about some of the ideas that went into the part writing and recording.

Will: I guess we all hate trying to categorize This Side Dawn, but whenever we do, we seem to use "pop" more than "rock." I'm wondering what that means. For me, I guess it's sort of saying we're not a Rock band, and that we have more influences like the Knife, Little Dragon, or certain eras of R&B/hip-hop than we do punk or 90s bands, though I guess we all have those too. When we say Pop, are we really saying we're not certain things? Maybe this is a dumb question.

Andrew: I suppose Pop to me is The Beatles. I think they made art music and by doing so re-invented what pop is and can be. Same for Radiohead. I think Radiohead is about the most pop (as in popular) band on the planet. They make weird experimental art music and yet it's pop. I want to make both. Art & Pop. Recently, I have decided that if a band wants to be successful & marketable they have to chose to make music to fit nicely within a certain genre. For example, we are seeing this a lot with folk/americana right now. I imagine super talented musicians that could be making any kind of art but choose to make really obvious & simple music because it has a certain higher probability of making it in the market. That seems cynical to me.

Will: Jess, we've had some really interesting conversations about lyrics. Could you talk about that a little. I know you were sort of swept up by the DeBeauvoir novel The Mandarins while writing lyrics, though perhaps that's just a sort of aura around the words in a way....

Jess: As far as lyrics go, I would rather have people listen to these songs and develop their own interpretations of them to discover their connection with the music. Words are just color and can only be taken into consideration once you've experienced the entire canvas. The voice is just like a violin, horn or any other instrument. It's sound. I think that is why I enjoy writing songs in Portuguese. For people that cannot understand Portuguese, the voice is just like any other instrument.

Will: Emily, you probably have the most intense musical training of any of us, violin from age three and piano not long after. Can you talk about that early orchestral training a bit and how it influences that way you play in this band?

Emily: Everything I wanted from music definitely sprang from playing in an orchestra. Being a part of something that big, being in the middle of something that allowed for so many combinations of sounds and the resulting emotions, made my hair stand on end. It was truly inspiring and was the catalyst for where I am today in music. I wanted to be a part of something that made people feel the way I felt when I listened to music, whether it was melancholy or overwhelmingly energetic and goofy.

Will: Andrew, we've talked about sort of hating guitar and drums as instruments. For me, it's that I really think people get obsessed with the idea of an instrument or a particular pose, and they never really end up making music. They just end up wailing or cock rocking, and I could care less. I just hate people who don't bother to actually play to the song. Thoughts about instruments and sounds?

Andrew: I fucking hate guitars. Sometimes I hear someone's (not mine) guitar tone and am impressed in spite of myself but that is generally the exception. Acoustic guitars are the worst. Any time I hear a full six string chord strummed on a steel string acoustic guitar a picture of John Mayer or Dave Matthews defecating immediately pops in my head and I go all crossed eyed. My favorite band of all time is 1 vocal 1 piano 1 cello 1 violin. No fucking twanging cock rocking guitars. Unfortunately for me, I am too old to learn any new instrument and guitar is the only one I know how to play so I feel like I'm stuck w/ it. It's a struggle.

Will: One of the things that bowled me going into recording was that, even with those Midi versions of the songs we started with, you guys seemed to know pretty much how you wanted everything to sound, which instruments, which tones....

Andrew: When we write songs on a computer we tend to overwrite them then get rid of the original parts. For the record our idea was to pack each tune to the brim w/ as many different parts and instruments (that weren't guitars!) as possible. I didn't really know what a harpsichord, harp, or harmonium sounded like so we were definitely just guessing w/ all of those parts.

Will: Jess, how do you think your voice or singing has evolved since the EP?

Jess: I think my voice has evolved greatly. I had specific ideas of how the vocal melodies should go while keeping in mind that a lot of orchestration would back them up. Some of them worked and some didn't. Through these trials, I've discovered how capable I am. I've grown through this process.

Will: Emily, because you were there right from the beginning, and I'm still a little murky about origins, how exactly did Fox & Woman come together?

Emily: Jess and I started playing music together after I hired her to be my assistant manager at a cafe that has since closed down (not due to our ineffective managing skills, I promise). We just hung out one night with a violin and uke and started writing short little ditties. Shortly after Jess and I met, Jess met Andrew. They started playing music together too, and before you know it we had combined our efforts and were playing little shows here and there. We started at the 16th and Mission Thursday poetry nights, played Litquake and then gathered some more members together and started playing venues like Amnesia.

The band name came from one of the first songs we performed back when we were called simply Jess, Em, & Andrew. We had a hard time coming up with a name. We did a lot of brainstorming and talking to friends and people who had heard our music. At first we were hesitant to go with a name that had an animal in it simply because the music world seems to be inundated with a lot of that at the moment. I guess we just got over it and accepted that it was the best fit.

Fox & Woman links:

Fox & Woman's website

Will Boast links:

Will Boast's website
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by Will Boast for his book Power Ballads

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)

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