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Posted Jul 10th, 2009 (11:57 am) by Gordon Kelley

Phrases such as “epic set of songs,” “bittersweet taste of relief,” and “restrained pulsing energy” kept leaping out at me. I was editing a very enthusiastic review of an album by a band I’d never heard of. As it would turn out, Great Northern’s 2009 release, Remind Me Where The Light Is became one of my most favorite musical discoveries this year. I later acquired Great Northern’s earlier release Trading Twilight for Daylight (2007) and further deepened my appreciation of this interesting indie band.

I went to go see Great Northern when they played Portland in May 2009. Rachel Stolte was a striking lead presence on stage, standing tall in front of the band in a red and white striped dress, confidently wielding her guitar. Yet, despite her strong songwriting and intensely focused singing, she came across a little unsure of herself, a little raw, and very real. Solon Bixler, in a sport coat, appeared focused and calm, a little distant even, which contrasted with the high-volume, high-energy chords bursting from his guitar. They were backed up by 3 other musicians (drums, keys, bass) who did an admirable job of supporting the two bandleaders. After the show I had the opportunity to interview Rachel.

InYourSpeakers: On this tour, which songs do you enjoy playing the most?

Rachel Stolte: I really enjoy Houses, Warning, Mountain, and Numbers.

IYS: I read many reviews of Remind Me Where The Light Is and none of them mentioned Numbers, which is one of my favorite tracks on the album.

Rachel: It’s one of my favorite tracks too. That song was one of the most painful ones to write. When we made this record, we wanted to be more honest than we were on the first one. On Trading Twilight for Daylight it was like “We’re making a record! It sounds pretty. Let’s put tons of sounds and layers on it.” We didn’t have a focus. On this record, we wanted to focus on what we have to say. We wanted to be honest, even if it was dark or painful for us individually. We needed to write the songs anyway. Numbers was one of those songs that every time we listened back to the recording (we have a studio in our house) we would get a lump in our throat . . . it’s about human beings and their relationships. Who you can rely on, who you can not rely on. It was a really honest moment throughout the making of the record. Every time I sing it I feel really connected to it.

IYS: How would you describe the changes in your sound between Trading Twilight for Daylight and Remind Me Where The Light Is?

Rachel: We took a “less is more” approach. We focused more on vocals. The new record is way more guitar driven, and has less piano.

IYS: Your first album was widely lauded in the music press. However, I’ve read very mixed reviews of the new album. Some reviews have described it as a masterpiece, while others have called it a shallow attempt at radio-friendly indie rock. How do you feel about the inconsistent reviews of Remind Me Where The Light Is?

Rachel: People seem to either love it or hate it. It’s crazy. If you make music for the reviews that you get, then you’re fucked. We basically were really honest and made the record we wanted to make. We really believe in it. It’s just like being a human being. Some people are going to love you and some are going to think you’re lame and that you suck. You have no control over that. The question is, did you make the album you wanted to make? Are you the person you want to be? That’s all you can do.

IYS: Did you, in fact, make the album you wanted to make?

Rachel: Totally. I feel more pride in this record than the first one because I put more of myself into it, more of my soul into it. It’s more satisfying. I feel that if someone doesn’t like it, that’s cool. It’s art. All you can do is be honest about what you’ve created, and hope it’s well received.

This album was extremely uncomfortable for both of us in a lot of ways. Recording this second record was hard, and it fucking sucked. It was awful, like a stomach ache for 8 months. It was harder because it’s more honest. But it’s funny how it turned out more rocking and upbeat than the first record.

IYS: Did you play it for your mom? Did your family like this one?

Rachel: They did! They’re super supportive. My dad texts me every day on the road, wants to know where I am, what I’m doing.

IYS: How has Portland been for you?

Rachel: Every time I come here it’s a different experience. One time we played the Crystal Ballroom and it was packed and awesome, but another time we played the Doug Fir and there was nobody, and it wasn’t so fun. I really enjoy my morning runs here. I like how it feels; it’s an old-fashioned city. It’s like a time warp, it’s cool.

IYS: Do you have plans for a third album?

Rachel: We’re always writing. I’ve always played piano, but playing guitar live is a new thing for me. I feel much more inspired. Both Solon and I are already writing songs for the next album. Also, the songs that we wrote for Remind Me Where The Light Is are evolving as we continue to play them live.

IYS: So, if I were to see you a year from now, some of the songs would sound different?

Rachel: We just started playing these songs live this month. This is our first tour with this record. The songs become more fully realized live, and start to take on a life of their own. When you record the record, the songs are like little babies. They evolve on the road.

IYS: Everything I read about Great Northern focuses on you and Solon. Yet there are three other people on stage with you. What can you tell me about your backup band?

Rachel: They’re hired musicians, but they’re amazing and awesome. Solon and I write everything, and we played all the parts on the recording, other than our old drummer on a couple tracks. We hire people to play with us on tour. But this particular group we have now is so awesome that we’re thinking, “Maybe we should be a band!” I don’t know. From the beginning it’s always been Solon and I holed up in a room, writing and recording together.

IYS: Tell me about the recording of Remind Me Where The Light Is.

Rachel: We recorded about 30 demos at home, then brought them to the producers who chose the parts and songs that they liked. We worked off the demos because there’s a certain quality of the sound we get at home that we really like. We used those tracks then went into the studio and recorded the rest.

IYS: So, some of your original demo tracks ended up on the album?

Rachel: Yes. For example, the song “Stop”, which has a cat meowing in the beginning; that’s our cat, Ricky Penny Pearl. She’s Siamese and crosseyed. She’s very musical—we’ll wake up in the night because she’s “playing piano” and it kind of sounds like a song. She was hanging out when we were recording and would meow to the beat. We just kept it. She’s famous! (laughs)

IYS: Do you have influences for your music that come from outside the music world?

Rachel: Yeah! Spirituality, not necessarily religion, but the magic of the universe. Animals, Planet Earth documentaries, the director Paul Thomas Anderson (he directed Magnolia), and many other kinds of art have been inspiring. Music is easily inspired by other art forms—when I see someone doing art that I don’t know how to do, I want to write a song about it. For example, an amazing performance such as Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, or a poem like “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury, or even Harry Potter. I can find inspiration in many things. There’s art in everything. There’s more art in everyday life than there is in a modern art gallery. If you tap into what the world has to offer, it’s endless inspiration.

IYS: What music are you listening to these days?

Rachel: Led Zeppelin—I’m obsessed. I love Led Zeppelin. I love The Kills. Brian Eno. I like Bat For Lashes, she’s got a great voice. I love Fiona Apple, PJ Harvey, Ennio Morricone, and Beethoven. It depends on my mood. I grew up in the hardcore punk scene, but grew out of it.

IYS: Do you still listen to punk?

Rachel: Sure. I listen to Fugazi. I listen to The Clash. I love Iggy Pop. The Kills are amazing live, I mean blow-your-mind amazing. I love the Yeah Yeah Yeahs too.

IYS: Are you enjoying this period in your life, where you get to be in a band, put out albums, go on tour, etc? Is this working for you?

Rachel: Fuck yeah! Being in a band is really fucking awesome. It’s hard and it’s scary like anything else in life where you put yourself out there to be criticized and judged. I feel vulnerable. You can’t hide. Once you record a song, you’d better own it live. You have to be fucking good at what you’re doing or nobody’s going to care. But at the same time I love it. It’s fun. I feel like touring makes you a better performer and musician.

IYS: Who would you like to tour with?

Rachel: I would love to tour with Depeche Mode. I would love to tour with The Kills or Radiohead too!

IYS: How is it touring with The Dears and The Eulogies?

Rachel: It’s good! You learn something different from every tour. With The Dears it wasn’t an instant friend connection, it’s more like two ships passing in the night. We toured with this band called The Comas, from Brooklyn, and I’ve never had so much fun in my life. I literally laughed so hard, I peed my pants. The Eulogies are fucking amazing dudes. We’re having a great time on tour with them. I don’t feel negative toward The Dears, we just haven’t had much time to spend with them.

IYS: Any last words on where you guys are going as a band?

Rachel: We’re not afraid of change. We want to evolve and become better, no matter how painful it is. We hope for success, but you never fuckin’ know in this world. Our next record will either hit or it won’t, and we’ll keep trying again. Being able to create music is such a gift. I feel so lucky. The moment where you’re in the room, something is moving through you, and you record it is undeniably the best feeling on the planet. Whatever happens with it after that is the icing on the cake. If you get to do that and you’re successful with it, it’s fucking unreal. If you don’t, it’s depressing but you can create another song in your house the next day and feel good again. It’s like therapy.

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