Words: James Frostick
Image: Jamie Wdziekonski
Erica Dunn – known to many as the magnetic guitarist and vocalist for bands such as MOD CON and Tropical Fuck Storm – has unplugged and mellowed for her solo guise Palm Springs. Palm Springs & Friends is Erica’s new album, out officially today through Tender Collection. The record is an incredible collection of outsider folk, plumbing the depths of Erica’s mind and offering eight tracks that are startling in their immediacy and lingering in their impact. It’s our pleasure to premiere the album in full, as well as to talk to Erica about the record’s formation and creative intent.
Anyone that has had the privilege of catching Erica Dunn performing on stage in either MOD CON or Tropical Fuck Storm would hasten to agree with me when I say that there are few performers that blend instrumental mastery and electric performance in as sublime a fashion. On stage Erica is rarely static – wide-eyed and locked in, fingers contorting to evoke frenzied noise from her guitar. Before MOD CON emerged as a potent unit in its own right, Erica worked with future band mates Sara Retallick and Racquel Solier to help realise her ideas for Palm Springs – her solo songwriting project. Unlike MOD CON, Palm Springs delivered a stripped-back, folk and blues-influenced brand of dusty rock – no less poignant, but affecting at a different speed. Across two 7″ releases and one EP, Palm Springs pivoted precisely from heartfelt minimalist balladry to sunburned stomp – both sides of the coin awash with Erica’s weathered strine. Palm Springs & Friends marks Erica’s return to the project, this time eschewing the amplified sounds of the electric guitar in favour of a sonic palette of sparse instrumentation.
Palm Springs & Friends is a record that rewards investment from listeners. Not that you need to strain your ears particularly hard to ‘get it’ – Erica’s expert and subtle use of her instruments (acoustic guitar and her own pipes) drew me in instantly. Her poetic approach and raw sonic direction of the record offered up a veritable feast of emotion–fuelled and quotable lyrics to dissect. Palm Springs & Friends is a masterclass in making textured and engrossing works with less, proof that the most impacting music doesn’t require artifice to convey meaning.
It’s a sincere pleasure of mine to host the premiere of this Palm Springs & Friends – a release imbued with earnestness, inspired by wanderlust, new experiences and matters of the heart. Palm Springs & Friends is available to listen down below, but before gorging on the music, educate yourself on the record’s genesis and thematic inspiration through the words of the one responsible. Here is my insightful Q&A with Erica Dunn about Palm Springs & Friends.
Tell me about the genesis of the record! When would you say Palm Springs & Friends was first conceptualised?
ED: Playing guitar and writing songs in this way has always fascinated me. I love this kind of music – I am a full on folk tragic. The weirder and more haphazard the recording the better. I love records by people who have never made records before, and never do again. After writing intensely for MOD CON and finishing up that recording mid last year, it was a break for the ears to get back into bare bones stuff. I also had some lyrics and starts of songs that didn’t fit the MOD CON sound. Lots of odds and ends lying around. I guess this tape started there.
Were these tracks penned over an extended period of time or during a concentrated burst of writing?
ED: Mid last year I was accepted into an artist’s residency program in upstate New York. As I mentioned, it was after I already had a period of intense writing, so in a way it was a funny time to go, but it was an amazing experience. All but one of these songs were fully penned in that brief couple of weeks. I’ve never had time away from ‘normal life’ to dedicate to song writing, it’s always a mad juggle, so in lots of ways these songs were formed while I was also trying to figure out my writing process. Some of them go to weird places that they might not have gone otherwise.
As a vehicle for creative expression, what would you say you typically use Palm Springs to communicate to the world?
ED: I guess it’s just a document of things I’ve been thinking and feeling but communicated in a very raw way.
On a similar note, what sorts of thoughts, reflections and emotions are feeding into the thematic direction and lyrical content of this record in particular?
ED: Some of the songs are escapist, others weigh up details and get into narratives, some are about aliens…, that’s a favourite of mine. It’s hard to sort of sum it up. Despair, love, tragedy, the universe, being a speck of dust, ghosts, spirits, history, memory, humanity, concrete, dirt, territory, listening, messages, code, truth, mirage, desire, conspiracy…chuck it in, see if it sticks.
Palm Springs and Friends features a concise but affecting sonic palette. In terms of crafting the sound of the album, was working with this sparse aesthetic a conscious decision?
ED: Yeah, it was sort of a tricky decision. Like I said, I’m sort of obsessed with this type of music, I listen to it at home a lot; under-produced, demo-eqsue, lost tapes etc. For this tape, once the songs were done, a few friends did comment that I could build the songs more, include strings, more harmonies, percussion, re-do some of the vocals blah blah blah. It’s true, I could! Some of the takes are wonky or go out of time or whatever. It’s kind of scary putting something out there that isn’t necessarily your “best” or most perfect. But we recorded seven songs in about ten hours so there were a lot of decisions being made on the fly. It was taxing on my playing and my concentration. It was about 40 degrees as well. But it wasn’t just practicality that forced this sound; I’m also sort of spooked by recording… there’s a kind of critical point where the spirit of the song or the playing can get lost. I’m not talking about some kind of ‘one take’ mentality, although I am talking a bit crazy I know. It’s just when you’re recording your playing can be on fire, and the energy in the room can be right and it can feel really good and I guess that’s what you want to capture. Later on you can pick out errors or feel disappointed by what you caught and can make a call whether to go back and change shit. But it’s tricky to put your finger on it because it’s a kind of magic. Anyway, I like it how it is. Partially because I’m superstitious, partially because I’m stubborn, partially because I’m a folk nerd.
What’s the biggest benefit and challenge about creating music in a solo guise?
ED: I always joke that playing gigs solo is psychological warfare. There’s a lot going on in terms of your internal voice. Even having the motivation to write, play, practice etc. after doing it for a bit it feels SO GOOD to collaborate. Having said that, it’s something I’ve always done and I really love learning new weird shit on guitar. I love playing guitar and making weird songs and I think that’s just part of who I am, how I communicate and think. Writing songs in this way is like making up and solving a puzzle and you can really tear your hair out if you can’t make the pieces fit. There’s no smoke and mirrors when the sound is this minimal, no hiding behind any feedback or shit like that. Either it works or it doesn’t.
When putting thoughts to paper, how do you choose between working on an idea in your solo guise and bringing it to a band setting? (or is there no need for such delineation?)
ED: It’s pretty clear to me which ideas go with which project. I also write on whichever guitar I will be using and from there I guess I’m responding to a whole different bunch of influences or aspirational sounds. Some of the concepts could sort of overlap at a stretch … both Tabby’s Star and Mirror of Venus sort of loosely deal with how we’re being judged from the sky, by another ‘being’…sort of despairing the whole human race. They’re pretty different songs though.
The record features collaborations with Paul Pirie and Steph Hughes. What did they bring to the table and how did they help you realise your vision for Palm Springs & Friends?
ED: Well, Paul Pirie is my partner/life soundboard and Steph Hughes is my good mate and they are both great players. Steph appears on the track we recorded in Melbourne at Phaedra with John Lee which was a dream day out of a book and Steph’s harmonies and playing just make the whole thing. We are currently writing together in this way just fun duelling guitars and harmonies and hopefully put out a collab tape pretty soon. Paul has an innate weird folk/country intuition that is (barely) repressed in day-to-day life. He nails the slack major/minor bass parts and has a crack at the egg shaker, also kept me sane during the NY recording session, brought me grilled cheese sandwiches and cokes.
Palm Springs & Friends was recorded to tape in NYC using analogue techniques. What was the inspiration behind this method and what would you say it adds to the end result?
ED: It was really serendipitous to get a session in at NYHED. After completing the artist residency we rented an apartment in the East Village and had heard about this studio from friends. It is an amazing tiny space under the ground beneath a cookie store in Orchard Street and literally brimming with old, amazing gear. It is owned and operated by Roció & Matt Verta-Ray who were incredible to work with. In terms of it being analogue, that’s their specialty, and I was keen for that tape sound; it seemed to suit everything else I was on about, playing nylon string, limiting takes, limiting overdubs. You have to be careful with tape because there’s only so many times you can do things again and only so many edits you can make. I’ve got a great photo of the four edits we made. Matt literally cut them out of the tape and stuck the other parts back together. An incredible science! On most of the tracks you can hear the tape hiss in the background and that’s due to the fact that the studio is so small. I was literally playing with my back next to the reel to reel. I love what it adds to the recording, a sort of unpredictable rhythm.
What revelations did the process of writing and recording Palm Springs & Friends unearth about yourself as a songwriter?
ED: Oh man, I’m learning a lot every day in every way. Sometimes I think I’m learning nothing; the same anxieties and weirdness crops up. But I am I guess. Before going away to the artist’s residency I was kind of freaked out by the isolation, the focused time writing, what would happen if I got writers block etc. Anyway, I spoke to a bunch of writers I admire, I remember speaking to Laura Jean and her advice was ‘get bored, make it like when you’re a kid on summer holiday, tap into an internal world’ something like that. Darren Hanlon was like ‘put pen to paper for fifteen minutes as soon as you open your eyes in the morning’… all kinds of advice. It was really good and fun to tap into other peoples’ processes. Helped me start untangling mine. I often sit and try to work and stare at a wall all day, for hours and hours and nothing happens, and then when the sun goes down eventually sometimes some good shit happens. It’s a slow burn.
Ideally, what do you hope listeners respond to on this record?
ED: I have no idea! I hope they don’t think it’s a piece of shit! Although that’s totally fine if they do- it feels good to run over cassettes in your car (goodbye RHCP!). I think when I listen to it, while some parts are real serious and my hearts very much on my sleeve, some of the glitches in playing and some of the strange imperfections are what sing out to me now and make me feel good. There are some weird collisions of stuff that I’m really proud of.
Palm Springs & Friends is out now through Tender Collection. The record is being launched on Friday November 30 at a secret location with support from Golden Scalpel, Egg Nest and Death Couch. Information available here.