As opposed to gimmicky, Scarlet Tanager's blissful brand of folk- tinged twee anthems come across as true celebrations and musings on growing up and discovering a bright world on the horizon.
I caught up with Scarlet Tanager in its studio in South City, after Michael and Susan's recent relocation from former band practice/studio spot in Eureka, Mo. In the midst of recording its sophomore album, the follow up to 2012's "American Songbird," the band sat down to discuss their recording and writing process and their excitement for an upcoming appearance at KDHX's Twangfest on June 6.
Matt Stuttler: What's the recording process been like for this album?
Michael Logsdon: This one has been....slow. We do all our own recording. When we were recording the first album ["American Songbird"], we didn't really know anything else. Then we discussed having someone else do this one, but we made the choice: "We want to do it ourselves." We like that homemade part of it. It's definitely a practice of discipline because when you're at home, you're not always wanting to do anything. You're not under the gun from any kind of time crunch, money crunch, or anything like that. You just kind of have to buckle down. So we started in December recording drums. We tracked drums at one of the Journey's churches, that was awesome, and finished it up over at August Gate Church. It's an old church, really cool.
Josh Shepherd: The sanctuary is great for drums. It sounds good in there.
Michael Logsdon: And we were recording at Susan [Logsdon's] and my house out in Eureka, but we sold that so we had to move during recording and quickly get set up. I think this was all set up before the rest of the house was up.
Michael Logsdon: Yeah, we just recorded some guitars the other day, we'll do some gang vocals tonight maybe. It's just a process of getting together whoever can get together, and trying stuff to see what happens.
How has the process for your new album differed from the recording of your first album "American Songbird"?
Susan Logsdon: I think most of those songs from "American Songbird" were ones that I had written throughout college. So it was kind of this collection of the best songs from the past five or six years before that. Some of them we had already recorded parts on. Nate Henricks [recorded] three songs, so it was kind of bringing those songs and other songs together. Those songs were completed before the band really...
Michael Logsdon: Came together and put their influence on it. There were a few extra songs that were entirely this version of the band. It was very much trying to find our way through. We tried different things. We tried writing as a group. We tried writing as Susan coming to the band saying, "Here's what I got." I don't know if we've ever really refined exactly what works best for us, like on this new one….
So all the songs on the new one -- are they finished songs? Or are you still working them out live?
Josh Shepherd: Most of them are finished as far as melody and lyrics, the foundation chords, the rhythm, the feel of the song. As far as all the little extra stuff, we're still working on it. That's what we worked on the other day, and we got to do that with pretty much every song. There's probably eight songs we don't play live.
Susan Logsdon: Yeah.
Jordan Shepherd: It's sort of funny though because we have songs like that, then there are a couple songs we've also been playing like...
Susan Logsdon: Almost two years.
Jordan Shepherd: Because we were playing songs that are on this [new] album, when we released "American Songbird" two years ago.
Josh Shepherd: Which we debated putting on "American Songbird" but they weren't far along yet, or we just didn't have time.
So the songs that you've been playing for the last two years, have they evolved over time? Have you picked up new things to do with them?
Susan Logsdon: Totally.
Michael Logsdon: And yeah, that will definitely help when I record them because, you know, when you record those fresh songs, soon as you release that album six months later, you're like, "Oh man! If only we had done this on the recording." We definitely won't have that regret on any of those songs. We've really tried to iron those out the best we can. It's a temptation when recording to always say, "Oh, well what if we tried this? We got so many tracks." We're trying to stay on this [album] closer to the core of what that song has been for us.
So for the new material you're recording -- will it be more what you can pull off live?
Josh Shepherd: I think we're pushing the limits a little bit more; the last one we had talked about it...
Michael Logsdon: Being more what we could do live. Josh is right -- we'd like to push it a little bit, and make that song something that we can say, "Yeah, that's exactly how we want to present it" to people. At the same time, it has to hold up on its own live. So we have to be mindful of that while we're recording and making those decisions. If it can't hold up on its own, we either don't play it live or we rethink how we're going to record it.
You've mentioned a bit about what you've done with songwriting in the past. You're a six piece. Do you find that has an advantage when writing songs as compared to a three piece writing songs? Is there a lot of give and take with throwing ideas around? Does it help, or does it make it harder sometimes?
Jordan Shepherd: I think it's a good combination of both. It's really great to have so many perspectives; we all come from our own places and we all bring that in to it. Then at the same time, sometimes you can get into this cycle where everybody has an idea and they won't go together so you have to sort of flesh that out and hopefully come to a decision without having wasted a lot of time or spent too much time on it.
Michael Logsdon: Feelings definitely come into that. You have to be mindful of that as well. I think the songwriting process of Susan coming up with just the core of what the song is at its heart, usually it doesn't even have words [yet], but she's just so good at like mumbling words when she starts. She's got the melody down pat, and half the time everyone thinks she has words written, but it's all just nonsense. When she brings that to us, then we can add our influence to it as a band, instead of standing there looking at each other, not knowing what to do.
Jordan Shepherd: Yeah, I've gotten real good at harmonizing gibberish. (Everyone laughs.)
Has being in St. Louis for the entirety of writing this new material had an effect on it, or the writing or recording process?
Susan Logsdon: In college [in Illinois] it was definitely different. I wrote more songs because I was just a singer-songwriter. I'd write a song and it would be completed. There weren't ever as many mumble-y songs, or songs that are like, "I don't know what I'm going to do at this point." It was a completed song, and everyone else added to it. Almost like, my songs as a singer-songwriter were my songs with a backing band. I think this album feels like a more cohesive band.
Michael Logsdon: I think St. Louis has an influence because there are so many talented people out there. I would say it makes you more timid, because you don't want to bring something that's crappy to the table, because there are so many good bands and creative people. You want to be respected by them because you definitely respect what they're doing. When we're making decisions, we don't want to do things just to impress people, we just want to make it ours. It's a bigger audience.
Going along with a bigger audience -- you've played many spots around town, such as the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis Art Museum, and street fairs. How has performing in non-club settings shaped your perspective on performing?
Michael Logsdon: You have to go into with a different mindset.
Susan Logsdon: So we recently played at a beer festival, and everyone was drinking beer and just kind of hanging out, so there's a lot of talking in between your songs, and you wonder if anyone is listening. But then after, people come up and are like, "That was great!" Maybe more people are listening than you thought.
Michael Logsdon: We've learned to just go into it with the mindset that we don't want to be conceited enough to think everyone is there to see us. Instead, we're there to participate in something that is bigger than us, and that's fun, and we want to provide that.
Dustin Kent: That Earth Day Festival we played in Forest Park, that was a lot of fun.
When you're recording, how do you decide what tracks to keep?
Michael Logsdon: We fight about it (smiling, everyone laughs). I think it's more, let's take Josh for example, when he was recording his solo the other day, I think it's more us convincing Josh that that was the take, then it is anything else. When we're being recorded, we're all like "Just one more [take]." It's usually everyone else saying "No, that's the one."
Do you feel like you have an edge over other bands because there are so many family relations and old friendships in the band? Do you find you can be blunter during recording or live performances?
Josh Shepherd: I think it helps.
Michael Logsdon: I know I can tell Susan if something is great or if something is not so great. We work together during the day so we just kind of skip past the pleasantries, save some time, and just be real honest. That way when I say something is good, she knows that I mean it, because if it's not…. Dustin just always tells me everything sucks.
Dustin Kent: Sucks! (everyone laughs)
Jordan Shepherd: I would say I have a unique perspective on this from where I sit. The last album, I had just joined the band at the time Josh and I got engaged and married, I'm not sure exactly how that fell. I know that I was a fan first, and then I joined the band. I'm not a professional musician by any means. Everything I know I've learned in the last two years being with the band. I'd never recorded anything before in my life. I think the first album for me was really intimidating because I was finding my place not only in the band, but in the family as well. I wasn't confident yet. I haven't recorded much for this album yet but I'm really excited to because I feel like I've finally settled into that place.
What do you hope to accomplish with this album?
Michael Logsdon: Platinum. (everyone laughs)
Josh Shepherd: I think one of the things is another step forward in our writing, musicianship, and just pushing one another to grow as musicians, family and friends.
Michael Logsdon: I'd like to solidify our sound a little more, but as the same time I don't feel like we have to fully decide exactly this is what we're going to sound like for every song. I don't want to really be that band, though I don't want it to be so disconnected that people are like, "No, I don't like it. I don't get it." All these songs are completely new recording songs, where as the last one they had been recorded before sometime. It's going to take a while. There's 15 songs we can choose from, and we're going to limit it down to 12. It was hard to make that decision, what ones don't make it.
What are your interactions like when you record? Is it all business, or is there room for fun?
Michael Logsdon: When it's all of us, my favorite thing to do is gang vocals with all these guys, just set up a couple mics. The last place, I'd have to run into the room; I could use an iPad to start it and stop it, but that was the fun part. I'd have to run into the room and someone would hand me headphones and we'd try and make it work. I think it's always been pretty fun. That's why I'm always so hesitant to say, "Yeah, let's go into the studio and record this next one." It'll get done faster, it'll probably sound better, but I love the process of it. I love the sound of a space, even if it's not the best sounding.
We recorded the last one in our garage. Josh put all these rugs on the walls. It was really cool. I love that the drums were recorded in these two churches in St. Louis, that it's not so sterile. So this album will have some recordings from our last house, and I love that house, so I still got that, but I love this new space too. When we were moving out, we took down all the carpets and everything out of the garage. On that last day before the closing, I said, "Susan, come in here!" We were both kind of on edge just because it was hot, we were tired from moving so long. "Listen to the garage!" and I clapped, and there's this three second-long decay…. "We've got to record." By the end of the night, we were just too exhausted. It would have been so cool though.
What has shaped Scarlet Tanager into the band you are now, three years later?
Michael Logsdon: Growing up together. I mean, it's only been three years, but in your early to mid to late 20s...we're in that stage where we're finding out who we are as adults, how the dynamic in our relationships work out. I think that more than anything is what shaped our sound. That and our passion for music. I know Dustin and I are into this surf rock, rockabilly kick right now.
Dustin Kent: I feel like a lot of our songs are in different directions, but it's something that I've always liked about us. Not everything sounds the same, but within that we all can pull in our influences for that specific song.
Michael Logsdon: The writing process has changed too. It used to be just what Susan dreamt up, but since we got married and lived together, she'll be playing something and I can hear here in the other room, and I'll run in and say, "No, try this try this try this." We always have this habit of picking up the guitar right before we need to go to bed. Kind of in that stalling moment, pick up something, she'll come up with something great, and we'll think it's going to go one way when we bring it to the band, then it goes a different direction.
You are very positive lyrically and in your live performance. There's not really sad songs, it's happy stuff. What's the drive there, to keep you on the "up"?
Dustin Kent: We believe in what we're doing.
Michael Logsdon: And we were in so many "sad" bands...sad music, sad lyrics. To me, that gets tiring.
Jordan Shepherd: Every time we have a show, we get to hang out and drink beers together. That's something to celebrate.
Michael Logsdon: There's a few tracks on this new one that dive in to heavier things. It's very honest. It's what you're always going to get with Susan. She's very honest and transparent.
You guys excited about playing Twangfest this year?
Josh Shepherd: It's going to be sweet!
Susan Logsdon: We've never played the Duck Room before.
Anything special planned? Are you playing some new material?
Susan Logsdon: Half of our set right now is the new material.
You're not exactly twangy.
Michael Logsdon: I think we'll just be us. I kind of like being something different because in a night of great music that's kind of going this way, to be that branch off is a good position to be in. We'll learn a lot from it too. Even last night we played [at a beer festival in St. Charles] and I played trumpet on a couple of songs -- I'm using the term "play" very loosely. Then the Funky Butt Brass Band gets up, and they're just amazing. They're just running up and down on those horns. At first, I just wanted to get into the fetal position. Then I was like, "Wow, I get to witness something that good." I think Twangfest will be pretty similar for me.
So, is there an end in sight for recording? When you do expect the new album to be out?
Jordan Shepherd: Valentine's Day of this year, that was the end...
Josh Shepherd: The fourth of the July. It's the day we become independent of this album!
Susan Logsdon: Did we say the Fourth of July to be done tracking?
Michael Logsdon: We need to be down tracking by the Fourth of July.
So the new album will probably be out in 2013?
Susan Logsdon: Oh yeah, end of summer for sure.
Michael Logsdon: You put this on the record! We talked the other day, and it's like none of us ever want to talk about when do we call it and say we are done with the music. It's not anytime soon, but I know that I want to have at least four or five albums done. I want to look back when I'm forty and I don't want to say, "If only I would have buckled down more." Soon as we finish this, we just got to start working on the next one.
Susan Logsdon: Well, with the first one, we had set a CD release show before we had finished recording.
Josh Shepherd: That helped.
Michael Logsdon: We're going to try to do a music video for a song this album as well. We might actually go outside this time!
This just popped into my head. If you could contrast your first album with your new album in one word for each, what would that be?
Michael Logsdon: First one would say "smitten" because a lot of the lyrics were about when Susan and I were first dating. This one is "matured" or further along.
Dustin Kent: Twee and twang!
Josh Shepherd: For the sound, the first one would be garage, the second would be studio. I think, so far, this album sounds a lot more studio. I mean, we recorded the first one in a garage so...
Susan Logsdon: The first one maybe more, I don't want to say shallow...light I guess, where this next one seems deeper.
Jordan Shepherd: The word "bouncy" keeps coming up in my head for the first one. For the second one...
Josh Shepherd: Rock.
Jordan Shepherd: Yeah!
So Michael, you had mentioned that this album is number two out of possibly four or five. So where does the second album fall on that scale, without knowing how the future albums will be?
Michael Logsdon: I can't wait to listen to this one. When I emailed out the tracks I recorded at the last house, I think I said I feel like a little kid holding a gift unopened on Christmas morning. I can't wait until they're done. I imagine the albums after this will be same. Though writing gets harder the farther you go along. You can't do the same tricks. I think this one is going to beat "American Songbird" for sure, because this one is all brand new. There's a lot of gang vocals, and I really love gang vocals.
Scarlet Tanager performs at 8 p.m on June 6 for Twangfest 17, presented by 88.1 KDHX, at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room. Also on the bill are Shivering Timbers, Motel Mirrors (featuring Amy LaVere, John Paul Keith and Shawn Zorn) and Joe Pug.