Matteah Baim is an artist and musician residing in New York City. Her second album, Laughing Boy, was recently released in March 2009.
Had any feedback from the album [Laughing Boy: 2009] yet?
There have been a few good reviews. People in general have been welcoming of it. We’re still waiting to see how it does. You have to let it go, it’s got to stand on it’s own now.
How did you feel about your first album [Death of the Sun: 2007] when it came out?
I feel more confident about this one, and I think I was able to do more of what I wanted. The first one just came out so fast, I put it together and that was it. This one I had a little more time to write, prepare—do what I needed to do.
How long did this one take you?
I was lucky enough to be able to spend 3 months just writing, and preparing, and then I guess I had about 4 weeks in the studio. I’d never had that much time to work on a record all in one chunk, so that was really nice.
Is it your one job?
For some reason I was able to work it out during that time that it could be my one job. So I was lucky, but I’m always picking up other stuff to make it all work.
In your own words—and this is a vague and cheap question—but in your own words, could you just say a bit about the album?
The songs are more or less direct observations that I’ve had over the last 2 years. I tend to write a lot of things down, things that are happening around me. I just tried to let those notes translate themselves into songs. And it was pretty natural, I think, letting the melodies grow out of that process. I was doing a lot of traveling and moving around and filling up a lot of notebooks. Ha, ha!
Where’d you go?
I was out in LA, here in New York, and Chicago and doing some touring in the US and Europe.
You’ve mentioned all of the people you’ve recorded with, and making an effort to include them. How do your relationships with friends and musicians set you on this path?
Their openness has really amazed me. They all offered on their own to play with me. I think that helps in so many ways when you’re working by yourself as an affirmation. And then watching them bring what they wanted to it and explore the pieces from the record was very moving.
That’s very cool, because the album does build on itself and sounds very organic.
I made these maps for each song. I’d draw out the structure and ideas for arrangements. We’d look at that together and take it from there.
Listening to the album, I catch all sorts of genre turns—from echo-y chants, to native sounding drums, to classical strings, to grungy- sixties blues riffs, to psychedelic grooves—it’s not only unique, but entertaining to hear that kind of variety in one album.
That’s good, entertaining is awesome. I’m glad it’s stimulating.
You said you were trying to articulate your experiences into a musical vocabulary, but there’s a lot of natural imagery. Stop me if I’m reaching, but there’s a lot of allusion to an unnamed man “he”, like in the song ‘He Turned My Mind Around’.
Yeah, the lyrics for that was a compiling of several Seneca (Native American) songs and poems... Sort of like cutting together film or found-footage to make a new piece.
How’d you come across that?
Just from reading… certain parts of poems felt like building blocks. I just went with it. And the song just came together and out.
Was the repetition found within those poems?
Yeah, a lot of it was, and it was like, “That’s exactly something I would do…” I ordered segments/ bits, and there was some restructuring to make it work with the rhythms I wanted to use. But those pieces just worked naturally, kind of lent themselves to it.
Did you have any other specific influences while writing the album?
I think all of those elements you mentioned before are in the songs. I was listening to a lot of Italian cinema soundtracks at the time. I really admired their sense of adventure and liberty to use whatever materials they wanted within one piece. I’ve always had that inclination. They helped me hone in on that, that kind of storytelling within a song... that not really worrying about the history of a certain sound but letting it remake itself within the song.
Do you write scores yourself?
I’ve begun working with a couple artists on some music for their films. That’s been really great. It’s fun to collaborate musically with another person’s visual.
Is that something you’d be interested in doing more of?
Yeah, for sure. And I’d love to have so many more tools at my disposal when working on film music.
How do you do it? Do you still map out like you do your albums?
You have to kind of listen to the film… I know that sounds strange. But you have to try to hear not perhaps what you think, but what the film thinks. I find that experience really exciting because it is like being in a band. You have to let go of your own self a little bit to work on the project. It’s great.
How’d you start playing music?
A friend of mine was into classical guitar at the time, and it just grabbed me. I wanted to learn to play, and didn’t know how to read music, so I took her sheet music for guitar and photo copied it. Then I took it to the library and tried to teach myself to read music. Which didn’t necessarily work out that well, I learned a very strange and ridiculous way of reading music.
So I started there, and then took a long hiatus. When I left home, I really got into visual art and went to art school [San Francisco Art Institute]. Then, when I moved to New York, some friends invited me to play with them, though I’m not really sure why. I just started singing and playing with them, and then all of a sudden I was writing and making records, (laughing) and I still have no idea why or how that happened.
If you hadn’t gone to San Francisco to be a painter, do you think you would have reached the point (not physically) that you would have wanted to become a musician?
I think it was definitely a necessary step to making music. And just getting out of the Midwest was important for me as well. But really, you have to find your way of work. It all means something, adds up to something when you channel your energy into productivity.
What kind of art do you do now?
I’ve gotten into doing these little pencil portraits. It’s really fun, just drawing faces again. You really get to fall in love with a face when you draw it. It’s powerful.
Do you achieve the same sort of artistic satisfaction painting and drawing that you do making music?
I think I do, but in different realms. For visual art, I’ve found I need a stiller place-space to work. And with music I’ve found more energy around me, which I’ve been enjoying. There’s more vital energy, because it’s of the moment in movement.
So what do you have in store for the future?
We’re working on some tours for the summer and the fall. Still writing, writing a lot of new pieces... Hoping for more time to do it all.
—Matteah Baim Interview
Photo by Lauren Dukoff