Had you been seeking a record label or did New West reach out to you?
New West had been on my radar for a long time because of their association with folks like Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, and Patty Griffin. Someone who knows some folks there saw me play a show and thought it would be a good fit. So I sent them some music I'd released previously and some songs I was working on for the new record. The timing happened to be pretty perfect for everybody involved and they connected with the music right away. It felt like a really great fit from day one.
They've been incredibly supportive and provided me with an opportunity to put this record out into the world the way I saw it in my head. If I'd done another self-release, there are a lot of sacrifices that I would have had to make in everything from the music to the album art to the press and radio. I've gone down that road before and I'm really proud of what I was able to accomplish on my own, but having a label like New West in my corner frees me up to chase my vision of this album and career plans without having to water them down.
You traveled to Maine to record this album. How was the experience different for you from
recording in your apartment and dorm room to having the assistance of a world-class producer?
Sam Kassirer's name kept turning up in the credits of so many albums that I loved that I knew I wanted to work with him some day. I thought he'd be completely inaccessible, but for the heck of it I sent him an email with some songs through his website. I feel really lucky and grateful that he responded positively and we got to work together. I knew exactly what this album would sound like if I recorded it at home by myself, but I had no idea what would happen if I put it into Sam's hands. He took it in a lot of different directions than I would have. He heard things in the songs that I didn't. I can be set in my ways sometimes and it was a scary thing to cede even a little bit of control over the songs, but they (and I) grew so much as a result that I have a hard time imagining what this album would sound like with a different producer at the helm.
Sam (who plays in Josh Ritter's band) helped put together a pretty stellar lineup in the studio that included Matt McCaughan (of Bon Iver) and Brad Cook (of Megafaun). My friend Gabriel Gordon (from Natalie Merchant's band) joined us on guitar, and Katy Pinke, who I've been singing with since we were in college, came up to Maine for a day for the harmonies. Everybody brought a lot to the table in terms of ideas and before we'd even start recording a song there were a lot of long intense discussions about how it would come together. I was more used to recording a piece at a time and following the song where it went, but working with everybody on this record was more like drawing up conceptual blueprints first, which I think really benefited the songs and how they fit together on the record as a whole.
You've played many big festivals and shows over the years, but what did this record release at the Mercury Lounge in New York City mean to you? Any jitters?
The release show at The Mercury Lounge was a really special night. I had no idea what to expect and to walk out on that stage and see the room totally packed, and people singing along to a record that had only come out that day hit me with such a wave of excitement and appreciation. I definitely still get nervous going on stage, especially for a show like that where we're playing the full album front-to-back for the first time ever. It was a brand new band so there were more variables than I could count. I think nerves are good up to a point. If you harness them right, they can keep you focused and sharp. But about a minute into the first song I was smiling so hard and that's ideally the way it goes. Once you start playing you remember how much fun it is and all that tightly wound nervous energy you had when you stepped onto the stage can unspool itself into your performance.
Looking back at your days growing up, where were some of the first places you ever performed?
My first real solo gig was at Niagara, a bar in the East Village owned by the musician Jesse Malin. Jesse's been a hugely influential artist in my life, and I feel like I owe him a major debt. His album ‘The Fine Art of Self Destruction' was a turning point in me wanting to become a songwriter. He gave me my first shows in NYC, and took me on my first tour in Europe.
Did you do a lot of shows while at Princeton, or mainly wrote and recorded?
There weren't a ton of performance opportunities for the kind of music that I did in Princeton. But by the end of my time there, I'd found some like-minded students who were passionate about music and made their own scene, hosting monthly concerts in their rooms. I played here and there around campus and at Small World Coffee in town a few times, but for the most part I was traveling to New York or Philly to perform and was spending my time in Princeton focused on writing and recording.
Are there any songs from your past (i.e. before "Down Wires") that you might still drag out on stage these days?
I haven't played any of those songs from the out-of-print records in a long time. But I ran into someone recently who brought up one of those songs that I'd completely forgotten about, and I went back to take another look at them. I wouldn't rule out the possibility of songs or elements of songs from that period coming back to life in new forms, but I'm focused on writing new material at the moment. As a songwriter, I think I've found myself a bit more than when I was first starting out. I was trying to sound like a lot of other people during those early days, and I feel more comfortable just sounding like me now.
Anything you'd like to say to folks in Princeton or along the Jersey Shore who have watched you grow as an artist for a while?
It means the world to me that there are people who were listening on day one that are still there. It's been an unpredictable journey and it's one that's really just beginning in earnest now, but having familiar faces along the way that have been so supportive and encouraging is the sort of thing that keeps you moving forward on the days when you're not so sure which direction you're headed in. I try to say thank you as much as I can to people who have been supportive and honor that support by working as hard as I can and staying as true to the music as I can. I hope that comes across at the shows and online, and that anybody who's out there reading this or listening to the music knows how much I value them.