Some music evokes open spaces, removing boundaries of thought and liberating the senses. Such is the case with Above the Prairie from The Pines, which is out early February on Red House Records. Combining acoustic instruments, soft synth pads and dreamy melodies, Above the Prairie gently beckons the listener into a vast expanse of the American plain, seemingly making time itself slow down. Pro Sound News spoke to songwriter Bensen Ramsey about the elements that help make Above The Prairie soar as one of the most authentic, compelling music releases of late.
On Starting with a Spark
The process for making Above The Prairie was not too different than what we’ve done on our other records. They always take a couple of years to write and then to work everything out. Usually a spark happens with one song or some sort of other energy that we are thinking about a lot, then that will spiral into a whirlwind very quickly. There might be one or two songs that have hung around for six or eight months, then we will write the rest. Once there is a kind of vision that we can see and hear, it goes into hyper-overdrive for us in the studio.
We’ve been doing this for quite a while—writing songs, making records and playing shows—but this record felt pretty vulnerable. We were really just trying to answer the question where are we and where are we from? I think every piece on the record has to feel like something. This one may not be perfect, but we are very glad we got it down.
On Studio Selection
We were thinking about going into some really high-profile, amazing studios, but the thought of doing that made us kind of anxious. So we went to EarthTone Studio in Iowa City, IA. It’s where we did our very first recordings, way, way back. We wanted to go back there because it is home, and kind of where I grew up. It is a cool, little studio, but now it’s gone. The bridge seemed to be collapsing behind us just as we were finishing this record, so I’m glad we had a chance to do it there. During the recording process, I was kind of out of it, to be honest, because I was pretty tired—I think we all were. But going to Iowa made it all a little more relaxing.
On Being Spontaneous
Once we start working, it all happens so fast and it is all kind of a blur. There are 100 things I wouldn’t change about it, and 100 other things that I would change.
We’ve had the same team now for almost all of our records, and everyone kind of knows their drill. Alex [Ramsey] and David [Huckfelt] and I are the core—we wrote it all and put it together—so we are the only ones who really know what’s going on. We don’t take a lot of time to rehearse with JT or James, because we want it to be really put together, but not really put together—it is a high art and folk art kind of thing. But those guys are so good and they always kind of push it, and we always end up pleasantly surprised.
On Staying Focused
I geek out on things like mics and gear all the time, but honestly, once we get into the studio, I honestly can’t really think about it because I am just trying to record the songs. If I am thinking about the microphones and technical items while I’m doing all that, I will have a freaking aneurysm, so I kind of trust the engineers we are working with and I am at their mercy. That said, there are a million new things on each record that I’d like to try. On this particular record, we tracked it all live; I think 99 percent of the songs went down in maybe one or two takes. After that, we took it to Bellow’s Studio in St. Paul, MN, to do some overdubs and mix, where we worked with Adam Krinsky. He engineered and mixed our last record.
On Being in the Moment
This recording is pretty darn close to how we play live. For our live shows, we always want the songs to fit so people just hear the songs. For example, if we don’t have drums but they are on the record, it is most important for people to hear the song itself rather than each of the different elements. Because at the end of the day, we are really just kind of song dudes, and our whole thing is about being in the moment. You do as much as you can to make it close and familiar as on the record, but then it is completely open to where we are that day. We wanted to be able to do things that you can’t do live, but at the same time, we just want the songs to be able to speak.
On Assimilating Lyrics
There is this guy on the record, John Trudell, who is a Native American poet. He is one of our biggest inspirations. Last fall, we brought him to Minneapolis and we did a live performance together and we ended up writing songs together. “Aerial Ocean” was one of the lyrics that we picked out he had written—we just felt we had to get this down. Those lyrics blew us away, so we were very lucky to incorporate them into our music. It is kind of like one of those pieces where if we don’t ever do anything again, at least I’m glad we got that.