White Hinterland Interview

Interview by Robert Ker

Casey Dienel has been one of underground music’s best-kept secrets for a few years now. The Portland, Oregon-based singer-songwriter has wrapped her silky voice around a variety of styles, flirting with rock, jazz, folk, and torch-songs at various points of career. 2010 found her stripping her band, White Hinterland, down to just her and collaborator Shawn Creeden, and applying a similarly minimalist approach to her music. The two crafted Kairos, a stripped-down album of electronic warbles, deep bass, vocal samples, and subtle percussion. Traces of Portishead can be found here and there, along with nods to dub and funk music, but it still sounds markedly organic, and retains Dienel’s keen sense of classic-pop melody.

White Hinterland — the Christmas-y sounding name is only coincidence — performs tonight at SPACE Gallery’s final music show before the holidays. They open for S. Carey, who made his mark collaborating with Justin Vernon in Bon Iver and now brings his own impressive pop songs on the road. Local newcomers The Milkman’s Union (who just played on the HillyTown-curated music stage at PICNIC) kick things off at 8:30 p.m. tonight. HillyTown interviewed Dienel over email before the show.

Can you talk about the difference between playing the Kairos material live and your earlier stuff? Both in terms of your approach, and audience reaction?

I started out with a pretty minimal set-up, just me and a giant lug of a keyboard, about 5 or 6 years ago. Since then, the line up has expanded to up to 5 other people until 2008, when Shawn and I decided to work exclusively as a twosome. It’s all driven by the music. In my head, I hear the arrangements and the challenge then is to extrapolate what parts go where, whether one melody should be on the keyboard or turned into a loop of some kind. From there it gets kind of witchcrafty. Shawn’s job is to make music out of noise, and so often I hear parts in my mind and we spend a few weeks getting his arrangements up to snuff. It’s nebulous, for sure, because we aren’t working in a totally conventional medium, but somehow it works. I am just so happy to have someone else with me, I
remember getting very lonely working by myself years ago.

I am not sure about the audience’s reaction. Some have said that the songs on Kairos are their favorites yet, or that they sound the most “White Hinterland” so far. I’m not sure what I think. My thought process doesn’t get farther than the writing/arranging aspects of my work. I don’t gauge reactions too often, because musicians are sensitive creatures, I’m afraid. When I’m writing, I often allow myself to believe no one will ever hear what I’m working on. If I consider what others think too much, it holds me back from taking risks or trying out interesting things. Our audience seems to be along for the ride with us and very supportive, also they strike me as extraordinarily curious about how we went from my days as a solo artist to the set up we have now. I feel really lucky to have such open-minded people supporting our music.

Is it easier to tour with this setup?

Absolutely. It doesn’t sound very romantic, but I think it’s important to work within your means. To take your imagination and then ground it in reality, sacrificing as little of the original blueprint as possible. I think I work best one-on-one. I communicate best with friends this way, too. Shawn and I have worked hard to pare down what we take on tour, bringing only what we really need. I think of all the vintage keyboards I used to haul around and I wonder how necessary they really were. Of course, if I had the budget that Stevie Wonder works with, then it’d be cool to take a Yamaha CP-80 out on the road with me, but in the end, I think being able to make music with just my voice, a mic, and a beat is what it’s all about.

Did your new material require you to re-train yourself how to sing in any way? It seems like a vastly different style.

Yes and no. I never thought of myself as a singer when I first started out. I was in school for music and surrounded by really astounding voices, and I struggled with confidence. It wasn’t until after 2008 when I sat down to write the songs that were in Kairos that I found a lot of the ideas I had required a different singer. I used to write so many songs that I once thought very seriously about giving them to different artists to sing, because my voice at the time wasn’t very versatile.

What I realized is my voice lacked dexterity, it was largely untested. Up to that point I failed to treat it as its own instrument, and what I hear on some earlier recordings of mine is a lack of confidence. I wanted to bust down the door and figure out what, if any, voice was hiding in there. I sang a lot of renaissance music, looping my voice
over and over and building basically my own mini-choir. I spent about 3 or 4 months just doing this at home, being generally anti-social and focused on just this one thing. “Shedding,” as we used to call it in school. I worked on my breathing, everything from my posture to the way I was holding my knees. There are so many different areas of
the body where you can draw strength into your voice, not just from the chest. What you hear on Kairos is the result of a long winter alone with my voice.

Would you say the electronic direction is more challenging or just a different challenge?

Just a different challenge. I don’t specifically seek to do anything based on what’s the most harrowing or challenging, but if I hear something a certain way than I will work as hard as I can to do what it takes to bring it to life. I would say I am an ideas person first. The songs always let me know what they need, so at this point I’ve learned to trust them. If they don’t need piano, they won’t have piano. If they need a male voice, then they will
have it. Whatever they need.

Did you come into the studio with a bunch of songs planned or did you construct the instrumentation and then hang songs on them?

I had a number of songs. I tend to have about 20 plus songs for any given album, and then as recording begins, some songs collapse into each other, some stand up fine on their own, and some get stored away for later use. I do not ascribe to the idea that every song of mine must find its home on a record. Editing is just as important as the original idea itself. As an example, “Icarus” is pretty much untouched in format from how we were playing it in workshops. Other songs don’t come quite as easily.

Not many artists tour this time of the year. What’s it like to be in the Portland that is 3000 miles from your Portland, a week before Christmas?

It’s been really lovely to see each city on this tour dressed in its holiday finest. Evergreen boughs everywhere, sometimes snow or red ribbon. I could do without the cold, perhaps, but it feels a very festive time to be on tour.

Or are your relatives still in New England?

My relatives still live on the coast of Massachusetts.

And are there advantages to touring this time of the year?

Not really. I suppose not many artists are touring right now, as opposed to the peak months like October or March. But I think anytime is a good time to tour if you’re with friends or engaged by the music.

Because this is the time of year when you see “favorite music of 2010” lists everywhere, do you care to share yours?

I don’t have a list. This year, I’ll be honest, I have been writing when we’re not on tour, and that means I end up listening to very little music. It’s because I can’t enjoy it when I’m writing, my own music is lodged in my head and on a 24-hour jukebox. It’s like talking to someone while the radio is on full blast. I just feel too distracted. I’d rather listen to talk radio or watch a movie to unwind. I like to listen to 88.9 All Classical FM in Portland first thing in the morning. That said, I have been really into a few things. I loved Erykah Badu’s record that came out in March, I loved records by Beach House, The Dream, Lil B, and I am surprisingly smitten with Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.”