They have an incredible blend of acoustic and electronic music. Their lyrics are beautiful. The melodies and harmonies are spectacular. There's not a song on the cd that I want to forward over and a number of songs that I'll hit the repeat button on.
I was so happy to have the opportunity to talk to Alex Wong and Amber Rubarth a couple of weeks ago about their music, their creative process and their favorite movies. Thanks so much to the two of them for taking time out to chat with me a bit!
Big Mama: Who are some of your musical influences?
Alex Wong: Kind of all over the map. For me, in pop music, the first band that really grabbed me and made me want to start writing and making music for a living was Radiohead. And then I went in reverse and discovered all of their music after that. So then I went back and I got really into Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys and the Beatles and Paul Simon. I was really into musicians that did a lot of expressive arrangements because that really hit me emotionally. Arrangements that really conveyed the meaning of the song. I got into them, but I actually grew up with classical music, so I was really into late romantic composers like Sibelius and Prokofiev and I like Chopin a lot.
Amber Rubarth: Tom Waits. I think he was the first one I really got obsessed over. After that, I’d say Stevie Wonder was a big one for me – I liked the rawness. I really gravitate toward that. Then I’d say that Chopin is another one for me.
Big Mama: How did the two of you meet and start working together?
Amber: We met because I had a friend in New York who was playing with Alex’s old band The Animators. I became a little bit obsessively stalkerish with their music and their album and I fell in love with what they were doing. They ended up producing my first record. That’s how we met and how we started writing initially. When The Animators broke up, then Alex and I started writing together a little bit more.
Big Mama: I love the Grace story. What was the inspiration for that story?
Alex: She sort of popped in there. We were writing and we started doing some sort of creativity exercises that were suggested to us by our friend Vienna Teng who was taking a theater improve class. There was a book on how to remove the pressure of creativity from creative people. So just for fun, we were doing some of these exercises. And we noticed we kept centering around a few similar themes and similar characters with the stuff we were writing. And we sort of “channeled” this woman. So we just started exploring it more and she just was born and it seemed like a very natural proxy for the things we were feeling. It just seemed right so we kept on chasing it.
Big Mama: Do you plan to continue that story through future albums?
Alex: That has been kind of an open-ended discussion right now in between finishing that record and the next one. I wasn’t really sure if the next one would be a continuation of those stories or if we would find another way in to the next batch of songs. But lately I’ve been gravitating back to that story. I think we always wanted to keep that as an inspiration and not an obligation. So I would say my vote now is yes.
Amber: Yeah, I feel like Grace and the story kind of feels like the framework of a house and then you can decorate it however you want inside. A lot of times we’ll use this general story of hers and then develop it, but then something that’s happening in our lives will want to be in a song, so we sort of mix the two together and apply it to something she’s going through or something that she’s feeling. It definitely feels like it doesn’t limit us, but it expands us. I feel like when we have any ideas for songs, it gives it a different spin than if we were just talking about it personally.
Big Mama: New York City plays a starring role in many of your songs. Have you always lived there? Is there any particular thing about the city that inspires you?
Amber: One of the first songs we wrote was the song Sympathetic Vibrations. And really what it is about is that people have a resonance just like a guitar will or a note will in a room. People kind of have a resonance within a city. I feel like New York draws together all of these people who don’t necessarily fit in to everywhere else and they come into New York and all of a sudden they feel alive. I think Alex and I both experienced that. We both moved from California and immediately felt like home and it immediately felt like it was serving this fulfillment that we’d never had before. That plays a big part in Grace’s life also because she was a lot older when she discovers this and realizes that she wants to pursue something that really means something to her. She finally does and she hits this wavelength that just resonates with her.
Alex: We didn’t grow up here, we weren’t born here. I think that’s a particular experience that is probably different than people who were born and raised here. I think our impressions of the city are shaped by coming a little later in life and that forms a lot of the way we write about it.
Big Mama: Don’t Be Afraid is my favorite song off of the album. Could you share the song story behind that?
Alex: The song in the story is about Grace re-writing, in a way, her life. The Paper Raincoat is a book she starts writing when she finally decides to follow what she originally wanted to do with her life, which was to be a writer. She’s writing about a fictional character, but really she’s writing about herself and she’s kind of getting this chance to re-write her past in a way that she always wanted to live it. She never had a great relationship with her dad and she always wished that her dad had let her pursue her dreams and go to the city when she was younger, but because of what happened to him, he was never able to do that. They just didn’t have a relationship. What I was thinking about and what we were talking about was her having a chance to make up that speech. Her dad talking to her and giving her this pep talk saying, “I’ll be here in Jersey, but I’ll be watching over you and I want you to do what you want to do.”
And in real life, the first line of it was yelled at me in an argument and it became an idea that at the time really affected me. There are things we put in our way because we’re really afraid to go after or admit what we really want. So we make up excuses or we create obstacles.
Just for Fun
Big Mama: What are you reading?
Alex: The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Amber: I’m reading a book called Becoming Attached. It’s about child psychology and how little kids deal with things so they can survive on an emotional level and how it comes into play when they’re adults.
Big Mama: What is your favorite guilty pleasure movie?
Alex: Mine is Revenge of the Nerds.
Amber: This isn’t really a guilty pleasure, but the last one that I remember that I really liked was a documentary about the Brooklyn Bridge. Kind of an actual nerdy one instead of one about nerds.
Big Mama: What is your favorite time of day?
Amber: Magic time! At six o’clock or whenever it happens where all of the colors turn to the crazy color where you can’t really define what’s happening.
Alex: Yeah, I would agree. Sunset, dusk is my favorite time of day.
Big Mama: If you were taking a friend out to lunch where would you take them?
Alex: My house.
Here's my favorite song:
The Paper Raincoat has very generously offered a copy of their cd to one of my readers. Truly, this has played pretty much non-stop in my car for the past three weeks. I'm super stoked about one of you getting a copy of it. If you can't wait, you can buy the cd here (seriously, it's totally worth it). Open to USA only.
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