Sometimes we can’t get what we want in life, but according to Sarah Bethe Nelson, that’s not necessarily a negative thing.
On her latest album, Oh Evolution, the San Francisco-rooted guitarist/vocalist and bandleader explores the evolution of love, life, relationships, and the self through sun-kissed psychedelic rock, doo wop, and bubblegum pop fused with rock fuzz and the occasional heavy riff. Written largely between touring stints for Fast Moving Clouds, and recorded at San Francisco’s El Studio with Phil Manley (Trans Am, Phil Manley Life Coach), the album offers a more open-ended approach to life than its predecessor (2015’s Fast Moving Clouds), where the timing of things counts for a lot, uncomfortable or painful moments may pass, and the future is still left to be written. New additions to the band’s lineup, including bassist Ela Jaszczak and drummer Garett Goddard (who drummed on Fast Moving Clouds) also add to the album’s overt freshness and sense of movement.
Check out “Out of My Reach,” the latest song to be released from the album now, and read our discussion with Nelson about crafting albums, toying with dynamics, and the natural evolution of creativity and relationships. Oh, Evolution comes out on Burger Records on February 24.
She Shreds: Fast Moving Clouds was your first solo record, after Prairie Dog and other musical projects. How do you think your music has progressed from then to now? Maybe I’m reading into the title a little too literally, but is the title a comment on that?
Sarah Bethe Nelson: I think it is. It isn’t necessarily a concept record or anything, but after I do the sequence, which is the last thing I do—listen to the songs as a whole rather than separate things I’ve been working on over time—certain themes seem to emerge that I don’t even realize were influencing me, or just in the forefront of my thoughts as much as I was noticing. With Fast Moving Clouds, I felt like there was a lot of things coming up about feeling trapped, or being in stagnant situations. I don’t mean that in an extreme, negative way. Sometimes things get monotonous and you’re just kind of craving some movement.
After that record we toured a bunch over the spring and summer, and there was that nice, light, kind of inertia. I wrote [these songs] in a short span of time between touring, and I noticed the energy and the movement came through more than I realized. The new songs were lighter and a little poppier, and there is a linear movement, or momentum to it.
So if the last was is about being stagnant, this is what happened after?
There is more action in this one and it makes me a little more hopeful. Not that the last one was dark, but I’d been in the same location for a while. There are a lot of different ways to take the idea of evolution: the evolution of relationships or the evolution of a band, or somebody’s work, whatever it is. It’s not a negative thing, just how things go up and down.
A lot of the people you collaborate with are long time musicians from the area.The music community in the Bay Area has recently been catapulted into the national spotlight for tragic reasons, but surrounding that, there is conversation of people getting priced out of their homes and how the landscape is changing. How have you seen people pull together as the city has changed?
There is definitely more movement, a lot of people have moved away. It is more expensive and it continues to be a struggle, financially. There’s no doubt about that. But there are a lot of people that have been here for a long time and there’s tons of new, cool things happening, especially in the Oakland area. I just don’t agree that “Oh no. The scene is dead.” It is hyperbolic to get those proclamations, and there are just so many people doing things in ways that they can, whether it is having home studios, or people that have a lot of jobs but are still participating.
I felt really supported by the creative community here, right from the start. People are willing to come over and play drums on your album, or stop by and add a part. The community is relatively small, so if you look at a bunch of records from here from any given year you will see a lot of the same people on everybody’s stuff. I think that creates an unspoken support that makes people feel welcome and safe, and that they can do things. There are also a lot of people that book shows and are willing to give new bands shows. In a fundamental sense, there is a lot of greatness around still and a lot of really generous people. When things happen that are tragic or shake the foundation of things, you always see a great deal of people coming together and benefits. There’s a spirit of, just because you don’t have a lot of money to donate doesn’t mean you don’t have something to give.
Does that enhance the vibe when you go out?
Well, there are a lot of lifers, so you get a little more respect, and I think that sometimes you go outside of the creative community, even if you are being appreciated or something, no matter what, people will still treat it like a hobby. “Oh, you’re still in that little band?” No one ever says that, “Oh, do you still have that little 9-5 job you’ve had for twenty years?” Yes, we’re still doing this, and yes we’re still treating it with relevance and weight in the grand, “I’m a citizen of the universe” kind of way. It’s nice that there are a lot of people here from quite young to people that have been doing it for a long time that still treat it as relevant, that art as important and not as a hobby. It is really refreshing to have that around you because it keeps the frustration down a bit.
Do you feel that gives you the ability to create without the pressure to “succeed” commercially?
For sure. That’s what I mean about “lifers.” If you’re still doing this anyway, you have that freedom. It would be nice, obviously, to make some money, but that’s not the objective. If you’re still making art that you want to make, there is a big freedom in that. With each record, of course you want it to be the best. My new records are always my favorites: they are fresh, I’m excited about the songs, I want to play them, and I want them to be as great as they can possibly be, and appreciated. But on the other hand you also know, “this won’t be the last record we make.” It will keep going. Maybe that’s another part of being inside the evolution of things, and kind of accepting things will go up and down, and change, and shift. There is something kind of comforting and freeing in the idea that it isn’t like, “well, if this doesn’t work out I’m never doing it again.”
You brought up sequencing earlier. I know you have a background in writing and your music evolved after that. How much do you rely on your experience as a writer when you are putting an album together?
I write differently when I’m “writing writing,” than songs. It’s a different animal, but I’m pretty aggressive. I tend to throw out a lot of ideas and weed through them myself before I land on things, especially in songwriting. As far as sequencing goes, that’s such an important thing, thematically and sonically. How is the person going to feel when they sit down and listen to this as a whole? It’s kind of like making a setlist for a show, but you change that all of the time.
With a record, you want it to have a flow and keep people engaged, obviously, so there are certain things you don’t want to put next to each other. If there is a big heavier song it is nice to have something light and poppier after. I have a tendency to write songs where the mood of the lyrics don’t necessarily match the music. I like when a heavy song has a lighter subject matter, or lighten up a heavier [lyric] song with some bells and whistles. There is always this moment where I try a bunch of different sequences and then one sort of locks. I don’t mess with it too much once I have the right feeling. It’s not a real strategy other than trying some things, let it sit for a day or two, and then come back to it and see if I still like it. It is the last thing I do, so it has this weight to me… It’s not until the end that I feel that I can be apart from it enough and objective enough to see it as a whole.
“Out of My Reach” is a perfect example of playing around with the mood of the music vs. the mood of the song. Can you tell me a little about the track?
Usually I try to write lyrics in one batch for each song but I had some ideas and parts from another record, and had taken part of it out right before recording it. It wasn’t working or coming together in my mind, so I kind of scratched it, and then I ended up using some of those parts. I felt like something was supposed to happen with that idea, and then it didn’t, so when it came out later, I was really happy.
The song is a bit about the notion of somebody always wanting you to come to them and trying to draw you out but they are always draw away, kind of that “carrot on a stick” of love. When I wrote it I was kind of messing around with that idea of watching a movie, or there are certain people in your life that are out of your reach. Not in a way of being “out of your league,” but in a different world than you. As much as you are both trying to connect and wanting to jump into the screen, that movie of their life, you can’t because you’re in your own movie. In relationships there is always this thing where, in the evolution of them, you try to get close sometimes, and you can’t meet up, then you drift. There are many different ways of not being able to get what you want and that’s not necessarily a negative thing. It can be hopeful.
That goes back, inadvertently, to this concept of evolution. That’s not something you’re born knowing, you have to grow and change in order to understand that.
Totally. And to accept that. It’s like, you have to grow and change to know you have to grow and change. It’s one of those funny cyclic things where you go around in circles, but the only way to know is to figure it out, and be inside of it and climb out and do whatever you have to do.
Part of having been in motion a lot, and traveling a lot, and feeling more free, even just physically from hometowns and jobs and life, created a place to be writing from about things you can’t control and you can’t have, but you still want. There was more of a positive and accepting side, a “something else will come along” side of things rather than the “I can’t get what I want, and I’m stuck here, and UGH!” side of things. And I think that came through.