Playing with expectations: Kim Ware talks about her latest record with the Good Graces

Set Your Sights Album Cover*Kim Ware, the Atlanta-based singer-songwriter says that while making the record, “Set Your Sights” with the Good Graces, which released in July 2017, some songs would go places she had not really planned. “It took some getting used to,” admits the artist. “In the end, I felt that was more an equal partnership than any other record I had made in the past. It sort of helped set the tone for what I want the next record to be. I am getting slightly more calculating in my approach, but the word “band” still scares me!”

She does not refer to Good Graces as a band, but as very talented friends who are part of the sound and the creative process. “… It’s unrealistic to expect the same group of folks to always be available when I want to play a show or record songs. And let’s be honest, bands break up. I feel like for this to be sustainable, it needs to be fluid and organic. If it’s not a band, it can’t break up! For me, it’s really about the songs, and what makes sense at that given time to present them in the best light possible…”

I meant to create an interview article about “Set Your Sights” (produced by Jonny Daly) last year. Then life happened, and I had postponed writing this story up until now. It is never too late to bring this full-length interview article with Kim Ware on Music Historian.

Compared to the musical composition of Kim’s 2014 record, “Close to the Sun,” “Set Your Sights” brings more musicians together to collaborate on each individual song, especially on guitar and drums. The 2014 album seems to treat the drums and guitar more as accompaniments. Further, there is a three-year gap between “Close to the Sun” and “Set Your Sights.” I wondered what changed in the creative process between the two records, and whether any significant events inspired “Set Your Sights.”

“Honestly,” begins Kim, “they were pretty similar, just made with different people. For “Close to the Sun,” you hear a combination of my and Rob Dyson’s (who engineered a good bit of and mixed the record) influence and tastes. And for “Set Your Sights,” it’s mine and Jonny Daly’s.

“I’m a drummer, but for years, I wanted this project to not have many drums in it. But when I got to know Pete McDade, who played a lot of the drums on “Set Your Sights,” he became one of my favorite drummers, and I really wanted him on the album. He’s got more of a rock style than I do, so I think that lent to the new album coming off as a little more rocking than previous ones.

“”Set Your Sights” took a year and a half to make. We recorded something like 24 songs, and then picked what we thought worked best together for the album. As far as major events, shortly after “Close to the Sun” was released, we were asked to do a handful of shows with the Indigo Girls. That was a big deal for me… that experience really boosted my confidence.

“We went from playing 100 or so-capacity rooms to playing in front of 1500 people. It’s something I will always be grateful for, and I think it helped shape many of the songs on this record. I saw people really react to the songs [in which] I am totally honest, even if that means singing about things that are super personal and a little uncomfortable to talk about.

“When we got back from tour, I went through this weird funk that lasted about a year. There were some challenges in my relationship with my husband; I questioned a lot, tried to figure out whether I am doing what I should be doing. Typical mid-life stuff, I think?

“It can come out of nowhere, and it can be really rough, and affect everything around you. It caused me to do a lot of self-reflecting, more than I had before. I think that comes out in the record.”

On the subject of experiencing strange phases in your life, I am currently going through one of my own. I had undergone surgery, and now, trudging through my recovery period, I feel socially isolated. While this period will pass, much like the way Kim’s phase had passed, experiences like these are worth putting in writing. In Kim’s case, she sublimates her experience through music.

I wondered whether Kim with this record tried to reach listeners who enjoy experimental types of rock music, or fans of folk who are looking for something a little non-traditional within the mix, such as a dash of punk. Kim responds:

“I don’t think about that so much. I’m really into folk with an experimental, atmospheric bend. That’s pretty much my favorite thing – acoustic guitars with bleeps and beeps or weird stuff, and often times “noise” rather than traditional parts that accompany it. As far as the punk stuff, the first band I was ever in, I was the drummer, and it was noisy, and a little punky and the songwriter/guitarist of that band is still one of my biggest influences.

“We were just in our 20s and did not know what we were doing. But we had this reckless abandonment that was just so raw, honest and awesome… I have an appreciation for that – the idea of something being a little messy… but still beautiful.”

Aside from pondering what emotions are conveyed strictly through the style of music, Kim’s lyrics tell stories. Do they originate from solely her personal life, or is there a common theme which she lives out collectively with her own circle of friends, such as getting older? She feels it is both.

“Most of it is very personal. [In some songs] every lyric is autobiographical, but others may not be 100 percent about me, but one line might be. Then I use that line as the jumping off point for the rest of the song. Or, the song might be more about a feeling than the actual events that I sing about. [The song] “Too Old for This,” is more about that phrase. The “this” could be anything you find yourself experiencing and think you should know better, or that you should get past. This is probably pretty common for us 40-somethings.

“For the song, “Out There” – I did not really swim across the lake and almost drown. But I did experience being in the middle of the ocean in a small boat and not being able to see land, and feeling so small. It had a truly profound effect on me I did not expect.”

I then wondered what Kim would like listeners to take away from “Set Your Sights?”

“I hope folks will get that the songs are honest and real, and have heart. I like to surprise people and play with expectations, and I like to think the album does that. And after someone listens to it, if they find themselves humming a song or two afterward, then that’s awesome too.”

In “Remember the Old School,” the verses are constructed on top of driving riffs. As the song approaches the chorus, those riffs slow in their harmonic rhythm, making room for a message in the lyrics:

We will never be in fashion/ we don’t know the latest trends/, but at least we have the passion/ or at least we can pretend

This song leans more towards punk rock than folk, and I happened to walk away humming the melody. Yet, for “Good in it all,” I had a different experience – I could not walk away humming it, but, I did walk away remembering the verse which opened and closed the song – I wrote a song about staying together/ but every time I sing it/ it just falls apart.

“Good in it all,” compared to “Remember the Old School,” takes 45 seconds to build up an instrumental section before Kim sings, and feels more reminiscent of country and folk. The styles of “Good in it all” and “Remember the Old School” seem to juxtapose one another, especially when the chords in “Remember the Old School” resolve, whereas in “Good in it all” they do not. That’s why I also wondered whether Kim explores different genres in this record. She answers:

“I enjoy different types of music. I think the Good Graces is more a vehicle for delivering my lyrics than anything else. In most cases, I come up with lyrics and vocal melodies, and a pretty basic acoustic guitar part for the foundation. Then, [I] flesh it out with the other players. A lot of what ended up on the album, as far as the style, was influenced by the other folks I worked with. So, yes, I think I do like to explore other genres, but only because I like to play with whatever style makes the most sense for the lyrics and overall message of the song.” Kim Ware*

One of the beautiful parts about music is the ability to work together with so many different individuals, such as instrumentalists, producers, and more. Making a living from such an involved artwork like this is a challenge. What is the turning point in any musician’s life when they said to themselves ‘I am going to pursue music,’ what did that look like?

“I’ve not known a time in my life where I was not immersed in music,” explained Kim. “But it was never something I consciously decided I needed until around 2010.

“I actually took a pretty long break from it that year. I was playing drums in a couple of bands and had just started releasing albums under the Good Graces. At the same time, I had taken a new day job. In the beginning, it looked like it was going to be a pretty positive career move for me, but [required] a lot of energy. I felt burned out. I chose to take a year off from playing (and releasing, as I was also running a small record label) music, to see what I missed.

“I managed to make it about 9 months. [Then] I got really sick; I’m not sure [whether] it was because I was not playing music, but it makes sense – I did not replace my creative outlet with anything. I ended up in the hospital for four days with pneumonia. By that time, the day job had gone completely south. A few months later, I got a new job, and around the same time went to Austin (in Texas). I came home, wrote the first song I had written in a couple of years, and decided music was something I needed in my life.”

I find some parallels in Kim’s experiences with music and my experience with music writing. She felt she had to step away from music due to a demanding job. I also thought I had to take a similar step with my music blog. By the time Kim got another job, she had started writing the first song she had written after a stint. The article I am writing now is the first full-length interview story I have written in over a year.

Aside from the personal story behind “Set Your Sights,” what makes this record worth the listen? If you are not curious about “Remember the Old School” or “Good in it all” I recommend listening to “Porchlight”; it marries the best elements within “Remember the Old School” and “Good in it all.”

“Porchlight” has an acoustic guitar with driving rhythms and the instrumental interlude at the beginning last about 22 seconds. Throughout the song, listeners hear the build-up of layers including slide guitar, violins, and church bells. The structure of the composition is A, A’, which means there is very little difference in the chords and the harmonic rhythm for the verse and chorus. The chorus can only be distinguished through the lyrics:

There is something holding us together we can’t understand/ it’s so easy until we make it so hard

Then there is the final verse before the lyrics finish at 3:05:

… The porchlight in the clear night, it will be all right/ if I keep telling myself, maybe I’ll believe/ Someday I’ll believe

Afterward, “Porchlight” concludes with about 15 seconds of wind chimes playing freely, as if one listens to wind chimes right outside their window. For Kim, this song wrapped up her experience with making “Set Your Sights.” “Porchlight” nicely concludes the experience of an album on which different genres bring forward juxtaposing musical styles, styles which are utilized to convey the tone of various stories being told via lyrics.

Reflecting back on the past year and how I postponed writing this review of “Set Your Sights,” I now feel grateful that Kim had responded positively to this long past-due article. Sometimes you have to go away to come back, and that is what Kim also did with music before she finished and released this record with the Good Graces. She is currently working on a new album at the moment.

I’m almost always writing new songs, and after we finished tracking “Set Your Sights” I just kept going. By the time 2018 rolled around I started feeling like I had enough for another album, so I got all the players together and began figuring out what it would be, around July or so.

The new one has a lot of the same players, but I approached it very differently. I planned it out and prioritized all the songs. I think I made a list of 14 or so. We worked them up and recorded them sort of in priority order, tackling what I felt to be the strongest songs first. I figured if I did that, I’d know once the album was “done.” And I did – once we got 12 tracks down it just felt like that was it, that was the album.

Although Kim has not yet revealed a name for the record, or a final release date, she hopes that it will be released in the Fall.

 

* All photos were published with the permission of the artist

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