Interview: Greta Morgan of Springtime Carnivore

Graham LeBron
03 24, 2015

Last fall, a band I love called Generationals posted the dates and support acts for the upcoming tour. As I was getting tickets for the SF show, I checked out the opener with the interesting name, Springtime Carnivore. Back then, there wasn't much out there about it. I researched and found some great songs. I ordered the one 7" I could find and waited patiently for the show to see what else I could learn. Soon after, they released a self titled full length on Autumn Tone Records. It is a classic record, full of soaring vocal melodies, 60s girl group flourishes, and Motown rhythms. Upon further headphone listening, there are some hazy psychedelics creeping in there as well. Besides having some pipes on her, this girl also has some Brian Wilson level songwriting chops. Her croon is contagious, distinct yet comfortingly familiar. 

Where the heck did she come from? As more information surfaced, it turns out this isn't her first rodeo. Greta Morgan has been writing songs and playing in bands since her teens with The Hush Sound and Gold Motel. I saw Greta and her band again when they opened for The Dodos at the Great American Music Hall in February. I got some footage of them playing my favorite tune from the record, Creature Feature.

Now, after a month plus tour with the Dodos and run of SXSW shows, they are headed back to the bay area to play two shows opening for Of Montreal, at the Music Hall on Tuesday, and Slim's on Wednesday. I am excited to see how they sound after all the time on the road. They were already a fairly formidable live band when I saw them last.

I caught up with Greta via email on the long drive from Austin to San Francisco and she graciously answered my questions. She's on vocal rest after a fairly grueling five weeks of shows, so here follows our enlightening online exchange:

D: Hi Greta,

Glad to hear from you! Five weeks sounds like quite a workout! And a long drive to boot. At least it's usually pretty easy to be quiet in the van, from my experience. Your first release, and the first thing I heard, was that 7" on a label with a German name. Was that from a previous relationship or just from you posting your tracks online anonymously? 

G: It was released on a label in Portugal called LebensStrasse, who found my bandcamp very early on. Yes, I did release the project anonymously just as an experiment. It was sort of a "message in a bottle" to the Internet.

D: There is a such a strong rhythmic component to the album. The drums sound great. From the liner notes, it appears that was all you. I'm curious, because there are some drum machines as well, how those rhythms came about. Do you play drums? These days you can do a lot on the computer...

G: Yep! They are a combination of layered electronic drums, which I programmed from a few templates, and real drums. Collectors, for example, has a mix of real drums (Ludwig 70's kit) and electronic drums (Addictive Drums).

D: The record has such a cohesive feel for being put together in what sounds like a fairly piecemeal way, which I assume is the result of it largely coming from the mind of one person. Did you become aware at some point that you had a collection of songs that would hang together? Or were you just trying to get songs out?

G: My recording process was cohesive in the sense that I tracked (or polished up) most of my songs at my rehearsal space. I call it my "creative bomb shelter"... It's a concrete room covered in wall-to-wall photos and postcards. It has my childhood piano and a bunch of simple recording gear and musical instruments. It's a great relief to step in there and close the doubly insulated doors. So, even if I had initially recorded song outlines on tour or in other cities, the songs were all finished there. The three songs I did with Richard are the exceptions to that, but I tried to just sonically match those as best as possible in the mixing / mastering process.

D: You definitely did a good job with that. You'd never know it wasn't just done in one session. I know some folks use recording as a songwriting tool, not necessarily with the intention of making the recordings public. Was it a conscious effort to make an album when you started recording these songs or did it just feel like something you needed to do?

G: It felt more like making a diary entry than writing a speech. I assumed it would be a private thing, but eventually felt more comfortable sharing.

D: Do you have an idea of how long the whole process took?

G: Pretty hard to measure... I generally go to my little space 2-6 hours a day. Sometimes I just play piano along to other records or goof around with friends, sometimes it's for more focused work on my own songs, and sometimes I'll wind up just watching a movie and trying to learn a bit of a film score.

D: And were there songs that didn't end up on the record for various reasons?

G: Yep! Ones that didn't "play well with the others" were left off. May wind up using those eventually though, or repurposing their themes for new pieces.

D: Clearly, you've had experience in bands for many years, was recording yourself part of that? Or more of a new endeavor when Springtime Carnivore started taking shape?

G: Recording is totally new for me and it's been a fascinating and fun thing to incorporate into songwriting. I started originally because I wanted to be able to record vocals in private, so my bandmate in a past band called Gold Motel (Dan Duszynski, who runs an amazing Austin-based studio called Dandy Sounds) taught me simple recording commands. From there, I basically enrolled in what I jokingly call "YouTube University" to learn other recording skills. I also read a bunch of interviews with artists I admire who record themselves like Mark Linkous from Sparklehorse, Arthur Russell, Air, The Microphones, etc.

D: Those are some great examples! Being a musician who taught myself to record, mostly from reading Tape Op magazine, I'm curious how your foray into self documentation began. Was there some inspiration or just out of necessity? I bought a used Tascam 8 track tape machine after a series of bad experiences at recording studios that insisted on producing "professional" recordings.

G: Totally. A fair amount was just necessity -- needing to capture ideas so that I wouldn't forget. I used a 2 track tape machine when I was 13 to do that. 

After a dozen recording experiences in real studios, I've learned that whether you're in a super fancy, million dollar studio or a basic bedroom with one microphone, there will always be a "magic factor" that overrides the equipment used. I've heard totally lackluster recordings done in million dollar studios and genius gems rise out of bedrooms. The heart of the performer will always have the ability to transcend the means of recording.

D: I couldn't agree more. Nicely put. A lesson I wish I could have learned a bit earlier. Spending hours getting a snare drum sound or "chasing a demo" can really put a damper on that "magic factor." It's a real thing. I assume you were mostly using your computer to record? Did you already have a recording set up or did you have to gather some gear?

G: I borrowed some stuff and used some of my own stuff. Mbox, Tascam 4 trackPro Tools.

D: Any tool in particular you found helpful in your process, or on the flip side, anything that was a real pain?

G: A helpful thing to put down ideas super quickly is to just use a Boss Loop Pedal to loop ideas and melodies. That's for when ideas are coming so fast that I don't even have time to set up the computer.

D: Any tips for musicians out there who might be going through the same process you were during the making of the album?

G: Trust your gutsssss!!!!! Have fun!

D: Great advice. Obviously, it must have been a good time working with Richard Swift. Anything you learned from him or discoveries you made during your time in Oregon?

G: He's great at creating textures sonic layers that you *feel* more than hear. (An example of that would be the way Fleetwood Mac often used acoustic guitars as a rhythm device so the listener feels it more as part of the drums than as a melodic instrument). Richard did that well with keyboard tones and cymbal swells to create a full sonic landscape. He also reminded me that taking parts away (like dropping the drum beat or removing bass) before a full blown chorus can be the best way to build anticipation.

D: Ah yes, all signs of a great producer. And my last question is a bit selfish. Can you describe the songwriting process for Creature Feature? That one is my favorite. The structure is really interesting. When listening to music, I tend to make a note of things like "Oh, they use the same chord structure for the verse and the chorus and just change the melody and arrangement, or the pre-chorus only comes in the second verse, etc" So, it took me a second to figure out the trick to this one.

You sing the chorus twice, but over two different chord progressions. The first one is a bit more minor and tentative, and the second one really finishes it off with more tonic/dominant.

Was that intentional or was it just how you heard it in your head? The chorus just blows me away. The song is so urgent and powerful for being so short.

G: Yep, you've got a great ear. I take many cues from The Beach Boys, particularly when it comes to chord inversions. Playing 1 4 5 chords can be dull if the same chords are used in the same voicings all the time, so I usually use the less obvious inversions to build anticipation and then holdout for the simplest versions to satisfy at the end. It's like making your ear solve a riddle -- you hear hits of a chord and then it's satisfying to finally have the whole thing there being answered. 

D: Well, there you have it. I'll be borrowing that idea, if you don't mind... 

Thanks for your thoughtful answers, Greta. See you real soon!

Alright folks, check out the album and catch the shows!

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