“Chirpy,” “naive,” “dainty,” “breezy,” and “precious” are all words that were once heaped on in oversized portions to describe the sounds of Phylactery Factory, the first album 25-year-old Casey Dienel released as White Hinterland. Yes, Dienel sang a song about an art deco house. Yes, she strummed the ukulele and wrote bittersweet, keyboard-driven melodies. Yes, her music was of a cinematic scope and contained elements of both jazz and folk. For that, she was pigeonholed, compared to Regina Spektor and Joanna Newsom, and labeled “girly.”
Dienel herself wasn’t content. So she decided to try something different—well, many things. For the first time the efforts were collaborative, with bandmate Shawn Creeden stepping in as a partner. Although keyboards still play a major role, they’re not the centerpiece. Where Factory’s atmospherics were in delicate string arrangements, the tone on Kairos, the new White Hinterlands release, is set through minimalist looping and ocean-floor dub beats. But more than anything else it’s Dienel’s soulful vocals that have transformed the sounds of White Hinterland. Kairos is no less than a paradigm shift.
“There’s a timidity, I guess, that I found in my writing, and at the time that was music that I made and I had to write it that way and I’m really glad that I did,” Dienel explained via phone from her home in Portland, Oregon. “But I started writing Kairos because I wanted to see if I could step away from some of that and explore.”
“When you’re lacking in confidence it’s like the backbone of your soul is missing, nothing is really standing up and everything really starts from there,” Dienel said. “I had a year when I really learned what it means to walk without a backbone, to feel like you’re not strong in what you’re doing. I felt like I wasn’t as good a singer as I was capable of being.”
I’d interviewed Dienel once before, just before the release of Factory. At the time, in early 2008, I was still living in Brooklyn and Dienel lived in Massachusetts, where she grew up. The night before, she’d played a gig at the Cake Shop, so we had a brunch meeting at the Roebling Tea Room in Williamsburg, where we talked over baked eggs and Americanos about the merits of blood oranges, the creation of musical manifestoes, Greek mythology, and the many stereotypes heaped upon women musicians, as we waited for three hours for the photographer to show up. When he finally did, he insisted on making Dienel uncomfortable by asking her to pose demurely with cute accessories inside a thrift store. She voiced her concerns and he obliged, then left dissatisfied with the snaps he took, leaving me to apologize awkwardly as we walked back to Dienel’s car.
When I called Dienel this February to discuss Kairos we’d both left the east coast, with me situated squarely in the middle of flyover country—specifically, Fayetteville, Arkansas—and her in the city of roses, Portland, Oregon.
“When I moved to Portland I didn’t really know what was going to happen,” she recalled, “and Shawn moved out here around the same time and there was no piano, and there was no money. I mean there was definitely no money, and we just started playing together for fun.”
Dienel had visited Portland before and she’d liked it for the food, the flora and fauna (“I like to go foraging”), and the nearly year round farmer’s markets (“The growing season is so much longer here”). There was also the fact that Portland had a lot of culture, but it didn’t seem as harried and cramped as life in an east coast city. Right after the release of Factory she decided to just up and move. She spent her first month in Portland living out of her van. When she found an apartment it was so small there wasn’t room for a piano, so she started recording sung lines and beat-boxing and working with the sounds in the Garage Band progam.
“It was just me singing and beat-boxing, and my loop pedal and playing my uke, and I kind of forgot that my piano wasn’t there,” she said. “It wasn’t really an intentional move away from incorporating the piano. I think it wasn’t until I gave the record to the label at the first stage that I realized there was no piano on it.”
At first she wouldn’t tell anyone about the secret bedroom recording. “I didn’t like the idea of someone like me doing a kind of dance music,” you said. “You know, singing in this style that doesn’t sound anything like something I would do.”
The first person she told was her friend and fellow musician Merrill Garbus, who performs as tUnE-yArDs. They met over lunch, and when Garbus asked if Dienel was up to anythingshe was nervous about admitting she was, but decided to confess her secret anyway. “If I tell you about it you have to promise not to laugh,” she told Garbus. “I was so scared that when I gave it to everyone they were going to think, Oh god, she’s crazy.”
The first song she worked on was “Thunderbird,” a flowing, trippy track. “I initially wrote it beat-boxing. I thought, I can’t believe I’m doing this, and I was laughing a lot while recording the demo to give to Shawn to see what he thought, and I was like, Oh man, if this gets out I’m gonna be toast.”
At one point when Dienel was describing the process of crafting the more R&B-driven tunes of Kairos she used the word “slutty.” When I asked her why she’d used that word to describe the new style of music she was creating she laughed. “I don’t feel slutty, it’s not about me feeling slutty. It was a word I was throwing around about the bass line,” she explained. This, however, led into a discussion about the inherent sexual charge in that sort of music. To Dienel it is all about not holding back or hiding behind anything.
“You know, in indie rock I find sexuality to be very tuned down,” she said, “whereas in R&B sexuality is natural and sort of your right as a singer to own your own personal brand of sexuality, not just generic sexuality. I find that Erykah Badu is an excellent example because she can be very maternal and very angry and sometimes silly. It’s a 360. I think all sexuality is, is when you’re comfortable in your own skin and you don’t censor yourself, you just put it out there. I think that’s very hard to do.”
But Dienel persisted, and the result is an album that bursts with energy and a charged confidence that was lacking on Factory. When Dienel found what her voice was capable of, she couldn’t stop singing.
“It feels good to sing that way—it feels wonderful,” she gushed. “Every part of your voice gets used, and I think with the great R&B singers the entire range of their voice is up for grabs and I never really pushed myself to sing like that before.
“With these songs and this music your whole body has to get into it,” she said, “which is part of why once I stumbled on it I couldn’t tear myself away from it. I would just feel like I’d run a marathon because my head was so full of air from singing that way.”
For Kairos, Dienel often worked alone, and instead of farming parts out by getting, say, a French horn player to come in to the studio to record a track, this was a more intimate affair between her and Creeden, whereas Factory had been more of a bandleader telling a group of musicians what to do. And the material came from a much different place than Factory, which she’d formed first as a sound manifesto.
“This was like the antithesis of a manifesto,” she said. “Kairos happened to me. It was not something I planned.
“I think I took all winter. A lot of it was by myself, and then I would resurface this material for Shawn, but what I did was I was teaching myself how to write music again and how to sing again,” she said. “I think that’s part of how I record records in general, there’s a restructuring that has to happen. I don’t know what the next record will sound like.”
There’s no denying that Kairos is markedly different from Factory, and Dienel herself is the first to discuss a previous timidity in her music. But there’s a danger in dismissing Factory as a lesser product of a young musician afraid of her own voice. Although Dienel’s vocals were perhaps more fragile then, there was a courage to those creaks and unnatural quivers. The songs themselves were ambitious in scope—after all, they originated from a theoretical standpoint. I wonder whether, if Dienel’s Factory had been composed by a man, the same adjectives would’ve flowed so easily and that critics would have dismissed the music as somehow too light and fluffy—enjoyable enough, but not all that powerful. I mean, would a photographer have wanted a man to pose with a toy piano?
What is certain is that Kairos reinvented the sound of White Hinterland, and that will certainly bring new listeners and more critical acclaim along with it. As for what is next for Dienel, it wouldn’t surprise me if she ditched all the minimalist looping and dub and went for perhaps just her, her uke, and some random samples.
KATY HENRIKSEN posts regularly at helloloretta.tumblr.com and twitter.com/helloloretta.