Wednesday, December 14, 2022

INTERVIEW | 'It's Nice to Be Able to Build a World' - Travels With Brindle Talks The Art of Cover Art and Christmas Music

Chelsea Spear (Photo: Susan Margot Ecker)

Meet Travels With Brindle.

Aka Chelsea Spear and her ukulele, Brindle. 

A music critic, radio host, show promoter, a video director...and, now, an artist doing what she always wanted to do and bringing a wonderful edge to her music with inspirations from literature and film. 

In time for the holidays, she just released Christmas single 'Rudolph's Ranch'. The song follows singles 'Ivan', 'Linden Street' and 'Something's Wrong', all four tracks serving as a tease of exciting things to come in 2023 for Chelsea.

I was fortunate enough to spend a Sunday evening chatting to her about cover art, Christmas and her inspirations. 


Hi Chelsea! Appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today! You've just released your Christmas song, 'Rudolph's Ranch' and, of course, the holidays are just around the corner. When you think about Christmas music, what does it mean to you?

I always associate Christmas with childhood. So many of the Christmas songs you love as a kid, you still hear as adults. I grew up watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, and I still listen to that record every Christmas morning when opening our presents. My mom is Christian, and Peanuts and Charlie Brown is a good middleground between my musical interests and the religious music that she listens to. Vince Guaraldi was a jazz pianist. If you read about the making of A Charlie Brown Christmas, it was considered revolutionary that you would have this jazz pianist from San Francisco writing music for a kids TV show in the 1960s. So a lot of times I’ll listen to jazz and it’ll instantly sound Christmassy to me.

What really struck me about 'Rudolph's Ranch', and your other singles' is the artwork. They standout and there's a clear amount of thought and care about them...something that we're losing these days with streaming. What was your thought process behind them?

I tend to get in my head a lot when I write and release my work, and I have to pull myself out of my own head and try not to be pretentious. One of the big influences on this project, in general, as I’ve released three singles prior to ‘Rudolph’, is a movie called Shirkers. It’s a documentary about these teenage girls from Singapore who are trying to make a feature film in 1992 and what happened to that film and the footage they shot. The girl who wrote the screenplay, and eventually directed the documentary, used a lot of miniatures and toys and board games as imagery within the film. I was really drawn to that, and it was a good way of pulling myself out of my head.

If you look at the cover art for ‘Ivan’, ‘Linden’s Street’ and ‘Something’s Wrong’ and now ‘Rudolph’s Ranch’, I’ve used a lot of toy and miniature imagery. I was working with a graphic designer, Chance Brown. I was giving Chance a lot of direction about how I wanted it to look like this publisher or this book cover. ‘Ivan’ was supposed to look like a YA novel from the early 2000s. For ‘Linden Street’ I took a photo of this LEGO Widener Library and gave it to Chance, and gave him some pictures of this 1980s soft cover publisher called Vintage Contemporaries and said ‘I’d love it if you could use this and we could work on something that looks like a Vintage Contemporaries cover’. With ‘Something’s Wrong’, the video involved stop motion dolls, and we grabbed a screenshot from that and put a textbox on top to make it look like a New York Review of Books reissue book - out of the four that I have released, that one sounds the most vintage and tied to a specific time period.

With ‘Rudolph’s Ranch’, I wanted to have a Little Golden Book cover. I put up a notice on Facebook looking for Christmas toys I could use and one of my neighbors had a Playmobil reindeer set! I grabbed a blue dress, turned it inside out and positioned the toys on this piece of blue felt. We photographed it and I sent it to Chance. About an hour later he sent me a mock-up.

One of the things we have, that my mom still has and is part of the Christmas decor is this kids book about the Christmas tree at Rockefellar Centre in New York - she has it framed and we put it up every Christmas, near the tree. I was looking at it, and it instantly reminded me and took me back to being a little kid and reading it all the way through for the first time. I thought that this [single cover] was a good way that I could lead with some nostalgia and get people to feel nostalgic before they even hit play.

I love that, it really feels like a more overall experience as it has not just the music but also the visual side of things.

It’s nice to be able to build a world. With this project, I really wanted to build this world balancing academia, because the whole project is inspired by a novel about this woman’s disastrous first year at Harvard. I wanted to balance this world of academia and literature, so having book cover style cover art [and then] balance that with toys. It’s playful and unpretentious. 

I play the ukulele and a lot of people think of the ukulele as being a toy instrument, so it seemed like a good way to balance a lot of my interests. 

You describe the song as a 'sad Christmas bop' and I love that. Certainly listening to it, it feels so refreshing to have a change of pace. Why did you decide to take it that direction? 

One of the things with writing ‘Rudolph’s Ranch’...the inspiration for the song came from the book The Idiot by Elif Batuman. It’s about this woman who is a freshman at Harvard and her social mishaps in her first year of college. She is a linguistics scholar and they say you have to take a foreign language to be in linguistics - she takes Russian. In the Intro to Russian class, they give her this novel called Nina in Siberia and Nina, the protagonist, ends up working at a reindeer farm…you’re reading it through the perspective of the protagonist.

The imagery of snow and reindeer, you’re already leading with something that’s very Christmassy. A Charlie Brown Christmas is probably my favorite Christmas record, so I figured why don’t I take Nina in Siberia and make it into this sad Christmas song. I have a lot of feelings about Christmas music, I really like the jazz standards. But, if you listen to a lot of pop Christmas music, it feels like you’ve eaten a bunch of candy canes - you can feel the sugar in your windpipe. I wanted it to be more like something that, if I’m going with this food metaphor, that was more like having a sprig of mint - a nice palette cleanser before you jumped back in to the [sugary] kind. 

I’m really proud to do sadder Christmas songs. It can be a really isolating time of year. I think that this song, the circumstances in the text that inspired this…the character is isolated on this reindeer farm...I thought I’d lean into that because it’s going to stand out against all the sugary Christmas confections that are out there, on the radio.

'Rudolph's Ranch' was born out of a prompt from an online songwriter group. Was The Idiot and the inspiration you gained from that something that had always lingered in your mind for a song? Or was it a recent read you were still thinking about?

‘Ivan’ was the first song that I had written for this project. I played it at open mics, I played it for my friends and everyone was like ‘I really like that song, it gets stuck in my head and I wish I could sing along with it’. I thought this [song] was a good move.

I had gotten this other prompt, which was to write a song about a place. Elif Batuman was still pretty fresh in my mind and thought about Nina In Siberia because the place is very important to that story. I wondered, what was it like to work on a reindeer farm? I started to make a list of the things you would experience while working on one, and I was having a lot of fun writing it. I had also gotten another prompt from another songwriting group that was to write a song [with a] seventh chord. Seventh chords are jazz chords, jazz chords remind me of Christmas….you got snow, you got reindeer, you got jazz chords.

I’m acquainted with a couple of people who have written Chirstmas songs, and was aware that every Christmas they get a small payout *laughs* from their publishing because their songs are played - there’s all of these stations in the States that just play Christmas music. I thought it would be fun to have something that would get played every Christmas and would be part of people’s holiday - and where I could pay my expenses for a month *laughs*. Part of it was greed but part of it was that the story was already shaping up to be very festive because you have all of these things that just suggest Christmas. 

I started writing it and I didn’t have a chorus. My boyfriend and I were having dinner one night and I told him that I was doing research on reindeer farms. In the book, the farm is just called ‘Experimental Reindeer Farm’. I couldn't write a song called that, it just sounds incredibly boring. I entered ‘reindeer farm’ into Google and all I was getting was farms that had the name of the town they were in plus ‘reindeer farm’  - I wasn’t really getting a song title there. I talked to him and he very jokingly said ‘you’d think someone would call their farm, 'Rudolph’s Ranch'’.  He said it off the cuff but it had a really nice rhythm to it. It had that holiday feel. That was going to be the title of the song. 

You have the title, you have reindeer and snow…it can’t help but be a little festive. Why don’t I write this Christmas song? Surely it will resonate with someone out there.

I think this sing has done more than just resonate, it will help folk too as there's a wonderful charitable aspect to it with a portion of sales going towards Bread of Life Kitchen in Malden. What made you make that decision? Especially as an independent artist, donating single sales is a huge thing to do - and absolutely wonderful.

I had done a small crowdfund for this [which meant] I had a little more financial flexibility with it as all my finances had been paid for. I sent out free MP3s to everyone that had donated in the crowdfund.

I moved about a year ago [and] our apartment is around the corner from a food bank. You see people line up every Monday night and get these cardboxes that are full of food. My neighbors run it, you see it in the neighborhood and these are people that are doing a good deed. They run it out of a church, and I thought why don’t I donate the proceeds of first week sales to this church? It will benefit someone. You don’t expect to make money from your music to begin with, I really have nothing to lose. It made a lot of sense. You can see the families lined up, and you can see the money is going somewhere good. 

As you said, I’m an independent artist. I don’t have a huge following and it’s important to have people listening to my music. I thought this would be a good way for people to both have my single and give back to the community.

I thought I'd come back to your inspirations because you obviously immerse yourself in a lot of different media which, then, enriches your work. So, to close things off, what are you currently reading, watching or listening to?

That’s a great question! I’ve been picking up a lot more freelance writing and a lot of what I’m reading and watching and listening to has been tied to my writing. I just watched PT Anderson’s first three features - I’m working on an article about John Brion and the scores he wrote for [them]. It’s interesting to watch them and be thinking about how the scores work in [them] and about how aspects of John Brion’s personality and music are coming out and what aspects of PT Anderson’s aesthetics are coming out of that. 

I also worked on a big article about the film scores that Carly Simon wrote, in honor of her getting into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She’s someone that it feels like she’s everywhere. The way that I was describing it was my mom had a really nice Le Creuset pot that was always on our stove, and I don’t think I ever fully appreciated how good that Le Creuset pot was until I had to buy pots and pans from Target. You suddenly appreciate the craft that went into making that pot, and its kinda the same with Carly Simon - you hear her at the supermarket and you’re like ‘Carly Simon whatever’...then you sit down and listen to her music, really listen to it, and there’s a lot that goes into the way that she writes those songs. 

In terms of things that I’m listening to for myself, I rediscovered the album The Wishing Chair by 10,000 Maniacs. It feels like I’ve found a long lost relative, as a lot of their songs are about history in Western New York. The way that they write about [that] is very evocative in a way that I would like to be in my songwriting. I’m also reading the book Stay True by Hua Hsu, that’s been on a lot of Best Of lists this year. He’s about the same age that I am, and he has a similar asesthic. The way that he writes about this one very important friendship for him really hit home, and what happens to his friend really hit home - I’m finding myself nodding along. He has this great sense of humor that I giggle a lot when listening. So, yeah, that’s kinda my literary diet right now. Oh! And I’m also listening to a lot of music from the local traditional music organisaion, Revels, because they’re getting ready to put on their midwinter pageant. They do a lot of traditional British and Irish and Scottish music and that feels like a little bit of the music that I grew up with. It’s really lovely to hear it in this other context.

'Rudolph's Ranch' is out now.

For more on Travels With Brindle, visit her website.

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