Venus Zine; Interview; Edith Frost
Venus Zine, November 2005
Interview with Edith Frost
The Chicago musician's new album, It's a Game, evokes a country carnival
Edith Frost’s brand-spanking-new album, It’s a Game, the long-awaited follow-up to 2001’s Wonder Wonder, was released by Drag City on November 15, 2005, with a corresponding CD release party at Chicago’s Hothouse and a glowing, full-page review in the Chicago Tribune.Known for her heartbreak-y tunes and melancholy, wistful lyrics, Frost is used to fielding questions from journalists about her relationships. She's matter-of-fact about a recent breakup on her massive blog, edithfrost.com, and a recent post expresses frustration that her relationship status gets so much attention. I chatted with Frost at her Chicago apartment in the Ravenswood neighborhood, where we drank Hefeweizen and chewed the fat about Chicago weather, the new album, blogs, stupid jobs, and pets.
So I’ve listened to It’s a Game, and I wanted to tell you that I think it’s so beautiful and melodic.
Thank you. … I like it too.
Do you have a favorite tune on the album?
Well, “Emergency” and “Playmate” are the ones that — when we were talking about what to put out on mp3 — we talked about showcasing. I’d been thinking about those two, and then one day Rian Murphy [Drag City’s head of staff] just yelled out in the studio, “Everybody, what’s the one?” And they were like, “Emergency! Emergency!” “Playmate” is a super old song; it was written nine to 10 years ago. I actually played that when I first starting playing out with my own songs, when I was in New York. I was wondering if you have daily rituals for getting work done, or do you wait for inspiration to strike?Rian says that I used to do that a lot more. When he met me and when we were recording Calling Over Time, I guess I was sitting with a guitar every single day. I was just sitting every day playing folk and country tunes for the sake of playing. I really don’t do that any more, like I used to. I don’t practice regularly.
Is it because it is so second nature to you that you don’t even need to make a ritual of it?
No, I should be doing it! I should, because then I’d write a lot more songs. I should definitely get back into that habit. Because if you’re dealing with the music every day, then something is more likely to come of that than sitting and watching All My Children. (Laughs) Well, you never know, there might be something you could use from that show? (Laughs)There was a quote from the show today that I loved. Something like, “You got me pregnant and now you’re dumping me?!” In that one, the guy was a sperm donor. Like, he was like the family doctor, so he didn’t actually screw her. He impregnated her by insemination. Still pretty shocking.
When I'm home writing during the day, I’ll turn on the judge shows sometimes. They’re a problem for me.
Those I can get sucked into, those and Elimidate, because it’s always on after South Park, which I love. I Tivo that, and so I get Elimidate at the end. At some point, I got sucked into the reality shows. My theory was that I’d start watching all of them and eliminate one every week until I’m down to the One True Reality show that I really love, but I’m still Tivo’ing all of those. My favorite is Big Brother. I don’t really watch-watch them, but I just work right here on the couch and have them on out of the corner of my eye … I swear I’m not … oh well.
I wanted to ask you about public versus private personas, because your music is introspective and wistful, but you’re also out in public mode pretty often, blogging and performing, so do you think of yourself as more of an introvert or extrovert?
Well, my natural inclination is to be a total homebody. I can be perfectly happy just being at home and doing the little projects that I do. And, with the blog, from my perspective, it doesn’t seem that revealing or that I’m giving away too much. When I first started it years ago, I was blabbing too much and using too many names. I keep going back and forth, with “I want a private life, I don’t want them to know everything” and then just talking about everything on the blog. But it was just a matter of learning how to go about it and assuming that who you were talking about was going to read it. And performing is cool, because you get feedback. I do well at it, by my standards. In other words, I get a lot of fulfillment from it.
Had you played with any of the musicians that you worked with on It’s a Game before?
Yeah, pretty much. Lindsay [Anderson], Josh [Abrams], and I had opened for Cat Power three years ago, and Ryan Hembrey is someone who I’ve been working with ever since I moved to Chicago. Mark Greenberg is someone I’ve also known forever, too. He worked on Wonder Wonder and also Love is Real. Jason [Toth], the drummer, is in Manischewitz, and I’d done a tour a while back with them. I have the worst luck with drummers — they always go onto bigger and better things. Like, my first drummer in Chicago was Glenn Kotche and he’s in Wilco now, and then Gerald Dowd who plays with Robbie Fulks, who has about 365 gigs a year. And Adam Vida who is in US Maple. There is just this trail of drummers behind me.
So your last album came out in 2001, four years ago, and a lot of reviewers so far have fixated on the four years between that one and the new album. I thought that seemed sort of weird …
Yeah, I did too.Because it seems to put out the expectation that you’re supposed to trump out a record a year or something.Well, the others were like a year and half or two years apart, so maybe I’d set up these expectations by cranking out stuff a little faster. But to me, the time just flew by so fast — it didn’t seem like four years. I think if I’d had it together a bit more, it would have been maybe three and a half years instead, but that’s it.Do you find yourself going through seasonal cycles of productivity versus simmering?Well, if I’m touring I’m not writing, and I don’t write when there is something going on with my family. Basically, almost anything can distract me from making music. Your Web site has the heading of “roller skating enthusiast.”
How frequently do you roller skate?I haven’t in a while — I need to get back into that. Do you think you’d ever like to skate with a roller derby like the Windy City Rollers?
No, but I bet they’d like me to. I mean, I’m a really good skater. Oh, I shouldn’t say that because there are really good skaters who could say, “No, you’re not.” I mean, I can skate. But I don’t have health insurance, and that is one of their requirements. Also, the roller derby is just not my thing. I’m more into wanting to be a wannabe figure skater. I like doing jumps and spins.
You’re from a warm climate, and it’s getting to be wintertime in Chicago. Do you have coping mechanisms for Chicago winters?
I don’t know — the winter seems to go very fast for me. I got used to the cold because I lived in New York for six years. There, it seemed like worse, sloppier winters, since it was on the ocean. It’s colder and more bitter here, but more tolerable, I think. And I learned in New York how to dress: three pairs of socks, hose under the long johns, pants, blah, blah, blah. I get more bothered by the really gross hot weather. I finally broke down and bought an AC this summer, during that weekend when it was 94 degrees all weekend. Y’know, in Texas, everybody knows that you don’t live without an air conditioner — you just don’t do it! And here, it’s more like you don’t live without heat. All of the buildings I’ve lived in have had good heat but not automatic AC, like in Texas. But, coming from a place where there weren’t really seasons — where it was just hot, hotter, or maybe not as hot — I do like Chicago’s defined seasons.
This is a big apartment building. Do your neighbors ever hear you singing and playing and complain?
It’s a really quiet building and no one has ever complained. Also, I don’t jam that loud; I don’t do the amp too much, just sometimes to make sure it works. I think that if they were going to complain, it would actually be about the incessant TV. I don’t think they hear me; we have pretty thick walls. I don’t hear them, except for little footsteps from above and their cats sometimes.I hear my landlord’s bassett hound sometimes, when it’s chasing toys across the hardwood floors. I can’t have a dog in this apartment. I’ve had cats in other apartments, but not here. Really, if I could I would, because they’re so fun, but when I tour and go away, it’d be such a drag for the cats. If I was living with someone it would be different. It wouldn’t be like I was putting this creature in the position to be really lonely. My best pal just got a dog, Lois, so I live vicariously through her, and Drag City has Easy; she is a pitbull who is the sweetest. So I get a lot of pet privileges.
I love offices with dogs. Venus shares space with this skateboard company, and the owner rescued these two greyhounds that are always there.
Greyhounds are so damn big, though!
Yeah, but these two are really mellow and sweet. They sleep in the sun for most of the day, and I’ve only seen them be high strung when they hear a vacuum cleaner.
Yeah, the great nemesis of all dogs — they say it’s the postman, but no!
How do different producers’ styles affect the sound of your albums?
Well, Rian has produced all but the second album, Telescopic, which was done by Neil Haggerty, and they had very different styles. Rian is a lot more of the kind of guy who will gather all the pieces and musicians together and say, “Work your magic!” Whereas Neil was a lot more structured about things. He took detailed notes, even to the point of changing structures a little bit, like adding longer middle parts or whatever. And he was really really specific about what he wanted. And they’re all great ideas, so it worked out. But Rian is a lot freer with bringing people together and letting them work. And he does come up with ideas for arrangements that I wouldn’t necessarily come up with myself. His talent really lies more in being the conduit or the facilitator.
Kind of like throwing all of the ingredients in the pot and letting them work together?
Yeah, and he’s really good about knowing who might sound good together. And he just keeps it light and jokey. He’s a funny guy.Must be comforting to have a producer who you can trust to go with their instincts like that.It’s really cool to have worked with Rian for so long. To have him know the language, you know? He knows what is best for it and what will make the music sound good, because he’s heard it for so long, so he knows what works and what doesn’t work.
Were you a musical kid?
My mom had me in lessons periodically. I took some cello and piano when I was a kid, and I got a little guitar when I was 14. And she always had a piano and was always hanging out with orchestra people. And my dad has always been really into jazz and classical stuff, and he turned me onto a lot of stuff too. My mom always had a lot of records around: Joni Mitchell and Carole King, Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Led Zeppelin. But yeah, there was always music around, and that was fortunate for me, but I was in Mexico from fourth to ninth grade, and they didn’t have a music program there. So when I moved back to Texas for high school, the other kids had already been in the programs, and I really wasn’t prepared to read music or play an instrument in band or anything. I missed out on the schooling in the early years, kind of caught up, took music lessons at University of Texas, and tried to make up for it. But there are still big holes in my knowledge of music — like as far as the technical part of it, even though I’ve taken all these classes, and I should remember all this theory and stuff. But that’s never been very natural for me. I do a lot better just with three chords and banging around. I know that a while back you weren’t getting international distribution.
What’s going on with that?
Yeah, yeah, they got me a better distribution deal since the last album, but it’s only been in the last six months or year. It used to be that if there was a store that had my stuff, they had it as imports, for the most part. I used to go there and hear, “I’ve never heard of you. I haven’t seen your records. Where do I get your records?” It should be a lot better now, I’m hoping. I’ve never had a bad tour [in Europe], but it’s been a little lacking as far as prepping them for who the fuck I am! (Laughs) But there are always these weird little pockets of fans, like in Stockholm, I had like fuckin’ 20 superfans, with lighters, singing along to every word, but that’s an anomaly.
Where do you like to play in Europe?
Paris has always been great. London I’ve only played once, but it was awesome show. When I played Spain, I had so much fun there, because I speak Spanish — since I used to live in Mexico — and it made it a lot easier to joke with the audience. Sure, they didn’t know who the hell I was there, but I had the advantage of being able to joke with them and speak to them. The show there was a super-fun show.
That’s right, you speak Spanish. I read that you moved around a bit when you were a kid, in Texas and Mexico.
Yeah, the order was San Antonio, Austin, Guadalajara, Austin, San Antonio, Austin, New York, then Chicago. And there were about five different homes in every place.
You’ve maintained your blog for 10 years, you were on the Internet before most people even knew what the Internet was, and you once had a day job as a programmer. Do you still do that work to make extra cash?
No, well, the last little freelance thing that I did was with Drag City, helping them with their Itunes, uploading data entry, but that’s just song titles and stuff, not like “programming.” As far as Web stuff, I just do my own site now. I like separating my fun from my work (laughs). The best job I ever had was as a courier, when I was using my van to drive packages from like downtown FedEx to the airport. It was for a shipping company. I was a substitute-courier for Adam Jacobs, this Chicago character who tapes concerts. And so it was no brainwork — just picking up, signing for the packages, driving them out somewhere while listening to the radio. It was so removed from any of my responsibilities in my real career — the music — that I really [enjoyed] that shit work.
That sounds like a dream day job for a creative person — just being able to zone out.
Yeah, stupid jobs can be really fun like that if you don’t have to worry about what you’re doing so much. Working in music could be a drag if you’re just being immersed in music all day and having to do it for your vocation, too. I think it takes a lot of dedication to keep things separate.Yeah, it makes you value what you’re doing for the love of it as opposed to the money. I’ve been lucky, because more and more over the years, the music has moved from being hobby to work. Even my tax lady can say so, and then she can take more of a percentage! It’s hard, but the more I work at it the more I can do that. If I got off my ass and played more shows, I could make a pretty comfortable living. It’s just that I’m lazy and I like to avoid working.
You were just playing some shows with Calexico in Austin. How did that go?
I met them in Tulsa — we played there and then Fort Worth the next night — and then we played Austin. It was a blast, it was so fun. I didn’t have copies of It’s a Game with me, so I was just talking it up and playing some songs off of it. I had the pedal-steel player from Calexico, and “Playmate” was actually one of the songs that we were doing. He would come up at the end and we’d do “Mirage” and “Playmate” on pedal steel. It was sooo pretty. I don’t know how they do that, those guys. Pedal steel seems like a really hard instrument to me. But it was perfect.
Many of the tunes on the new album are hinged on heartbreak or a love-affair ending. Do people make assumptions about you and your love life based on that?
Yeah, it’s part of the mythos or whatever. I don’t like it — I wish that my thoughts were a little less rooted in the real (laughs). But the thing is that it’s just the topic that is easiest for me to write about. I have all of these aspects of my life — friends, family, hobbies — but I just don’t choose to write about them. The way I see it is that you write a sad song and you can kind of “validate your feelings” and then you can leave it behind and it becomes just a pretty song eventually — you know, after a few weeks. I just really like sad songs. Some of my favorite songs are really broken-heartedy kind of songs. It’s just ... yeah, why do people like that, why is that enjoyable? I don’t know (laughs). I envy the people who can just make up a story and write really vivid imagery and can take you to a place that they haven’t even necessarily been. I can do that somewhat — a little bit — but that is harder for me. It is easier for me to just pull from my own e-mail or things I’ve said or things I overheard. Plus, the songs do tend to be patched together a lot, because I’ll just write like three phrases down or something when the thing is going on. And then, in a notebook, piece of paper, or on a computer or something and might not come back to it till much later. There was one, “My Lover Won’t Call” — I literally had every word of that for 10 years, and it took me that long to finally stumble across it and say, “Oh, I could finish that” (laughs). So, in that way, the albums end up being much more at a distance than what is going on in my head at the moment, because it is so pieced together time-wise.
So the songs are not necessarily about what’s happening at that time period.You’re actually mining old scraps of paper, moments, and journals?
Yeah, by the point that I am pulling it together and actually making it into a song, that is definitely not the point that I’m actually going through the heartbreak. When the heartbreak is happening, I will tend to write stream-of-consciousness shit, but I’m not in a state where I want to actually sit down and do a demo or figure out chords or anything. It’s just like “bleh, bleh, bleh,” and then I’ll come back to it and be like, “Hmm, that rhymes!” I have to go through [the scraps of paper] later and attempt to pull something out of it that makes sense. It’s just about the discipline to do that.
Top photo © Drag CityBottom photo © Eric ZiegenhagenNovember 23, 2005.