An Interview With: Handsome Ghost

We chatted with indie-synth duo Handsome Ghost before the release of their new album, Some Still Morning. Get to know the Massachusetts group and the evolution of their music.

Can you describe your song-writing process and influences?

Tim: I usually write personal songs about memories or experiences, or realizations I have had or what not. Sometimes they are meant to recount some night or an important month or some big change—other times they’re trying to figure out what all those experiences mean. I am not the kind of artist who is constantly writing songs. I either write nothing at all—or I’m frantically inspired—writing ten or twelve or fifteen songs at once. When that kind of rush hits me I try and take an honest look at myself. The present, the distant past – maybe the future? Songwriting has always been a personal exercise for me. The songs are really just a way for me to figure things out.

For influences: I’m not sure! When I first started writing songs, I was listening to a TON of music—just devouring it. I think my favorite artists from that important phase of my life really shaped my writing in a way that’s still there now. Elliott Smith, Ben Gibbard, Jim James—to name a few. I definitely listen to less music now (probably because I play so much of it myself… and also podcasts exist) but I’m sure there a plenty more that I have picked up along the way.

The folk and indie sounds are beautifully subtle and serene in “Sunday Best” and “Vampires”. How do you balance the tradition of the folk genre with something that still feels modern and relevant? 

Tim: I think a lot of our songs—even the ones with big production from few years ago—sound like folk songs if you strip them back to the bare bones. For this record, we wanted to try and maintain the intimacy and the rawness of the lyrics and the melodies—without making an acoustic album. So figuring out the tones, the textures—and basically all the little sounds we wanted to use was an important conversation. I think it’s those subtle little choices that helped create the world in which the songs themselves live. And thank you for the compliment—that’s what we were shooting for.

The video for “Sunday Best” features the work of 17 visual artists. How do you include collaboration in your work? 

Eddie: We’ve always valued records as cohesive statements. Because of that, musically, it feels like we’ve gotten more insular. For Some Still Record, we finished 95% of all the the songs and then went back at the end to tie them all together. 

For visuals, we’ve been lucky to have made so many talented friends over the years. Artists are always so excited to introduce you to somebody else they respect. For the most part, everybody we’ve collaborated with, were genuinely fans of their work. So I enjoy following their work and how their styles progress. And when we are looking for a visual we can match a vibe or find somebody we trust. 

For music videos, we’ve worked with Nick Noyes, Tim’s brother. We usually discuss a story or a vision, but sometimes Nick comes with something from hearing the song or from just wanting to try a technique out. He’s just so talented that whether we have a long discussion with a storyboard, or just let him do what he feels, I just kinda trust it’s going to be beautiful. He’s a magician. 

How did you go about choosing and placing the art that features in “Sunday Best”? 

Eddie: “Sunday Best” is a song that invokes such complicated, different, and potent emotions, just given the content of the song (about attending a funeral with somebody you love for somebody they love that you didn’t know). I really wanted to capture that strange flurry of emotions visually so we chose artists that we thought would be very diverse stylistically. 

When we had most of the artists committed, I tried to give artists parts of the song that would suit their style and let them run with it. I think, honestly, a lot of the artists interpreted their song segments very differently than I expected which I think made it beautiful and chaotic. As an example, Jess Dunlap does expansive cinematography in striking and wide spaces, but for his piece, he did close-up recordings of different colored food coloring in seltzer. 

The softness of your music really allows for lyrics and vocals to have an important focus for listeners. Can you speak about your lyrics and their composition in relation to the soulful melodies? Also the important pauses in lyrics?

Tim: I’d say that nine times out of ten (maybe more) the lyrics and the melody are the first piece of any Handsome Ghost song. So I try and be as thoughtful as I can with both of those. I do think that stems from those early influences. Lyrics have always been the part of the song that I focus on the most as a listener, so I try and hold myself to a high standard in presenting an idea in an interesting and mature way. No judgment for those who don’t care about lyrics, but that’s just my preference.

I usually spend a good amount of time writing and rewriting until I have lyrics that I’m completely happy with. Occasionally I’ll do the opposite and just write a song without thinking too hard. I think that’s a good exercise – to just let thing spill out and see what you’ve got. You get some extremely honest songs that way. But…you also get some garbage songs (I know this first hand) so I just kind of toss those away.

“Vampires” in particular has this beautiful storytelling to it, both musically and also visually. How does storytelling factor into your music? 

Tim: I think storytelling is an important part of the band, definitely. I think our goal as musicians (beyond using music to work out our own issues) is to try and make the listener feel something. I love when I hear that someone has connected with a song, in some way. It’s a great feeling. Because the songs usually start with just guitar and voice—I try and write some story that moves the listener in some way. I don’t consider myself a super direct writer, though. It’s rare that I’ll write a song where I’m like: “Here’s what I did today. Then I did this. Then that.” I usually try and get my story across in a way that leaves a little open for interpretation, if I can. That way, I get something from the song (because I know what it means)—and the listener is welcome to use their imagination. It doesn’t always work like that, but that’s the goal.

“Vampires” also has a homely realistic quality, despite focusing on vampires. It evokes the mixing of fantasy and reality. Can you talk about that theme and how you choose the imagery? 

Tim: “Vampires” is about holding on to a little bit of youth. I can remember a time when I was basically nocturnal—staying up super late, being a little reckless—you know the drill. I think it’s just a nod to that period of my life and, although it’s mostly behind me, it’s okay to run it back once in a while. So it’s a simple thought, I guess: Let’s be vampires again.

Perhaps it’s because “Vampires” is a love story, or that it features a lesbian couple, but there is something remarkably hopeful about “Vampires”. What do you think the role of music and art in providing hope, especially in our current turbulent times? 

Tim: Honestly, I’m not sure. My first thought is this: If something gives you hope, or moves you in some way right now—then that’s a very, very good thing. I think it’s so easy to feel disconnected right now. I’ve definitely been dealing with that myself at times. If art, or really anything, can give you a little boost of passion, even for a moment… then I’ll definitely take it. Hopefully our record can be that for somebody at some point.

What do we have to look forward to from you for the rest of 2020? Can you speak a little about Some Still Morning?

Eddie: Some Still Morning is a collection of songs that (we feel) are hopeful reflections of where we are now and how we got here. Specific songs might be sad or whatever, but overall it’s kinda, to me, a collection of moments to look back on and just appreciate for what they are. In that way they’re songs for the morning. Refreshing, hopefully. I’m really excited to keep sharing songs for the record and to keep telling the stories through visuals.

Any advice for aspiring musicians? 

Eddie: You’re never as good as you think you are. If that doesn’t motivate you, maybe you should pursue a career in something else.

Follow Handsome Ghost on Spotify.

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