When the members of 10 String Symphony (Rachel Baiman and Christian Sedelmyer) and Oliver the Crow (Ben Plotnick and Kaitlyn Raitz) strolled through the doorway of an East Nashville brewery together late one Wednesday afternoon, they were right on time for their joint interview and already bantering with familiarity, which wasn't the least bit surprising. Baiman has written and roomed with Raitz and Plotnick, and Raitz has snapped promotional photos for Sedelmyer and Baiman. Plus, Raitz and Baiman help organize lineups of likeminded, youthful pickers for politically inflected benefit shows under the name Folk Fights Back. But the intertwined nature of their personal and professional lives wasn't the motivation for asking them to convene.
As self-contained string duos, one comprised of a cellist (Raitz) and fiddler (Plotnick) and the other of two fiddlers, one of whom (Baiman) also switches over to banjo, Oliver the Crow and 10 String Symphony are traveling idiosyncratic yet parallel musical paths. They're all virtuosos on their instruments with backgrounds ranging from classical training to old-time and bluegrass fiddle competitions, from Beach Boys-esque string band pop to newgrassy jazz excursions and chamber folk, who decided to explore the possibilities of composing, performing and recording in these nontraditional, two-person configurations. 10 String Symphony is three albums into its tenure (the duo's latest, Generation Frustration, came out in July), while Oliver the Crow released its self-titled debut a month earlier. So these four musicians were uniquely qualified to speak to shared logistical limitations, stylistic influences and artistic aims, over pints of craft beer.
You've all had experiences playing in larger ensembles of various kinds, but you deliberately limit yourselves to minimal instrumentation in your duos. What's the appeal of that?
Rachel Baiman: I think, for me, at least in our band, it was going from being an instrumentalist in the band and then forcing yourself to be a front person. Making that transition often doesn't happen if you are the fiddle player.
Is 10 String really your first time fronting a group?
RB: Yeah. I didn't even sing or write songs before we started. That was a big deal to me.
Kaitlyn Raitz: It makes so much financial sense. ... It also feels like you have more of the pie also musically, which is cool. I'd never been the front person of a band necessarily. We kind of, I think, share that in our band.
Ben Plotnick: I totally agree with that sentiment, with the idea of their being creativity in limitation. To try to find ways to come up with unusual sounds within the parameters that we have, it's been really helpful for me creatively.
Christian Sedelmyer: it requires you to do things with your instrument that you just wouldn't be required to do in other contexts with a larger band, whether your role is a more traditional or a more experimental one. ... It forces you to think beyond the limitations of whatever you thought your instrument [was meant to do] prior to that and hopefully then arrive at cooler, newer things.
In a string band, instruments tend to have particular roles. Rhythm guitar, upright bass and mandolin chopping do a lot of the rhythmic work. But you've found innovative ways of covering those bases in your configurations. How did you figure out how to get the most out of your instrumentation?
CS: Rachel and I both listen to a lot of music that isn't necessarily string band music, and even more so now than when we started the band. I grew up listening to '60s and '70s folk rock music because that's what my dad liked. Then in college I was listening to a lot of avant-garde bands that were based in jazz but weren't really playing jazz, and a lot of 'em had two drummers. ... There are all these different layers there that you end up internalizing. You might not even think about it that way, picking apart what they're doing.
When we're in the context of arranging something, it really is just trial and error. We record everything when we're arranging, and we listen back and if it's not quite there, then we try something else. I think that those influences of listening to all kinds of different music, not just string band music, definitely ends up playing a role in how we craft our way to a final arrangement.
BP: For us, we never felt any particular attachment to needing to fill all those roles. We're both very aware of string band music and have a big history in playing bluegrass and old-time and stuff. But in knowing what those roles are, we've enjoyed the task of trying to find moments where they won't be missed and where we can really strip back and try to focus on the nature of what our instruments do. The [similarities] in the role of the cello and the rhythm guitar is something that we've really noticed and been able to dive into. Range-wise it's not that different.
KR: We have found that we're comfortable with silence more than traditional string band music would be. ... Coming from classical music, which is really what my training is in, there's tons of space in there, measures and measures of rests where you're listening to what just happened and absorbing it.
RB: In terms of finding our way to certain roles, it's a lot of trial and error. I think some of our best arrangement ideas have come out of just playing a bunch of stuff into a recorder and then listening back. I really enjoy arranging music that way, to be able to kind of play around with parts and just try things and see what sticks, rather than being really organized or strict about the roles that need to be filled.
Kaitlyn and Ben, you wrote mostly separately for your album, while Christian and Rachel did quite a bit of co-writing. How do writing, arranging and improvising work for you? What parts of the creative process do you give the most attention?
KR: We're such a new band that we've been trying to navigate how we work best. What we've found, at least for the first album, was we did a lot of writing separately or I would write with other people, then we would come together and it was a very intense arranging process. This is the funny part: I actually think that we are most particular with the lyrics, more than the music. Maybe that's because we've spent our whole lives just playing. We're super critical of the words and what we wanna say. That's what I find we put probably the most work into, is the actual writing part.
BP: Although, I would say — and I'm sure you guys can relate to this too — the arrangements take a while to figure out. They're super thought-out. ... Definitely we have improvisation, but it's within super specific parameters, and most of the textures that we're going for and 90% of the music is stuff that we've figured out painstakingly. We don't have much improvisation compared to some bands.
RB: We just can't [do much improvisation]. We always want more but, occasionally Christian will do something different and I'm like, "Why did you do that? You just messed me up. What's going on?" And he's like, "I'm just trying to play music, man. I'm trying to do my thing." I'm like, "Stick to the plan!"
In terms of writing, our first album had hardly any original material. Our second album was really written separately and then we arranged it. This album we really made a concerted effort: We're going to co-write the songs on this album. It was a challenge for us, but it was awesome. ... We would get together and someone would have an idea or starting point, then we'd go through and co-write. ... I'm a very, very lyrical writer. Christian's a very musical writer. So that's kind of a nice pairing. ... I think the songs turned out different because of that collaboration than they would've. Christian is a really good lyrical critic, so we got to the bottom of things.
KR: I would say I'm probably the lyrical critic in our band. I feel like someone's gotta be it, right?
It's not altogether surprising that you focused on lyrics, because there were things that you wanted to say in your new songs, ideas that you wanted to articulate.
RB: There was one song ["Others Must Knock"] that started by Christian saying, "I really wanna write this song about this privilege thing that I'm thinking about." We didn't have any words but he wanted to say something.
The general idea of a coed duo isn't unfamiliar in the folk and Americana world. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, Shovels & Rope, Buddy and Julie and the Civil Wars have all been very influential. Some of them seem to perform their songs in dialogue with each other. How do you make use of your coed dynamics?
CS: One thing I thought of was on our new album, there are definitely several songs—and our producer Kris Drever [of the British folk band Lau], he latched onto this—where we're weaving in and out of harmony and unison singing. He was like, "That's just not done that much, and I really love the way it sounds and I think you guys should roll with that, because you're doing it naturally anyway." So there ended up being several songs where there are bits that are sung in unison, but they have a much different timbre than somebody that has a similar range of voice—you know, male-male or female-female—would have.
BP: The only example of that that I can really think of offhand is we have one song ["Ashes of a Day Gone By"] where there's a central idea in the chorus, and we're trying to get the verses to come from super different perspectives. ...That's something that we were able to work in there by having me sing a verse and Kaitlyn sing a verse. ...We've really enjoyed playing around with who sings melody, and that shifts harmonies accordingly.
KR: I would say singing together has been a journey. It's kind of funny because we began our singing processes together basically. And like you said about the phrasing just working, it's kind of magical how that happens sometimes. I mean, it's also the amount of times we've played the songs probably. But I find that every time that we try to make a new harmony, it's easier.
We do have that Donald Trump song ["45"] where one line is Donald Trump speaking. I wanted to make it super clear that it's Donald Trump speaking, so that's the one line [Ben] sings.
BP: I tried to do that one line in the voice of Donald Trump. I'm not sure if it worked.
RB: I'm not sure if you guys run in to this, but for us, one thing about the singing roles is that it's really hard to sing while you're playing the fiddle in a certain way. A lot of the singing and arrangement is dictated by what we can actually do. I can't play an improvised fiddle part or anything that has phrasing that's different than what I'm singing. I can do a rhythmic part, or sometimes I can do something more complex if I really practice it. But we definitely have to be really aware of how the arrangement works with the vocals live, even though we can go in the studio and do whatever. ... If you play a guitar, you can pretty much do anything, because it's out of your neck physically.
BP: I'm so encouraged to hear you say that.
RB: It's so hard, because I have to change the way I hold the fiddle when I sing, and then it's out of tune.
CS: Any workshop we've ever done, we'll ask people what they want to get out of the next hour or two. Without fail, in the first two questions it's, "How do you sing and play at the same time?" I think Rachel's general response is, "You utilize poor form." It's true. How do you sing and have a piece of wood stuck in your neck?
There's a song that Ben mentioned already, "Ashes of a Day Gone By," that has some interesting rhythmic, melodic and atmospheric layers to it, and the same goes for Rachel and Christian's song "Anxious Annie." Could you talk me through what's going on in those tracks?
CS: "Anxious Annie," I think that one came out the quickest of any of the songs on the album. We pretty much stayed true to the arrangement in the studio. ... Rachel's actually plucking the fiddle like a guitar the whole track.
RB: I wrote it on guitar, so I was like, "This is the vibe."
CS: She had such a strong idea of the rhythmic element of how the song was gonna go down. Then it was my role to go, "OK, how do we layer this and make it sound full?" Early in the song, there were lines that I played that Kris our producer jumped on as things he wanted to [electronically] manipulate a little bit. ...The second half of the song is essentially a loop. I played one part and looped it and then played another part on top of it that's a harmony to that part. And at the end I go back to the rhythmic thing that I was doing on earlier choruses, and the loops still exist underneath it. We do all that live now as well.
RB: This is our first album where we've added things into our live show to reflect sounds that we can't make without pedal effects. We wanted to get a bigger more expanded sound and we thought about how to do that. We decided that the duo was such a core aspect of the band that we didn't want to bring in other instruments. We would rather do things that we can do with our instruments.
BP: I actually also wrote that song on a guitar. We gave Kaitlyn the more rhythmic role in that, of trying to figure out how to grab the vibe of what I was playing on the guitar. [On cello] I tried to play a line that would be a little more like a keyboard synth pad over top to soften it out. Then we added some even longer weird swells. We also were trying to make a duo album and not get away from the fiddle and cello thing...
KR: But still add some stuff.
BP: We were eager to find things to add that wouldn't detract from the sound of the band. We had an experimental electronic duo named Speaker Face produce us. ...They're actually a fiddle player and a cellist too. They're both members of the Fretless, who I play with. They had a history of finding interesting sounds with fiddle and cello. They took various sounds that we created in the studio and manipulated them.
It sounds like both duos were in similar headspaces when you chose your producers.
RB: Yeah, I think music often moves in directions together in communities, what people are listening to and what's popular at the time. When I first was playing in 10 String Symphony, it felt really cutting edge to do stuff with purely acoustic instruments. You always have that curiosity about exploring, but that changes depending on what you're listening to. Probably we listen to similar artists that are having great albums come out.
RB: Sylvan Esso is someone we were listening to a lot. Bahamas. Lau has been doing this for many years, and I think they were probably influenced by Radiohead. Maybe they were [part of] the previous electronic wave when we were here in Nashville listening to amazing acoustic bands like Punch Brothers that were doing innovative things with acoustic instruments. As different bands become popular and as our personal tastes change, you get interested in different things. I never listened to anything with even electric guitar or drums until I was like 24.
CS: I can vouch for that.
RB: Seriously, I was discovering Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles. [Before that] I just was so fiddle, fiddle, fiddle. I think probably there's a reason that we're both hearing those electronic elements and going, "This is cool."
KR: In the process of making our album, we didn't want to get too far away from things we couldn't replicate live.
BP: We're new to Nashville. We've been here for two years. ... [I'm] coming from a place where the acoustic scene is very much acoustic still in Toronto. There's a really cool bluegrass and old-time scene there, which is doing really well. But it's like nobody has pickups on their instruments and everything is acoustic and is hard to hear in bars. ... I noticed upon getting to Nashville that everyone was slowly modifying their bands. Acoustic bands are adding drummers. Americana singers are playing with electric guitar players who are concerned with atmosphere. ... We were really interested in trying to merge those worlds.