Growing Pains is a fantastic, beautiful, dark, intimate, exciting new EP from Courtney Swain. (If her name sounds familiar, it may be because we interviewed her last year.) Each of the five tracks offers something new and beautiful. I absolutely love this record. It’s moved me to tears on multiple occasions and it’s a quick 24-minute listen.
It’s also available for just $5 as a digital download on her Bandcamp page. Do yourself a favor and buy this record. This is art as music, folks.
I loved it so much I asked Courtney to do a conversation about it shortly after I’d listened to it on repeat 8-10 times.
(NOTE: hitting the “play” button requires a hefty download of the entire audio file!).
Or, download an mp3 .
AG: Courtney Swain is the singer of the band Bent Knee, a very interesting rock band based in Boston. Courtney and the band have just returned from a European tour. Courtney, how did all of that go?
CS: Oh, it was amazing.
CS: I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to say more! No, it was just amazing. That’s all I want to say. It was fantastic.
AG: Awesome. And Courtney, you’ve got a relatively new solo album out called Growing Pains that I’m several months late to, but I don’t feel so bad because I know that you’ve mentioned before that there’s no press after an album is released, you know?
AG: Yeah, so here we are. Tell us about the album Growing Pains, when did it come out, and tell us a little about it.
CS: Sure yeah. So, I put Growing Pains out in November of 2017 and it was something that–it was a collection of five songs that I was working on at the beginning of 2017. So right about a little over a year ago. And actually, literally last year at this time, I was doing a residency. I was awarded a grant to basically have two weeks to myself and I applied with this project where I wanted to write an album that was very much on my laptop and sort of an in-the-box kind of thing. I knew I was going to write a bunch of music there, so before I did that I wanted to get all of these piano songs in my head out of the way.
The way I write, I tend to have sets of songs that are very much piano-centric and then I have songs that are way more beeps and bloops kind of I-wrote-it-on-my-laptop types of songs. Growing Pains is the piano songs and I took the album on my first solo tour in December–last December.
I, for some reason, had not realized that all the songs are kind of connected. They’re all growing pains of some sort and I was completely oblivious when I named the album Growing Pains. It’s just a line in one of the songs that I liked. But yes, it’s kind of a dark album, it’s kind of painful.
After I recorded it, I put it away for a while and I was so busy with the Bent Knee release for Land Animal that I didn’t listen to it at all. After about seven or eight months, after the studio date, I went back and listened to it and I listened to the songs in succession. When I got to the last song, I was just crying uncontrollably.
It’s rare that I’ve had such a breakdown in my life like that. It really struck me how much the music meant to me. It seemed way too personal for it to be relevant to anybody else, so I hesitated in whether I should put it out or not, but I tried to stick with that gut feeling that I had that made me so emotional and I thought that there’s something to that that I wanted to share with the people who listen to my stuff. So yeah, that’s the story behind that.
AG: I am so happy you did because–what an amazing piece of music. Every song that went by, I was like, “This is my favorite song on the album,” and then the next one was like, “Oh my goodness! This is even better than the last one!”
AG: And that last one–Prickly Rose, right?
CS: Prickly Thorn.
AG: Oh, Prickly Thorn–Oh my goodness. It’s, like, darkness, and the vocals and the string arrangements. It’s just incredible. What a body of work!
CS: Thank you!
AG: The fact that it’s only 24 minutes long is like–you just want to put it on again right away.
CS: Awesome, awesome.
AG: Yeah. It’s really great. So tell us about the string arrangements and the production of the album. I was really impressed beyond just your capabilities. The whole production, I think, is just a perfect piece of work. So, tell us about the production of it, the arrangements, and all that.
CS: Well thank you, first of all. I really appreciate that. The production was masterminded yet again by Vince Welch, who does all the Bent Knee stuff and so far has done most of my work, too. We found this wonderful studio in Lincoln, Rhode Island. We live in Providence, but Lincoln’s about 20 minutes away. We heard about it through friends.
The guy who runs it is this wonderful person about our age. He’s just the most fun and patient engineer that I’ve ever worked with. His name is Brad. The space is really neat. It’s a huge room. It’s one of those repurposed warehouses, so the live room is massive.
There’s a couple different pianos there and when we showed up to record, Brad was really excited because he just had a bunch of his pianos tuned. I think we ended up using two different pianos on the album. There is an upright and then there is a grand. One of the funny stories was that we recorded it in January and the room being so big, in order to heat it, he had to turn on this big Reznor heating apparatus.
Between takes, the temperature kind of dropped, so as the day progressed, the pianos would gradually go in and out of tune. A lot of times when I show up to a piano, people are like, “Oh my God, is the tuning okay?” I’m actually one to be really excited for pianos that are out of tune, unless they’re unplayable. But, I have a pretty broad palate in terms of quirkiness and tuning. So that was pretty exciting for me.
The string arrangements were something I worked on the previous few weeks before I came into that. The string players that we worked with were all our friends. Most of them have played on at least one or two Bent Knee albums as well and I brought them in because I wanted to work with sort of a female/femme energy. They were all sorts of women and so it was kind of fun being in the live room. We were just having a ball.
A lot of times, I end up hanging out with a lot of guys in my profession, but there is also something special to having an environment like that that’s filled with women. I can’t really explain it. But, yeah, I thought they just played their hearts and souls into it and it was really emotional the entire time we were tracking. We did most of it in one day, so I got there early and I did scratch–I did keeper piano takes and scratch vocals.
Oops! Sorry my cat wants to say hi. “Hello everybody.”
This was the first time I tracked the piano and the singing separately. I think originally we were talking about doing it together, but I was really interested in having a really intimate and really raw kind of vocal sound. When I’m playing piano while I’m singing, I tend to get carried away by the piano or I tend to compete with the loudness of the piano. I can’t get as quiet or intimate as I want to, so that was the idea behind that.
I showed up early in the day, tracked the piano, did a scratch vocal take, and then the string players showed up around noon or 1 and they just played until 6 or 7. I think we mostly went in order of the songs. There’s only four of the five songs that have strings, so we just went in order.
At the end of the last song–all four of them have are really wonderful singers on top of wonderful instrumentalists and I think we were trying to explain or try to figure out how the parts were working or something. Then I realized, everybody was singing their parts and it just sounded gorgeous in this massive room, so I was like, “Wait, why don’t we just do that? Can we just have that at the end where we have this wonderful choir?”
That’s how the ending came together. I ended up having to go in for an extra half day to track vocals and the studio, the big nice studio. But that was it, so it was a very minimal production and then Vince did his magic and we had it mastered by Randy [Roos], who again does a lot of our stuff. It’s kind of the same crew, different approach. But, yeah.
AG: I just absolutely love it and it’s such a, as you said, an intimate album. There were times where I was listening where I almost felt guilty listening, hearing too much about your life or something. I was like, “No, that’s exactly what this is about.” It’s a stunning release of emotions. The music just so perfectly supports it. I thought–I wanted to hear a little bit about how you wrote these songs because they don’t really follow the traditional structure, as far as I could tell at least. You’re not “verse chorus verse chorus bridge” happening in the album.
AG: Can you talk about how you explore songwriting and how these songs came to be from a compositional standpoint?
CS: Yeah, of course. I think these songs sort of came at the end of my maximalist writing interests. Right now, I’m very interested in minimalist writing, by which I mean I am trying to get more out of the same chord progressions, but making that feel different by timbre and texture. For me, in my writing, which is the case for Growing Pains too, when I switch a section, I have to change the accompaniment completely too.
But I’ve noticed that in a lot of music, people approach it a lot more economically. Even if the chords are the same, they can actually change the feel by adding different instruments or changing a texture or changing the vocal line. That’s what I’m interested in now, but at the time when I wrote Growing Pains, it was just sort of–I think it’s kind of almost a contemporary classical kind of thing.
Prickly Thorn is the last song I wrote on the album. Again, the way the album is structured, there’s gradually more strings as the songs progress, and also the order of the songs are roughly in the order they were written, too. I listened to Joni Mitchell’s Blue really recently, I’m ashamed to admit. I was like, “Oh yeah. This is what I want to do.”
I’ve listened to a fair amount of Joni Mitchell. I’m no Joni Mitchell expert, but actually a funny story. Bent Knee did a Halloween show once where we covered Joni Mitchell exclusively. I might have told you this. A Joni Mitchell Halloween. So, I know of her music and I love Hejira, so I think that was a big influence that I was pulling from for Growing Pains.
Compositionally, yeah, I do like to stray away from the “verse chorus verse chorus” thing, but it’s not always a conscious thing. I think in my own writing, and also in Bent Knee, what’s happening is that we tend to have extended and very complicated bridge sections, so what you would call a C section–because it’s usually A B A B C B, right? Verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus. The bridge is always complicated.
That’s the case in the first song, the second song also has a weird bridge, the third song also has a weird bridge, the fourth song is a little bit different. It’s just more of an extended chorus-y bridge. The fifth song, Prickly Thorn, is just–it’s craziness.
I did a really cool session in Brooklyn where there’s a guy who has an old direct 2-mix to vinyl machine. You just play in the studio–actually it’s not even a 2-mix, it’s a mono. It’s a tiny room and he cuts it directly to a 7-inch, so if you want to make five 7-inches, you have to play the song five times. Every one is different.
So, we were prepping for the session, and I’d asked Chris Baum, Bent Knee’s violin player, to play with me. We were talking about Prickly Thorn and I was trying to write down a form for him so that it would be easier to follow because we just had one rehearsal. Chris is just a genius at going with the flow in terms of improvising and playing his beautiful–so I was like, “Okay Chris, there’s A… B… A B C A… D.” I was just going, “Oh my God, this makes no sense. This is so not helpful.”
I don’t know how I ended up at that, but I remember sort of cutting sections and pasting sections and being, “Well this feels too long. This feels too short.” And it somehow ended up like that. Yeah.
AG: So how was the touring experience? These vocal performances are really raw and very powerful. Was that an emotional experience for you? Did you go deeper in as you toured or did it become more casual, like “yeah I can do this?”
CS: I think a little bit of both. It was kind of nice not to–to do a tour by myself. It affirmed something–a thought I’ve had for a long time about how taxing Bent Knee is on my voice because I can–if I’m singing by myself, I’m not competing with that much sound.
When I’m on a Bent Knee tour, I don’t drink at night. I’m basically chugging water all day every day. On a solo tour, it was like, “Oh, I can have a drink once in a while!” It was really nice. But in terms of the delivery, I really loved doing that tour for a lot of reasons. I did it with my college freshman year roommate, who’s a singer-songwriter in LA. So, I kept joking about how, worst case this is just going to be a girl’s road trip and best case it’s going to be a couple of shows that are great.
I had this, for me, really profound realization where I gained a lot of confidence in what I was doing. In the beginning I would go into these shows and I felt like I had something to prove. And before the tour, I had a couple of these shows and I would listen back to the audio and I would just feel kind of unsatisfied. I couldn’t understand why because in terms of the accuracy of the performance, it was good. The tempos were good, the notes were right, but it just didn’t feel quite right and I realized that I was leaning too far into it. I had to come out of it a little bit and let the music breathe and be myself instead of trying to push. I think it’s something that I’ve heard people talk about a lot.
I took this really expensive vocal lesson a couple years ago because I was having a hard time managing my voice in certain rough sections of Bent Knee. The guy was like, “You have to create the sound of you going all in, but you can’t actually be going all in.” It was kind of like I finally understood what all that meant because when I did get really emotional, and when your brain is 100% AAAUUUGGGHHHH, I didn’t sound the way I wanted it to sound.
So I learned to sort of perform, draw this line in my performance where I saw it as this thing. It wasn’t less satisfying in any way. It was more satisfying, ultimately, because I knew I was coming across the right way. But I also learned a lot about stage presence and anxiety.
There’s not a lot of points in Bent Knee’s live set where we talk. We normally don’t really talk that much because we do seamless transitions between songs and we usually say hi once during the set, but I found out that that didn’t really work when it was just me and the piano and a solo set. I had to talk in between stuff and I realized that had this anxiety, or this nervousness that was selfish.
I was ratcheting myself up to be anxious, so when I’d talk, I’d be like, “Umm, thank you for coming.” I’d talk really fast and really intense. I just realized, “This is not doing anybody a service. It’s not doing me a service. It’s not doing anybody who’s watching–to have fun.” So I learned that I just have to be confident in that I have something to say that’s worth listening to.
I started talking slower and I started talking more at my normal talking volume. I realized it was just a way better way to communicate. So, I started introducing each song before I would play it because I found that when I would not introduce all the songs, when I would finish my set, people would come up to me and they would tell me that their favorite song was the one that I introduced.
It wasn’t always the same song. It was whatever song I introduced and I gave a background to, people seemed to enjoy it more. So I was like, “Okay, well, if that’s a thing, I should just do it for all my songs.” It was a real growing process for me where I had to commit to doing thing instead of–you know how when somebody’s really good at something, sometimes they’re bad at taking a compliment? I think I was that way for a really long time. This was something where I realized: me not being able to take that compliment was actually harming my art more than doing it a service.
AG: Have you heard of the imposter syndrome?
CS: No. Oh yeah! I think my therapist told me about that.
AG: Yeah, yeah. That reminds me of that. It’s a real personal struggle that talented people have to overcome and I think what you’re talking about is basically that.
CS: Yeah. It was a really amazing experience. Night after night, doing the same thing. It really makes you evaluate how you can do better, because otherwise it’s just not fun.
AG: So I sent the album to a friend of mine and he fell in love with it instantly.
CS: Oh, awesome.
AG: He said, “She’s gotta know about Ryuichi Sakamoto.” Do you know him?
CS: Yeah yeah yeah.
AG: Oh, okay. Does he have any sort of influence or bearing on what you do?
CS: No! No, I know of him.
CS: Only because I’m half Japanese, but I think in a way, probably. I’m working on this project where–well, I’ve had a couple of projects recently where I’ve been asked to introduce my tracks and what influenced me. They are completely obscure to a lot of western listeners because they’re basically J-pop tracks.
So I think Ryuichi Sakamoto is a fixture in Japanese music, so I think a lot of J-pop and Japanese music that I was listening to growing up takes from that. I think I’m kind of in the line of his music, even if I don’t have a direct correlation to it.
AG: Okay. And this summer, you and Bent Knee will be on tour. Can you share a little bit? Do a little Bent Knee promo?
CS: Yeah! So we’re going on the Paper Earth tour. We’re starting the last week of May, right after the week of Memorial Day. We’ll be going clockwise this year. We normally go counter-clockwise. So, all around America. I’m really excited this year.
We’re going out with this band called Gatherers. They’re on Equal Vision and they have a new album coming out that hasn’t been announced yet. They’re really, really fun folks. They stayed at my house once and I’m really good friends with the guitar player, Anthony.
This is our first summer where we’re doing our entire long-ass tour with other people. So, it’ll be interesting. I’m sure there will be real highs and real lows as there is to every long tour. We’re really excited. We’ve been writing some new music in the studio, so we might be playing some of that out and we also just premiered a piece that we wrote for Bent Knee and a percussion ensemble.
That half an hour sort-of-through-composed piece is called Paper Earth, which is where the name of the tour came from. We haven’t figured out if we’re going to play any of the snippets or the small song kind of things of Paper Earth as part of the tour. I think it’s quite possible that, yeah–every year we do this. It’s something I really look forward to in my life. I’m excited to go out on tour again.
AG: Yeah, and you guys are coming to Phoenix in June. I actually rearranged my vacation schedule so I could make the show.
CS: Ohhh, my gooooosh. Yessss.
AG: Yeah, so we will be there and I’m super excited to finally see you guys live. So, that’ll be awesome. All right, for people who want to find out more and to support you in the best ways possible, can you share where to get that information and what they can do?
CS: Yeah! I’m really easy to find online as well as is the band. I’m also starting a Patreon. I don’t know if I’ll have it booted by the time this interview comes out or not, but it’ll just be at Patreon.com/CourtneySwain.
So, that’s a place if you want where you can pledge a monthly amount and get access to, basically, my blog. That’s a short way of talking about it. I was having a conversation with Bent Knee’s guitar player, Ben [Levin], last night. We were talking about how, for a long time, we’ve drawn this line between the band and us as people.
For example, Ben’s drawn this line between his incredibly successful YouTube channel and the band. For me, I’ve always felt like a “meh” moment when people call me “Courtney Swain of Bent Knee” instead of just “Courtney Swain.” We were sort of agreeing about how that’s not the point anymore and it’s just about all of us doing all of this together.
So anyway, long story short, it would be a place for what I’m doing, but also a lot of my point of view of what we’re doing in Bent Knee. I’m hoping to talk about my keyboard parts in Bent Knee, the story behind the songs, whether it be Bent Knee stuff or my stuff. I’m going to do a book club where we’ll just be listening to an album every two weeks and we’ll hang out and talk about it. It’ll be kind of a fun place to hang out, if anybody’s interested. Otherwise, I’m also available at CourtneySwain.com as well as BentKneeMusic.com.
AG: Do you have any physical copies of the Growing Pains album left?
CS: I do! Yeah, I have some left. I pressed them at a local letterpressing company, so they’re beautifully pressed. It’s a limited run. I always do limited runs for a lot of stuff, like a lot of the first edition Bent Knee stuff for the first and second album, we had limited runs. And I’m hoping one of these days that they’ll hold value and someday I will find out. I don’t know how many more years it’s gonna take, but I’m gonna hang onto those copies.
AG: Well, save me a couple. I’m definitely going to buy some.
CS: I certainly will. I certainly will.
AG: Cool. Thank you so much, Courtney. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about your music.
CS: Thank you, Anthony. It’s always a pleasure.