Sometimes, slowing down helps. Brenda Xu has taken a slower and more ambient approach for her new album For The Winter. What’s catchy about this record isn’t the melody or the riffs (it’s much too peaceful for that) but the feelings that it leaves you with. Check out what Brenda had to say about it all;
How long have you been writing For The Winter?
Most of the songs on the album were written during a span of 6 months. The original version of one of the songs “We Die From It” was written about 3 years ago, and was also developed in that 6-month time frame.
What was your proudest moment of making this record?
That was probably when I was working on the final mixes of the songs with my producer, Don. There is always uncertainly when beginning to make an album, and you never really know how the tracks will turn out until the mixing process. I think during the final mixing process, I finally felt like I could breathe a sigh of relief that everything was coming together like I hoped it would.
It’s been a while since your last album, A Little Illusion, came out; what changes do you see in your music and in popular music in general?
Yes, it has! I think with this album, I’ve developed more of a sense of my own style in terms of songwriting and production. I experimented more with song structure, and also tried to build a more atmospheric landscape for the album as a whole. More focus was given to the instrumental parts, whereas my last album was more vocal-driven. I tried to let the instrumental elements have a strong voice as well, and be a part of the story-telling.
I’m not sure if I’m much of an expert on popular music, but I think the styles that I have been listening to have changed, which I’m sure has had an influence on my song-writing. I discovered bands like Sigur Ros, The Album Leaf, and The National, who all do an amazing job of taking you somewhere with layering melodies and instruments. They really take their time, and there is a lot to discover in the songs. I feel like the stuff that I hear on the radio is mostly rushed and formulaic - the songs are in a hurry to make you feel something. They succeed, but the feelings are usually very momentary and you forget about the songs immediately after hearing them. There are some gems out there though - pop stars have some of the best songwriters and producers working for them, and it’s tough to not to enjoy a well-manufactured pop song once in a while!
How has the move from San Diego to Seattle influenced your sound?
I think I felt more comfortable with being my dark self (haha). The San Diego scene was very supportive of my music, but while I was there I couldn’t help but feel like I should be writing happier songs to fit the weather. Here in Seattle, it is rainy and cloudy most days which I think fits my disposition better. I can stay inside and write, and do other hermit-like activities without feeling like I should be out at the beach. Although I sometimes feel like I should be out in a forest..
How was it working with Don Farwell? Have you worked with other producers in the past?
It was really fun with Don! It was obvious from the first day of working with him that he genuinely loves what he does. When I told him an idea that I had, he did everything in his power to make it happen sonically, and also had a lot of ideas to offer. I think it was a great collaboration and I’d love to work with him again on another project down the road. I’ve worked with two other producers for my last two albums, and have also enjoyed those processes as well. Each one works differently, and I’ve learned a lot from all of them.
Your songs are very rich and layered; do you write all of the instrumentation yourself?
I write some of the instrumentation, and some of it comes from collaboration with other musicians and with the producer I’m working with. I usually let the musicians know what kind of sound I’m going for - sometimes I have specific melodies I’d like them to play or work off of, and we work together to create parts that fit with the song structure and the other instruments. Almost all of the string and pedal steel parts were improvised, and were placed in the songs very deliberately by Don and I.
Sometimes it takes hearing different options to know what feels right and what direction to go in. Fortunately, I was able to work with a group of extremely talented musicians who could offer much diversity in terms of where to take the songs.
You use silence almost as an instrument; letting it fill moments where you easily could have selfishly tossed in a vocal or chord. Is there a particular artist that inspired this sort of quiet patience?
The artists I mentioned above definitely inspired me to take my time more with story-telling and weaving different emotions into a song, although I think I’ve always left a lot of space in my songs. I’ve also gravitated toward playing with others who also appreciate the spaces, and use those moments as a way to draw people in, build intensity, and do what makes sense for the song, instead of trying to show their chops. To me, the silences and pauses are just as important as the more intense, moving parts. In a way, it reflects the cadence of a good conversation - if you are comfortable enough to be silent with someone, you have an understanding with them that no words can create.
On a random side note, were you always called on last because your name starts with an X? (Sorry, had to ask J)
Haha yes, in grade school I was always called on last and of course nobody knew how to pronounce my last name (it’s “shoe” btw), and I was made fun of relentlessly in elementary school for it.
What is your idea of “Making it”?
Being able to support myself by playing music - earning a decent living, meaning I wouldn’t have to eat packaged ramen noodles every night!
What do you want your fans to know about you and your music?
I think I have something different to offer. I hope you’ll listen.
Thanks so much! If you want to hear more from Brenda Xu, check her out HERE.