interview: Earth Girl Helen Brown

Over the past year Earth Girl Helen Brown released multiple EPs on Empty Cellar Records and each was a beautiful glimpse into a seasonal, planetary cause. The records which featured collaborations from some of our favorites including Shannon Lay, John Dwyer and Ty Segall, gave proceeds to varying organizations, reflecting the nature and musical ideas that Earth Girl Helen Brown aka Heidi Alexander was seeking to represent. The project is extensive and gripping, and each album demands an attentive ear. The latest chapter to her series — Venus — will be out on 2/14 and ahead of that we talked with Alexander about the endeavor. 

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How far in advance did you begin preparations for the releases? And what was the recording process like? Did you work one each release separate of one another or did you work all at once and then separate?

Heidi: Sonny and I started talking about bringing Earth Girl back before she was even ever really gone so in a sense we’ve been preparing for years, but really this got back in my mind and started to take shape conceptually about a year and a half ago. I’d say it crystallized on election night. I had started recording for the project with Emmett Kelly before then but the particular discomfort of that event really helped the scope of the project materialize.  

Definitely not all at once. The conceptual sort of meta was there from the start but the writing and recording was tape to tape. From the start there was really no hope of being any further ahead of schedule than we were. The project is laid back but we’ve been hauling ass to keep up with it.         

Where did you come up with the idea to do a seasonal series? And is there one season you worked on that you identify with more than the others or you felt a special bond to?

Honestly I don’t really remember. That’s just how it was always planned and I don’t remember quite why.  The first set of songs had a real country leaning and I didn’t want to pigeon-hole the project so that may have been the impetus for deciding to do multiple releases over the course of the year. I gave myself a year work on this. Once there was a year-long time frame and a reason for multiple releases in different genres I think the seasons just seemed like a natural moderator.

I wouldn’t say I identify more with any particular one. Other players might feel differently. Like the change of actual seasons the movement from one style and theme to another came as a welcome change each time and being able to mark closure on the previous chapter always held a certain amount of relief.  We were doing a lot of heavy lifting each time and the change marked a moment to reflect, relax, and move on to something new.  SATURN was a little different though. The process was different and much looser/more unknown.  We were really feeling our way through that without having the slightest idea where it would land and the theme was really deeply embedded in the process. I don’t know that I feel more aligned to it but I’ll always remember how it went down.        

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How did the collaborations come into place? How did you decide which person was appropriate for each track and how did you find time to complete four separate projects and also work in the schedules of someone else? Is there someone you didn't get a chance to work with that you'd like to collab with in the future?

Music is pretty much always collaborative, unless you’re a die hard solo artist/engineer/producer/etc. In this case we wanted to work in the spirit of the 100 records project and get everyone involved and to work through all those communications and negotiations and see where it took us both musically and socially.  It was really important from the start to be expansive and inclusive and to have everyone involved have a sense of creative agency. It’s the ensemble aspect of music and the pattern making of it that makes it such a powerful social vehicle. Also it’s fun. It’s complicated, but it’s fun.  

As for who/how that was a combination of availability, happenstance, and occasionally planning. There were certain songs or season for which I was absolutely certain I wanted a particular person in a particular role. Sometimes that was personal or emotional reasons, sometimes musical, sometimes thematic. In those instances we worked the project around those individuals but most of the time we tried to follow the path of least resistance and maximum good vibes.

Yes tons of friends with whom we have not yet had the chance to get down. Moreover E.G.H.B.C.F.P.I.B. generally wants to collaborate with everyone. That’s our MO. Especially those with whom we are least familiar. We start where we are with who we know doing what we know how to but we are always in all way trying to expand and very much looking forward to who we meet and what we learn.

  How does this music differ from that of which you make with The Sandwitches?

I’d say Sandwitches was more often coming from a point of personal experience/emotion and using music to move through that.  E.G.H.B.C.F.P.I.B. is more like projecting a point of reference way way out and trying to work your way back to where you are.  Also ten year older for whatever that’s worth and involving 44 more people.    

The tapes are also post-consumer recycled. Why was that important to you and why at this point did you feel the need to tackle this particular sound or idea? Each tape benefitted a different cause too, so what about those particular causes that you worked with spoke to you?

I feel strongly that our all of our individual actions and intentions are really very important in giving shape to the world in which we exist.  This project is trying to convey that sense of agency in multiple ways. In order to do so we need to act it out not only with what we say but also with our financial decisions, our production decisions, etc. It not news that plastic isn’t playing out well ecologically.  I don’t really think it’s playing out well socioeconomically either.  Certainly it’s a very powerful material that has made a lot of really incredible things possible but the mass proliferation of plastic has produced a glut of unnecessary consumerism and waste as well as a cultural expectation for cheap crap. The emergence of plastic goods can be read as giving the masses access to previously inaccessible commodities or as creating mass demand for cheap labor and fast and dirty manufacturing depending on how you’re looking at it.  Tapes have their own place in that universe. They’ve made a big comeback as a low-cost analog alternative, which is great, but that low cost comes at an ecological and cultural cost.  We wanted to produce an analog object but struggled with the available options. We looked for tapes produced in a more ecologically mindful way but found no such product. I really wish somebody would make a tape with a paper body, or an aluminum body, or a cornstarch body, or something. Recycled plastic. Something. In lieu of that we opted for our post-consumer recycled option. It’s economical, environmentally conscious, and some sort of commentary on cultural erasure.  

You also perform this material live. How will that work and will you feature anyone that you've worked with for live performances?

Oh yeah. We’ve been doing this live all year. Just celebrated our one-year live band anniversary January 20th.  The band has been very shifty in the best possible way but there have also been several steady characters and as time goes by we seem to be settling into a pretty regular live line up. It’s been important for us from the start to not be so tied to a particular line up that we become unduly limited by scheduling conflicts etc. Everybody’s adults with busy lives and careers and children and such so we try to let interest and availability be our guide. We try never to put pressure on any player to do something they cannot and also try not to make anyone who has played and might want to again feel excluded. That being there are only so many people who can practically be involved at any given time and  there’s a lot of songs with a fair amount of nuance so it takes a bit of gusto to jump in. We’re generally a six piece but we’ve had as many as nine and as few as one.

This is the most succinct way I can describe the year in live line-up: myself [guitar/vox], Tahlia Harbour [keyboard/vox], James Finch Jr. [bass/vox] (and/or Bart Davenport/Dustin Hamman), Sean Smith [guitar] (and or Bart Davenport/Doug Hilsinger/Mikey Young/Davin Givahn/Lars Finberg/Sonny Smith/Anna Hillburg/Shannon Lay/Ty Segall/Jack Name), Jamin Barton [sax/flute/aux] (and/or Mikal Cronin/Brad Caulkins), and Graeme Gibson [drums] (and/or Warren Hugel/Dylan Hadley/Doug Hilsinger/Emmett Kelly/Ethan Novikoff) and we are sometime blessed with David Cousin, Enrique Tenna, and Nora Keys on vox/percussion/hype.   

  You're planning to return again in 2019. Have you already started working on those four tapes and do you have any ideas of where you'd like to go with those? Do you have an idea of how many more years of this you want to do or is that a tbd?

I think we’ll go the full four years alternating between seasonal EP cycles and administrative/rhetorical expansion. Haven’t started writing or recording the next set of tapes but we’ve started to sketch a framework.

How did you decide on these four seasons and how will you decide on future seasons?

This year’s seasonal themes were motivated by what issues felt most culturally urgent/resonant (fire management [climate, fossil fuels]/war[peace]/communication/love). Those were topics in need of reflection both inside and out, looking forward and looking back.  2019 will deal with the elements but the sentiment is the same. How do we reflect on the role of these forces and frameworks in our lives, bodies, cultures, economies, etc. and how do we make that reflection manifest in music yes, but also in the physical world.