San Francisco resident Debbie Neigher released the sophomore followup to her eponymous 2011 debut in November. Much like her self-titled debut, 2013’s Unravel was recorded at Tiny Telephone Studios with John Vanderslice, enlisting the help of engineer Ian Pellicci and Minna Choi of Magik*Magik Orchestra. While Neigher has played synths and keyboards with a number of other Bay Area bands, her refined piano skills and intensely personal songwriting shine through on her latest solo effort. We recently caught up with Debbie Neigher via email to discuss her recent album release, and plans for the future. “I Am Ready” is the record’s first single.
The Bay Bridged: You moved to San Francisco from New Jersey a few years ago. What is your favorite, and least favorite thing about living in SF?
Debbie Neigher: I love the natural beauty of the city and the incredibly vibrant arts (and food!) scene! Growing up on the east coast I still have to pinch myself sometimes that I live in a city that looks like this! My least favorite aspect is definitely how expensive it is. And the appalling lack of a decent bagel.
TBB: You used to play keyboards with Phantom Kicks during their live shows. Have you been involved in any other collaborations aside from your solo work?
DN: Yes I love those guys! I’ve been fortunate to perform with Split Screens, The Sam Chase, DOE EYE, Ezra Furman, and Fox & Woman since then, and I recorded some piano for DonCat earlier this year. I love having the chance to learn so many styles of music in this city with such passionate and kind people. I feel that there’s a real spirit of collaboration and mutual inspiration in San Francisco – there’s been so much propaganda about a kind of musical brain drain from this city to Los Angeles, but anyone who is involved in the community would see how much talent is still here and working harder than ever!
TBB: You recorded both of your solo albums with producer John Vanderslice at his analog Mission District studio, Tiny Telephone. It took 11 days to record your self-titled debut. How long did it take to record Unravel?
DN: I think it was 11 days again! It’s so great when you get to have the same recording family back in the studio – you really understand everyone’s rhythm and personalities.
TBB: Were there any major differences in the recording process between the two albums?
DN: For my first record, the main focus was definitely on the piano and the voice, with the Magik*Magik Orchestra beautifully filling in the colors. This time, I really wanted to take a step back from the piano to reflect more of the music that I was listening to. We recorded all of the basics for the songs insanely quickly (in a day and a half I think?) with a digital piano, which we then scooped out so we could replace it with a wide array of organs, synths, and keyboards. JV
To be honest, I was kind of nervous before we went in – we had a lot less planned out arrangement- and instrumentation-wise for this record. But I think that spirit of spontaneity and not over-planning, along with having such an incredible creative team, made it even more successful and fun in the end.
TBB: Have you always preferred recording your music on tape, without any digital editing?
DN: Both my records have been recorded on tape and I have been really blown away by the process. The act of cutting ribbons of tape by hand, not having a computer screen in the control room, having to be incredibly prepared with your material, and watching the ballet of live mixing feels beautifully hands-on and organic.
TBB: You worked with producer John Vanderslice, engineer Ian Pellicci, drummer Jason Slota, and Magik*Magik Orchestra arranger/conductor Minna Choi on both of your albums. Were there any changes in personnel while recording Unravel?
DN: We brought in the amazing Justine Leichtling (The Sam Chase) for some violin and the secret weapon that is Sylvain Carton (Japonize Elephants) who can pretty much play any instrument on the planet. We would throw him in front of a mic and say “make up a sax part! Okay great, add some clarinet! Now some guitar!” My long-time bassist Jesse Cafiero (Split Screens) got to join me for this record too. My dear friend Shawn Alpay, who often plays cello for me live, was a fantastic assistant engineer as well.
TBB: They say you have your whole life to write your first album, and a year to write your second. Did your inspiration for Unravel come naturally?
DN: Thankfully it did! I think I was really eager to experiment more with sounds, song structures, and storytelling this time around – I had songs on my first record that I wrote when I was 17! I felt like I was a 23-year-old reading my 17-year-old self’s diary entry up on a stage in front of an audience!
I was also playing with so many different bands in the Bay Area that I think I absorbed some of the inspiration and styles I was surrounded by.
TBB: How have your own personal experiences helped shape the tone of your music?
DN: For the first 3 years I lived here, I worked at Larkin Street Youth Services, an amazing agency serving homeless youth in the Bay Area. While only a song or two made it to the record that directly spoke to what I was seeing there, the nature of that work forces you to be present and honest with your emotions at all times. If you can’t be open and vulnerable yourself, the young people we worked with would find it hard to open up to you about their stories. At the same time, if you couldn’t hold boundaries and be strong for others, you couldn’t do your job effectively. I think that general environment, that dance of facing or stifling your emotions and vulnerabilities, spread to many aspects of my life and seeped into the theme of the album.
TBB: You are performing at The Satellite in Los Angeles on February 9. Any other upcoming shows planned?
DN: Absolutely! I’ll be touring the Pacific Northwest in March/April and my next San Francisco show thus far is March 26th at Milk Bar.
TBB: Will you have a backing band supporting your live performances?
DN: Yes, I always do! We’ll do anything from a trio to an 8-piece band with horns and strings! I love the life it gives to the songs.