(photo: Ginger Fierstein)
Meernaa’s frontwoman Carly Bond is a charming goofball — perhaps not entirely what one might expect after hearing her pour so much soul into the songs off their newest album, Heart Hunger.
“Sometimes people are like, ‘Hey, Meernaa!’ And I’m like ‘Oops, nope! It’s Carly!’” says Bond when asked about the band’s name (it’s actually the name of the street she grew up on). So no, Meernaa is not one person but is the effort of a full band of killer-diller musicians whose collaborative energy is a rare find. After releasing some singles and LPs over the last couple years, busting out quite the buzz-inducing set at SXSW last March and playing as John Vanderslice’s band for his spring tour, Oakland’s Meernaa releases their first full album off Native Cat Records on June 14 and it’s living up to the hype.
Listening to Heart Hunger all in one go is a fantastic and moving experience. Hunger moves from funky soul in “Ready to Break” to hypnotic, cryptic blues in “Black Diamond Mine,” then to gyrating syrup in “Better Part.” It’s reflective and sad; energetic and calming. There are moments when the keys and beats and bass undulate into an otherworldly place, but the connectivity of the vocals and the lyrics themselves keep us grounded and safe. The album is not so out-there that you have to be a wizard to appreciate the beauty of what they’ve composed, but it’s so magically compiled that even masters might tip their hat.
Before their show at Rickshaw Stop last month, where they opened for John Vanderslice (then most of Meernaa joined Vanderslice as his backing band, which was another beauty entirely) we sat down with the whole cast: Rob Shelton (keys, synth), Doug Stuart (bass), Andrew Maguire (drums, percussion), and engineers James Riotto and Jacob Winik. They shared the experience of working to create Heart Hunger and gave some insights into how they created that multi-layered richness.
The Bay Bridged: Carly, you said you wrote a lot of these songs alone then brought them to the group as raw lyrics, rather shapeless at times. How’s that process work?
Carly Bond: Most of the time I’ll have written a song first and try not to be too attached to it, because that’ll just drive me crazy. I’ll bring it to these guys and we’ll try to come up with a cool arrangement, and tweak it until it’s right enough to bring to these fine, smart gentlemen (she points to producers Riotto and Winik).
Andrew Maguire: On ‘Better Part’ we did that song completely reversed. The three of us started making drum machine loops in the studio and Carly came in and started playing keys to it, and we recorded that and it sat for about six months without any type of song form or anything to it. Then Carly got inspired and starting writing the lyrics to it.
TBB: What was the lyric-adding process like to that song? Do you sit and listen and try to come up with something?
AM: Actually, we drove around playing it in the car and Carly started writing lyrics to it and we took it back to the studio and figured out ways to flesh it out. Then we tried to figure out how we could play it live.
TBB: I know that there’s a whole lot going on in the studio to create this album. How does that engineering translate to your live performance? Is it difficult to perform, say, ‘Better Part’ live? How does that translate to the stage?
Rob Shelton: I think that you have to make it different.
CB: Yeah, I feel like some of my favorite artists are people that take an arrangement and try to make it different every time. That there’s an idea of improvisation in there and it’s never actually the same.
RS: We know that for some tracks we can’t represent the same song live because, you know, we don’t have 10 members on stage. So we have to decide what’s most important.
AM: A lot of the songs have a lot of different percussive ideas layered in so it’s been pretty fun to take some of these songs with multi-layered drum parts and figure out what’s going to translate the groove the best.
TBB: You guys seem to have such a good rapport and a fun energy.
(Everyone starts laughing)
RS: Yeah, we’re a bunch of jokesters.
TBB: Case in point! For example, the music video for ‘Wildest Eyes’ is a little more goofy than I was expecting for that song. How did that video creation come about?
C: That was all the director, Cooper Kenward.
AM: But I think it definitely reflects who you are, as a pretty goofy person, and he understands how far out you can take stuff. So that video was all Cooper thinking of a fun way to represent some of that Carly goofiness.
CB: I just feel like giving other artists free rein when it comes to collaborating. And if it’s a good collaboration, I feel like you don’t need to rein them in at all.
TBB: What energy does the album Heart Hunger put out?
CB: Thematically, it’s a lot of me unloading a lot of emotional shit and healing through that. There’s been a lot of family trauma I just uncovered recently and that found its way into the lyrics. But we’ve found a way to still be rather light-hearted at times…It’s not the same vibe the whole time and there are definitely some repeating feelings.
James Riotto: As a band, their music is really dynamic and this record represents that. There’s these huge peaks and there’s really quiet moments; heart-wrenching moments and exciting explosions. It’s just like, all the things.
CB: I get bored really easily…I sort of envy bands that find their thing and coast on it and groove on it. But I kind of tweak out and just start exploring again immediately.
Jacob Winik: I think it’s also a collection that doesn’t have super clear directives. I think this is a group of people that gets together and just plays music together and everyone really likes it — it’s not some thing where they sit down and have to force it.
RS: And I see the studio as a big part of that. Some of the songs start as these kernels — a synth patch, a drum machine, a certain guitar sound — and we get into the studio and all these people that really know how to experiment start following that sound and that will kind of determine the direction of the song. Songs go in ways that we’d never anticipated.
Doug Stuart: “Wildest Eyes” is a good example of that. There’s this busted-drum-machine-toms sound coming through and we tried a lot of things, then scrapped a lot of them, then based the bassline around this drum machine…we restructured the way the groove felt based on that, and suddenly Carly was singing over this amorphous beat.
CB: It’s also a good example of how I came to the table with just a super repetitive guitar line and the melody, which we almost scrapped but then we ended up stripping the guitar away and re-building the song around the melody.
RS: I think that’s why Jamie and Jacob are so great to work with because they know their studio so well and what we have access to. So when we get to that point they know how to add a crazy thing and we all trust it and recognize that a song might grow.
TBB: Were there any particular challenges around recording this album?
CB: It was definitely a new challenge to feel like we had a time limit. We’d only booked a certain number of days in the studio…we couldn’t hold anything too precious.
RS: There were a few songs that started out by just having fun in rehearsal and it turned into something.
TBB: Any examples?
(They all laugh and say “Ready to Break.”)
CB: Rob had just gotten a clavinet, that funky keyboard you hear on Stevie Wonder songs. And he was just joking around, and to be honest, we’d probably smoked a lot of weed. It was Halloween.
RS: Yeah, we got spooky. (Everyone laughs.)
DS: But from that spooky night we created “Ready to Break,” based on that clavinet craziness. Another example is “Black Diamond Mine.” We were playing at Hickey Fest…and wanted to give a special gift to Hickey Fest (everyone laughs). We started out trying to make something just really garage-y psych jam but we knew we wanted to be able to own it, too. So we made this segment and attached it to the second part of the otherwise slow, dreamy song and now it feels like it couldn’t be any other way.
JW: Which also represents the kind of creative trust everyone has.
TBB: Is it challenging to not be there for every step of the recording process? If Doug comes in with the bass later, or Rob on keys or how’s that work?
DS: I think Carly is so open to contribution and really, nothing is too precious. Some people have no perception of how they’re being in the studio but with Carly and these guys it’s just really fun. There’s no limit to what you’re allowed to do. We trust each other.
AM: And the surprises are fun. You’re expecting certain songs to be certain ways then you go back into the studio a couple days later after a few things have been added and man. Just hearing Carly wail, hearing it all coming together, and I teared up the first time I listened. It was just overwhelming. A really beautiful thing.
TBB: Someone once said, that ‘Meerna is a master class in synth wizardry.’ (everyone laughs). That’s pretty high and mystical praise. Thoughts?
JW: I don’t think anyone knows how many different keyboards were on that album.
AM: Twelve, maybe? Carly played keys on a couple tracks too.
CB: But you’re the synth wizard (she points to Rob).
DS: We are but apprentices.
TBB: OK, gotta know, favorite synth?
RS: (Chuckles) We got this one keyboard from the early ’80s, the Mirage. It influenced a lot of the latter part of shaping the record. It has these floppy disks that have recorded sounds on them. There’s like three sounds on each disk, and is has this big crate of disks.
TBB: No Mirage tonight, though.
(Everyone laughs, and Rob shakes his head.)
CB: Yeah but just watch Rob tonight, he’s, like, castin’ spells.
I did watch them that night. It wasn’t quite like watching a wizard cast spells, but it was pretty close.
Heart Hunger is an album that gets better with every listen, where every run-through you pick out different layers and inflections. The album is a true testament to what happens when a group of happily musical folks get together and take themselves seriously in all the right ways: sweet musical alchemy.
Snag yourself Meernaa’s Heart Hunger next month and stay tuned for show announcements coming up.