Claire Cronin, John Dieterich (Deerhoof), and Ezra Buchla Talk Bloodless

The collaborators roundtable on the making of Cronin’s new album.

Claire Cronin is an LA-based singer-songwriter and poet; John Dieterich is a guitarist in Deerhoof and a producer/mixer. John remotely mixed Claire’s new album Bloodless with the help of Ezra Buchla, Claire’s husband and musical partner, who did most of the recording. To celebrate the album’s release — it’s out today via Orindal Records — the three hopped on the phone to chat about it.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Claire Cronin: So Ezra and I are here in LA, talking from a bedroom, sitting on the floor. And John, you’re out in Albuquerque?

John Dieterich: I am in Albuquerque, in my studio, in a garage. It’s a little bit chilly, wbut it’s adequate. 

Claire: Great.

Ezra Buchla: So this is a close analogy to the record creation process.

Claire: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly, not much has changed. 

John: I have a question about that, actually. How was the process of recording this different for you all? I know in the past, we’ve worked on some stuff together, and sometimes it would be, you’d have a day or two where you try to record everything. For this, it seemed like it was much more drawn out, right?

Claire: Yeah. Because it was done at home during COVID, it was kind of like endless time. And it was something I thought I’d be able to get done really quickly, but it turned out to take months to just get the tracking right. But Big Dread Moon, the album before that, we went to a very nice studio in New York and did it, I think, just over a weekend when we flew out. You know, because that’s all you can afford, both in terms of time and money, so you just have to accept whatever takes you. Just like, “Alright, that’s pretty good, we gotta move on to the next song.”

John: Totally. 

Claire: Which in a way is good, because then I can’t be that much of a perfectionist about it. And you have someone in the room with you being like, “No, sounds fine. Please move on.” [Laughs.] But with this, like with Ezra setting everything up, but then me kind of making the call about if I need to keep going, it became very torturous for a lot of it.

John: I gathered that, yeah. So would it be, you do a take and then you wouldn’t like it, or you would discover later that you wouldn’t like it? 

Claire: Yeah. Or it’d be like, I could hear the dog snoring, and I didn’t realize that at the time. Or if something happens outside your window.

Ezra: Yeah, it took us a while to — well, I don’t know if we ever really did figure out a good arrangement, but it’s pretty good. We did most of it in the Berkeley house [where Claire and Ezra lived], and there’s just one little room at the top that has an interesting shape, so it’s not totally dead, but it’s broken up.

Claire: It’s like a triangle

Ezra: And it’s high up above everything — you can hear street noise, but it doesn’t really come through too much. That turned out to be a good zone for doing stuff. In my mind, the whole process of recording was, like, over a year long. But probably the takes we used were just, like, six months or something.

Claire: I think it was less — I think it was just the summer. 

John: So we met for the first time — well, Ezra and I had met before this, but the three of us sort of met at a concert in Los Angeles. I don’t know how many years ago that was, eight years ago or something? And you were a duo — it was viola, guitar, voice, and it was very raw and stripped down. I feel like on this record, there’s a lot of layers, a lot of layered violas and stuff. And I wonder: did you ever record as a duo for this, or was this all recorded independently?

Ezra: All independent, I think. 

Claire: Yeah. 

Ezra: I mean, when I do stuff with Claire’s recordings I want it to start from her direct. At least for this one, in contrast to doing a studio recording, it seemed like it would be nice to try to capture things in the best fidelity we could. But like, in a state of mind that was more organic for her. The balance is always, like, not overplaying — I’m just trying to complement.

Claire: But you do do a lot of cool layering because it’s a recording.

Ezra: Yeah! But then the other thing was, we also thought it would be fun to take our time. I didn’t put as much time as I would have liked to into writing parts and stuff like that, because I was working and everything. But I thought it would be nice to try to do a bedroom recording that also took the time to add as much as we wanted to add.

John: Right. Yeah, I love the arrangements. All those strings are amazing.

Claire: Thank you.

John: And I think that the sound approach to them is very special, that sort of muted… Is that a sound that you came up with organically for this? Or is it something that you just generally use?

Ezra: Like for the string sound? 

John: Yeah. 

Ezra: I mean, there are a few different — I think most of them are the acoustic viola miked close and played really quietly. That’s the style I use for Claire’s music, because I’m always playing at the softest pianissimo basically. [Laughs.] So you get the woody, breathy sound and, yeah, maybe it’s kind of muted. And often playing high positions on low strings, and that kind of thing. But there are also a few songs where I busted out the electric viola. Like on “Bloodless,” those are a little more crunchy.

Claire: And are you processing it sometimes, or looping it? Or is that more of a live—

Ezra: No, not on the record. There’s no looping, or not a lot of delay effects or anything like that. Those are things I will reluctantly use live to get into a sense of multiplicity.

Claire: To make the layers that way.

John: Yeah, my memory of that first show that I saw you all play, I think you probably had maybe some sort of reverb or something, but it was very raw sounding, very intimate. I mean, in a way, I feel like it’s similar, Claire, to your singing — like you can hear your vocal chords, and you can hear the strings of the viola. I feel like there’s this level of drama to the fact that everything is on this edge, you know?

Claire: [Laughs.] Yeah. Your friend Tim saw me play at a show, and was like, “Oh, your style of singing is very high risk,” or something. “Like it almost seemed like you weren’t going to make any of those notes, and then you did.”

John: Right. It’s funny, though, I think that’s a lot of what’s great in music in general, is that feeling that this thing could fall apart at any moment. 

Claire: Yeah, I like that.

John: Think about that with improvisation too — it’s always like, even when the people think that it’s a failure is often when it’s the best to the listener, because you sense that feeling in the people playing that the world has just ended for them and they’re in pain, and you can sense it in the music or something. [Laughs.]

Claire: One of the hard things about recording some of these songs was, I had just gotten back from touring them for a few short tours off and on. And so some of them have become a little dead to me, like I couldn’t get back into the original mindset. I’d listen to a voice memo version off my phone from when I first wrote it, and I was like, “Well, I want it to sound like that, but now I’ve destroyed the song from playing it so many times and added all these stupid, like, baroque vocal things that I was doing just to entertain myself.” So I had to strip it back.

John: So you said, “OK, I’m getting rid of all of that.”

Claire: Yeah. So then I had relearn how to do the song the simple way.

Ezra: But, you know, that happens. Like sometimes you end up using those kinds of things. In this case, we did not. 

Claire: No, that’s too depressing. Like, we spent two weeks recording it and then just used the voice memo. [Laughs.] I can’t bring myself to do that.

Ezra: But that totally happens. 

John: Yeah, totally.

Ezra: I’m sure you’ve had those songs, where you try and try and then go back to the demo version.

John: Yeah, completely.

Claire: Yeah, it even made me think — like, who knows when I’ll have enough songs ready for another record, but maybe I should just start recording them as soon as I write them.

John: Yeah, right. And if you somehow improve them in a way that you like later, then you can do it again.

Claire: Yeah, yeah.

Ezra: Have you ever had that experience where a song just wasn’t working out in the studio?

John: Yeah. I think a lot of the time what has happened, for me particularly in Deerhoof, is I’ll have something that I’ll spend a lot of time on and get really excited about — just layering all this stuff, like, Oh, check out all these like polyrhythms! And then I’ll show this, like, warbly Walkman recording of the first time I played it, and everybody’s like, “That’s way, way, way better.” It’s just kind of like, “Ah! You’re right, but I just put all this time and effort into this.” 

Or another version of that for me is just discovering what material works in different contexts, and that sometimes the more worked out one is the right one. So I’m kind of having to just negotiate that.

Claire: Yeah, with all the different kinds of projects that you do, how do you sort of shift gears between composing something, playing a part in a band, producing somebody else’s music?

John: I think usually the way it works — I’m not always writing these days, at least how I am at the moment, at least as far as, I used to think of myself as a guitar player and I no longer really do. I think of myself as just somebody who makes music and sometimes I use the guitar. But especially over the last couple of years, I’ve barely been playing. So a lot of my projects, I’m just working on ideas that I’m curious about. They’ll be recording sessions, and I’ll work on them for two or three days, and then take a few weeks off and come back to them. It’s just a different kind of focus, I guess. 

Especially in the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to not be so worried about it being even music — just kind of sitting with these sounds, and I have connected with them in some way, and that’s why I’m still interested in them, and trying not to kind of force them to be anything, forced them to be good, even. Kind of just allow them to be as if they’re some weird creature, and that they have their own life. Ultimately, you’re making all these kinds of judgments while you’re working on music, but just trying to really be aware of the sort of internal language of these things, and kind of just supporting them slowly. [Laughs.] I know it’s very vague.

Claire: No, that makes sense to me. Like, there’s already a sensibility there, inside whatever that music is, and you just have to kind of serve it or go with that.

John: Yeah. And I guess in a way, sometimes working on other people’s projects and producing is kind of like that too. It’s like just sort of trying to understand the logic of the system, or trying to understand what’s the way I can be the most useful in this particular situation — and have fun in the process, ideally. 

The projects that I’ve worked on throughout the pandemic have been — I did a lot of work with Raven Chacon. We have multiple collaborations, and we were sort of in each other’s bubble, so he was the only person that I was seeing and making music with. We have our own kind of way of working together — the first step is sort of slapdash, kind of trying anything, everything’s falling apart, and [we’re] playing instruments we don’t know how to play. And then sort of evolving that, and creating this sort of low-hi-fi kind of thing. It’s like sculpting all of this stuff and turning it into music, even though it’s very abstract. Not that abstract things can’t be music.

Claire: Do you talk about the sounds with him beforehand or while you’re creating, or is it sort of like you’re just trying stuff back and forth?

John: It’s really like, “Oh, let’s get together.” “OK, cool, I’m going to bring this weird thing.” “OK, coolm I have this this broken guitar with three strings on it and and a synth.” That’s as specific as it gets. I mean, he’s a very special musician. I feel like his sensibility is very clear — in collaborating, he gives a lot of freedom, but he also is very clear when he has an idea or he doesn’t like something. So we have a very strangely easy working relationship.

Claire: That’s great.

John: Yeah, it’s not always like that. [Laughs.] But it’s great. It’s fun. I’m grateful to have it.

Claire: I feel like I never figured out how to improvise with people. I was never in a band, and the only collaborative songwriting I did was with you, which was all, you know, over email and phone calls. Which actually worked really well for me, because then I could be, like, privately in my room, and not shy about the bad choices I was making. [Laughs.] 

John: Yeah. I mean, I have stuff like that. I do think that way of working together in our case worked really well, because I also needed time. Because part of my role, I think, was figuring out — you have these incredible lyrics and melodies, and the music was sort of imagining what was happening in these worlds. It wasn’t so much a context, it was actually like this weird outgrowth that was flowing from that stuff.

Claire: Yeah, I love that. 

John: One of the things I love about your music is that, in its simplest form, in a way, it’s its most devastating. But I also am just so curious about like, what happens if you’re actually kind of creating a set behind it. 

Claire: I mean, I originally had considered doing that with this album, and even when I was playing some shows in Texas, had a day where a friend and his friends, a drummer and another guitarist, played behind some of the songs just to see what that would sound like. And I was like, This doesn’t really feel right. And then it really was just like, we were limited by the fact of the pandemic, and I’ve been playing these songs in this stripped-down way anyway. And when we tried experimenting with the other instruments we could get our hands on, it just wasn’t coming together.

Ezra: We even solicited some drum tracks and stuff.

Claire: Yeah, the drums were a huge source of confusion for me, and so they ended up not being on there, except for some clapping and stomping. But yeah, I mean, I’ve wondered about about doing a fuller sound. Maybe someday. [Laughs.]

John: But it’s funny, you can’t argue with the results. Obviously all these choices are what makes the thing, the thing, and in the case of this music, it feels very organic and of a piece, and that sort of devastating quality — there’s no letup, which I think is appropriate.

Claire: Thank you. Like a song like “Feel This” was one that when other people had heard it before, live or whatever, we kept saying like, “Oh, I could really imagine drums behind this, like this is like a rock out—” [vocalized drum beats.] Like this huge sound coming. But I actually like what we ended up with a lot, and I am happy it ended up that way. When Ezra added those creepy vocals, something really magical opened up there. And the way that you handled that in mixing and mastering it, I’m just really happy with the results of that one in particular.

John: Cool. Yeah, I love that one, too.

Ezra: That’s something I noticed over and over, working on your music — the sort of standard big gesture just doesn’t do its thing right, and a smaller gesture works better to do a big inflection in the mood, or whatever, to make it feel deeper. Why do I have to learn that lesson over and over in every style, that actually you only need, like, three voices in the song? 

Claire: I mean, in other people’s music, I can handle a lot more noise and a lot more going on, so I don’t know why, as soon as it’s my thing, I’m like, “I can’t hear the words anymore.”

John: Right. I mean, maybe that’s it — because that’s the sort of organizing principle, it’s really important that everything is supporting that.

Kind of going back to this idea of the vocals evoking a sort of non-specific — I mean, I don’t want to tell you what your lyrics mean, but to me, it creates my ideal situation where it stimulates my imagination. And in a way where it’s like, I feel like every listener gets to tell the story themselves through listening to this. And maybe adding these grand gestures takes away from that takes, takes the listener out of that, and you’re telling them what to feel. It’s like really overused music in film or something — it’s like, “OK, I know what you’re trying to tell me to feel. I would rather have you not tell me what to feel and just kind of experience this through the good storytelling.”

I don’t have that feeling almost ever, and it doesn’t matter how many times I listen to the songs. And going back to your early material as well, they have this just consistent power to them that I think, for me personally, has to do with that sort of openness of interpretation. 

Claire: Thank you. 

John: But yeah, I’m sure they’re all about specific things. But I get to imagine my version.

Claire: I mean, some of them are really not. They all feel very emotional, but the lyrics — I think it’s like this for a lot of songwriters, but a lyric and a melody will pop into my head, and that’ll be kind of the germ of it. And then I am making some decisions, but also just seeing what comes out. And there’s often kind of filler lyrics in the beginning that don’t make any sense at all, and then other lyrics that I come upon. Sometimes I’m pulling from pages of a notebook where I was writing about a movie or something, like a diary page and then just talking about a movie to myself.

So the images are from different places, but I’m always trying to, with a lot of sweat and angst, let the song write itself. Because whenever I try to orchestrate it, or if I’m feeling really emotional about something and I’m like, I want to write a song about this, it never works. The song is really stupid. I’ve definitely done that, but those are not songs that anyone is allowed to hear.

I feel the same way about poetry — I kind of hate it when something is topical in a clear way. For my taste, anyway, I think there needs to be an emotional stake. And so the lyrics are meaningful to me, even if they are giving these sort of vague, poetic images. And some of them do have clear meanings, and I will be kind of going through that moment in my head when I’m performing it, like I’m a method actor or something. And other ones are more  — like the song “Saint’s Lake” off of Big Dread Moon is one of these songs where certain parts of it mean a lot to me, other parts are very mysterious. And so it’s actually a very relaxing and freeing song to perform, whereas some of the other ones where there’s heavy emotional material attached to it, I can’t play them that often. 

John: Yeah, I can imagine. 

So along those lines, when you say you have sort of filler lyrics when you’re writing sometimes, is it about the sound of the words? 

Claire: Yeah.

John: And then later on, you might discover, Oh, this is the word, and it’s almost syllable by syllable or something.

Claire: Yeah, or phrase by phrase. And then sometimes a song doesn’t work out at all, and it’s just abandoned after the first attempt at a verse. And then sometimes I’ll be trying for a really long time to make some rhyme work, and then realize the problem was that I had to change the first line — like I have to just start over basically. There are some songs where I feel like it all clicks together at the end, and some where I still cringe internally at a few of the lyrics I landed on, but the rest of them were good enough to continue.

John: Yeah, it’s like you weren’t willing to give up the rest of it.

Claire: Yeah, and no other fix I attempted really worked. 

I feel like I’m such an untrained, or not very good, musician — like I’ve been playing guitar since I was a kid, but I just am playing very simple chords, and my finger picking has not progressed since I was a teenager, really, because I don’t practice guitar really outside of writing and playing songs. So when you’re composing something that doesn’t involve lyrics, what is the process there intuitively about coming upon a musical phrase that you’re adding to something?

John: I think I feel very similar to you, I also sort of don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like that’s a good place to be as a musician — what I’ve discovered is that, a lot of what music is for me is just coming up with tools for allowing yourself to continue and to keep yourself engaged in whatever it is that you’re doing. I always refer to it as tricks, like that you’re kind of tricking yourself into being interested in something. 

But I think I’ve also sort of become anti-technique. I’m just not interested in it — not that people don’t do great things with their techniques, but I’m just usually way more interested in sort of the murky weirdness outside of virtuosity or whatever. And not to mention that, if you think of all of us as sort of like virtuosos of being just ourselves, realizing that and sort of trying to understand what that is — what is the part of me that I don’t know yet and I’m trying to figure out — that is the stuff that’s most interesting to me.

(Photo Credit: left, Vlada Syrkin Werts)

Claire Cronin is an LA-based singer-songwriter and poet. Her latest album Bloodless is out now via Orindal Records.

(Photo Credit: Vlada Syrkin Werts)