Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee are two kindred spirits who first met on the banks of the Mississippi while touring the Midwest festival circuit. Born and raised in Arkansas, Winter found herself drawn to the evergreens and damp air of the Pacific Northwest, as well as the boundless music scene of Olympia, Washington. She released three solo records on Olympia-based indie label, K Records, and performed in ramblin’ folk bands and anarchic punk bands before serendipitously meeting Palmer T. Lee in 2013. Lee had built his first banjo when he was 19 from pieces he inherited and began cutting his teeth fronting Minneapolis string bands before convincing Winter that they should form a banjo duo. Now, as The Lowest Pair, they have recorded and released five albums together, relentlessly toured North America, and ventured to the UK twice, playing over 500 live shows over the past five years.
After each releasing solo albums via Conor Oberst’s Team Love Records in 2018, Winter and Lee began working on The Lowest Pair’s forthcoming 10-song set, The Perfect Plan. As a songwriting team, the duo tends to see artistic sparks all around them — in poems, people, ideas, experiences – and throughout the process of writing these new songs, they felt the need to push their creative limits. They turned to producer Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes who took them to ARC Studios in Omaha, Nebraska, and set them in a soundscape backed by a slate of session players that lifts the album from simple folk into spirited Americana and beyond.
(Photo Credit: Sarah Kathryn Wainwright)
Hear First is Talkhouse’s series of album premieres. Along with streams of upcoming albums—today’s is The Lowest Pair’s The Perfect Plan—we publish statements from artists and their peers about the mindsets and impressions that go into, or come out of reflection on, a record. Here, The Lowest Pair’s Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee talk with their producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes) about the making of the record, which you can also listen to right here.
—Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor
Mike Mogis: I spun the record just a minute ago, and it kinda took me back. I love the record so much. We made it, like, a year and a half ago.
Kendl Winter: We made it in 2018, so it’s pretty wild to have it coming out in April 2020. I guess that’s how it works now, but it is kind of like revisiting it.
Mike: It was the first time you guys recorded with a band, right? I mean as The Lowest Pair.
Mike: It was fun having to record everybody live. I hadn’t done that in years. By the end of the take, you have a song, versus overdubbing. We had two separate bands, basically, that would play certain styles of the song — I can’t remember what we called them, the rock band and the folk band?
Kendl: There was the rock band, and the Pine Hearts came in as the string band. And JT Bates was our drummer.
Mike: He nailed the vibe that I was hoping for. I don’t think I’d even talked to him before he showed up. I had this idea of a Jay Bellerose kind of drum style, and that’s his wheelhouse.
Kendl: I remember talking to you before we got there, and we’d sent you some pretty lo-fi recordings. You had kind of an idea of what kind of drummer we needed, and we were really lucky to get JT.
Mike: I was stoked. Hopefully I’ll be able to make another record with him for some other band. I just like working with him because he has a good ear for tone — I mean, drummers always do, but his approach is always unique, being able to basically attenuate the drums to make them sound almost non-drum-like. It’s like he’s playing a box of rocks, or scraping a window screen or something. It’s way more textural than just a standard drum beat.
Kendl: He has a good ear for playing with acoustic sounds and not taking over, but really just accentuating the space.
Mike: It’s really compositional, the way he approached the rhythm of your record. Working around acoustic instruments is a sensitive space — he does all these weird things, but he doesn’t overcomplicate the rhythm.
Kendl: That’s really important with our music, because I think as a duo, we really value the space between things. I feel like even having the band didn’t feel too crowded.
Mike: I think we’re all kind of cognizant of that. When someone is doing a little too much, I might chime in and be like, “Maybe don’t use that hi-hat.” I’ve been making, I guess, singer-songwriter-esque records for decades, really, so I’m pretty sensitive to the words and the space. Instrumentation can either help lift a song, or it can make it implode on itself, where it’s a little overkill. I’m guilty of that on several records — like, you don’t always need 20 instruments.
Kendl: [Laughs.] It’s like, if you’ve got all this paint here, why not just put a little more paint on it? It’s really kind of a tricky thing to subtract.
Mike: Hey, I’m just trying to give them their money’s worth.
Kendl: This was our first time working with you, and it was cool to be like, “We’re in good hands.” We let you do all of that with a lot of the tunes. You could kind of hear, “Maybe JT should play this on the drums,” or “maybe the bass should do this.” You had some really cool ideas. You had a really good landscape awareness around the tonality of the song, and what textures would be good for it.
Mike: Your writing and style aligns with my sensibility as well, so — it’s not that it’s easier, but I can tell when something is not working. It’s easy for me to adjust on the fly. And when something is working, sometimes you know it right away! That was one of the most enjoyable aspects of making the record: It was refreshing for me to hear everything at once and then make decisions. Then at the end of the take, the song is done.
Kendl: We’d learn the song, play it three times, and then we were like, “We’re gonna record it now!”
Mike: There was some comping, mostly based on vocals. It was tougher because obviously you’re playing your banjo and acoustic guitar — that makes it harder to edit.
Palmer T. Lee: Style is defined by limitations.
Mike: Yeah, and it was refreshing to let that go — to have those limitations.
Kendl: Yeah, in a world of everything being at your fingertips in terms of sound, it’s kind of nice to be like, “OK, here’s what we have to work with.”
Mike: It was a fun thing to experience from the other side of the glass. There were times where I was like, Damn, this already sounds like a record and we just started. That doesn’t happen that often.
The Perfect Plan is out this Friday via Thirty Tigers.
(Photo Credit: left, Sarah Kathryn Wainwright)