Widowspeak and Holy Motors Talk the Myth of the American West

The Estonian band tell the Brooklyn duo about the Estonian rock scene and their new album Horse.

Robert Earl Thomas and Molly Hamilton are the duo behind Brooklyn’s Widowspeak; Eliann Tulve and Lauri Raus are the primary songwriters for the Estonian shoegaze band Holy Motors. To celebrate both of their new albums — Plum and Horse, respectively — the four sat down for a cross-continental deep dive into the Estonian rock scene, cinematic songwriting, and the myth of the American West.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Robert Earl Thomas: So, where are you?

Eliann Tulve: We’re in Tallinn, Estonia.

Molly Hamilton: Is it, like, lockdown vibes there right now?

Lauri Raus: Well, you know, the whole population of the country is, like, 1.3 million — there’s only one town in the state that has more than 100,000 people living in it, so we don’t [have] mega cities where you have to mingle with people like that. Everyone just went to the countryside. No one saw anyone, so it didn’t spread.

Molly: That’s good. 

Lauri: Yeah, it’s really different from the rest of the world. 

Eliann: Yeah, the summer was pretty free. We had, like, maybe one positive person per day or something. Maybe not at all, even.

Robert: That’s great.

Molly: I’m happy for your country’s health, because it’s definitely a disaster here.

Lauri: You’re in New York?

Molly: We’re in New York City, which, you know, reasonably is doing pretty solid. But that doesn’t mean anything’s opening anytime soon. I mean, I think the restaurants are kind of opening, but they’ll probably close again. And all the venues and music is still going to be off the table for a really long time.

I’m sure you guys are running into this too, but the shows thing — we haven’t even been talking about booking anything until next fall. Just the way that the different states handle things, you can’t really go on a tour because depending on what’s going on [in each state]… But I’m optimistic. I’m hoping that the sea change starts happening and live music can come back. Because I’m sure you guys miss it too, especially with the record coming out.

Eliann: In Estonia, we actually had two concerts over the summer, so we were able to play ourselves. At the moment, we’re planning this album release show in Tallinn, but as it’s getting colder, the the numbers are getting higher again, and we don’t really know what to expect in a month.

Robert: Yeah, it’s hard for us to plan, so we just kind of [take it] day by day.

Molly: I feel like [your music] is so cinematic and the recorded elements of it are so cohesive. Releasing a record now when it seems so cohesive as a recorded object, versus something… Like sometimes bands are more about, like, “All I do is play shows” — that’s my way I connect to people. So just hearing the mood and the storytelling elements of your record, it feels like [at] a time where people are listening more than they’re going out, it’s almost maybe a gift to the world. I don’t know, that’s what we were feeling when we were listening to it. Is that a question?

Robert: I think Molly’s asking, maybe, what’s your relationship between recording and playing live? 

Molly: You ask the questions from now on. [Laughs.]

Lauri: [Laughs.] I think it comes down to me not really being a fan of recording music rather than playing the music. Because once you record it, it’s carved in, and that’s the way it’s going to be until the end of time. Whereas, playing live shows, we can always do whatever we want, to a degree.

Eliann: Yeah. We have been actually playing since, like, 2012, and we didn’t really record anything for the first five years.

Lauri: We did 7-inch vinyls — four songs in total in five years’ time.

Eliann: So we started recording only later in time, after we had been playing.

Lauri: I think you can say that it took us five years to write eight songs. But there was no ambition behind it anyway, we just started playing together as a form of meditation or something — for the fun of it, you know, to get through the day. But we started out in like the grimmest time of the year when you only see brown and gray, basically, and it kind of got depressing. So it was nice to just play guitar. We invented new songs every day when we gathered, but then after the sessions, forget all about them. We didn’t write anything, or record anything for that matter, for a long time. 

And then we like landed this gig where we could open in this old Soviet cinema — it’s really beautiful — we opened up for a movie screening, Mystery Train by Jarmusch. 

Robert: Love that movie. 

Lauri: Good movie, right? So we did that, and then after the screening people came to us — which is really un-Estonian to come and compliment someone. [They we like,] “What are you guys called?” And we didn’t have a name. So then we were thinking, “Hey, if we act like a band and people ask what band are we, then we should be a band.” Does that make sense?

Robert: Yeah, that’s a really good origin story. It’s funny, we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to record after playing, like, four shows or something.

Molly: Which is kind of like when you talk about the idea of it being set in stone — I think because we started recording right away, we didn’t really treat it [preciously]. I mean, not that they’re not precious in terms of like, a certain amount of wanting to make it—

Robert: Good.

Molly: Cohesive, good.

Robert: There was no pressure or expectations, either, so I guess we kind of treated the recording session almost like we didn’t know what would come out of it.

Molly: And it wasn’t, like, studio recording from the beginning. 

Robert: We were lucky, and it was just circumstance that we were able to record right away. It was not, like, a lot of money or anything — it was just, we could go to a place [to record], you know. Ever since then, it’s been backwards trying to figure out what the live band could be because, it’s just been us and different people around, so our live shows are always different. So in that regard, I agree with you — I really like playing live because our live shows a lot of times don’t sound anything like the recordings. It’s dependent on who we’re with. 

Lauri: The second really important aspect of playing live shows for us is that we’re not really an Estonian band in the basic sense of it, because our label is based in New York.

Robert: Wharf Cat’s a great label.

Lauri: Yeah. Eliann mentioned us playing two shows in Tallinn this summer, which is like, as much as we’ve played in Tallinn in the last three years. Usually playing live shows for us means playing around Europe. And we’ve even been to the States twice, just a couple of shows in New York and Texas.

Robert: Are there not as many rock clubs, or do you feel like outsiders in Tallinn? Are there like-minded other bands, or what is that like?

Lauri: Well, I wouldn’t know. [Laughs.] It’s not that we’ve chosen to be hermits in our home country, but I don’t know.

Eliann: I get very anxious playing shows in Tallinn, or in Estonia in front of Estonian people, and then I get really relaxed when I get on the stage anywhere else.

Lauri: Even a big city in a small country is still a small city, so we don’t get really much audience for kind of the niche we play. There’s barely 400,000 people living in Tallinn, less than 100,000 everywhere else — imagine playing something that’s not mainstream radio. We draw maybe two or three hundred tops, and also because the scene is so small, I don’t see the point in playing every month because it’s going to be the same show and there’s going to be the same people, and everyone’s going to be exhausted from it.

Robert: It’s kind of like that in New York sometimes. New York is such a huge city, obviously, but in any one specific subculture in a small town.

Molly: Like the rock scene, or that sort of small part of New York, I kind of think is getting even smaller. You can’t really expect all your friends and all your friends’ bands to go to all your shows and their own,  and keep it fresh and not just like, “Here we are at the same venue again, hangin’ out.”

Robert: I think something you said, though, that resounds with Molly’s feeling, too, is that — I mean, I don’t have to sing, so for me it’s not a problem, but I think Molly is always most nervous when it’s a crowd of people we know. When you’re somewhere else, you get to be a stranger or, you know, just something else.

Molly: It’s interesting because we’ve toured Europe a couple of times, every record, I guess. But predominantly we’re in the States, and even that I do feel like — no offense to the people in the States reading this — but there is something about being in a place where you’re not feeling the pressure of trying to speak the mainstream language. Even in the rock community of the States, I feel like when you get outside of that and you’re able to see where you fit into it. I start to understand almost more what we’re doing musically when we’re on tour in a different country because it’s like, I don’t know— 

Robert: You’re off set. 

Molly: Yeah. Like, I’m not just navigating the thing that I’m so well versed in, like the way the US does our tour circuit and our promoter thing. Maybe that’s just because people in Europe are so nice and they give you a place to stay and all that, but I don’t know.

Robert: But you guys said that you toured in the States — did you write “Country Church” when you were on tour, or was it influenced by a road trip or a tour or something?

Lauri: I think it was just, like, the passing pictures you get when driving through. But, also there’s a lot of things that got into the song — the States, Israel, whatever, but also really personal matters.

I think “Endless Night” was more like the kind of song that [was influenced by the States] — it was the first time I stayed in this proper motel like you see in the movies, and then it just came from there. But also it ended in France when we stayed in a hotel that had a busted window.

Molly: I’m curious what your songwriting process is, because obviously there’s really strong visuals and vibes, and they’re married really well together.

Lauri: I think you should know the answer to that, because you wrote so much music as well. It’s different every time, you know.

Eliann: I guess we used to write more as the whole group. Well, we played more together, I guess, back then.

Lauri: We used to play long nights. Go to the rehearsal space at 9 PM, walk out at 6 AM. But now we have a really professional drummer who has, like, 10 bands, and it’s really hard getting him in the space to play with. 

Robert: The drummer is always in a lot of bands. 

Lauri: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. I don’t know. It’s been more isolated and private now. Sometimes Eliann writes the lyrics at home, and sometimes I do it back at my place.

Eliann: We have this funny thing, me and Lauri, that for certain songs, if both of us are writing something, we don’t know what the other is writing about, but they always come together. You can tell that it’s one story.

Lauri: There’s this song on the album called “Matador,” and [Eliann and I] wrote the lyrics to it — when we compared notes, we just mashed the lyrics together, because I think they were [about] the same thing, we just used a lot of synonyms. I think the opening lines were like — how did it start?

Eliann: “I don’t worry, I have got no friends to talk to on the road.”

Lauri: Yeah, and what I wrote was, “I know we haven’t spoken for a while.”

Molly: It’s like hive mind. 

Robert: I enjoyed “Road Stars” on the record, I like that song a lot. It gave me kind of a Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra vibes. I always think that’s interesting, to hear the conversation. It’s not something that gets too aligned — there’s some duets where people are singing together the whole time, and it’s just the same content, but with two voices. I really liked that it had sort of that conversation element to it, it just stuck out to me.

Molly: It’s interesting, because we also do the thing where predominantly we have our different parts that kind of come together, but it’s never kind of in the same place in the process. Like, I feel like every song is just kind of like, you move along with it until you’re ready to put the pieces together. Listening to you guys, it makes sense that you’re all kind of coming at different angles, but coming at the same visual and mood space.

Robert: That’s something I wanted to ask about too, in terms of similarities or why it makes sense for us to talk: I feel like for both of us, there’s a big somewhat cinematic, but also visual element. I feel like I see the music that you’re [playing], and the fact that you talked about that Jim Jarmusch [movie], and the fact that your band name is a movie reference. I feel like that’s something that we’ve tapped into in the past. A lot of times our mood board, or our list of influences, don’t even have to do with music. I’m wondering, how does this visual world or this cinematic role play into your worldbuilding? It’s kind of free form question.

Lauri: Visuals definitely matter because I’m not really a professional musician, I just play what kind of comes to me. So sometimes I just think, What does it sound like to walk into a bar? And just play that kind of sound. Talking about the acoustic song, the dialogue one — one of my favorite moments on the road is when we stop for gas, especially when it’s after sundown. It’s kind of nice and warm in the van, and then you step into the cool midnight — that song basically is like a dialogue between a truck driver and a midnight lady. Our producer said, “Well, you know, the truck driver could actually be a touring musician.” Writing the song, I put emphasis on distancing myself from the story, and then the producer told me, “Hey, that’s actually you.” 

Me and Eliann just found out the proper name of your band — we always thought it was like “Widow Speak.” 

Robert: I mean, either one! That’s why we put it together. 

Molly: When we started the band, I originally thought it would just be two words, and then our original drummer told us to make it one, for whatever reason he thought. And we were like, “Yeah, whatever, we have a show, we have to put it on a flyer,” and then it stuck.

Robert: It’s an ambiguity though, because in my head, I always hear like, a widow talking. But then Molly meant it like the point in the hair. So you can look at it lots of different ways. 

Molly: It didn’t really have a meaning. 

Robert: There’s also the funny thing of [looking] at band names in type — I liked that when you put it together, the word has a shape, because the K and the W come together. Something to think about sometimes. [Laughs.]

Molly: You have to live with it for a long time, so it has to be something you’re gonna like seeing in print. 

Eliann: I think our band name is really hard to pronounce, for Estonians at least. 

Lauri: Oh, yeah, it sounds ridiculous. 

Eliann: I can never say it on stage. Like, “We are…” 

Lauri: You speak Estonian, and then you get to the band name and pronounce it as an English word. 

Eliann: In Estonian, for example, for Rihanna we say [rolls “R”], “Ree-hawna.” [Laughs.]

Molly: That’s great. So you were talking about being in character, and I’m curious with your record if you feel like… We were listening to your other record and this one, and I feel like this one kind of seems a little bit more like it breathes more. But I guess you’re still kind of speaking from the perspective of characters? I’m curious if that’s true.

Lauri: I’m only going to speak on the behalf of the lyrics I’ve done, but I think it started off with just beautiful descriptions and places, as in as in a novel when you have the pauses that just describe. And then throughout the years, I think I’ve just like thought about, What if I add some characters to the story? It’s a natural development. This album also features quite many, like, creatures in a way — like people, characters. Not as a concept, because we didn’t write the album as an album. The Matador was like a good guy, there’s the sniper watching your back, and there’s also the creepy man. Theres the thieves, there’s the guitar playing stars, the truck driver.

Eliann: Even the night is a character in “Come on, Slowly.”

Lauri: There’s empty towns, Midwest, places we’ve actually never been to but seen the movies.

Molly: That’s another thing that we curious about. This happens us too — the idea of space can be imagined and not necessarily grounded in reality. It’s not like it has to match a real sense of place, or a real gas station or whatever. How has that idea of place changed as you have been over to the West, but also even just the the way touring has probably influenced your sense of the road?

Eliann: A lot of the places that we write about actually don’t really exist, or are places that we maybe know from the movies.

Lauri: But that’s the liberty of art — we don’t have to go places like a photographer or an anthropologist. But also touring around the country just enhances the visual knowledge, and it enhances the vocabulary with which you can speak and express oneself.

Robert: Both of our bands exist in this sort of sphere of influence where the idea of the American West and the cowboy are images that get tapped into. We live in New York City, and we’re from the coasts where we’re about as removed from cowboys as you are in Estonia. The American West is itself sort of like an imaginative thing — like there is a real one.

Molly: But it’s all built on dream imagery.

Lauri: We got so many questions regarding the Americana and the cowboy stuff with this leg of interviews for the album, and it just struck me that the only way to cope and like it is to make it mythical and dream it up a bit. Because I think the reality of the cowboy stuff is kind of nasty, right?

Robert: Yeah, exactly. 

Molly: It’s something that we’ve also run into, where a certain twang of a guitar or a certain amalgamation of instruments that conjure up somebody’s vision of what you’re trying to say, even before you say anything. It’s so interesting how those can be really effective storytelling tools, even without having said anything, because people are already feeling. It’s such a funny, loaded thing to unpack sometimes.

Robert: That makes it kind of rich fodder for art, though. You can kind of take it in different ways.

Widowspeak is singer-songwriter Molly Hamilton and guitarist Robert Earle Thomas. Their fifth album, Plum, is out August 28, 2020 via Captured Tracks.