It is common practice for songwriters to retreat deep into isolation for focus and perspective when writing new music. For David Simonett of Dead Man Winter, scheduled to play the Bluebird Theater on April 4, his retreat to the tiny village of Finland, Minnesota, not only helped him reshape his musical perspective, but also get his life back on track after a divorce.
Simonett, who also fronts the successful bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles, knew that after his divorce from his wife of ten years, he needed to leave the old Minneapolis haunts they used to frequent, to find solace in a town where nobody knew him.
The result is Dead Man Winter's second album, Furnace. Written largely in isolation in a cabin outside of Finland, it is a personal and pastoral view of lost love and the near-impossible task of attempting to rebuild a life and a home he had spent years comfortably settling into.
We caught up with Simonett and asked him about Furnace and the benefits and pitfalls of writing music in isolation.
Westword: Who else was involved in the making of this record?
David Simonett: This is my second attempt at making this record. I made a whole other album, got it mastered and ended up trashing it and started over with these guys.
I was doing a lot of it myself, and it just felt super cut-up, a lot of overdubbing. I don’t have anything against that effort; it just didn't feel right at the time. So I got these guys, [drummer JT Bates, guitarist Erik Koskinen, bassist Tim Saxhaug (also of Trampled by Turtles), and pianist Bryan Nichols], who are my favorite players in town, and we found a block of time where we could just go into the studio and stay there for a week and make a record. It was my favorite recording experience of my life.
When you trashed the record, was that based off the fidelity of it, or the content?
I was pretty much happy with how it sounded. To be honest, the only thing I can come up with was that it did not feel right. A lot of these songs are the same, through several were replaced. I don't know. I was just forcing it, and I was in a weird and chaotic head space at the time, so I just needed some space to write some new material. I just wanted it to be looser; it felt too free of error. Since the material is raw, I wanted it to feel live. So that’s how we ended up doing it [this time]. We just got in a room together and played the songs live. There was minimal overdubbing and there are two or three songs that are the first take. I felt more comfortable with that vibe. I knew from the first day it would work out better.
Sometimes that style of recording doesn't work out so well when you have a band that isn’t well rehearsed.
Right. And all the credit goes to the band, and that’s why these guys were there. They play eight shows a week in [Minneapolis] in lots of different genres, and they're all just "live" guys. They can talk about the feel of a song and play it like they’ve played it before. That's when they’re at their best, just feeling the vibe of a song.
Stephen King once wrote that you have to move your desk to the corner of the room when writing in order to essentially take the pressure off of the act. Having said that, what were some of the disadvantages of moving to a location with the sole intent to write an album?
[Laughs.] I’ve never heard it put like that, but I really like that. For me, I was stuck in Minneapolis after my wife and I just split up. I didn't want to see anyone I knew. Everything about being in a city was driving me crazy. I was overreacting to being here, so I needed to get as far away as possible. I had to go someplace peaceful. I wasn't able to do anything. It was when I was [in Minneapolis] that I was trying too hard to write. I needed to go somewhere where it would happen more naturally.
Finland is technically a village; it's like a city block in size, and this cabin I rented was fifteen miles outside of that town. I was in the middle of nowhere.
So in some ways, that cabin was the desk in the corner of the room?
I totally agree with that. It was a way to focus less on one aspect and more on others. Sometimes just a change of venue helps with that.
This is a dark record that also seems uplifting and cathartic. Which of those do you lean more toward when listening? Is it tough to listen to, or does it help?
Both, in equal parts, to be honest. I can't have an objective perspective. The writing of it was great therapy, and I still remember the feeling of finally being able to say what I wanted to say. I’d never written anything so literal before, so when I listen to it, I know exactly what I’m describing, so it’s very dark for me as well.
Is there anything you wanted to say that you ultimately decided was too personal?
You don’t have to tell me now, obviously.
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[Laughs.] No, not really, man. If I had to do it over again, I would cloud it up a little bit. But I think I said exactly what I was thinking, and that was the point. I was trying to accomplish that and say things that I never really was able to do and never really wanted to. I don’t like it when artists get that personal, so that was a challenge. When it started to come out, I originally changed it, and that felt unnatural. I was in a head space where I didn’t give a shit. I wasn't thinking about the reaction. I was nervous to put it out. When release time came, I had a lot of second thoughts.
This record is specific to a certain time in your life. On the next record, do you feel you will revisit this theme, or is this something to move on from?
I’d prefer to move on, but I’d never be able to control that. It’s too early to tell. Depends on what catastrophe happens next in my life [laughs].