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A Conversation with Florist on the Heels of their Acclaimed New Album

Florist: The New Soundtrack of the Catskills

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Last Updated: 07/29/2022 6:40 pm
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Florist just released a self-titled album, their fourth full-length album in a decade. The 19 tracks, recorded in the summer of 2019 in a rented house the band shared in the Hudson Valley, are a diverse mix of songs, instrumentals, and natural sounds of rain and birdsong that just earned the band a spot as one of Pitchfork's best new albums.

Led by singer and songwriter Emily Sprague, Florist is back to its original lineup on this album, consisting of Jonnie Baker, Rick Spataro, and Felix Walworth. They all have deep ties to the Catskills. The band recently gathered in Palenville to chat with me over Zoom about making this new record, collaboration, friendship, the mystery of existence, and carrot cake.


You can hear Florist’s new album and excerpts from our conversation on the next Ginger Radio Hour on Tuesday, August 2nd at 10am ET on WGXC 90.7 FM in the Hudson Valley and Catskills. Florist performs at Tubby's in Kingston on August 26. Get tickets here.

—Justin Maiman




Q&A with Florist

Justin: I have a good place to begin. I think you've written the definitive soundtrack of the Catskills. Full stop.


Florist: Wow, wow. Yeah, that's a bit of a mic drop. Thank you. Damn. That's pretty huge.


Justin: I know this because I've tested the album on a bunch of walks around Greene County and Columbia County. Yesterday I was over at Olana early in the morning, and I listened to the full album on a couple-mile walk. I listened to it again in the cemetery, which is one of my favorite places to be. That was a perfect place for it. I also played it a couple of days ago at a local park. On every one of these walks, I listened from the beginning to the end, and it felt like I was listening to an album that had been made in this place.


Florist: Wow. Yeah, that's perfect. That's amazing. It's great feedback.


Justin: How do you do that?


Emily: I think there's a huge essence of all of us that is this place. I mean, we're in Palenville right now. We all grew up in the area. Felix here is pretty connected to the area despite being from the city. It's kind of where we all learned who we are, who we are to each other, and music.


Rick: We started the band a mile away from here, more or less. So yeah, just a lot of time and a lot of growth here.


Emily: It's a huge, huge part of who we are and what the band is. And we've also always recorded ourselves, in the area, in pretty janky little sheds and cottages and stuff. I think that has always made its way into the sound. This process was the most fleshed out version of doing that that we've ever done, which I think really made its way into the actual sound files. Emotionally it's all in there, but definitely wasn't an intention to make it the soundtrack to the place. Makes sense, I guess.


Rick: We were recording in a house together and we were doing a lot of it on the screened-in porch, during all different times of day. So you're getting daytime, birds, and nighttime insects and whatnot. That's how it sounds when you're recording on a porch like that.


Emily: I think we're the type of people who tend to be open to things not being perfect-sounding. For us, it's important that something captures a vulnerability or a trueness to whatever we’re recording. Not with the goal of creating this perfected, fully fleshed out final track, but to have something that is really capturing time and place and feeling. That was the biggest factor when we were recording. It was very much about being where we were and who we were with each other.


Felix: It's sort of the opposite approach to a typical recording studio, which to me is usually a lot more about removing variables, taking oneself outside of the environment, and even the architecture of those spaces is no windows, cloth all over the walls, and then the sound is the only thing. We thought: let's plop all of our weird old equipment down in the most exposed room in the house and see what we can make here.


Rick: It seems like that's not that uncommon nowadays for people, but it's really all we've ever done and what we like to do. It feels good as a process. We just got to be on a porch and feel the wind blowing. It just feels good.


Felix: And when you let your environment and your circumstances lead you in your artmaking practice, some really magical things can happen.


Justin: I think one of the things that process reveals is a sense of place. I think some people have gotten out of the habit of listening to albums. I really enjoy listening to albums all the way through, and this album, from beginning to end, puts you in a setting. You're in a place that is not a studio, like you said, it's a natural habitat. It's just chock full of the sounds of the Catskills.


Emily: I think the way that we made it was really wholeheartedly without any safety nets. With the way that everything was sequenced, when it came down to that, it was about creating the whole hour that you listen to, and that's what creates the sense of place and the story and the journey. The goal of the album was to be that and communicate that. It felt like a bit of a leap of faith to almost push people to listen to it that way and hope that the attention span and patience are there to stick with it.


Justin: I have a question about collaboration, but before I ask it, I just want to find out if there are certain things that all of you want to say about the album or the music that you don't always get to say about it out loud.


Rick: As a person who helped make this, what I like about the album is that when I listen to it, I feel like I'm there. I feel like I'm back working on it, in that time, in that summer.


Emily: When we talk about the record, we're talking about our process together and our relationships to each other, which is a huge part of the narrative of the album. But when you step outside of that, it’s about this much larger scope of connectedness. You can feel us playing the music, and you can feel us in that space that is specific to this place, to the Hudson Valley. At the same time, hopefully, it's encapsulating a feeling of the connections between everyone, everything, wherever you are and whoever you're with. That’s the thing I'm proud of. We did that in a way that will be accessible as a piece of work to listen to for somebody in another state or another country or another time in life. I believe in music being accessible, even if it's got a specific story or a life that it's representing or telling, or a perspective that it's coming from, but that it can still be universally, to a degree, meaningful. That's a big purpose of it for me. I do feel I'm proud of it. We can talk so much about our relationships to each other, which are endless, but it's hopefully a bit meta as well.


Justin: I think it translates. The connections between the four of you can easily translate: micro relationships can translate to relationships that we all have, that people all notice, not necessarily just with small groups of friends, but to each other, to people we don't know.


Emily: Yeah.


Jonnie: Wow.


Justin: You said you were in this house for a month. I know you went there to do this, but I wonder what it was like day-to-day. You were coming in, and had some lyrics written, and knew parts of what you were doing, but then half the album is made up of these instrumental elements and recordings. I'm wondering how you managed it day-to-day, or if it just happened organically.


Jonnie: Definitely happened organically. We just were hanging out. There was a lot of time where we were not playing music. We were together for a full month and just doing chores and playing video games. Sometimes somebody would just wander into the space that we had set up to record and would just press record and start working on something and messing around at all times of the day. I think that's how most of the instrumentals happened. We didn't necessarily go into it with a plan to do it like that. Emily had a couple songs and then was gonna keep writing songs throughout while we were there and that was the plan. We just ended up, because we were spending time together, and when we spend time together we end up making a lot of noises and we recorded a lot of them. And that was just purely, I think, recreational and just to get things out. A function of being there was making all those extra sounds and it wasn't until later that I think we decided to put a bunch of 'em into the album.


Emily: I think it started to make a lot of sense too, because I had a few songs written. We would work on a song, and then I would go off and try to write a little bit more. In the meantime, everything was set up and ready to go. And like John was saying, we would just walk in there and start making these instrumentals, and it was kind of like the album is sequenced. We'd be working on a track and then we would have this hour that we would just run the tape machine till its end. The tone of all that was informed by us being there together in this strange, almost like a bit of a bubble. We were kind of in our own little reality there. We definitely didn't have much structure at all, or much of a regimen to get certain things done. It was very much letting our emotions guide us, and whatever the day brought, accepting that. We did manage to make some music despite having no real discipline or playing or anything. (LAUGHS)


Jonnie: That is what the album ended up being about: this is just what we naturally do together, clearly. Even just in a day, like all of the changes that happen in your life, just in your experience of reality through one day when you're not making an album. When we were together, we ended up capturing a lot of that, just by accident.


Felix: Emily had several full songs written when we entered this process, but usually there was a whole album written before we entered a process like this with a narrative arc and an understanding of what we were writing about and what we were arranging around. The songs that Emily brought were connected by their themes of connectedness and overcoming hesitation and trepidation around interdependency in the world. That was our jumping off point, but it was really like three or four songs or something.


Emily: Yeah, nowhere near a full album.


Felix: Nowhere near a full album at all, and so it was a really unique process for me, and I think for all of us, to get together and be like: let's make an album because we want to make an album. Not because we have something to translate. It wasn't even really a translational process. It was more like an excavation.


Emily: Yeah. I think it was a bit of an experiment as well. We have always talked about, over the years, wanting a significant amount of time to work on things. In the past, it was more straightforward, like we're just kind of getting these songs down, and that's the album. That was obviously a fine way to do things, but we always, I think over the years, have felt that feeling of: what would happen if we had more time than we needed, or enough time to wake up at noon and then just do anything else? Make music until 9:00 PM and then just play music all night? I was writing songs after we had already gotten there; the rest of the record was written there. So it really did become about that little world and being free to be a little bit more daring with how we're making things and just pushing the limits, and feeling like we can strip everything away and be our raw selves, and try to touch this thing that is super mysterious about existence and what everything is.


Justin: It is mysterious. There's something about surrounding yourself with both time and your things, whether it's writing or making music, making art, but there's a lot of pressure when you're by yourself doing it. One of the things that I am jealous of about people who make music together in bands, is that there's so much collaboration that is spurred by each other, but also it takes some of the pressure off.


Jonnie: Definitely.


Rick: In terms of collaboration, there were some songs that we tracked mostly live, but I'd say much more time was spent on record[ing] the basics of a track, and then someone would go cook some food or would just go lay on the couch or whatever. Someone else would be working on it, just trying out ideas and sort of trading off. Whenever one of us felt like we were able to work on it or [were] inspired to work on it, we could, and that takes a lot of the pressure off. You don't have to be like: Oh, I'm not being productive. I'm sitting on the couch. It's actually like: Oh, this is a process. Each one of us is having this little bit of time to try stuff, and that's necessary and productive. Without any strict schedule — just basically doing this as a practice, repeatedly working on stuff and going through that cycle — we ended up with a lot of stuff.


Emily: It was both a group effort and also I think the trust that we had at the time, and have with each other at this point to individually go work on something without anyone else present. There was also this sense of separate collaboration, like Rick is talking about, where there were a lot of different schedules going on, and everyone would be in and out of their creative abilities for the day at different times, and we would just figure out how to weave in and out of that. I think it was based a lot on trust, this effort of individuals, and our connectedness to each other, even when we weren't playing together.


Felix: One of my strongest audio memories of the experience was at one point during the recording we moved our whole setup down to the bottom floor of the house for a bunch of environmental disaster reasons, you know, the elements.


Emily: It started raining every day.


Felix: Yeah, the elements stopped being kind to our vintage recording gear. I was going to sleep pretty early most nights up there and my room was directly above where the recording started taking place. Jonnie was down there for several days working on this very complex string arrangement, multiple tracks, on the song “Dandelion” on the record. And I was just hearing that at four in the morning — at all hours.


Jonnie: Sorry.


Felix: No, it was beautiful. It was like a sort of soundtrack to my semiconscious state. It was like it was alive at all times in the space with people trying out sort of hair-brained recording ideas. And a lot of those hair-brained ideas ended up on the record because they were genius, actually. (LAUGHS)


Rick: Many of them do, many of them don't. I think that's the great part is that you don't have to decide while you're doing it.


Jonnie: Yeah, totally.


Justin: I'm a big believer in pushing and pushing and knowing it doesn't have to be perfect. This might not be the exact track, or maybe you won't use this instrumental. But then did you keep pushing it and, at four in the morning, still work on arranging it or throwing something out and just saying: Oh, I don't know, let's try something new?


Emily: There was so, so much of that. So much stuff that we both didn't use and stuff that we redid, but also stuff that was just the first actual thing recorded. There was no law of: this has to be worked on for this long, or this has to be this raw.

Rick: On “Dandelion”, that's the song John was working on the string arrangements for a long time, I do know that the bass track that's on the recording was me learning the chords along with Emily. So Emily was tracked. We were recording the guitar and vocals, and I was learning the bass part while we were doing that, and that ended up on there.


Jonnie: It was perfect.


Rick: But then there's these labored over other arrangements on there.


Jonnie: Just like the way you were kind of going around exploring the song ended up being the song.


Rick: So the contrast of the labored over and the spontaneous. It’s just something we like that ended up there.


Emily: And then songs that we did 10 takes on, all in a row, and then ended up not using any of them. So definitely the whole range of just trying to feel like whatever the thing is, is what it was in our heads, I guess.


Felix: Something I feel like we have a really strong common language for now, at this point, is we all know when there's something special.


Jonnie: Yeah.


Felix: I don't think there were any moments where someone was like: how can we possibly get rid of this? It's perfect. Everyone was just like: it's wrong, we need to think around this. Or: it's totally perfect — don't touch it ever again.


Jonnie: Yeah, definitely.


Emily: We’re lucky.


Justin: I think you are lucky. I've heard this on your other albums as well, this trust and this intimacy. If you're gonna be in a band, those are really wonderful things to have, right?


Emily: Yeah. I mean …


Jonnie: We never forget it. We talk about it all constantly.


Emily: We are like: how is this even possible? How do we still like each other? And I mean more than ever, too. We've gone through so much together, and at this point it feels like it's really just so, so, so special and lucky.


Justin: And to that point, forget the band, you know? That's just like the icing on the top.


Emily: Exactly. The band is 100% just the bonus thing about it. It's totally just the extra.


Jonnie: Amazing.


Emily: I think music serves so many different purposes. Our story has one kind of major element to it that is who we are and what we're doing. And that's the beautiful thing about music too, is that it truly can be put into so many different scenarios in life and be this perfect experience elevater. All across the spectrum, it can be tapped into whatever that purpose of music is, which is so profound. I feel like one of the things about us as friends that sticks out to me is that we have, so often and for so long and in so many different ways, been so uncomfortable around each other. We have an ability to sit in that. Not uncomfortable with each other, but just uncomfortable as a human with a body in reality.


Jonnie: Yeah.


Emily: Like feeling that heaviness of existence around each other. We have always had this openness to accept that person and keep collaborating emotionally as friends, just as people. That feels like something that has become a part of how we are musically aligned with each other too, even during making this record. There were a lot of ups and downs. Emotionally it wasn't just like we were having this amazing time and every day we were happy and just kinda making music. A lot of times it was super, super intense and emotional. We were going through all these different things but feeling comfortable enough around each other to be in that space and make music, despite it. Even more so, put it into the music in a way that I think can really encapsulate a realness of being and feeling that is kind of what we try to do.


Felix: And if someone had to disappear for twelve hours, it wasn't like: where the hell are you? The most important thing is that we're all taking care of ourselves and each other. That's sort of like you're saying: the band is the icing. The relationships are.


Jonnie: Totally. It's so strange that we even are a band. It’s almost like the friendship is the thing, And then for some reason we also go make sounds together. It's great.


Rick: Right. There's no lack of conflict, and there never is with human beings. To me, what makes the things we make musically more interesting, at least when I hear something, is that there are many different voices on it. Things get pulled in a direction that I might not expect and having conflict, having different ideas isn’t a bad thing. That leads to what I think is a more interesting relationship, ultimately, and as the icing, the music.


Justin: What kind of cake would you be?


Rick: What was that cake that your dad made at the house?


Felix: It was a carrot cake.


Rick: Carrot cake?


Emily: Carrot cake.


Rick: We would probably be a carrot cake. Carrot cake, I would say.


Jonnie: Interesting.


Rick: Oh, you don't wanna be a carrot cake?


(LAUGHS)


Justin: The band is breaking up.


Emily: You heard it here first.


Justin: So how do you do all of this live?


Emily: We just started practicing. We always approach playing live as trying to just listen to each other. A lot of the stuff that we've recorded can't or isn't supposed to be recreated exactly live because it's not the recording. I think live music feels really good to play when it's about listening to someone and being there alive. I mean, it's like the most visceral way of experiencing music, right? I think we're just approaching it that way now where we're stripping some things back but making sure there are dynamics present, because I think that's a big thing about the music is how it has dynamics and leaves space for quietness and then can also intensify. I think we're learning a bit how to maybe do more with less now, which is kind of cool. The bottom line is just to play well with each other and listen to each other.


Rick: Somewhat surprisingly to me, the overall mood and the arrangement ends up pretty close to the recordings. There might not be every layer, but we all are multitaskers in a lot of ways, and we make the best use of that as we can.


Emily: And hopefully you simultaneously aren't missing the recording because it is full enough. And at the same time it's different enough that it's a new and equally as enjoyable experience.


Jonnie: Yeah, hopefully.


Emily: Hopefully. Yeah, exactly.


Rick: That's the goal that always seemed intuitively what feels good and what would be a better show than playing along to a track, which I totally understand is a technique, but I think it's just not what we want to do.


Florist: Yeah, yeah, yeah.


Felix: In our live arrangements we play with a bit more abandon than on the recordings too. Well, on this record, there was a lot of abandon even on the recording, but there are a lot of parts to this live set that we keep pretty open and unarranged. There are improvised parts that can last anywhere from thirty seconds to three minutes, depending on how we're feeling about playing with each other at that moment. I hope that also translates to people as alive and vital, but for me it's so important to have that when we're about to go play these songs so many times in a row. To have this feeling of possibility every night really keeps me present.


Emily: Yeah. Keep it tight, keep it loose. That's our motto.


Rick: Yeah, that's our hilarious motto.


This interview has been edited and condensed for publication online.


Justin Maiman writes a weekly newsletter called Ginger that's devoted to moments of inspiration. (Read Ginger and subscribe for free here.) He also hosts Ginger Radio Hour on community radio station WGXC 90.7 FM in the Hudson Valley and Catskills. He's a journalist with more than 20 years of experience in digital media, radio, and television.


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