By Alex Teitz and Karen Weiss
Where would one expect to find a multitalented singer-songwriter, engineer, bass player who has been playing the LA scene for over ten years? No one would expect Abby Travis to be behind Cutthroat Standards and Black Pop, a pop album with a black twist. Travis is best known for playing bass with Beck and Elastica during Lolloapalooza, and playing with notorious LA bands such as The Lovedolls, and The Rails. Travis has also worked with KMFDM, The Meat Puppets, Michael Penn, and numerous others.
In 2000, Travis teamed up with Kristian Hoffman to create Cutthroat Standards and Black Pop. The album is as much a dedication to the cabaret, and Broadway days as a statement of lyrical complexity and humor. For more information visit http://www.abbytravis.com
FEMMUSIC: Can you describe your songwriting technique?
AT: Yeah. Most of the time, and particularly on that record, I pretty much just sit down at the piano and start writing songs. Usually although it varies…well, there are some songs that I woke up in the morning and had them in my head, like “Monster” and “Sunday Is The Day For Love” were kind of “I don’t know where they came from” selections. And then there’s other things, where the lyrics and the music come together at the same time, like “Everything’s Wonderful” and “Of Eyes Remain”. One thing to note, I’m just going to mention, cause some of the press that I have gotten so far…it’s a little confusing in the credits, but I didn’t write every song on the record. There’s little asterisks and stars after a couple of the songs, then at the end of the credits in the booklet it says who wrote those songs. Cause there’s like three songs I didn’t write.
AT: I just wanted to give the other people credit for their work too. So in general on these songs, they were written on the piano and I guess that’s pretty much it.
FEMMUSIC: Can you describe for me what exactly “black pop” is?
AT: To me I was just trying to come up with a term that sort of described—because I think the music is pretty but some of the subject matter is dark, so that was a little phrase I thought would be descriptive. I think there’s a lot of catchy melodies and…I think like the “Hate song” is black pop. It’s catchy, it’s fun, it’s pop, but then on the other hand it’s totally dark lyrically.
FEMMUSIC: I would agree.
AT: Yes. And even something like “Of Eyes Remain” is like that too, where the melody and chords are really quite pretty but the subject matter…although that song is pretty uplifting on a certain level, but it IS about death.
Or it’s about the emotional response to death.
FEMMUSIC: What was the biggest challenge making this CD?
AT: Probably multitasking. Cause I had to engineer the CD, and so it can be very difficult to go from “where is this cable” or “why isn’t this channel coming up on the console?” or “why is this sounding distorted?” and I have to tweak the mic pre and the compressor and all that stuff, to then going in the other room and singing the fabulous vocal take. So that, I think, was definitely the most frustrating and difficult part, was just having to wear so many hats. Although I did have Kristian Hoffman co-producing the CD with me, but he’s really great with a lot of arrangement ideas, but I’m the one who knows how to work the console and tape machines and all that stuff.
FEMMUSIC: Kristian was also going to be another question of mine. So he was helping in terms of the arrangements, and much less in terms of the technical part?
AT: Yes, very much so. Kristian—he was great also for getting good vocal takes out of me. I feel really comfortable singing around him, and he was really good at saying, “why don’t you try not singing quite so hard, cause your tone’s getting a little shrill” or…he’s got a really good ear for pitch and things like that. We both did a lot of the arrangements, but specifically some of my favorite things that Christian contributed were like the background vocals in “So Far Away” and “The Hate Song” were totally his. You know, the “fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-motherfucking-fuck-fuck” he completely made up—he’s really hilarious. A lot of it are things that I can’t really give specifics, where there’s just someone to bounce ideas off of and come to a consensus. It’s really, really invaluable to have another mind in there. He also wrote “Hope”—I did one of his songs on the record, and we co-wrote “October” together. He’s a real brilliant guy and I was very happy to work with him.
FEMMUSIC: What was the best experience making this CD?
AT: The best experience making the CD…let’s see…well, you know, I don’t think I can come up with just 1 best experience. Just having so many great musicians come down and lend me their talents—I’m really thankful for that. I really enjoyed mixing with Geza X a lot. I think he’s really brilliant and I loved being up at his studio, and that was really fun. And then just GETTING the final CD when it was done, when the shrink wrap was…cause it took so LONG! (laughs) You know, it’s just like, “It does actually exist!” That was fun. So I don’t think I have one singular moment. DJ Bonebrake’s vibraphone solo was pretty classic. There was a lot of good stuff.
FEMMUSIC: How long did it take to make the CD?
AT: A year.
AT: Umm hmm. Part of that is, I have a studio at my house. So the good side is that there’s no… you don’t have to pay by the hour or by the day. And then that’s also the bad side, because then it’s… we pretty much worked at least four or five days a week except for when one of us was on tour or out of town. But then we wouldn’t necessarily always put in the kind of 12 and 15 hour days that you do put in when you’re paying for studio time. So sometimes it would be like, you know, “We’ve worked for five or six hours. That’s enough, let’s call it.” Which was part of why it took so long. But also it just took so long because there’s so much orchestration, and both of us are perfectionists.
AT: Kristian’s even more meticulous than I am. I thought I was like the most anal perfectionist until I started working with him. (laughs) I wanted to strangle him but then at the end I realized like, no, that’s just his process. ‘Cause he’s a real craftsman. I’m a little bit more of—I do like to craft things, but I also like to improvise too. And he’s really just like, “OK, we’ve got to check this eight times.” And then sometimes I would want to kill him, but then I realized in the end that that’s part of what made the record so good.
FEMMUSIC: What is your goal with this CD?
AT: Pretty much is just to get as many people to listen to it and love it as I can. Right now I’m in total business mode, which kind of blows because I’m being really uncreative. I’m not even reading books; it’s really kind of annoying. But since I’m the record company, I’ve shifted modes completely into this…I’m constantly faxing and organizing and making sure the different people on my team are functioning and communicating effectively with one another. Cause there’s a lot to deal with in terms of the distributors and the marketing guys and the press and the touring and the…I’ve moved into this totally bizarre administrative role that I don’t particularly love but I see as very necessary. ‘Cause if you write a brilliant screenplay and then no one ever reads it, who cares? So that’s kind of what…I’m just trying to do everything within my means to get the CD out there, so people will know about it and listen to it. That’s my goal.
FEMMUSIC: What one thing would you like to see changed about the music industry?
AT: I would like to see the music industry kind of…well, let me see, that’s kind of one thing…I don’t know if I’m being as specific as you’d like, but I get the impression, especially living in Los Angeles, that there’s not a lot of people that kind of have their own opinion or taste. I think there’s a lot of lemmings that just sort of are waiting for the right direction, and the way they find that out is by what sells a lot and then they try and glom onto that and hope it’s a fad. No, let’s cancel all that, and I can be succinct actually. What I would like to see changed about the music industry is that music has become like skirt lengths. Every season there’s a new flavor that becomes outdated as quickly as the next season. And I think that instead of having support for artists and giving them a longevity so they can grow and mature as artists, music has become expendable because it’s only about the bottom line to people in the music industry. I think that’s a shame and I would like to see that change. That’s better than that tangent I started going on. (laughs)
It’s really a drag, you know? On one hand, sometimes I think I’d like to be signed to a major label cause I could get a nice tour bus and take my huge band out on the road and all that stuff. But on the other hand, it’s just like…out of all the people that I know that have been signed to major labels, like two of them haven’t gotten dropped. It’s pretty scary out there.
FEMMUSIC: It is, and more mergers keep happening, which makes it even worse.
AT: Definitely. I know folks that, you know, have been lucky enough to be on the same label for like eight years, but they’ve gone through three or four completely new A&R staffs or marketing. Things change so much that by the end of their tenure, they don’t even know anyone working their record anymore. So, I don’t know. It’s all in flux. But it’s too bad that it’s run by people that, like, sell alcohol and magazines and stuff, cause they don’t really care about music. They just care about how much money they’re making.
FEMMUSIC: As a woman in the music industry, have you been discriminated against?
AT: Not that I know of. I can’t really think of a specific time that…not that I know of. I’ve been pretty–especially being, you know, my sort of previous life as a bass player I think–being a woman has even helped me because I can sing the background vocal parts and it looks good on stage. The only time I ever got turned down for a job because I was a woman, was by another woman, cause she already had a female fiddle player and she said that I was the best bass player who auditioned for her band, but that she didn’t want it to seem like she had an all-girl band. So that was kind of ironic. But, in general I don’t think it’s been a big issue.
FEMMUSIC: What advice do you have for an artist just starting out?
AT: To try and find their own voice. A lot of folks that…I think that’s the hardest thing when you’re beginning is just figuring out really who you are and what you want to say rather than just copying someone else who you like. And sometimes copying someone else that you admire can be a way to find your own voice. Like I know on my first record, I was so enamored with Freddie Mercury that I was trying to sound like him and it took me a while to figure out that I don’t really sing like that! (laughs) So it’s also sort of respecting the process. It’s hard to live in present time when you’re doing music because it becomes this sort of, like, future tense. You know, “I’ll be happy when I get this” or “when this occurs for my music” or “when I get this deal” or “when this many people come to my shows” and that’s…it’s really kind of a struggle to live that way because then you wind up being not so happy most of the time. So I think that just kind of living in present time and being aware and trying to find out who you are, are good nuggets of advice.