"One of my great aunts left me with the ukulele."
"Ivan" by Travels With Brindle—you saw it here first!
Travels With Brindle is the bedroom recording project of Boston-based singer-songwriter and member of Dames Nation Chelsea Spear. When Chelsea asked us if Two Bossy Dames wanted to premier the video for her song “Ivan,” we were delighted and had a few questions for her.
TBD: Where does the name Travels With Brindle come from?
Chelsea: I was fresh out of school when I felt comfortable enough playing music in front of an audience, and I wanted a project name that reflected my background in prose writing. By that time, I had upgraded to a Lanikai ukulele made from (I believe) koa wood, and the woodgrain reminded me of a friend’s greyhound and her beautiful brindled coat, so I named my instrument Brindle. I bit the name from John Steinbeck’s final book, Travels With Charley, substituting his dog’s name for my ukulele’s name.
TBD: You mentioned to us that you’d “found your creative voice at the tender age of 45”. Was it a long and winding road, going back to something you’d thought you’d left behind, a sudden and unprecedented bolt from the blue, all/none of the above?
Chelsea: The short answer to this is “yes”!
The longer answer is that I grew up loving music, but my family wasn’t especially artistic and my parents were worried that if they bought an instrument and lessons I would lose interest. I ended up doing a lot of activities that involved music, like interviewing local bands for my school paper, working at record stores, hosting a radio show on my community college’s radio station, and making music videos for my friends’ bands.
I never thought about making music until I got a cheap Mahalo ukulele in a Yankee swap at Christmas one year. (I was self-employed and was hoping to get the Stop & Shop gift card so I could buy groceries. One of my great aunts left me with the ukulele. I was salty at the time, but if I’d known then…) The uke stayed on my floor for a few years, but when I started an AmeriCorps year of service, I needed a cheap hobby and picked that one.
I spent a year learning the instrument, then joined a few online open mics (Seasons of the Ukulele and Theme Music were the big ones) and covered a new song and posted it on YouTube every week for a year. When I had a big enough repertoire, I spent a year busking at all the MBTA stations, and the year after that I started writing a song a week. When I completed that goal I picked the six songs I liked the best and recorded them for an EP called Greetings from Rocky Point. Looking at this succession of goals, it looks very sudden, but as I was working on these different projects, it felt very gradual. I have a lot to say and setting these challenges for myself has given me the opportunity to figure out how I want to say them.
TBD: Please describe the many creative influences you drew upon in the course of recording your debut album. How and why did they inspire you and how do they show up, explicitly and/or implicitly, in your songs?
Chelsea: The movie Shirkers came out before I released my EP, and the film had been rattling around in my head as I was getting ready to record it. Like film director Sandi Tan, I was friends with a few men who were older and/or more powerful when I was younger, and none of these friendships ended well for me. Seeing the film was cathartic because it was important to me to see someone come back from having that happen to them.
I was ready to follow Sandi Tan wherever she went next. That ended up being a film version of The Idiot, Elif Batuman’s 2017 roman à clef. I hadn’t read it when it came out — I was temping and there was a looooooong waiting list at the library — but as soon as Tan announced this would be her next project, I tracked down a copy. One of my friends saw I was reading it, and I ended up reading it twice because she also wanted to read it. The first time I read it I was awash in nostalgia, since Batuman and I are about the same age and she was attending Harvard when I was working and trying to figure out the rest of my life, but the second reading (and reading it with a friend who had also experienced some friendships with a lopsided balance of power) made me feel seen.
After I finished reading it the second time, the online open mic Theme Music announced a theme of songs with one-word titles that began with a vowel, and I wrote the first draft of “Ivan”. I would eventually work with Erin McKeown through the Cabin College program, and Erin advised me to add a one-word chorus. I looked up the word “correspondence” in Turkish, Russian, and Hungarian — the languages Selin and Ivan speak in The Idiot — and wrote the chorus with those words in mind.
Musically, my influences are kind of a moving target, and that’s been true for writing this album. The second song I wrote for it, “Something’s Wrong”, (which will be released as a single in October) evolved into a 1960s girl-group pastiche, and since I’d been listening to the Numero Group compilations Teen Expo and Basement Beehive, I initially wanted an off-brand girl group sound. Since this was a campus album, I was thinking a lot about 1980s college rock and jangle pop bands — most notably Game Theory, whose album Real Nighttime I played into the ground while I was writing this—and wanted to make something that was in conversation with them.
The final piece of the influence puzzle came at the tail end of songwriting. I’d experienced what I then saw as a setback and was looking at recording this by myself, and as someone who’s not great with tech, I was a little terrified. My boyfriend bought me a compilation of music by the home-recording maestro Linda Smith, and it felt like someone else had done what I wanted to do and had left the door open for me to make this album on my own.
TBD: Tell us the story of making the album.
Chelsea: In March of last year, I found out that the third producer I contacted was unavailable to produce the album. I did not take this as professionally as I should have, and after I ate a sleeve of Thin Mints (sure), cried into my pillow (fine), and sent some serious subtweets (don’t do this), I decided to teach myself how to use GarageBand and tracked the songs on my phone. Brindle has a built-in pickup, and I was able to get an iRig preamp thing with a lightning jack and plug my ukulele into my phone. I tracked 11 of the 12 songs for my album that way, and then bounced the GarageBand tracks to my laptop and recorded the vocals in my closet with a Snowball USB mike.
I’d played a few shows with the local band Orson and the Rosebuds, and I was struck by their candy-colored, electronically driven gloss on 1990s pop. (Their music would appeal to fans of Letters to Cleo, Erasure, and Beck, all of whom take up significant space on my virtual record shelves.) Christian, the creative force behind Orson and the Rosebuds, and I are buddies on social, and I asked him if he’d like to mix my tracks when I finished recording them. He said yes, and after I received a local cultural council grant, I was able to hire him to mix “Ivan”. I gave him the note that I wanted this to sound like 1980s jangle pop like the dB’s, and his mix sounded like something you’d hear on an especially dramatic episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete. I have 10 or so more tracks and I’m excited to see what he will do with them!
TBD: And the making of the “Ivan” video, premiering right here today?
Chelsea: I found Alex Tomlinson through my friend Andrea, who I met through zine-making in the 1990s and who is a big proponent of wildlife conservation. Alex makes graphics for the Audubon Society, and I was drawn to his gorgeous fonts and playful 8 bit gifs of endangered birds. I contacted him about making a lyrics video that looked like a Pine email from the 1990s, and he took that idea and ran with it. The video is so unusual and Alex’s approach was so detailed, and I was floored when I opened the Vimeo file and saw the final cut. I feel really fortunate that I’ve gotten to work with so many great people on this project.
TBD: Anything else you want Dames Nation to know?
Chelsea: I am running a crowdfunding campaign called Brindle’s Singles Club through June 28. If you pledge $10 or more to my GoFundMe, I will send you the singles for “Ivan”, “Linden Street”, “Something’s Wrong”, and “Rudolph’s Ranch” as they’re released, plus exclusive b-sides and covers. I’m trying to raise at least $1500 so I can pay to mix and master these songs and commission at least one video, and every little bit helps. Thank you so much!
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