The classical/alternative crossover band HAETHOR is creating a buzz with their fresh blend of genres, creating a unique sound of their own. Comprised of opera singer Amy Owens and industry veteran, composer and producer Howard Wulkan, the two met by chance at one of Owen’s opera performances and decided to start recording and performing music together. While a small portion of the album was recorded at Big Orange Sheep Studio in Brooklyn, most of it was recorded at Wulkan’s Farmadelica Sound Studio in Florida, allowing the band complete creative control over the recording process. The band has released two singles from the album, “The Hook” and “Beautiful”, both of which Owen’s describes as dynamic and diverse. Their debut album will be released on May 25th. Our staff writer, Emily May, recently spoke with Owens via email, with Wulkan contributing a few answers when addressed. You can stay up-to-date with the band on their website here, Facebook here, Instagram here and Twitter here. You can check out the videos for “The Hook” and “Beautiful” on YouTube here. You can stream the album, as well as order it, via their Bandcamp page here. Check out the video for “Beautiful” below. Photo credit goes to Shoji Van Kuzumi.
EM: HAETHOR had it’s pre-release show last month at the Gibson Showroom in NYC! How did the Gibson Showroom come to be chosen for the location and how was the response? Amy- I read that this was your first alternative pop performance and your first time singing into a microphone! How did you prepare?
Owens: Our pre-release show! What a day! The Gibson Showroom is in a great location midtown, and the space has a rich history from its days as the “hit factory.” The performance space is intimate, which is exactly what we wanted, and Howard wanted to play his Gibson guitar, so it was perfect! We have been so supported in this project from the beginning, and I felt that support during the performance. That was important to me because yes, this was my first time performing in this genre, and the first time performing my own songs. Preparation was tricky; I had just come back to New York after a whirlwind few weeks of singing Carmina Burana with the Virginia Symphony, Mahler IV with the Omaha Symphony, a concert of arias with the Washington Concert Opera in D.C., and a Bernstein recital downtown. The span of repertoire in these performances required a lot of flexibility in my voice, going from one composer to the other in a multitude of styles. When it came down to performing my own songs, I just had to remember the words and trust that my voice would know how to sing them. It helped to listen to the album and remind myself how I navigated the songs vocally when recording. Even within the album itself, I switch between many styles and vocal approaches, so I just had to focus and trust myself. Singing into a microphone live was still strange and foreign, but the mic allows for greater intimacy in my voice, so it was pretty fun.
EM: As an opera singer, how has the adjustment been for you to go from singing opera to alternative pop? Did you have to change your style of singing in any significant way?
Owens: Yes, I absolutely have to change my style of singing. Classical training is very rigorous and specific; an opera singer has to learn how to maximize resonance to be heard over an entire orchestra of musicians without any amplification. One of the greatest challenges for me when I started this project was to find out what my natural “pop” sound was. Should I be breathy, croon-y, or just stick to a classical production? Turns out, I was over-thinking it (not a big surprise for me). I wrote the songs, and the way to sing them became obvious. It was always a challenge to record though, because I discovered that I am constantly responding to my acoustic environment without even thinking about it. When recording in a vocal booth with headphones on, nothing is acoustic. At first it was a big shock to hear my voice through the headphones! Howard was so patient with me as I eventually made friends with the mic.
EM: Your debut album will be released this month! What was the songwriting process like for the album and who would you count as musical inspirations? I read that the album was funded through a Kickstarter campaign that met its goal! Were you surprised at all by the positive response?
Owens: I cannot believe that the album release is finally upon us. I am SO EXCITED! It has been a long journey full of ups and downs, but writing the music was definitely the best part. I felt that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so Howard and I jumped into writing with abandon and total creative freedom. The support and encouragement we had between us was crucial; it can be scary to put out original work. In the classical world, I have developed a thick skin from constant criticism and comparison. The only way to get anything creative done is to ignore self-doubt and just WORK. That’s what we did. My musical inspirations range from Mozart to Sondheim to Adele, so that gave me a wide palette from which to draw. For this project, Howard was definitely my biggest musical inspiration. He provided the soundscapes on which I built all of my writing. The Kickstarter campaign was, for me, an enormous gathering of courage. Would people support this project? Do they believe in me? And if they do, can I deliver? I was knocked over by the support, and each donation reminded me of the multitude of people who have impacted my life. Thank you to all those who contributed early on to the campaign; your belief in us sustained this project just as much as your financial contribution.
Howard’s musical inspirations include David Sylvian, Craig Armstrong, Portishead, Richard James and entire decade of 70s.
EM: You’ve released two singles ahead of your album’s release- The Hook and Beautiful. What can you tell me about the inspirations and meanings behind these songs?
Owens: Picking two singles was really hard because WE LOVE ALL OUR SONGS! But these two are dynamic and diverse. “The Hook” was one of the first songs we started writing, and it reflects how I was feeling at the time: a lurching, hesitant, but inevitable draw to something new. So “The Hook,” both in pattern and lyric, is a reluctant surrender to life’s surprising offerings. “Beautiful” is aggressive and demanding. It required an enormous amount of vulnerability and self-reflection to get to the lyrics, and a huge shift of paradigm to figure out how to sing it. It comes from a place of frustration and resentment, feelings I often try to melt out of my life. It was cathartic to find a place for them in this album, despite it being so scary. The life of a traveling musician can be a lonely one, and this song speaks to that loneliness.
EM: Could you talk a bit about the recording process for the album? I read that while most of the album was recorded at Howard’s Farmadelica Sound Studio in Florida, that a bit of it was also recorded at Big Orange Sheep Studio in Brooklyn. What led you two to record some of the album in Brooklyn?
Owens: Getting out of New York City and going to Florida so many times this year was a delight! Howard’s studio is called “Farmadelica Sound” because it is quite literally on a farm. Since I raised cows and rabbits in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Colorado as a child, I felt right at home there. We recorded parts of the song “Centauri” in Brooklyn in order to collaborate with Charles Yang, who is an incredible violinist. He is constantly on the road with the band Time for Three, so I pinned him down for two days and we recorded at Big Orange Sheep (an appropriately-titled extension to Farmadelica). I am still thanking my lucky stars that we made this happen; Charles is one of the best musicians in the world.
EM: I saw a retweet that the band posted on Twitter stating that one must decide early on what kind of artist they want to be, rather than writing to please others and simply making music that you think others want to hear.What kinds of artists have you two set out to be with this band? You both have so much experience in music and are incredibly hands-on with all aspects of the band. Do you feel like having such a great amount of creative control over the writing, producing and recording process allowed you the time to make an album that reflected you as musicians?
Owens: I love that quote. I tend to be a people-pleaser, but that is no way to write music, because the pop song formula for commercial success is prevalent and unsatisfying. I don’t think we set out to be any certain kind of band. Howard and I just brought ourselves to the table and had no choice but to be open about whatever emerged. Your question is spot-on; having full creative ownership between the two of us made it possible to create something completely authentic to us, which is different than it being completely authentic to just me or just Howard. Together, we have created a distinct sound.
EM: The album features several guest musicians and sounds ranging from upbeat to dark to nostalgic. Did you have a specific sound in mind when you started the band or did you experiment with different sounds until you found the sounds that you liked?
Owens: Every day was an experiment. The songs emerged how they emerged, based on what we liked, or even what our moods were the day we were writing. Both Howard and I went through a lot of life changes and losses in 2017. But one of the last songs we wrote, “Magic Magic,” began when Howard wanted to write something for me to reflect my bubbling energy. We had written a lot of dark and ironic things at that point, but I walk through the world in a general lightness, so this meant a lot to me. It took me a month to develop lyrics and a melody, and the song went through several transformations, but it ended up being something that totally reflected my light, excited, everything-is-right-with-the-world attitude. Thank you Howard! Shout-out to Aaron Evans, who collaborated with us on “Smoke & Mirrors.” It took three days of intense effort and introspection, but we put our souls out there and created a uniquely theatrical song.
EM: Howard- you are involved with your wife and a few others in a project called Music 2 Heal The Earth, which has brought a variety of musicians together to bring awareness, through music, to the planet and environmental issues. I read that the aim is to “heal the earth through music, one song at a time” and was inspired by the documentary We Know Not What We Do. Can you talk a bit about the project and what it has coming up? Did you choose the artists that you wanted to participate or did artists reach out to you?
Wulkan: Music2HealtheEarth is a collective of musicians, artists, writers and enlightened leaders from all over the world who have lent their talents to help bring awareness to the social and environmental responsibilities we all have as members of society. Spearheaded by Howard & Lainie Wulkan, M2Heal aspires to shift the old paradigm of not knowing what we’re doing to knowing what needs to be done; we need to take both social and environmentally “sound” steps to create a better, healthier world for ourselves and most importantly, our future generations. Featuring Scanner with Mika Vainio, The Hafler Trio, actor/activist Serinda Swan, Dave Abbruzzese (ex-Pearl Jam), KLLU, Shawn Smith (Pigeonhead, Brad, Satchel), Jóhann Eiriksson (Reptilicus), HAETHOR, Chris Ewen (The Magnetic Fields), actor/activist Ali MacGraw, Matteo Myderwyk, Colin Edwin (Porcupine Tree), Robert Millis (Climax Golden Twins), Master Ming Tong Gu, Neil Mackay (Loop, Hair & Skin Trading Company), Tony Wakeford (Crisis, Sol Invictus), Eraldo Bernocchi (SIMM, Sigillum S), Matthew Liam Nicholson, Cockroach, JK Flesh (Godflesh, Final), Robert Poss (Band of Susans), Rickie Byars Beckwith, Klaus Fluoride (Dead Kennedys), Georgia Muldrow, Peter Jarvis, Michael J. Bazini, Robin Storey (Rapoon), Autorotation, John Roome (The Orb, Witchman), Dr. Reverend Michael Beckwith, Julian Orzabal, Edward Ka-Spel (Legendary Pink Dots, Tear Garden), author Adam Nevill, On The Wane, The Mellowtrons, Jo Quail, Declaime ft. Aloe Blacc, Controlled Bleeding and more.
EM: You both stated how there is a lack of respect and funding for the arts, especially for classical music. Amy- having a background in opera singing/classical music, how important was it to you to include elements of classical music into HAETHOR, perhaps in a way that’s maybe a bit more mainstream for the modern audience?
Owens: This is the constant sore spot for musicians, who will always preach about the value of the arts. As for classical music, I knew that because 95% of my musical life was rooted in the classical tradition, it would emerge one way or another. But I wanted to be true to this new genre, so I never deliberately placed a classical construction over the songs. My master’s degree in music came in handy a lot though, especially when developing song structures and writing polyphonic parts. If my straddling of genres brings new audiences to the symphony hall, awesome!
EM: I read that HAETHOR is comprised of music production and video production. How did video production become an integral part of the band? How did you come to meet and collaborate with your director/cinematographer/editor Jonathan Estabrooks?
Owens: Because of my theatrical background, each song has strong imagery and narrative. I have a video planned for every single song. But at the end of the day, videos became less important and the music speaks for itself. If I had unlimited resources I would fulfill my entire cinematic vision (I’ve got an all-out short film planned for “Smoke & Mirrors”), but I am very proud of the videos we have done. Jonathan Estabrooks is a fellow singer, trained at Juilliard, who is a magician when it comes to video production. We are so lucky to be working with him.
EM: What can you tell me about your upcoming music videos? With video production being such an important part of the band, what is your process for making them?
Owens: HAETHOR is multi-faceted. As you said, the music ranges from “upbeat to dark to nostalgic.” The videos are meant to reflect this, each song and video reflecting a different side of a single gem. I really want people to engage with this music, and sometimes videos can help with that. “The Hook,” for example, is meant to encourage people to move their bodies (aka DANCE). I hope to see everyone master the hip wagging! 😉
EM: What’s next for the band?
Owens: Who knows…..?
Wulkan: We’re currently crafting a plan to take over the world and we want to be the first band to perform on Mars. 🙂