After past day jobs as an ESL teacher and a police brutality investigator, Amy Klein’s art projects are more creative, sure, but they’re really not so out-of-the-ordinary for the multi-talented and multi-skilled New York musician. The former first lady of Titus Andronicus departed from the heady punk rock group in late 2010 in order to focus her attention on a new band called Hilly Eye, but she still carves out time for her folk-rock project Leda and her creative writing career (the latter resulted in an essay in Da Capo’s Best Music Writing 2011 anthology). Oh, and she’s also working on a novel and as a social media manager, too.
Hilly Eye, which also features drummer/vocalist Catherine Tung, actually started four year ago when the two met at a Lightning Bolt show. Inspired by the Providence-based duo’s plummeting-yet-vivacious assault, they started jamming together, writing songs and eventually releasing an EP in 2010, which they had referred to as “Sleater-Kinney-meets-Lightning-Bolt-meets-a-watery-bridge-at-he end-of-town.”
Two of Hilly Eye’s early songs, “Jersey City” and “Double Dutch,” now re-appear on their full-length debut, Reasons To Live (out today via Don Giovanni). Both rest alongside eight new tracks that continue along a similar path, with the guarded-yet-revelatory “Amnesia” and the dreamy mid-tempo haze of “January” particularly standing out.
As Klein and Tung passed the phone back after forth, they took turns answering Hive’s questions about their fledgling band, pursuing artistic careers in New York and why failure is important.
Amy, I know you’ve had a variety of projects, particularly after leaving Titus Andronicus. As a songwriter, are you writing for a particular band or are you thinking about ideas for different projects simultaneously?
Klein: I’ve been writing songs for like 10 years, and the other band that I do is a solo project band, I’ll write the songs on my own, write my own lyrics and stuff. And I’ll have ideas for Hilly Eye. This band is more of an opportunity to collaborate. A lot of the time we write the lyrics together. The ways our ideas are different leaves us in an interesting space. I have more of a pop instinct sometimes, but we try as a group to write stuff that is more out there. We never really want to write a straightforward pop song. We always want to try to make it different or weird or use a strange rhythm or do something really unexpected or surprising.
Catherine, what is your background before coming into Hilly Eye?
Tung: I grew up taking classical music lessons. I studied violin and classical voice. I did a little bit of guitar — once you learn one string instrument it’s pretty easy. I moved to New York after college because I really like it. I always loved going to shows but I never had any plans to join a band. I started to learn drums shortly before Amy and I started playing together and I really did a lot of learning as she and I were writing songs.
When Amy and I met, I had a lot of musical training, no experience playing rock, and a lot of experience going to shows. So that’s pretty much what I brought to the table.
How did you both finally meet?
Amy Klein: I moved to New York in maybe 2009 or so. That’s when I heard through the grapevine that Catherine played the drums.I had known Catherine from college [at Harvard]. We both did college radio. We both didn’t know each other for a while, but it turned out we were both living in New York, so our mutual friends were like, ’Oh yeah, Catherine plays the drums.’ So we met up at a Lightning Bolt show…It was a cool show, I hung out with Catherine and her friends and we decided to start a band. That was in 2009. We just started jamming and improvising and writing songs together.
When you were having these jam sessions early on was it more out of having fun as two musicians playing together, or did you two come together and decide we want to make something out of this band and release music down the road?
Tung: Well when we first started playing there was another guitarist involved. So the vibe at the beginning was that they had already been jamming and I had kind of come into [the fold], which seems pretty manageable since I had just started playing this instrument.
I don’t know when we decided that we wanted to make this something that was an important part of our lives. It took us about a year to find a sound. [It happened] once we recorded a demo, once we had this demo to show promoters, [then] you start getting interest in playing shows. In a place like New York where the density of musicians and people playing live music is so high, once you start playing shows you meet people you want to play with again, you meet other recording engineers and things go well and if people like you and you like them you start to get momentum pretty quickly. And it’s a lot of fun, so why would you not want to keep doing it?
Amy, you were featured in a New York Times article in August 2011 on non-traditional career paths and how 20-somethings navigate that experience. Not long after, you left Titus Andronicus. What has that journey been like since then?
Klein: I think maybe a year ago, in a way, when I stopped doing Titus I really wanted to believe in myself and I wanted to take the steps toward doing what I really wanted to do. I think in a certain sense it’s difficult to give up a situation in which you have a lot of stability and in which things are going pretty well to do something that’s risky. But it’s always pretty risky to pursue your passion, to take a step in the direction of something new. I’m really happy that I am where I am at this part in my life and I’m really happy with the songs that I’m writing and recording. I have a lot of belief in myself, which has not come from success, but rather from doing things that are difficult [as well as] failing sometimes, making mistakes, and hurting a lot. I think I’ve definitely learned a lot in the past year. It feels that I’m on the path that is right for me.
What do you want to do, then? What do you think is the end goal for you?
Klein: My goal is to be an artist. I have my own definition of what it means to be a career artist, which is not necessarily to say you have a career, per se, in the arts, meaning that you make you money from the arts, but I do think a career artist is someone who devotes energy to creative endeavors with a lot of seriousness for the course of their whole life. So that’s what I want to do. I’m sure that what I’m doing now is not the same thing I’m going to be doing in 10 years. Constantly be creating stuff, which really I’ve never really stopped doing my whole life. I’m doing it with a lot more confidence now.
Catherine and I do different artistic stuff. Like I do writing and Catherine is also a writer, which is interesting. We are both musicians who are also writers. But I’m pretty much going to be pursuing music and pursuing writing as long as I can and that’s really my goal.
Tung: I also work in book editing, which is also an artistic or creative field. It’s very quiet, as is writing. I work for Knopf/Doubleday…The other thing I spend time on — and this goes back to your question about when we decided we wanted Hilly Eye to be something — I personally am not going to put time or effort into anything I don’t believe in or take seriously. My goal with Hilly Eye is very self-contained. I want the songs to be the best they can be. I want the live performances to be the best they can be. That’s pretty much as big and as tall as the goal gets to me. Whatever I can practically do to make that happen, I’ll do.
In the press release for Reasons to Live there’s an interesting quote: “The album is about the struggle to gain your independence, to move beyond the limits that other people place on you and to free yourself from the limits you place on yourself.” The second part of that goes the idea of “psychedelia” as something that’s “ineffable.” I’m curious, why did you include that quote?
Tung: A lot of the lyrics are about pushing yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of and what other people have decided you’re capable of. That to me is connected to the idea of transcendence. Music, I think, is inherently transcendent. Psychedelia is a really strong example, so I think that’s definitely what’s contained in that statement.
What do you hope people get out of the album? I suppose also in that answer, Amy, I’m interesting in what you personally got out of this particular creative process?
Klein: I think the album says a lot about who I am as a person and what I believe in. That’s very exciting that I can communicate that to other people. All artists want to communicate. That’s why you hope someone someday will hear one of your songs. I think that the band doesn’t sound like any other band out there right now. I’m not sure what to compare it to.
I think there’s something very personal about this project. It says a lot about where I am in my life, some of the feelings that I struggle with some of the ways that I overcome negative feelings, some of the ways I define myself as an individual in the world. I hope those ideas can be inspiring to other people who are looking to find themselves and pursue what they believe in.
How does that compare for you across bands? Are you communicating something different in your other solo stuff beyond this?
Klein: Let me say that the solo stuff is more personal and more vulnerable. There are more lyrics. This one has lyrics, but in this the lyrics are almost like big statements and things. I don’t have my next solo album finished yet so you’re going to have to wait and see how that expresses things. But yeah, this band is very much a statement of where I’ve been for the past three years of my life. You can hear all of that in the album, I believe.
Hilly Eye’s Reasons to Live is out now via Don Giovanni.