Q&A with the members of Isobella, your new favorite band
by dave heaton
From Phil Spector-produced hits to Radiohead's Kid A, many musicians have worked with immersing listeners in a "wall of sound." For me it nearly always works best, at least in the realm of rock and pop music, when those soundscapes are built around solidly written songs. There was one band (which shall go unnamed) that I used to see in concert every time they came to town; they had this great dreamy sound that filled the room, with lots of feedback, pretty vocals low in the mix, etc. Then one day I bought their CD and realized that when you put them in a studio, took away the feedback and turned up the vocals, there was nothing there. Their songs were completely vacuous.
Isobella is not that band. They are a trio from Tampa, Florida who, on their debut CD Akasha, manage to create big, gorgeous atmosphere while playing first-rate pop/rock songs. Their purpose isn't to communicate a straightforward message via a simple verse/chorus/verse song structure, yet they don't sacrifice melody for mood, either. Both join together to create works of music that are moving, haunting, spellbinding and much more. They get tagged as "shoegazers"; nothing against the fine bands of the past associated with that name, but there's much more going on in their music than that word alone indicates. Sure, I get a feeling from them not unlike one of my favorite "shoegazer" bands, Ride, but to me their music also feels like Galaxie 500 and the soundtracks to Hal Hartley films ... like slipping underwater and staying there for a while or sitting too close to a movie screen ... like cold, rainy days spent hiding under blankets and warm days when you step off your front porch and can feel the sun swallow you whole ... like anything that pulls you in, covers you up and absorbs you 100%.
1998 was when Isobella formed, though then they were called Akasha. There were four members then, now there's three: Shane, Laura and Brad (Drummer Heath is the one who left; Akasha features his drums on some songs and a drum machine on others). That information was nearly all I knew about Isobella (courtesy of their web site), outside of their wonderful music, before they kindly agreed to answer some questions about their music and other related things. Those questions, and their accompanying answers, are here for you now (and oh yeah, while you're reading this you should check out their music on mp3.com)...
First off, a basic question you're probably asked often. You were originally called Akasha; then you changed your name to Isobella and used Akasha as the album title: why the name change? Is it just a case of changing your mind as to which sounds better? (and, if you don't mind me asking, I'm interested to know how you come up with the names).
Shane: We changed our name from Akasha to Isobella upon the realization that there were several bands around with the same name, most importantly a British drum n bass group who are on the Spring Heeled Jack guys' label. We came up with the name Akasha after brainstorming for a while while playing a board game. Laura used to work in a jewelry-type store, and had gotten lots of books about stones/elements/etc. She mentioned it, we all thought it sounded good. I did some research on what is practically the vaguest word on earth, with many different meanings in many different cultures, with the only prominent shared idea being its spiritual and mystical connotations...everything and nothing, here and nowhere, etc. We came up with Isobella in a similar fashion, brainstorming together, talking about our favorite names, using dictionaries and thesauruses, and eventually just coming up with a name that everyone liked: Isabel. After going home, I thought we should expand on it, and thus, we became Isobella.
I love your CD Akasha, and was wondering if you could give me a quick rundown on the circumstances under which it came to be recorded. How did you meet up with/end up releasing the CD on Clairecords? I noticed it's also listed as released on SpaceStation 121? What is SpaceStation 121?
Shane: Akasha had been playing together for close to a year at the time we recorded the album. We had gone through a small change about 4 to 5 months after becoming a band, and afterwards we started writing songs we all became very proud of. We really wanted to go into the studio and get something to send out to labels, with a few certain labels in mind. So we recorded 6 songs and we sent them out to about 8 or 9 labels and a few showed interest. Split releases were talked about for awhile, involving Clairecords, a.i.p.records and silvergirl records. When it came down to it, we thought Clairecords would be the best label to represent us as a band, including the facts that the label is based a few hours drive from Tampa and Dan has been a really great guy whom I met when he originally did a mail-order called claire de leon in Gainesville. Knowing someone was going to definitely be putting the songs out, and after talking with a few friends, we decided a full-length CD would be the best way to go. So we ended up back in the studio to do 2 more songs for the album (older songs) and a new song for Dan and Heather (of Clairecords)'s wedding compilation CD. SpaceStation121 is essential our friend Matt in Tampa, who has been to practically every one of our shows and has just been very supportive. He offered to possibly release a 7" or something in the future and I just said, hey, why not help out with the album...and so it came to be this way!
From what I understand, your music gained a lot of attention through mp3.com. Is that true, and in what ways has the Internet helped you get your music heard?
Shane: After we recorded the six songs, I was interested to see what other people would think of them, so we uploaded 3 songs to mp3.com. And yes it's true, much to our surprise we started seeing a lot of downloads, and our songs remained in the top of the "shoegazer" genre for some time, with two of the songs actually reaching #1 on a few different occasions. Currently, we still end up around the top 30 daily, and it seems we get people who have either heard us/heard of us through mp3.com who go to Clairecords to buy the CD, etc. which is very nice...
One thing I like about your music is the way the lyrics are often right out of my grasp, I can hear some words but not all of them. To me it adds to the music's dreaminess. Since the vocals are mixed so low (at least on this particular CD), how do you as a band approach lyrics? Do you still think of them as communicating messages or delivering ideas, or are there other purposes in mind? (and who writes them, by the way?)
Laura: I've slowly changed my approach towards lyrics as we've grown. My lyrics used to be half words, half sounds, a general idea or mood was all I expressed (I was so shy of the microphone I knew no one would be able to make out an audible sentence anyway!) Most of my lyrics were written in a complete articulate format the day we recorded them, but now that I've learned to appreciate and work with what my voice is capable of I've taken more involvement in my voice as being more than just an instrument, but I'll still never reveal them in their entirety because they're all personal to my sphere of existence. I still would like to keep them somewhat intimate in the mix, but by no means overpowered nor overpowering, an equal component.
Shane: I still believe in the voice as an instrument. I like the power of voice to create melody, atmosphere and a sort of balance that can tie everything else together. I think we have moved along a great deal in a vocal sense, and Laura has done nothing but improve. Don't expect the vocals to be mixed as far down in the mix, this time around. Although as Laura already expressed, they wont be overpowering or understated … equal.
The words I always see associated with your music are "shoegazer" and "dreampop," with bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride, etc. often cited as influences. How do you feel about those associations? Are they fair, are there other influences/aspects that those labels and references cause people to overlook?
Shane: I feel that yeah, we all may enjoy some of that music, we may have a similarity here and there, but really, can you really say hey, Isobella sounds so much like MBV, or Slowdive, or whomever. I feel like we have taken what those bands had done in the past and have tried to expand on some of their ideas while still retaining our own ideas, our own sense of melody and sound and, most importantly, our own songs. Someone once mentioned that we sounded like we belong in the early 90's Brit scene, which was flattering as well as limiting. I feel honored to know that someone feels like we fit right at home in England (whose music I've always seemed to prefer), alongside some of our favorite bands, and it's limiting to think that some people feel we haven't made something unique enough to call our own. I most certainly feel we have. Post-Dreampop, or whatever you want to call it … we've taken what some of these bands have done in the past, and expanded on it in our own ways, with our own ideas, creating something that could have only been made by us as a band.
Laura: It's flattering to be compared to so many bands that I consider to be a staple in the theme music of my life, however I do think it's a little misleading. Knowing our intentions and our various influences, I think it's a very general analogy. Maybe in technical influence and momentum, but not necessarily in sound. You overlook the uniqueness that only us three people can create...and about 10 years of an evolution of "that" sound.
Brad: I do think it is kind of an easy tag to put to our music, but I agree with Laura and Shane that it can be a bit misleading. I think the bands that we get compared to are the bands we share a common interest in, but at the same time, the three of us are almost separate in what we listen too and are influenced by. I think that element gives our music a unique sound.
A related question: Since I spend a decent amount of my time trying to figure out how to describe music through words, I often wonder how a musician would explain his/her music to a complete stranger who is not familiar with the music scene. For example, if you run in to a long-lost friend or relative and tell them you're in a band, and they ask you what kind of music you play, what do you say?
Shane: god, I have no idea how to answer it. My dad said it reminded him of a noisier Cranberries, which I found amusing. I've always just gone with, "a wall of melodic sound."
Brad: This is the question I always try to shy away from. I think the wall of sound was my favorite description.
How are your live performances similar to or different from your recordings? Do you play live often? Have you toured much? Any future plans in that area?
Shane: Live has always been a different thing for us ... especially considering some of us have been a little stage shy in the past, I do believe we have gotten quite better at it. In a live situation our songs are quite loud, with a bit more noise thrown about ... being led by a minidisk playing our drum parts and extra bits that we can't play between the 3 of us. We have yet to tour although we have talked about it a great deal. Currently there are plans to do some shows up to NY and over to Chicago with label mates Mahogany (who are utterly brilliant!). Look for that early 2001.
Laura: The sound is much more encompassing and thick...and I tend to shake a lot ... =)
What else are you up to these days, as far as recording, performing, etc.?
Shane: Most recently we had taken an almost 4-month hiatus from playing shows to concentrate on writing new material. We are working on writing our next album, which Clairecords will be releasing around March/April next year, along with a single to precede the album. We are coming out of show hibernation to play with Low and Ida here in Tampa, and possibly in Orlando.
It interests me that your web site indicates you're recording a cover of "April Come She Will" off The Sound of Silence for a Simon and Garfunkel tribute album. I'm curious as to how/why you picked that particular song and, more importantly as to how you approach a song that, on the surface, is in a different realm of music than you are. Do you just play it and not think about those things, or are you conscious of making the song fit the "Isobella sound"?
Shane: Currently we are not too sure what the status of the compilation that the song was to appear on is, and we just recently decided to go through with doing the cover. "April come she will" is a classic song, off an excellent album. I believe Laura originally picked this one to cover, but for me, I feel this has melodies and harmony that Isobella as a band can relate to, and bring to another level. That is the point of a cover, right, to take what was once somebody else's, and make it your own. So yes, I do think it will have the "Isobella sound." On the surface it is a very different sound, but, upon further listening, there are brilliant pop melodies with a dark undertone, which is what I always aim to achieve with Isobella.
One last question, the one I ask everyone: if there's a CD, film, or live performance that has blown you away recently, please tell me what it is.
Laura: Performance wise, I would say Macha or Timonium. Film, definitely Life Is Beautiful. And currently I'm rekindling a passionate love affair with Cocteau Twins ~ Treasure.
Shane: Shows: I would have to say Timonium were amazing live, and some of the greatest people I've met. Film: I'm very excited about Almost Famous; I know it's going to be incredible. But before that Magnolia, which is one of the best movies I've ever seen. Books: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers...that book blew my away! Btw, I know Brad really enjoys the newer Tarental and Ida records, and is super excited about going to see the who here in a couple days.
Brad: I am not sure if am super excited about seeing the Who, but they are one of my favorite bands, I think I'd be blown away if I saw them back in their prime. As far as movies go, I think recently it would have to be American Movie. I am not sure about performance, though. But I have been listening to the Electric Birds CD and the new Mark Kozelek CD.