We recently journeyed to the breathtaking high desert of Joshua Tree, CA for Desert & Denim - a raucous annual trade show of renegade brands and independent makers. Nativen Sounds was granted exclusive access to the musicians who had come to play the trade show's magical evening events, and we sat down with 3 exceptional artists for in-depth conversations. This is the first in our new series "Sounds Interviews."
Natalie Carol and I sat down to chat in a sunny old bungalow in the desert outside Joshua Tree the morning after she powered through a freezing-cold outdoor gig - but she wasn’t fazed by the chill. As the frontwoman (and only woman) of LA rock band Valley Queen she’s used to rolling with tough situations. On the road with bandmates, sleeping four to a motel room, Carol’s nightly ritual is a hot bath: healing for the voice, and respite for a thoughtful and intuitive mind craving the relative silence and privacy of a motel bathroom.
On Valley Queen’s newly-released EP Destroyer Carol’s powerful and distinctive voice commands attention and leads the band’s sound into new territory. The songs build to bold climaxes with spaced-out guitars, soulful undertones, echoes of Laurel Canyon, and Carol’s voice swooping deftly from low tones to high registers. Her vocals are at their most potent when she harmonizes with herself three times over, to chill-inducing effect. But it took her a while to find that voice. She moved to LA from Arkansas for art school when she was 18 and, admits, she sounded like other singers. She wrote and practiced privately during her school years, and it took meeting like-minded musicians, and collaborators for her voice to emerge and with it her confidence to perform her work for others. She cites a house party she hosted a few years ago where Laura Marling played as a bit of a turning point: through that experience she made connections and forged friendships and collaborations – Valley Queen is opening for Marling on tour this spring.
Carol is a woman very comfortable standing in her own reality. She’s tuned in. She elegantly connects the dots between personal relationships, literature, media, and history, using those connections as the basis for her writing.
Kat: What's your writing process? How does it unfold for you?
Natalie: I'm very environmental, I'm always taking cues from things that are happening. I feel like I'm always receptive. Actually sitting down to write, to me it's like a practice. You have to be like, I'm going to actually sit down ... Especially when you're doing it for a living it's not always just this “message from god.” You have to sit down and go look for it. There is a quote that I feel is really true to it. "Inspiration will find you but it has to find you working.” Put the instrument on your body, open the paper, just start working with what is and then just go from there and start digging down.
Kat: When you sit down to write, are you thinking, subconsciously, about an audience that you're writing for?
Natalie: I think I have had that sensation of playing to people or for someone. There have been songs where I have someone in mind, and so I might be communicating to them. Which I do think that songs have the power to do, even if they don't hear it. But a lot of the time, I feel like I'm writing to reach a state. Like a state of expansiveness or a sense of freedom, you know? More so than “who's going to hear this?” I find that to be daunting. If I'm in songwriting ruts, then I can kind of go into, “Well, what do people want to hear?" It's like, well, they don't know. They just want to like something.
Kat: That's a great way to put it because it can be really self-destructive to try to approach it backwards, trying to create what you think will please people.
Natalie: I think that's the challenge of getting more and more successful with music is your teams grow. You start building a team around you that aren't necessarily artists, but they have their ideas of what they want. It forces you to develop your own scaffolding against that stuff.
Kat: The power for control in the music industry is interesting. Between artists and management and labels, trying to figure out where to push and not push.
Natalie: It sure is. You have to learn to say no, otherwise you aren't going to be your own artist anymore. For somebody like me, I like flow and I like ease, especially with my relationships. I really don't like push back, but that's something that I've had to identify in myself because if you're going to continue to be really your own artist, sometimes it requires you to stand in resistance to somebody else. But it comes down to: are you going to do what somebody else tells you to do? Sometimes you have to compromise, but then there are other times where you just know that you have more power than these people are trying to make you feel you have.
Kat: What have you said no to that really stands out?
Natalie: We had to scrap a music video. That was really hard, but when you actually look at what it is that you've created and you're like, "This doesn't represent what we're trying to say or what we do." You have to be like, "I'm so sorry but this isn’t working."
Kat: It’s really brave to be able to say that, and also to admit it to yourself because if you worked so hard on something you want it to work so well.
Natalie: It was actually really helpful in that one instance of saying no because it helped define better for me and for the band what we are not. By saying, "It's that important to us to say no to this,” it's helping now shape what it is that we are by so firmly understanding what we are not.
Kat: That probably brought you together as a band
Natalie: Yeah. We are four very different people, but that is where I do feel like the feminine really helps. There's something about the feminine and dialogue with the masculine that keeps things a little bit more balanced than if it was a band of four dudes.
Kat: So, in terms of consciously shaping what the band’s sound is, where you guys see your music fitting into the tapestry of American music?
Natalie: We want to be our own thing, but at the same time I really do love the tradition of rock and roll, which is not being traditional. I find a lot of comfort in what rock and roll has brought to my life. The actual music, the guitar tones and the lyrics. There is a tradition, and if you're listening closely, you can hear [it]. I definitely want to use what prior generations have done, fusing all of those things into something that feels like me. It is helped me feel like a part of the community by doing that, and it helps me feel connected to time and to past-time and to future time by pulling from guitar work that I like that was made 50 years ago. It's a way of making you feel connected to time and humanity.
And it makes me feel less alone. When I listen to music that I really love and have the ability to transmute that in my own way, [it] connects me to the person. I can get on their wavelength. Not rip them off, but it's a tone thing that I feel very connected to right now, and I hear it in the music of Jonathan Wilson and Kurt Vile and Steve Gunn and a little bit of Chris Robinson.
Kat: Describe the tone. What's unique about this guitar sound?
Natalie: Guitars on the edge of completely blowing out... It creates this very expansive, infinite sound scape. Listen to “Ancient Jules” by Steve Gunn, or "Way Out Weather" by Steve Gunn.
Kat: Do you have a music mentor?
Natalie: Somebody who has been helping me a lot lately and has been giving me a lot of great advice is this woman named Jenny Eliscu. She was a writer at Rolling Stone, and she’s a Sirius XM DJ. She has been in the business forever and is a very smart, and yet very compassionate, person. I actually met her at that house show with Laura [Marling]. It's like the show that launched a thousand ships. She's such a great support to a lot of musicians and she's done a lot for musicians, and I don't really think she's gotten credit for all that she does to support artists. I admire her a lot. I admire how she's paved her way and done what she wanted to do as a writer and as a musician lover.
Kat: Do you guys document yourselves while you're on the road?
Natalie: I do Instagram. Shawn [VQ’s lead guitarist] started to bring a film camera with him so he documents.
Kat: Are you at all struggling with privacy and how much of yourself to reveal and how much to keep private?
Natalie: I definitely do. I don't know, what is it about social media, where I feel a little bit more hesitant to reveal, but it's also so easy.
Kat: It is so easy, and it's also just like you can slowly break down all those barriers and then before long you're like, “Here's what I'm eating for breakfast."
Natalie: Yeah. But, you know, if you want to post your eggs that's why we have this shit. There's no right or wrong way to do it, ultimately. It's just what you feel comfortable with. I feel like I do want to reveal and I want to be generous. As an artist, that's something that I feel like is the whole point for me, is to be generous and candid. But I like to save it for the song writing.
Kat: What are you finding inspiration in, non-musically?
Natalie: I’m reading Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. It's very much magical realism and very strong female characters that kind of have clairvoyant, supernatural abilities. It's a trend right now to be interested in the occult, but I find the occult to be very inspiring. And developing personal rituals that I find meaning in, in my own life. I find inspiration in that.
I find inspiration in being at home. I find a lot of inspiration in silence and being alone. Being so involved in rock and being surrounded by loud music, which I love, it's made me have this whole new appreciation for quiet and aloneness. Because music is a lot of interaction, sounds and stimulation. Which I do love, but it's also made me go to the extreme of quiet and silence and finding inspiration in that.
Kat: I love what you said about creating rituals, what are some rituals you’ve developed in your own quiet space?
Natalie: I find ritual in clearing a sink of dirty dishes and putting it in the dishwasher, separating my lights from darks in my laundry and cleaning my clothes. I have an altar above my bed, taking everything off the altar and cleaning it and putting it back on. It's finding meaning in these mundane things that you have to do anyway. I find ritual in domestic chores.
Kat: There's such a beauty in that because you are performing a simple task with your body, so it gives your mind the space to wander.
Natalie: It does. I moved to L.A. when I was 18 from Arkansas. L.A. is a jungle of energy and stimulation that I wasn't necessary ready for, but I'm grateful that it happened. I really wanted to find other music lovers, but I wasn't even really singing in public at that time, or showing people songs that I had written. It was all very private and I hadn't really birthed that yet. It's funny, [Carl] Jung says, "Think back to what you did as play when you were a child, and that's your bliss." When I think back to when I was a kid my daydream was that I would just be performing in front of hundreds and hundreds of people. I think moving out to L.A. was a part of developing that vision in a way that I wasn't even aware of. I don't think that I really started to sing like myself until I moved away from Arkansas.
Kat: A lot of your songs are really intimate, but do you also feel like you want to create something that comments on what's going on in the greater world?
Natalie: I keep coming back to the notion that the personal is political, all we really have to inform us is our personal experience. But in that microcosm, we are speaking about the macrocosm, because it comes down to what's happening politically, well it does affect our relationships. It affects our sexual politics in a very personal and intimate way. Though, we might not necessarily know how it all connects, but all we have our personal experiences and feelings and emotions. So, it does kind of speak to the greater [themes].
Kat: Are you at the point now where people are singing these lyrics back to you at your shows? I always imagine that that's such a trip.
Natalie: Yeah, that's a pretty recent thing. What that means to me, when I see that, is there had to be a point, when I was not there, where this person that I don't know was [listening to my voice] and words and my emotions found them. It's the most personal and intimate thing to me because I'm speaking so much about my own life, that the fact that someone in their own personal life, it reached them ... It really means a lot to me. It's just now happening, so I'm not used to it yet, but hopefully I never get used to that.
It’s like we’ve connected in this invisible way. The spirit world, the sonic world and the tone world that connects all of us is invisible. And we'll never understand the connecting lines, but when you see it in your reality and they know the words and the words found them somehow, it’s an honor, it truly is.
Kat: What’s your relationship with the concept of fame? It's so the polar opposite from sitting in your room and creating something really intimate.
Natalie: Yeah. Fame’s a tricky thing when you're in music because it's also equated with success and being able to pay your bills, and maybe support a family. But, when you say fame, there's a lot of other bullshit that comes with that. Like they say, it really is an illusion. But it’s also kind of this necessary thing. As far as where we want to go, playing the Fillmore, playing these places that have so much history, that's a big honor. Playing these venues that hold all of this music of the past. I get a kick out of that stuff. I guess there's a certain level of success that you have to have to be able to do some of that stuff.
Kat: Musically, what’s the trajectory for the band? Have you pointed the ship in a certain direction and you're seeing an evolution unfold ahead of you?
Natalie: I'm really looking forward to releasing a full-length album. We're talking about ways to achieve sounds that we want. We really are a rock and roll band, and it's like, how to fully harness that. Getting all the amps in one room together and creating noise. I want to go to the nosier, edgier, piercing guitars. There are definitely horizons that I want to meet as a guitar player, creating scapes and taking people far out with the guitar playing.
The voice and the lyrics are something that I've been harnessing for a while, but guitar is this whole new terrain that I'm really excited about. So, using words to create images and to transport people, but also using the guitar and using tones and using the band’s sound to also put people in a state. I just like music that makes me feel kind of far out. It's an escapism. It's the biggest gift we can give as musicians, I think, to try to achieve that.