Recently Mark Charles Heidinger found himself searching for a signal in Lasne, Belgium, a small town about 10 minutes outside of Brussels. His band, Vandaveer, was playing a local venue called Rideau Rouge, and between dinner and soundcheck, we was fielding a call from Paste.
The surroundings, while not especially conducive to international calls, were nevertheless inspiring to the Washington, D.C.-based singer/songwriter. Rideau Rouge, he explains, “is a 19th-century farmhouse that’s been converted into a venue. There are horses out in the pasture. Black stallions. It’s beautiful. I think I understand why all the Flemish painters painted landscapes: If you’re looking at paradise every day, you might as well paint it.”
So far from Heidinger’s home in suburban D.C., Rideau Rouge is perhaps the perfect setting for Vandaveer’s sophisticated folk-pop. He and co-singer Rose Guerin set their pastoral sounds in contemporary settings, their close harmonies evoking complex attitudes toward travel, home, mortality and connection.
Even though he’s touring Europe, Heidinger is doing U.S. promotions for Vandaveer’s third album, the excellent Dig Down Deep. He is, in other words, no stranger to the fuzzy garble of international cellphone calls or the frustrating question for a signal. However, tonight at the Rideau Rouge, as he looks over the pastures and rolling hills of the Belgian countryside, he comes through with remarkable clarity.
Paste: How big is Vandaveer in France and Belgium, as opposed to the States?
Mark Charles Heidinger: We seem to have, per capita, pretty good audiences over here, for whatever reason. It seems to be more consistent in terms of predicting turnout. Wherever you’re touring, one night can be great and the next night can be completely dead. Or it can be wonderful on one tour and dead the very same room the very same town the very next tour. There’s less predictability in the States for us, at least right now.
Paste: Do you tour as a two-piece in Europe?
Heidinger: Usually we tour as a two-piece, although occasionally we bring a drummer. This is the first time we’ve toured Europe as a trio. Cheyenne Marie Mize is touring with us. She’s a friend of ours and plays on the record actually, and she’s the support for the tour and the performing with us as a trio. She’s an amazing multi-instrumentalist. It’s really nice to have an extra voice and a handful of extra instruments. We made a bigger-sounding record without much of a plan on how to present it live, so it’s good to get some extra assistance.
Paste: How did you end up working with her?
Heidinger: I’m from Kentucky, and Cheyenne is from Louisville. We both have worked with the same circle of friends, and Duane Lundy, who produced Dig Down Deep, suggested we bring her in for a particular song. For the last year and a half, we’ve been randomly crossing paths. We’ll play shows and she’ll come up for a song or two—never anything planned or rehearsed. It usually goes quite well even without practicing, so we thought it could be really fun if we actually rehearsed. So we started plotting how to do that. It’s a win-win situation for all of us.
Paste: You mentioned making a “bigger-sounding record,” and Dig Down Deep certainly seems fuller than your previous album, Divide & Conquer. Was that intentional, or something that developed while recording?
Heidinger: Honestly, I wouldn’t say it was haphazard, but during the sessions, it felt more band-like, I guess. We didn’t have any more players on the record, but I was doing most of the instrumental pieces. We started this record in my house. We just turned it into a studio for two weeks, and it opened up a whole of different ideas. We wanted to let the songs steer us in whatever direction made the most sense, and when you’re recording digitally, you’re not limited working with an eight-track machine or a sixteen-track. You can get carried away. A couple tracks of handclaps turned into a dozen tracks of handclaps; two people singing a song turned into 10 people singing a song. I suppose it bordered on obsessive a couple of time, but we felt we had the freedom to explore any idea. A lot of stuff didn’t end up making it to the final mix, but that process is healthy because it allows you build things up, then deconstruct until you get back to a place where you feel comfortable and happy. The end result is very much like a band record, even if it wasn’t recorded in that fashion.
Paste: How do these new songs translate live?
Heidinger: It’s very interesting when you make a record and you start adding new songs into the catalog for your setlist. It’s like introducing one group of friends to another group of friends and trying to figure out how they get along—which new friends get along with which old friends. There’s a bit of that that goes on when you’re trying to put a setlist together. Some things work better than others, and some things don’t go together very well. It’s fun to find the right situations for the right rooms. We don’t play the same setlist every night. It’s not a boilerplate that you can just apply from town to town. I think it’s good react to your environment when you’re performing.
Paste: There seems to be a lot of travel in the lyrics—the image of sailing over choppy waters comes up a few times.
Heidinger: We travel a lot, so consciously and unconsciously that seeps into the content. I put out my first record in 2007, and we’ve done 500 shows since we stared this project. I feel like inevitably that colors what you’re doing. I don’t write a lot when we’re on tour. I just don’t have a lot of time, but when you get home from three months of traveling, you decompress a bit and you reflect on that. I think that’s when it seems to seep into the content.
Paste: These seem like very personal songs that parse some very intense emotions. Is it difficult to get into that headspace to perform them night after night?
Heidinger: I’ve not really articulated it to myself, but I think that is true. Some nights certain songs don’t really feel appropriate to the set. As a matter of fact, there’s one song in particular where I have to be in a certain mood to add it to the setlist. With others, actually performing the songs puts you in the right headspace. “As a Matter of Fact” stands out. And I usually don’t sing “Concerning Past and Future Conquests” when I’m on the road. I feel very far away from home when we play that one.