The core duo that make up Vandaveer, Mark Charles Heidinger and Rose Guerin, are in an interesting, if frustrating moment in their career, flying just below the radar of success that simultaneously forces them to work twice as hard while also allowing the creativity to play with their sound that a more widely known band would have trouble getting away with. Their latest, Oh, Willie, Please, is a set of public domain-era songs that are steeped in the deathly tales of backcountry murder and suicides, plucked from a time when these ballads would be passed from person to person through a traveling guitar. Now having made their way to this D.C. duo with Southern roots, the songs have been given a new reading with the smoky, folk stylings Vandaveer have made their trademark.
: Give us the back-story on Oh, Willie, Please, because what we’re dealing with here are murder ballads. Really old murder ballads, right?
Heidinger: These are all songs from the public domain, so they’re quite old. Some of them are several hundred years old and come from the British Isles, got stuck in Appalachia and became different versions of themselves. We were invited to participate in the 78 Project. The basic gist of the 78 Project is they have a contemporary artist take one song from the public domain and record it using a Presto 78-rpm acetate, a magic music-making machine, like singing in a can kind of thing. You get one chance. It’s just a single microphone, and it cuts the lacquer while you’re performing. It’s how Alan Lomax did all of his field recordings, and it’s how a lot of the music was recorded in the early 20th century, because that was the only technology they had.
: Is that an expensive thing to do now?
Heidinger: Yes. I think because of maintaining the equipment. I mean the thing weighs…I mean it looks like a dorm refrigerator, you know. It’s that big. They’re really heavy, temperamental and cantankerous. They travel with two of these, because they break down so often. It was a really cool process, and it’s a really cool project, so we were kind of on the front end of that in the weeks following our session with them we went up to New York, and set up in this funky old hotel and we played a song. On the A-side we did “Banks on the Ohio” and on the B-side we did one of our songs. After that, just weeks after we did our session they got Richard Thompson and Rosanne Cash and Loudon Wainwright III. For our part, when we were trying to pick a song, we had a hard time just whittling down to one.
: Rose, this is a passion for you, right?
Guerin: Yes, I was raised in a super folk family coming out of the ‘60s. I was born in the ‘70s, but that was when the revival of that sort of music started happening. Everybody got really into the old folk songs. I was named after one of the songs on the record.
Heidinger: She says she’s from a super folk family; it’s like Justice League of America. Their super powers are folk songs.
: So then for you, Rose, it’s not really hard to find connections to these songs, but hopefully you don’t live them.
Guerin: Oh, I kind of do though.
Heidinger: If we do then we couldn’t tell you, Kyle.
: That’s true.
Guerin: I did grow up with some strange fears about woods and rivers.
Heidinger: I think you still have those.
Guerin: I do. It’s one of those things when I’m going on tour to a rural area with someone I don’t particularly trust yet, I’m always a little like “why are we going there?”
: Because these were your nursery rhymes.
Heidinger: It begs the question: why are you going to rural areas with strangers?
Guerin: The strange thing about these songs is that a lot of them were cautionary tales, because they didn’t have newspapers back in the days, especially in the rural areas. It was more like you’ve got these young women. How are you going to scare them enough to not run off in the woods with men? You get pregnant and you get thrown in the river.
Heidinger: They’re very detail-oriented songs. In some cases they would extract a confession out of the perpetrator and set that to verse and that would become a part of the canon of broadside ballads.
Guerin: It’s also so sensational.
Heidinger: It’s just like we have murder mysteries biography shows now, like the first 48 hours where they have a very short amount of time to solve the murder.
: That was the thing, listening to record and trying to find the parallels of all of that today. Obviously all of these bad stories still happen today, but they don’t get treated the same way in popular songs.
Heidinger: No, they’re breaking news on CNN.
: You all haven’t been making murder ballads this whole time, but there is something about them that works with your originals.
Heidinger: I honestly started writing songs that I would loosely call murder ballads before I was even using that term. I’m Johnny Come Lately to a lot of these traditions. I became more aware of and immersed in through traditional gateway artists like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits or Nick Cave. I didn’t grow up with traditional folk music. I think Rose and I came from different points on the map, but we both really love these songs. The hardest part of making the record was picking which songs we would actually record, and considering the subject matter, it was pretty easy. It was a smooth process. There were four primary musicians. We went to this 200-year-old farmhouse, which became like the fifth member of the band. We spend a little over a week. We’d work up the arrangement in the morning after breakfast, record the song throughout the day, have dinner and then start working on loose arrangement ideas, get up the next morning and do the same thing. That’s not how our original recording process works at all. It’s a much more labor-intensive process.
: For an album like this, in your own canon, how important is it, because for most artists, you’re pushing your own brand out there. You had the last record, and I know you’re working on a new one, so how important is this one in the middle? Is this one just for fun or is this you all saying “this is the next record”?
Heidinger: I don’t think we were treating this as a side project. I think this is our fourth record. Obviously we knew that the scope was quite different and the audience might be different and the life span of the record might be different, but we spent the bulk of 2012 working on this one and then laying all of the groundwork. It felt really different; I mean we say folk all the time and a lot of people use the word folk to describe different kinds of music, so for us it felt like, we keep using this word so at some point we should use it in an accurate manner.
: I think a lot of bands though are afraid to step outside of their box. They have that dream album they’d always want to make that’s different than what they normally do, but it’s like “we can’t do it now because…,” and you all are living proof of “why not take the chance and just do it,” because you can do whatever you want.
Guerin: Nothing to lose!
Heidinger: Yeah, you can’t go down from zero.
: Ha! That’s not exactly—I mean you all have this great catalog…
Heidinger: No, no! I’m just saying, it wasn’t like it was this huge risk.
: What if this had made you famous?
Heidinger: We aren’t famous?
: Ha. What if this had made you super famous? Because that’s what people would know you for, this folky murder ballad thing.
Heidinger: You know, fame is a funny word.
: It’s really only four letters.
Guerin: Our moms think we’re famous.
Heidinger: And that’s all that matters; our No. 1 fans, mom and mom.
: Well, with Vandaveer and an album like Oh, Willie, Please and the music videos, I get a sense that there is a character in it. I can look back and see that when David Bowie did Ziggy that it was presented as an art form. That’s been lost in the last decade or so that when musicians are putting themselves out there they forget that it’s also entertainment.
Heidinger: Yeah, you see it more in hip hop now than folk or rock…
: But with Vandaveer you kind of get that Vandaveer is a character.
Heidinger: Yeah, I like that! I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about that specifically. I don’t think that we step into character or costume or anything like that when we get on stage to play, and I don’t necessarily feel like we do that when we’re in the studio, but with Oh, Willie, Please we were very aware that we were performing songs that had great, historical importance and that are very much a part of the Americana fabric. We were quite aware to be respectful of the material, but I think if you’re recording music and putting it out there, the recording of the music is like a polaroid snapshot of something that’s alive. I mean, a song changes and breathes. You get on stage and you perform it. And that is show business. I never really thought about Vandaveer being a character to that extent of like David Bowie or Madonna. I think the record we’re working on now, because it’s far more autobiographical for me that I feel even less that Vandaveer is a character. Maybe more so with Oh, Willie, Please. And I guess with respect to videos, that very much feels like you’re a character. We don’t write the scripts. I consult, but we’ve been very lucky to work with filmmakers who’ve put some really interesting script ideas in front of us. And there is some back and forth, but we very much feel that we’re stepping into a vision that’s shared but that is crafted by someone else. So that aspect is very much character-driven.
: You get to jump into the wardrobe closet.
Heidinger: Right. Being told “in this particular case, you’ll be dressing up Buster Keaton style and in another you’ll be more ghostly.”
: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the “Fistful of Swoon” video. It’s beautiful. Anyway, you were speaking of the new record. An autobiographical record, and there’s going to be a band?
Heidinger: There is going to be a band.
: When was the last time you played with a full band? Wasn’t that a different band ago?
Heidinger: Well, Vandaveer started out as a solo project. I didn’t really have a master plan for what it would become. For me it was just a vehicle for some songs. And it’s continued to change for some time. Rosie came on board in ’07 and has been with me ever since. In the studio we play with a lot of different people, but we’ve gone out as a trio and sometimes as a four-piece, but we made this record very much as a band. More so than prior records. If all things fall into place we’ll that take crew out on the road, schedules willing.
: It’s funny how that lines up when you’re talking about your most personal record and involving a whole lot of other people. Because that’s you giving up something. That’s you saying, “This is all of me out there. You guys fiddle around with it.”
Heidinger: Yeah, it’s been harder to commit to decisions with so many ideas floating around out there. It’s been trickier to say, yeah that’s it. I feel like I’ve been a little less demonstrative in that respect.
: So when do we expect it?
Heidinger: Maybe 2014. It’s being mixed now.