Track By Track: Edie Brickell & New Bohemians ‘Hunter and the Dog Star’
“I think the most exciting songs are the ones that emerge in the studio when we improvise together,” Edie Brickell attests, while reflecting on the sessions that yielded the New Bohemians’ latest record, Hunter and the Dog Star. The LP is the follow-up to 2018’s Rocket, which arrived 12 years after their previous studio album, 2006’s Stranger Things.
Guitarist Kenny Withrow affirms the impact of Rocket on the band’s current release: “We came into that one with a bucket full of ideas but, toward the end, we also started to improvise each day. One of the last songs we wrote on Rocket, ‘Superhero,’ came together while we were in the midst of working on another tune. We enjoy improvising and the ideas come quickly.”
Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, who emerged from the Dallas music scene in 1988 with their debut Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, also feature bassist Brad Houser, drummer Brandon Aly and percussionist John Bush. The band recorded Hunter and the Dog Star in Austin with producer Kyle Crusham, who served the same role on Rocket. Brickell explains that Crusham is well-suited for the band “because he’s so enthusiastic and effervescent. It’s great to have an encouraging presence in the studio because it opens the gate to your potential. He also has the ability to work behind the board with efficiency and speed, so as not to slow down the creative process or the improvisational flow. That’s important to us.”
KENNY WITHROW: Every time we get together, we tend to write songs. We’re notorious for not rehearsing. Instead, we’ll get together and find ourselves jamming. Most everything on this record was written in the studio. We’re improvisers, so we like to use the first take or maybe the second one. It’s very much about the inspiration because we’ll joke that, for us, it’s hard to play something the same way even once.
In fact, on the Rocket record, some of those tracks are actually the first or second time we ever played those songs. We were like, “Wow, this is getting closer to the creative spark.” So that was very exciting and it was something that we were looking forward to doing more of on this record.
EDIE BRICKELL: There’s a very playful side to improv for me. Odd things come into my mind and I like to sing them. [Laughs.] We were in a recording studio just improvising one afternoon. Brad wasn’t there that day and Kenny picked up one of those bass guitars that’s like a baritone guitar and started playing it. It was so cool. Everybody started playing along, and I just saw these images of sleeves—all these tattoos. I’m fascinated by that culture and these personal expressions of identity—what people choose to put on their bodies, what it means to them and how many people are doing it in our culture at this time. I’m amazed that, everywhere you go, you see people with this kind of communication on their bodies. And when he started playing that bass guitar, for whatever reason, those are the images that came to my mind.
BRAD HOUSER: That is probably my favorite song on the record. I actually went out on the road with Mike Dillon for 10 days while we were recording, and they wrote this one while I was gone; Kenny came up with that bassline on this old funky six-string bass. When I came back, they played it for me, and I was just floored. Kyle had been saying, “While you were gone we really missed you. Things just weren’t the same.” And I said, “Well, you wrote that…” [Laughs.] It’s one of the best things I’ve heard come out of us in a while.
Don’t Get in the Bed Dirty
EB: A lot of my song ideas come to me when I’m walking. I love to walk and, when I’m in nature, I get all blissed out and happy and grateful. So one day, I was walking the dog and I just start to sing, “Don’t get in the bed dirty.” Then I went home and I put that down on my phone. I just had that phrase, that melody and that chorus that I had been singing.
I didn’t bring it to the guys right away because I wasn’t sure that they would like it. Plus, we always make up so many things together that I’ll usually save some ideas to pull out of the hat when nothing’s happening.
At one point while we were recording, we were on a little break in the studio; I think Kenny was changing guitars or something. And then John and Brandon started playing that gorgeous rhythm, just by themselves. I loved that groove so I started singing those lines and they fit. Then, everybody else started playing with the chords and the melody. And, when I heard that groove, I said, “There it is. That’s going to be fun to sing to and I think I have the perfect thing.”
BH: When I showed up, that one was already tracked. Edie came in with that vocal line, and the ZZ Top guitar intro is all Kenny. The basic skeleton was there and I sat with Kyle in the control room and came up with the bassline for the chorus, which I’m really happy with. I haven’t been able to put a lot of super funky stuff on our recordings, and that’s one of the funkier things I’ve ever played. I ended up being happy with it.
Back in the day, I was super into Jaco Pastorius and I was much more of a busy player. Now, I’m more minimal than I used to be—like anybody who gets older, you tend to play less. One of my big questions, as a bass player, is when to be busy and when not to be busy. There’s no rule; although, “less is more” is right more often than it’s wrong.
However, it’s really song-dependent, and some songs need you to be busy at times. This song was more like that.
I Don’t Know
KW: “I Don’t Know” has had the longest process of any song we’ve ever written—it went through so many changes. There was one night where we decided that we were going to improvise and we did about three hours of just whatever we wanted to. It went all over the place, but there was one little instrumental riff that survived the next day that we were kind of curious about.
So while the song started that night, the riff is the only thing that has remained; the chord progression has changed many times. And, in the very end, the entire feel changed. Edie stepped up and kind of rewrote the arrangement and gave it this dance-pop vibe. It’s really infectious.
EB: Kyle and I got to the studio before anybody else that day. Kyle was sitting there playing the piano and I said, “What is that? Send me the chord progression.” The way that I hear music is that I see images—I see stories and people. When I heard that, I pictured this young couple at a bowling alley. I thought, “Well, I’m just going to tell this story about what I know to be the truth for a lot of young women.” [Laughs.] That story, to me, is not just one couple’s story—it represents so many people that I know.
I’m also crazy for Kenny’s guitar when it slips into that Robert Fripp sound. I love that the song has something traditional about it and then, boom, it takes a turn and surprises you.
BH: Kyle’s got good ears and a good head for arrangement. He’s good about having an overview and he’s also extremely proficient with Pro Tools—he’s a Pro Tools wizard, really. He’s also a good guitarist and keyboardist, and he played a handful of bits across the whole album. Kyle’s also always been really good about having an overview because he sits outside the circle a little bit and can kind of see the bigger picture, whereas the rest of us are down in our instruments a little more.
KW: Edie and I wrote this song in the studio. Some other things were going on, so Edie and I stepped out back and I took my resonator guitar with me. I’m so grateful that when I sit down with Edie we can still produce something in a few minutes, for better or for worse. [Laughs.]
I love the story of “Rough Beginnings.” Edie has a clever turn on the lyrics. It has a melancholy vibe to it, but it’s an uplifting story. It’s about good decisions and it’s empowering for women as well.
EB: Kenny started playing that beautiful guitar and I flipped out over it. I love that guitar track; it kind of reminds me of Lindsey Buckingham. We went outside the studio, sat in the sun—just the two of us—and I sang with him.
I really wanted to leave space for his guitar melody under the chorus. At first, I was singing the choruses, “Ooh, she came from rough beginnings” all over and then, I said: “Wait a second. I need to leave that open and let that guitar sing in there.” I find that’s much more emotional and beautiful. So I’m learning a lot, too, about where to leave some space.
EB: During a quiet moment, while Kenny had his headphones off and was changing his guitar or something in the studio, I was looking through the glass at Brandon while he started playing a drum beat. It was just so simple, so straight ahead and, boom, I started singing. Luckily, Kyle had the mic going so everything was recorded.
We were playing another song but, after that, I said to Kyle, “Can we go back and listen to that thing because I was really feeling it.” Then, Kenny and I went into another room and we worked out the chords for this song around this short, kind of explosive little expression.
KW: “Tripwire” is a freak show. [Laughs.] There was a beat that was around and there I was playing this weird instrument that has a lot of strings on it. It’s sort of an electric mandolin, but it’s really not. I was walking around, playing these chords and Edie started singing to it. There were a lot of weird elements going on.
When we improvise, we will go anywhere, and that song is just a little snippet of a lot of these various elements coming together. Edie is on her game and always willing to experiment, lyrically and with a phrase. She’s always trying out different phrases, and the way she spits out the lyrics in that song is pretty outstanding.
EB: Years ago, somebody said something about the band in the press that wasn’t true. I was so young and impressionable at the time— about 19 years old—and I found it to be really offensive. So I said to the audience: “Hey, if you don’t hear it from the horse’s mouth, you’re hearing it from the horse’s ass.” It was an improv onstage and it went over really well—we were all laughing and having a good time. But that phrase has always stuck with me. And years later, I made a song out of it with The Gaddabouts. [It appears on 2012’s Look Out Now! the second album from the group that also featured Steve Gadd, Andy Fairweather Low and Pino Palladino.]
Then, a year and a half ago, I was asked to offer a song to Willie Nelson for us to sing as a duet. So I told him that I had this “horse’s ass” idea. He really loved that line. And I thought, “OK, maybe I can make a new kind of countrytinged song and do it with Willie.” So I made a demo of this song and sent it, along with several other choices, to Willie. But we ended up going with a different song.
However, I loved this song so much that I recorded it with New Bohemians and that’s one of my favorite tracks. I’m so happy about this one because we love playing it. And there’s something so satisfying about going, “All right,” and then hearing Kenny answer with that amazing guitar and hearing Matt [Hubbard] answer with this piano. It’s just a super fun song. And, not only is it something that I believe in, terms of what it’s saying, but it’s also something that I have to constantly remind myself. [Laughs.]
I Found You
KW: “I Found You” was born of Brandon playing a beat that inspired Edie. We had this beat that everybody was fond of and they sort of made a loop of it, or recorded about five minutes of it. Edie was pacing around in the studio, with it going on in her headphones, and she started a chant. It’s a really interesting tune and I’ve been trying to come up with another word other than “tribal” because we’re not in a tribe. But it has that sort of sound to me. I thought that she just reflected the drums amazingly. In the meantime, we were staying at this bed and breakfast in Austin that was on a creek. And at night, these frogs did this chorus that you could hear all the way up and down the block. It was amazing. So we recorded that and, the next day, we added it to the track, which just made the whole thing. That was just Texans being Texans. [Laughs.]
BH: Brandon had a drum pattern going and Edie basically wrote around his pattern. As for the lyrics, I met a very special somebody in the last two years and she is now my fiancée and that song really reminded me of us. It’s personal for me and pretty special.
That was totally a studio construction. Since then, we’ve started playing it live at rehearsals and, now, I actually play pedal steel on it. But, on the recording, I only played like eight notes during the bridge, so I’m barely even on the song.
EB: “Miracles” was the first song we did on our first day in the studio. Kenny and I were just sitting in the vocal booth and he played that. I usually start singing to something immediately. I trust the ideas that come and Kenny’s guitar set a beautiful tone. I think that song is pure magic. It’s so beautiful. The guitar grabs you and makes you feel something.
So Kyle was standing there when that happened and he ran into the control room to turn everything on so that we could capture it. Kyle caught some of the Kenny magic that we’ve heard a lot of in the band, but that hasn’t always been captured on our records.
KW: My job in the band is being the “ambiance technician.” I help define what mood is coming next, what atmosphere is coming next. And, generally— just after we’ve done something—I like to turn the opposite way and look for some other mood or place or sonic scene.
So going into the very first sessions, I was like, “What is the vibe we haven’t really done?” I thought it was this kind of R&B with hints of psychedelia.
Edie came in and immediately said, “Miracles aren’t just for believers,” and I was like, “OK, we’re there.”
BH: “Miracles” was the very first thing we recorded and, from the way the chords go, it’s definitely Kenny-driven. Those chord progressions very much remind me of the Grateful Dead’s writing, where some of the chord movements aren’t logical in a standard way—there’s that flavor to it, to my ears.
Then, at the end of “Miracles,” we just spontaneously kept going and it ended up being the piece that we called “Evidence.” That’s a purely psychedelic improv coming off the end of the song. That’s just kind of the way it went down—us with pedals, basically.
KW: The last three songs are a package deal. “Miracles” bleeds into an instrumental that happened naturally, which we ended up calling “Evidence.” It kind of turned into a sevenminute piece. We were trying to figure out a way to make all of this make sense and, at the end of the “Evidence” jam, I just heard this pulse. So I thought we could come out of this sequence with a pulse that really just brings people out into the light of day. That’s when the first chords to “My Power” came out.
So we go from “Miracles” into somewhat of a space moment and then it comes out into a really bright song, “My Power.” I love Edie’s lyrics on it. I think they’re so timely and amazing.
EB: I sing Brad’s bass line in “My Power” all the time. It’s one of my favorites.
The song started with Kenny playing a riff. Normally, Kenny and I have a big connection. I’ll look at him and he’ll be smiling or encouraging but, this time, he was looking down. So I said, “What?” And he goes, “That’s just not how I’m hearing it.” I said, “Well, what are you hearing?” He said, “You’re supposed to sing on this,” and he played his riff. And I said, “But that’s your riff. I don’t want to walk all over your riff.” And he goes, “That’s OK, sing on that.” I said, “I don’t want to. It’s your riff, I want to hear it.” Then he said, “I’ll just go in there and play it but don’t be afraid to sing over my riff.”
So he leaves the vocal room and I’ve got this tight feeling in my chest. At that point, I said to myself: “Self, what are you doing? You’re going to get all wadded up in the studio. You think that’s going to make anything sound good? Be a team player. If he wants you to sing over his riff—as bad of an idea as that is—then, by gosh, sing over that riff.” And self said, “OK, fine.”
So the band started playing, and I heard myself singing in this falsetto and I said, “Hey, I kind of like this. This is different.” And then I looked up and John was playing his bongos and smiling through the glass. And then when I sang, “my power,” they all just broke up. They all were smiling, looking through the glass and I couldn’t wait to come back around to “my power.” And I ended up having the best time with it and getting excited. The mood shifted that quickly, all because of what self said to self. [Laughs.]