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A Short Conversation with Mare Wakefield and Nomad

25 March 2021

Can we begin with a bit of background? You are both people who have lead lives which have taken you across the map. Could you tell me a bit about the individual paths which brought you together?

Mare: My dad was perennially unemployed as I was growing up. He was good at finding jobs, but not keeping them. His constant searching led us from various places in Illinois to Arizona to Eastern Wisconsin and a few different towns in Texas. I’d lived in eight different places by the time I graduated high school, and then college brought me to Oregon and then Boston, MA where I finally met Nomad.

The aptly-named Nomad was born and mostly raised in Turkey but spent part of his childhood in Germany. A college exchange program brought him to Canada for a year and a scholarship offer to Boston’s Berklee College of Music brought him to the US.

Our musical story together is impossible to separate from our love story. We met as new students on our first day of class at Berklee. It was an ear-training class, and he was sitting behind me. Technically, I heard him before I ever saw him. It was love at first listen!

It’s hard to say if we fell in love while composing music together, or if we started working on projects together because we were already a little bit in love. But we’re now almost 20 years into the music and the love, both are still going strong!

And musically too, your influences seem to be as varied as the paths you have taken, what are some of your influences and inspirations, and do you consciously aim for a certain style and sound when writing?

Mare: I’ll answer the second part of that question first: for better or for worse, I really don’t aim for any certain style in the early stages of songwriting. I try to really respect whatever the idea initially is, and work from there. There’s a quote attributed to Michelangelo — that he doesn’t chisel a form out of the rock, but rather that the particular form (a man, a sheep, whatever) was there all along and that he only carves away the parts that aren’t that thing.

I’m certainly not trying to compare myself to Michelangelo, but that idea makes sense to me. In this case, the idea that the song, in some form, already exists in the cosmos somewhere, and I’m just doing my best to try and capture it in its truest form.

You could say that this strategy has made us difficult to “categorize” over the years. Even on the new record — which I’d say mostly falls under the pretty large umbrella of Americana/Roots/Folk — there’s a pretty poppy song called “My Room” — which almost reminds me of something from Yaz’s early 80s record Upstairs at Eric’s. I wrote “My Room” from the perspective of my non-verbal autistic nephew. All the overlapping vocal parts and different layers of synth sounds are an effort to try to capture what might be going on inside his mind. Nomad and I had a serious discussion about whether that song should even be included on this record. But in the end, we did decide to leave it in, if for no other reason than that it makes my heart happy.

Nomad: I think trying to capture certain sounds, for us, comes more in the arranging process. Mare mostly writes on acoustic guitar, and often when that’s all you hear, the default genre would be folk. The genre and style can be flexible depending on instrumentation — leave the drums off and put a mandolin and banjo on it and it enters the realm of bluegrass, add drums and pedal steel and it is country, or take away the acoustic guitar and instead add piano, upright bass, and a brush drum kit and it starts to sound like jazz.

For this record, we definitely wanted to keep that folk/roots/alt-country feel as much as we could. So when we were working on arrangements with the band, we’d talk about artists like Jason Isbell, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and even Norah Jones. Those are all artists that Mare and I have immense respect for, and stylistically that was the road we mainly wanted to travel.

If there is a silver lining in the upheavals of the last year, it is that you found yourself at home with few distractions and so had perhaps an unexpected amount of time to dedicate to the recording of No Remedy. What can we expect from the album?

Nomad: Real mojo! :-) We focused on a kind of intangible expressiveness and really worked hard to honor every song, whether it was a story-driven ballad like “Outfield” or a more fun and upbeat tune like “Give Myself to Love.” Mare and I get a lot of joy from performing live, and we tried to capture as much of that vibe as we could as well.

And how different was the recording process that that of your previous studio experiences?

Mare: I think the biggest difference was all the extra time we suddenly had. At the beginning of 2020 there were several back-to-back tours scheduled, including 5 weeks in Europe and then almost 3 months out to the West Coast and back. In between all this, we had allotted about 3 or 4 weeks to complete the record. Once that turned into “unlimited time,” we could really relax into the recording process and devote a lot of time to really honoring each track and the story or feeling behind it.

Another difference is that in the past we’ve worked with outside producers — including the fabulous Mitch Dane from Sputnik Studios for our record “Poet on the Moon.” This time, Nomad was wearing the producer’s hat, and we were recording all the tracks in our own studio. The “commute” was just a few short steps off our back deck, which added to the relaxed feel once we came to grasp our newly opened schedule.

Are there any particular themes or messages that you found yourself coming back to on the album or did the inspiration and ideas come more randomly?

Mare: A lot of my earlier songs were written super auto-biographically. My story, my perspective. I think a lot of songwriters start here and there’s nothing wrong with that — it’s almost songwriting as therapy or something.

For the songs on this record, I tried to expand my horizons a bit, while still keeping the writing coming from a place of truth and experience. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges in songwriting actually — trying to write a song with enough of your own personal truth and experience that it retains significance and authenticity, while at the same time, opening the narrative up enough so that someone else can see their own truth inside your words.

On this record, even on songs that were still pulled out of my life, I tried to tell more than just my story — searching for more shared experiences or universal truths. “Give Myself to Love” is a first-person narrative, but in that song, I really tried to capture more of what we are all going through these days. “Outfield” is similar in that way — first-person narrative, but the story is more focused on the life of my dear childhood friend, and the universal grief of losing someone we love.

At the end of the day, my goal is always just to write a good song. You know that feeling when you get stopped in your tracks by a song? A certain melody or lyric line really just transports you to a higher plane — reconnecting you to something bigger, the mystery, the infinite. That’s what I always strive for in songwriting. Every single time.

You have been lucky to work with some very recognizable names on this album, can you tell me a little about the other players who made up the musical team?

Nomad: Yes! Wes Little on drums, Brian Allen on bass, and Tim Galloway on electric guitar, mandolin, and banjo. And powerhouse vocalists Kira Small and Jason Eskridge on backing vocals for the title track. We love these guys. They are our first-call players every time, and over the years they’ve become friends as well.

When it comes down to work in the studio, they’re all down-to-earth cool people and their impressive resumes don’t choke the air out of the room. They’re super versatile players and they really get our style and our musical directions. It’s always a real honor to work with them.

And finally, where next? Both musically and personally and what are your hopes for the future for yourselves, music in general and perhaps the post-pandemic world too?

Nomad: We’d definitely love to get back on the road — just like thousands of other road-warrior musicians! We’re both really missing playing for people all in the same room. The live streams have been GREAT, don’t get me wrong! But there’s a certain kind of magic that can only happen when people are all together in the same space. We may continue the live-streaming when we can if folks remain interested, but we’d definitely want to try and get back in front of a live audience as soon as it’s safe to do so.

As far as upcoming projects, we have another whole record’s worth of songs pretty much ready to track. We offer a Free Song of the Month Club as a thank-you to our fan base (folks can sign up on marewakefield.com ), so Mare writes — at a minimum — at least one song a month, often more. It’s been a few years since our last album release (2018’s Time to Fly) so we’re a bit back-logged as far as songs. It’s a good problem to have!

In addition to those Americana/Folk/Roots songs, we’ve been writing a new series of songs based on the poetry of Rumi. Rumi spent a good part of his life in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), so it’s been nice to be able to bring a bit more of my Turkish musical sensibilities to that project, odd rhythms — like 5/8 or 9/8 — and different melodies. There’s a stringed instrument called the saz which Mare has been learning. Unlike the piano, the saz has lots of semi-tone options so we can get those sounds that are pretty exotic and new for Western ears. This project is still in the early stages, but we’re already pretty excited for that one as well.

Thank you for taking the time to tell me all about your musical adventures.