2005_04_ida_large.jpgIt's not every band that can sustain a decade-long career on some of the most influential independent labels, go through countless lineup changes, and continue to improve upon their past work by creating gorgeous, heartbreaking music of the highest order. Then again, it's not every band that can namecheck Kelis, Prince and The Carter Family onstage, then stun an audience into silence with its mesmerizing violin and piano creations before rocking out. But Ida have always stood out for their beauty and simplicity, keying in on the voices of principal players Elizabeth Mitchell and Dan Littleton, and slowly growing with each album to include bass player Karla Schickele, and now, drummer Ruth Keating and violinist Jean Cook. Each step has led to a fuller sound, yet has retained the tender simplicity of their earliest work.

Their latest album, Heart Like a River (Polyvinyl), quietly simmers, and may take a few listens before its true genius reveals itself. But once it does, watch out - you may not be able to stop listening for days. Heart Like a River is the kind of album where you can find a new sound, new idea, and new favorite song upon each listen. It's an album where words like "fuck" and "miracle" coexist, as do varying tempos, styles and influences, creating a record that could be given as a gift to one you love or to commune with in the aftermath of a relationship, or simply to get lost in its melodies for days on end.

Ida have always been masters of the breakup song, finding ways to make heartbreak into a work of art, and nowhere is that more evident than on the first track, "Laurel Blues". In the last few years, Ida has put out two children's albums, You Are My Flower and You Are My Sunshine, and have been entertaining a new generation of toddlers with their old-fashioned melodies, while Littleton and Mitchell, a former teacher at Roosevelt Island Day Nursery, raise their daughter, Storey. For older girls, Schickele has become one of the major forces behind this summer's Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, which leapfrogs off the success of Portland's pioneering program to teach girls about everything from songwriting to sound engineering to self defense.

Heart Like a River manages to build on and surpass their past masterpieces, melding the best they have to offer in terms of harmony, lyrical lushness and honest sentiment, to offer lines that make you want to be in love just to play these songs to your beloved. When Liz Mitchell sings a line like "You still fill me up with stars," it's enough to make one want to weep from the beauty of its delivery and sentiment. Just home from a country-wide tour in several years, the band emailed Gothamist and shone a light on their creative process, the growth of the band, children's music and being a "New York" band.

What was working on Heart Like a River like after taking such a long break?
Daniel Littelton: We started getting together and singing, just acoustically, sitting in the kitchen, playing old and new songs. It felt great to sing together and to pull together all the new songs. We wanted to record things as we were learning them, before they settled into known, over rehearsed parts. It was important to us to get the raw versions of the songs recorded, before things got too comfortable. We had experience with recording songs that we had played live countless times, and we all wanted to try something different. We decided to do the record with Warren Defever and that we should do the bulk of it at home. It was really exciting to do so much recording and all of the mixing at our own studio. That pretty much changed the process at a fundamental level- no one was freaking out (too much) about the clock, everyone was working at their own pace. It facilitated a good amount of freedom to experiment and follow through on spontaneous impulses. We don’t have a ton of gear, but it felt more relaxed and like more of a creative environment than a lot of "pro" studios we’ve seen. It was a simpler way of working than we have chosen in the past.

What is the Ida songwriting process like? Does one person come up with the lyrics and melody and bring the music to the rest of the band?
DL: Actually, though Liz and I occasionally collaborate on lyrics and music together, the songwriting is a pretty individual process. We have written songs, like "Let’s Go Walking" that evolved directly from group improvisation, but for years now we have been a band with three different songwriters. One of us usually brings a song to the table and its pretty much fully formed. Our collaboration is maybe a little bit like being translators of each others songs - we subject the songs to our collective scrutiny and damage, and then after everybody has chimed in, something new emerges. The song ideas are sometimes very developed, sometimes very provisional. The group usually defers to the songwriter, but every song gets altered by the collective process. If we like a song, then we kick it around, argue with it, listen, try to communicate with it, improvise, add harmonies, critique and fuck up arrangements, see what sticks, what we like. Sometimes a song seems to call out for certain players, certain sounds or instruments. Sometimes an entire arrangement gets gutted or grows into something the songwriter never would have imagined. Other times a song needs to just be left alone in the sparest, most minimal setting.

You now live outside the New York area, whereas you were living in New York when you first started the band. How has that change impacted the band?
DL: Liz and I lived in Providence, RI for a couple years. I think the cumulative effect of the 8 hour commute just to hang out and practice became a problem for our band, too hard to sustain. We are a lot closer to the city now, upstate in the Catskills. We live in the woods and practice in Brooklyn where everyone else in the band lives.

Would you say there's a theme to the album?
DL: I wouldn’t really be able to say what the theme is- but if there is one at all it would probably have something to do with a few vaguely related things floating around. We wrote a song called "heart like a river" that was one of the "lost" from the album. So, in a way, the album title marks an absence, a missing song. I remember seeing an interview with John Cassavettes where he spoke passionately about love being the only thing that interested him. For him it was the philosophical foundation for his approach to making films. In Love Streams there is this great scene where Gena Rowlands’ character is talking to her analyst about love. She characterizes love as an endless stream, something that is not diminished by the world, by time. Her analyst counters bluntly with the idea that she is in denial, that love is finite, and then he advises her to go out and get laid. There is this ocean of distance between their ideas about love, and somehow her talk is as generous as his is cold. Kate and Anna McGarrigle wrote that song "Heart Like A Wheel" and it is such a beautiful, devastating song. It’s about love ending, an abyss of sadness, a sense of the acceptance of an enormous loss, and the possibility that recovery might not be possible, or worse- the possibility that the loss of true love is not worth surviving. I’m with Gena and the poet Galway Kinnell who wrote that "faithfulness to the new love is faithfulness to the old.". I like it when Stevie Wonder says "love is very peaceful so bring it down a little." But who can deny the reality of the abyss and the sinking ship? Both ideas are true.

The band’s been around for a decade, and I’m curious as to how you see the band having evolved musically in that time. I know there’s been some lineup changes recently, and while the sound is more complex, some of the sentiments and emotions are still reminiscent of your earliest work. Do you approach each album freshly, or are you trying to build or differentiate from what went before? What's it like working with both the new members and new instruments?
DL: Hopefully we are not making the same records with slight variations over and over again. We try to approach things fresh, with a confidence or hope that because we’ve all changed over time our work will reflect some of those changes. I think we are, as a group, and as individuals, not interested in repeating ourselves. We want to grow as writers and players and singers. We have a past, and we can draw from it, build on it, abandon it, even stumble into it occasionally, but none of us is interested in the nostalgic, romanticizing or revisiting of the past. That, to my mind, would be instant band death. We want to try things we haven’t done, learn something, develop more capacity for listening to each other, for being creative in the moment. Still it makes sense to me that certain emotions, certain sounds become familiar or recur over time, after years of playing together. The continuities can be comforting, can help you identify and get past your limitations, but you can’t rely on that shit.

I think its dangerous to any creative process to get too satisfied with where you’ve been. Its really very easy to get stuck. Ruth Keating and Jean Cook are awesome, and they have definitely brought this incredibly enthusiastic, fearless energy into our band. It feels like we are developing a language together, like everyone is taking risks, looking for possibilities. It feels like a band that is just beginning in a lot of ways. Playing with new people is something that keeps us from getting too attached to any one way of doing things, and its also inspiring when people try learning new instruments. Liz has been playing harmonium and viola, a lot, and some piano too. Ruth plays glockenspiel, harmonica and ukelele. Jean played singing bowls the other night. I’ve played some piano at shows. I think that willingness to step into uncertain terrain on instruments that are less familiar to us keeps us inspired, less precious about control or "perfection" - we just trust that we’ll find something, and it will be different from what we would normally do. Even if the sound is more rugged or "sloppy," the practice makes things feel very alive and energetic.

Ida sometimes seems like two bands rolled into one, because on the one hand you have this really gorgeous, emotional, very stripped down music, and then other times, a few times on the new album, but mostly live, you guys totally rock out. How do those two sides of the music fit together for you?
DL: Thanks for saying that. I feel like we need "both sides" of the band. There have been times when we favored a small acoustic ensemble, and other times where we played mostly louder songs. But I like it best when it goes back and forth. It maintains a certain amount of tension that keeps things interesting. We’ve been playing "599," "Sundown" and "Poor Dumb Bird" lately and its felt real good. that intense, more aggressive side of Ida has always been there. Maybe it does come out more at the shows. I think the louder, noisier Ida keeps the quieter more spacious stuff from disappearing into the air at the shows. On records maybe some of that dynamic quality of the band gets lost.

How has living in and being part of the New York music scene impacted your songwriting? Do you consider Ida a "New York" band?
DL: If we all moved to the desert we would probably still be a New York band. It’s just the root system for this band. Ida would not exist without the people we found there.

Onstage you’re known for doing wild covers, from whole shows covering Prince or Fleetwood Mac to random attempts such as "Into the Groove." Is there anything special you’ve done on this latest tour?
DL: We’re creeping up on some Minutemen, Meat Puppets, and Judee Sill covers. Almost did "Joy in Repetition" by Prince the other night in Bellingham, but we chickened out. Too many words. We played "long Time Gone" the Everly Brothers tune, with Karla’s dad at a show in Eugene OR, and we also played it with Michael Hurley a few nights later in Seattle. We did "Up On Cripple Creek" by the Band, in Eugene too, and it was a blast but I don’t think we’ll be dipping our donuts in that tea again anytime soon. We were doing an Anne Briggs song, and Liz still sings the first 2 verses of "Thunder Road’ when it’s necessary.

What makes an ideal show for you? You guys always seem to have such fun onstage, although you also seem to reach a groove, especially at the Tonic show, where everything just flows and you all work together so well, so I'd like to know what makes a show a standout one for you, or what might make another one totally suck - you can give an example or a description, or a crazy story.

DL: We just played the Doug Fir in Portland with TJO and Michael Hurley. The venue was great, sound was great, and playing with TJO and Hurley was a total dream night for us. Just listening to them play made us feel high. To get to play with your close friends and one of your all time heroes on the same night was kind of amazing. It was already a great, memorable night for us before we played a note and then we played one of best shows on the tour. If we are listening and playing well and the people who show up are glad we are there, those are usually good nights. Our best shows usually start with a cover or a song we never play first. It helps if someone sits in with us that plays totally free, like Tara did in Portland. A show that sucks usually happens when we play our slowest songs super slow, and our faster songs super slow and its just a fucking sinking downer where everybody looks at the floor (although some people enjoy those shows the best). Or if somebody like a prospective booking agent who is "on the fence" about us, or a writer from a fancy magazine is at the show then we all choke in domino effect fashion. Inevitable.

Ida's been around for over a decade, and has morphed and mutated and kept putting out records on indie labels, some of which, like the late, beloved Simple Machines, have since folded. Do you have any advice or secrets for your longevity at a time when it seems like most bands don't last half as long?
DL: Don’t do it! Break up! Quit while you’re behind!

A recurring theme, both on this album and albums past, has been relationships, both love songs and breakup songs, and I consider Ida, especially songs like "Backburner" and "Tellings," and I'll add in the new "Laurel Blues," essential post-breakup listening material. Are songs like those as cathartic to make as they are to listen to?
DL: I want to say yes. I think the songs are cathartic for us - there is a release there when we play them and that is a big part of doing certain songs. Writing something in a song can help you surrender it or get some distance, or it can focus you on something that you want to remember or set your mind on or convey. When you record a song or play it for people in a room you hope something of your experience comes through, but you can never predict or control that, or for that matter expect anyone to "get it" or feel what you feel. Everybody in the band is connecting to the songs in different ways, and so is everybody who is listening. So I’m sure that cathartic feeling is a personal subjective thing. Sometimes something really remarkable happens, though, and you feel so close to the people who are there in the room and there is no question that some kind of powerful exchange or understanding has occurred. Something gets shared even though nobody can say exactly what it is, and songs are like the catalysts for this to happen. Words are part of it, but music still feels like it operates in this non-verbal sound world of emotion and respiration and energy. Something gets communicated that can’t be communicated any other way. I think this is one of the reasons why I still love doing music.

I’m very happy to know that Ida is on a hypothetical essential post-break up listening mix tape.

I was watching this indie movie Pipe Dream one day and all of a sudden heard one of your songs, "Shotgun," and have been curious to know ever since how that came to be used. Have any other Ida songs been used in movies?
DL: Someone approached us from the Pipe Dream production team and they really wanted to use that song. We needed the money to pay off some outstanding Ida legal bills. There was no artistic collaboration or context outside of their genuine enthusiasm for the song and us saying okay, we’ll do it. We were surprised-they really use the song. We thought they’d play 10 seconds of it during a bummer dance party or a sex scene. They pretty much play the whole song. We enjoyed the movie. Liz is a big Mary Louis Parker fan so it was a thrill for her. Please contact us if you are a hot filmmaker. We will make songs for you, do a soundtrack, give you all our songs, hook us up!! We will also pick out the best songs that have been recorded in the last hundred years for your movie. Call now. We are waiting for you. Thank you.

This one’s for Liz. After putting out two Ida records for children, You Are My Flower and You Are My Sunshine, you returned to that genre with Catch the Moon, a book and CD with your college friend, Lisa Loeb. What do you like best about creating music and playing shows for children? Can you tell me more about making Catch the Moon and what that collaboration was like?
Liz Mitchell: One of my favorite things about making children’s music is trying to see how far outside the genre I can go and still make music that families can listen to together. I just try to make music that’s relatively peaceful, but engaging at the same time. For me that’s something that’s missing in kids music. It’s easy to be super zany, or to make sleepy lullaby music, and there is a place for both. But I like to find something in between, and to bring in unexpected sources - on the next album, we’re recording songs by Yoko Ono, Vashti Bunyan and Francoise Hardy, as well as folk songs from Korea, Portugal, the Phillipines and Japan. We play Velvet Underground and Bo Diddley songs at the shows all the time, and those are some of the best "kids" songs I know.

The project with Lisa came about because her label, Artemis Records, asked her to make a children’s album. Lisa knew I had been doing kids music for a while, and she had just visited our home studio in our attic in Providence and thought it would be fun to make a record there. We had never made a kids record with a budget, but her label was offering one so we were able to invest in some good recording equipment and do the whole thing at home. I had a lot of hesitation about working with an outside label, but they assured me creative control so we took the leap. I’m happy with how it turned out.

The band slowed down a bit after you and Dan had your daughter, Storey, and I'm curious how much of your musical influence she's picked up. Are you going to teach her to sing and/or play an instrument?
LM: We sing together all the time but we’re not going to "teach" her to sing because singing is such a personal, intuitive thing. Everyone can sing, all you need is confidence and desire. My favorite voices are untrained. But I would love her to learn to play as many instruments as she can. We bought her a ukulele a couple weeks ago and she loves to strum it in her car seat.

Karla: Tell me more about your involvement with the Willie Mae Rock 'N' Roll Camp for Girls. What are you doing with the organization? What kinds of things do you need from volunteers?
Karla Schickele: In the summers of 2003 and 2004, I volunteered at the Rock n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, and the experience just blew my mind. I taught bass the first year, and did a songwriting and arranging workshop with Tara Jane O'Neil the second year. Both times, I came away feeling rejuvenated about music, and so psyched to be around the creative energy of the girls and the other women volunteers.

I really thought we could use one of them there camps here in New York, so I got in touch with Misty McElroy, founder of camp, and a bunch of us started working on creating a New York chapter. The first session will be August 8-12, 2005, at the Society for Ethical Culture, which is at 2 W. 64th Street. Camper applications are available now!

The main things we need right now are equipment donations and money. We are also looking for volunteers to teach classes and be counselors. More info is available at www.williemaerockcamp.org.

What’s the main obstacle to girls getting involved with music when they’re young? Is it that they’re not encouraged like boys are?
KS: Well, I think there's a couple of things at work. There's a whole mess of studies that show that girls in their pre-teen years are pretty self-confident, but that their sense of self-esteem sharply drops off with adolesence, much more than for the boys. Hmmm, could the stifling and limited sense of what it means to be a woman and who gets to make music and what kind that's presented in mass culture possibly be playing a role in this? Jury's still out, but just in case, we'd like to offer a wider view of what's possible for girls.

What’s the most rewarding thing about working with the camp?
KS: Getting to be a fly on the wall during band practice when the group makes it all the way through the song they've written for the first time.

Visit Ida's website for more information about the band. Listen to "Late Blues" and get details and ordering information for Heart Like a River from Polyvinyl Records. Visit Youaremyflower.org for details about Ida's children's albums You Are My Flower and You Are My Sunshine. Visit Williemaerockcamp.org to find out about volunteering, donating or attending the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls.