An Exclusive Interview with Gabrielle Wortman of Smoke Season
Recently, the incredibly-talented indietronic duo Smoke Season released their soulful new EP, Ouroboros. The title refers to a famous image – a snake eating itself – and the duo, which consists of Gabrielle Wortman and Jason Rosen, is sure to become famous, too. In all seriousness, I fully expect to see them on the cover of Under The Radar and Paste within the next two years. If there’s any justice in this world they’ll be the next Florence + The Machine or Goldfrapp (two artists their music sometimes reminds me of). To that end,I’d say they’re almost there, considering that they’ve had over 4 million Spotify plays. Their blend of electronic elements and live instruments, combined with Wortman’s powerful voice, is a rock solid recipe for success. Even better, their music is as inspiring as it is inspired. It just so happens that it’s also contagious. So, grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, sit back and take the opportunity to get to know Gabrielle Wortman now.
MM: What are you doing with your time during your recovery period from the surgery?
GW: Writing writing writing. I’ve been writing lyrics, poems, instrumental music, beats. Anything you can think of really. It’s been a beautiful creative incubation period.
Everyone on our team is actually really excited about the vocal cord surgery. I was touring with a vocal cord injury for months and finally had a second of free time to get proper treatment for it. We’re all really stoked to see where my voice can go now that it’s good and healthy again.
MM: How and when did you and Jason first meet? How soon after you met did you realize you were meant to make music together?
GW: The bands we used to be in shared a rehearsal practice space back in the day. We met through that. One day we were both at the practice space and decided to jam on a song and voila! Smoke Season was born.
MM: If you don’t mind my asking, are you and Jason a couple or just musical partners?
GW: This entirely depends on what you think a couple is.
MM: How is the songwriting done in Smoke Season? What do you usually start with, a lyric, a guitar part, etc?
GW: We actually vary it up a lot. I think the best way to describe the songwriting process is we start with a seed of inspiration. It could be one lyrical line, one beat, one riff, one chord progression, one emotional state… then we take it from there.
For example, the other day I randomly wrote down “I dreamt I was a bull in a room full of red” and 2 hours later we had a song from that seed.
MM: Do you and Jason write the songs entirely as a duo or do you write them with your producers?
GW: Jason and I usually write the core of the song ourselves and then feed off the energy of our touring band and producers to find the final product. Each song evolves from the moment it’s written to the moment it’s finalized.
We try to work with producers and musicians whose creative input we admire greatly so that we can feed off that in the studio. Our Ouroboros EP producers, David Burris and Kyle Draper, had an incredible amount of influence on that record and we wanted them to because they’re geniuses and their strengths complement our weaknesses.
MM: Do you write songs and then go directly into the studio to record them or do you make demos first? (If you make demos, what software do you use to produce them? Is there a particular beat-making program that you’re fond of?)
GW: We write the songs and then tour with the songs before ever producing them. Seeing how songs vibe off of your fans and audiences is the absolute best measure of whether it’s a b-side or worth being a featured track.
We’re so deep into our songwriting process a lot of times that we can’t tell what is a hit and what is a trip down the creative rabbit hole (or both).
Both Jason and I have a lot of experience producing in Ableton and Logic so we usually demo out songs on those before going into the studio to do the full thing.
MM: I know Jason plays guitar and you sing, but there are many other components to your songs. Which of you does what?
GW: Aside from guitar and vocals, there are a lot of other things we focus on.
I’m a classically trained pianist so I write all the synth and keys parts. I also do most of the sampling and play an Akai pad live as well. For example, on our new track When The Smoke Clears, I sampled my voice and chopped it up – which I play live and you can hear in the intro of the song.
Jason has a great knack for hearing beats in his head and usually works hand in hand with our touring drummer, Christopher Roberts, on a lot of the beats you hear featured on the songs.
On Ouroboros EP in particular, Jason played an electronic lap steel to get a lot of those long droned out sounds.
MM: Your songs are quite intricate, so I’m curious: how many tracks does the average Smoke Season song have?
MM: Is it difficult to decide that a song is finished? Or do you keep finding things you want to add until someone finally tells you it’s perfect the way it is?
GW: A song is finished when our producers have finally had enough of our changes
MM: What does the word Ouroboros mean to you? I know the image of the snake eating its tail, but I didn’t know if it held some personal meaning to you? How do you intend for your listeners to interpret the title?
GW: Ouroboros is a metaphor for the continuous cycle of creation and destruction. The snake is eating its own tail to sustain its life, at the same time it is destroying itself.
Everything in this world is destroyed just to be created again in a different format – including yourself. Life is a constant struggle for renewal.
MM: You co-wrote the videos for “Loose” and “When The Smoke Clears” with director Scott Fleishman. Did you also co-write the forthcoming videos? (Dying to see them, by the way; the first two were incredible.)
GW: Yes. I worked with Scott Fleishman on the screenplay for every video and the short film adaptation that’s coming later this year.
MM: Were you on the set when they made the videos?
GW: Yep… both Jason and I were there to assist with everything. Let’s just say we have an insane amount of respect for Scott and his APLUSFILMZ team. The amount of work that goes into a shoot is absolutely insane.
MM: How involved in the casting process were you and Jason?
GW: Our casting director, Doug Haley, worked very closely with myself, Scott + APLUSFILMZ and our producers on the film to assemble the cast. We were super lucky to have worked with such incredibly talented people.
MM: When will the next two videos be released?
GW: In the upcoming couple of months.
MM: Were any of the images from the videos in your head at all when you were writing the songs or did they only come to you later when you sat down to write the scripts?
GW: They came to me later when we were writing the scripts.
MM: Did you write Ouroboros as an intentional concept album? Was the storyline when you were writing the songs the same stories we see unfolding in the videos? If not, what was your vision of the story when you were writing the songs?
GW: We knew we wanted to include a cinematic component with the EP when we started production on the music, but the songs on the EP were written months and (in the case of “When The Smoke Clears”) years before the album or the film went into production. We really just let the music speak to us when writing the script.
MM: Was Hot Coals Cold Souls a concept album?
GW: Our focus on Hot Coals Cold Souls was to carve out a signature Smoke Season “sound” that really captured our creative identity as a band. We went into that EP thinking 100% in terms of music.
MM: Hot Coals Cold Souls seems to be universally loved; I was impressed by how much great press you received, though not surprised. Did this put any pressure on you when you made Ouroboros, to live up to expectations?
GW: Not really. We feel we have grown up so much artistically since Hot Coals Cold Souls that it wouldn’t be hard for us to deliver stronger music. Since it’s been released, we’ve heard pretty much universally that people and critics are connecting to Ouroboros musically as much as they did Hot Coals.
MM: Roughly how long did it take to make each of the EPs? Or from when to when were the three of them recorded?
GW: Well Ouroboros definitely took the longest because we worked on the film simultaneous to the music. This EP was started in April and we’re expecting the short film to come out in the Fall. So, let’s just say…. Quite a while
MM: Were any of your EPs crowd funded?
GW: Nope. We exist solely off our royalties from album sales + streams, touring revenue, publishing and the support from our fans.
We do not have a label either, so when our fans support us it goes directly into us making them more art.
MM: Aside from the videos and your songs, have you written anything else (like a feature length screenplay, for example.)? Do you journal and/or write poetry?
GW: I write a lot of poetry but have not found the time to explore more types of writing. Between touring, writing + recording music, and making a short film, we’ve barely had time to eat this past year.
MM: Just to be sure I’m understanding it correctly – is the guy with PTSD in the video for “When The Smoke Clears” the father of the teenage boy from “Loose”?
GW: Brother or father. All that really matters is he’s a family member and the boy feels responsible to take care of him.
MM: Have you continued to write songs since finishing Ouroboros? Are there any song titles you can tell us?
GW: Oh yes quite a few. We haven’t given much thought to song titles though. We do have one called “Drenched” that we’re planning to include on our touring set list this summer.
MM: Do you know if you’ll be releasing another EP or a full-length album next?
GW: Our preference is a full length, but you never know.
MM: I understand you’ve received over 4 million Spotify plays. Have you ever received a payment from them? What are your thoughts on Spotify and streaming services in general? What benefits you more, Spotify plays or iTunes sales?
GW: We have received many payments from Spotify and without Spotify’s support, we would not have been able to fund the Ouroboros EP. Our Spotify royalties have been substantially higher than any other sales platform and we’re super grateful to them for featuring our tracks on a bunch of their official playlists.
On a broader scale, musicians are the first to get screwed out of payment and the last to get paid, so we’re advocates of improving the financial flow to artists on any sales platform.
MM: Vinyl has been making quite the comeback during recent years. Are you a vinyl junkie?
GW: We very much are. We’re super excited to release Ouroboros on vinyl later this summer.
MM: What format do you usually listen to music in? CDs, vinyl or mp3s?
GW: At home, mostly vinyl. Everywhere else, on Spotify.
MM: What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
GW: You mean my parent’s money? I was a kid and I bought the 1996 Grammy Compilation CD. The first CD I stole from my older sister was Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes. Must have been about 11 when I became obsessed with that and I listened to it so much, I broke the CD.
MM: What was the last album you bought?
GW: I bought the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa on vinyl.
MM: Where do you usually buy your music? Is there a local record store you’re especially fond of?
GW: Vacation Vinyl in Silver Lake is around the corner from my house. I tend to go there.
MM: I understand that Ouroboros is eventually going to be released on vinyl. Where can one order a copy? Is Hot Coals Cold Souls on vinyl?
GW: Just Ouroboros for now, but we’d eventually like to do Hot Coals as well. It’ll be available for sale on tour at our merch booth and through our website smokeseason.com/shop
MM: At the end of our interviews, we like to ask random questions. Here are yours:
What scared you when you were a child? What scares you now?
GW: As a child, I was terrified of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. Now? Probably wasting important time.
MM: Name five of your favorite movies, books, albums or TV shows.
- Movie: Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind
- Book: Game Of Thrones series
- TV Shows: Definitely Game Of Thrones
- Album: The War On Drugs’ most recent album is one of my favorites over the past couple years
- Also really loved Big Data’s 2.0 album.
MM: If someone gave you one million dollars to donate to charity, and it could only go to one charity/cause, what would you give the money to?
I would use it to help Syrian Refugees. From what I’ve read, Islamic Relief USA is a great charity to support because more than 92% of the $100 million + donations that they have received has gone to helping Syrian refugees directly.
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Special thanks to Gabrielle for taking the time to do this. Thanks also to Amanda Blide at LaFamos PR for arranging it.
Wow, just breath-taking songs. The videos blew me away, too. Can’t wait to see the next one.