Bright Smiles & Broken Hearts, an interview with Whimsical
On November 5, 2019, Whimsical released their third full-length. With Neil Burkdoll and Krissy Vanderwoude at the helm as a duo this time, they both took their own vision and created a fantastic and coherent album. I was able to ask Whimsical about their current album Bright Smiles & Broken Hearts, their writing process, and what’s up next for the duo.
Hello Krissy and Neil. Thanks for taking some time to answer some questions for Somewherecold.
So, it’s been about three years since Sleep to Dream was released. What was it like for the two of you to start ramping up to record once again and start gathering material for a third LP?
Neil – Hey Jason, thanks for asking us to do the interview and it’s our pleasure. The whole process was different this time around since the main band is just Krissy and I, with Mark adding a few things when he feels like it. Since I wasn’t writing songs specifically for a “live” band this time and we weren’t rehearsing weekly for shows, the lines between writing and recording got very blurred and became the same thing. As soon as we decided to start the band again 4 years ago, we instantly started recording the B-Sides and cover songs, that made up our Brought to Light releases, as a way to figure out how this new process would work. Almost immediately I knew I wanted to work on new songs to see if I could even write Whimsical songs anymore, since it had been 11 years since I had left that part of my life behind. So, I’d say the whole songwriting process for this new album took 3 years total, but there were also a few song ideas that were discarded along the way. A finished song was actually pulled off of the album at the last minute because it sort of clashed with the flow of the album. Personally I had a blast writing for this new album and I’m already knee deep into the writing for the next album actually.
Krissy – Surreal is the first word that comes to mind. It still amazes me to acknowledge that we are actively writing and recording music together again, after such a long hiatus. 5 years ago I never would have imagined this to be possible but I cannot imagine my life now without having been able to pour into this creative outlet over the past few years. It has been such a healing and inspirational place for me and being able to create music with one of my best friends is a blessing that I will never take for granted. I am forever indebted to Neil for recovering those old recordings for Sleep to Dream and igniting this spark and giving me the platform to create again. When it came to Bright Smiles & Broken Hearts, we were committed to taking as much time as we needed to in order to make this album everything we hoped it would be. On our previous albums, as we listened, there were always things that we wished we could go back and change. As we worked on this release, we took our time and truly collaborated, in order to have an album that we were proud of in the end and wanted to listen to.
What was the writing process like since it was just the two of you this time and what was it like doing it as a duo as opposed to having a full band involved?
Neil – I think it went smoother and I had more freedom to do whatever I wanted with the songs/production because I wasn’t writing songs to be performed live with drums, two guitars, and bass. I was able to go crazy and try new things with layers, synths, and tunings that I would never have attempted on the first two albums. Krissy and I were able to get a technique down that we were both comfortable with and this was due to us spending so much time recording cover songs and unreleased old songs over the last 4 years. Usually I start with writing the basic song on an acoustic guitar and then I program a basic drum track in Pro Tools. Once I have that as a starting point, I start recording the basic guitars and bass parts until I get to a point where I don’t have anything else written for the song. Now is where it gets fun and I can experiment with layers and synths and I flesh out the song until it is close to finished. During this whole process I am usually tweaking and adding drums to make the song more interesting, as well as mixing as I go along. At this stage I usually send an MP3 of the finished song to Krissy so she can start her vocal process while I then move onto the next song. It’s not uncommon for me to have 3-4 songs all being written and recorded in various stages at the same time. If I get stuck on one song, I move onto the next and come back to it later on.
Krissy – I absolutely loved being able to have such creative freedom with the vocals and lyrics and it was so much more comfortable for me to be able to record them myself. I didn’t feel the pressure of having to finish them on a studio clock or within a certain timeframe. I loved being able to record my ideas, listen back, build upon them, change the things that I didn’t like, layer additional vocals and experiment more overall.
Can you talk a bit about your approach to composition Neil and how you went about shaping your sound?
Neil – For me everything starts with me messing around on an acoustic guitar and I usually have a back catalog of verses and choruses that I intend to use to make into songs. Sometimes I’ll have an intro or the start of a middle section as well, but once I get to that point, it’s time to start putting these ideas into the computer and see what grows from there. On our first two albums I would write the song on an acoustic first and either show it to the other guys or demo it in the computer for them to practice along to. Sometimes I would come up with ½ of the song and then we would finish the song together in the practice room as a band. Now I have the ability to cut/paste and experiment more with ideas and the songs are put together in more of how I would think an Electronic artist would assemble songs. I think my sound was created by my trying to be Robert Smith and trying to make every single song idea be the most catchiest it can possibly be. As much as I hate “Pop” music, I find that all I do is try to make my songs as memorable as possible, but it’s up to the listener if I have accomplished that goal. What I don’t want is for the listener to have to listen to each song 10 times before they hear the difference between songs. If it takes more than 2-3 listens than I have failed.
Can you both talk about the album as a whole? Specifically, I mean how you decided on track order because I feel like there is a story here as the album unfolds.
Neil – That’s more of a question for Krissy, but we knew that Solace would be the last song because it has that “last song” vibe about it. I wanted the first song to be an obvious example of what people should expect from the album and to show the direction of where the album was heading. Other than that, I was not too particular about the song order and in fact, we had some suggestions from Alex Dematteis about the song order and we took those into consideration and cut a song entirely off the album.
Krissy – My heart has led me through some peaks and valleys in life and this album covers those territories. Ultimately I am writing about heartbreaking realities and hopeful daydreams filled with human emotions. I feel that everyone can relate to that on some level and many people have written to me expressing how much they connect to these songs and the lyrics. It makes me so happy to know that we are able to reach people in that way.
I like to ask bands about particular tracks on albums to get a deeper look into a few stand out tracks. First, I would like for you to talk about “Solace”, probably the best closer to an album I have ever heard.
Neil – Thanks and yes, you have mentioned that to us and we find that very flattering. Solace was a happy accident that was written at the very end of the song writing sessions for Bright Smiles & Broken Hearts. I think I was waiting for Krissy to finish vocals for the last few songs and I had a different song idea in mind for closing out the album, but somehow I was messing with an FX pedal that had that crazy long reverb and I started playing a simplified version of a song idea I’ve had since 1994 and it worked out really well. As soon as I heard it, I could hear the very simple delayed drums in my head and I quickly recorded the song. I think the whole song took maybe 4 hours total to write and record and those are usually the best songs. I sent it to Krissy hoping she would hear what I heard and that it would be a great closer to the album. Once Krissy sent me her vocals and I was able to produce them the way I wanted, I think we both were surprised by how good it turned out.
Krissy – Thanks so much Jason! It’s been surprising for both of us to find how many people are saying that this is their favorite track on the album.
Second, I’d love to ask you to talk about the track “Last Dance” and the writing and recording this Whimsical style gem.
Neil – It’s funny that you mention Last Dance because we almost took this song off the album and in fact, it’s not on the vinyl version because of the time constraints of vinyl. This was my first attempt at writing a new “Whimsical” song once we decided to reactivate the band again after 11 years. Krissy had mentioned that she really liked the band Nothing at that time and I took that as inspiration to make a more “Rock” type song and since I always knew that I wanted a more produced album along the lines of Siamese Dream, this worked for where I was headed style wise. The problem was once we had more finished songs, it was obvious this song was maybe a bit too Rock and we were worried that our fans would be confused. For me, the ending of the song is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written and I was hoping to keep it on the album. Also, I got to do a more traditional guitar solo on this song and that never happens in a Whimsical song.
Krissy – This one was really hard for me to get on board with initially, to be honest. When Neil sent me some of the first song ideas for this album, many of them were heavier and I was worried we’d end up sounding like Evanescence (no offense to the band, or anyone who likes them, but definitely not the sound I was going for). I was a little discouraged, but Neil took some of the input that I had into consideration and reworked some of the other songs so that they felt more like Whimsical songs to me. This song was such a departure at first but it is a definite grower and when all was said and done, I ended up loving it as well.
For the gear heads, can you talk about your set up, pedals and guitar, etc Neil?
Neil – The only microphone used on this entire album was the vocal mic that Krissy records with and since I have small children, I mostly recorded at night. I had to figure out very early on how to track guitars without using an actual amp and waking up my kids. This was completely different to how our previous two albums were recorded. For this album I ran my pedals into a Vox Tonelab ST and that went into Pro Tools. I had a clean sound and a dirty sound that was saved on the Vox so that I could go back and work on songs whenever I wanted and get the same exact sound every time. I’ll admit that I wasn’t super happy with the dirty sound but it did give this album a unique guitar sound that I normally would not have had. Since the album, I have upgraded from the Vox Tonelab to a Headrush Gigboard and I have been using that on the newer songs that will make up our next album. It’s very important for me to be able to quickly turn everything on and record almost immediately without having to worry about positioning mic’s and ambient room noise.
Besides Whimsical, what other music projects have you been involved in and where can we find them?
Neil – Next I have an album with the band Loveblind coming out early 2020 on Saint Marie Records. Recently I have had albums by my Horror Punk band Dirty Dead, my Death Metal band Fatalist, and my Grindcore band P.O.O.R. released, but Whimsical is my main priority going forward. All of these releases are available on Bandcamp as well as FDA Records from Germany, NothingButANightmare Records from CA, and Meat5000 records from France.
Krissy – at this point I am honored to say that Andy Jossi has made me the other half of his band The Churchhill Garden and we will actively continue to work on music together. Those songs can be found @ https://thechurchhillgarden.bandcamp.com I have also had the pleasure of collaborating on many songs with other artists, including the newest album from Black Swan Lane, Fir Cone Children, Seasurfer, The City Gates, Xeresa, The Blue Herons, Echolust and Pipes Not Dead.
What’s next for Whimsical?
Neil – We will have a few more remixes and singles from Bright Smiles & Broken Hearts out in early 2020. There was also a finished song that was cut from BS&BH and that will be released in the coming months for free. We are very much hoping to play two live shows in 2020 as well as continuing to write/record new music for the next album.
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