-an interview with Rachel Ries
MIM: You’ve spent time in Chicago?
HCH: Yeah, for six years that was home. It’s been a minute.
MIM: So, you made the move to Minneapolis recently?
HCH: I moved here about three years agoooo? Something like that. Not even sure. Time. Time is funny. Yeah, three years give or take.
MIM: So, I’m very excited to learn about your music and your career progress. You began your musical journey around 2005?
HCH: Yes, that’s when my first full-length album came out. Did some touring for a bit. First record was out in 2005 under my given name, Rachel Ries.
MIM: Reese…I was wondering how you pronounced that.
HCH: Yes, very tricky.
MIM: Ha, ha. What followed after that?
HCH: Yeah, I put out another one in 2007; loads of touring, my full-time situation and then put out an EP of split country music duets with Anaïs Mitchell in 2008. That was out on Righteous Babe Records; then I stepped away from music for a few years. Sometimes you gotta figure out who you are before you can step well back into the world and onto the stage.
MIM: So, tell me about the transition from Rachel Ries to the name change of Her Crooked Heart.
HCH: A couple of years ago I had finished tracking all the songs for the new record. I decided to release an EP called To Gentlemen. That came out in 2017. Right before the vinyl 45’s went into production, I kind of had a little epiphany about the name. I had not liked performing and releasing music under my given name for about 10 years and had wished I could go with something else–a little personal separation from me as the musician and me as the person. While I was meditating, up popped the phrase ‘her crooked heart.’ There was something in that name that resonated with what I try to do with the music I write.
MIM: It is captivating. It will probably get some good attention considering it’s so unique.
HCH: You know with the name Rachel Ries, while that is perfectly fine name…a name I love, it doesn’t really evoke anything about the music itself. All the name like that says is, “female.” You know, I mean you have these assumptions of a female with an acoustic guitar on stage singing by herself with lots of feelings. Some of these things are true, but it doesn’t paint; I want to be able to show you what the music sounds like. I want to be the teller. So, the name had an evocative quality that resonated.
MIM: There you go. Yeah, there are a lot of artists that just go by their name. The pool gets a little full, so it is refreshing to hear a unique name (like Her Crooked Heart). So, you’re native to Minnesota, then?
HCH: No, no. I’m native to South Dakota. Moved away for a long time.
MIM: You grew up in a musical family? I noticed you give credit on one of your albums to your siblings, David and Sarah Ries, brother and sister, or…?
HCH: Yup, my big brother and big sister.
MIM: So, you grew up singing or playing instruments?
HCH: Yeah, for sure. Music was always a very treasured and encouraged part of our upbringing. We grew up initially as missionary kids in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and music was a big part of that life. Once we came back to the States, even though we were growing up in this small curious Mennonite community, there was so much music. And a lot of music training. Everybody played more than one instrument. I was in the choirs and choruses. I just really took to it. I started playing violin at age 5. Things then just kind of snowballed from there.
MIM: How long were you in Zaire?
HCH: My family was there for ten years. I’m the baby of the family, so we were there when I was four. It was remarkable. My dad is a doctor. He was the physician in the central village.
MIM: That’s amazing. One of my classes in college was in world music, and the percussion out of Africa was so rich. That culture.
HCH: Oh, yeah!
MIM: If you don’t mind, before we get into the new album, I’d like to talk to you briefly about your opportunity to work with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and the Captiva project (an EP Rachel released in late 2018). What was the lure to participate and how did you actually get involved with a residency?
HCH: It’s probably the coolest thing that will ever happen to me!
MIM: (laughing at Rachel’s enthusiastic reaction)
HCH: I forget how many residencies there are each year. There are 8 or 9 artists during each residency on that property (Captiva Island, FL) and most of the artists are anonymously nominated (to become part of a 6-week residency). You don’t even know who nominated you to have this incredible opportunity. In my case, the Rauschenberg has a relationship with 3Arts of Chicago. 3Arts gifted me a sizeable grant a number of years back. I had to write essays and submit work and that sort of thing. Ever since they have had my back. Previous awardees were eligible to become part of the Rauschenberg Residency. I was lucky to get through this little loophole, but I still had to submit some work and be accepted. So, my relationship with 3Arts made it possible. It was such an incredible time.
MIM: Even just the location is gorgeous. I can only imagine an artist having that time to just become themselves in that environment.
HCH: It was glorious, and also overwhelming at times. And of course, I’m quite a worker bee, and it was a new challenge for me to strike that balance of ‘it’s okay to just walk today and go in the ocean.’ I mean we had a private chef, a James Beard-like awarded chef! Even though it was hard for me (to relax), I got so much done. It was definitely a journey for me to just balance and let myself be.
MIM: You mentioned you’ve learned a lot of instruments. Did you play electric guitar on some of the songs off Captiva like the song “Garden?”
HCH: Thank you. Yeah, no, I played every single thing you hear on Captiva.
MIM: Ha, ha. Nice.
HCH: Or programmed. I was also programming drums for that. That was the objective. To take songs I’d written during some song-a-day challenges I did this past year with other vocal friends here. To take my favorite songs from that and get better at being an engineer. I created a little studio in this cottage on the island. I’ve recorded myself before, plenty. But this time I really tasked myself to do it better and to actually edit and mix. Which that’s a whole nother sonic realm and level of listening and acumen and technical skill. And the way I learn, I learn by diving in head first. I’m pretty proud of that.
MIM: Very interesting.
HCH: Unfortunately it (Captiva) was ready for the world, right before the campaign for To Love, To Leave, To Live came out, so I just put it out there without really saying anything about it. It’s not even on Spotify or anything yet. I mean to kind of push it out more. Right now, the focus is on the new record, understandably.
MIM: You have a really informative profile at Bandcamp. Are you on a label? Will your Bandcamp profile remain there for a bit? Others may enjoy that as much as I did.
HCH: Am I on a label? No, I’m not on a label right now. I say myself is on SoDak Records, but I figure if I’m hiring the publicist and paying for the manufacturing and doing tour support, then I’m a label.
MIM: Before we get into the new album, I wanted to mention that those silkscreen posters of your lyrics you did for the Captiva project were visually very intriguing.
HCH: Thanks so much. I’ve enjoyed finding ways to physically making something tactile to accompany releases.
MIM: It’s a creative way to showcase your lyrics and to offer your fanbase some art they can keep.
HCH: And it keeps me a little more balanced as a person (doing non-music artwork).
MIM: So, regarding the new album To Love, To Leave, To Live, so how’d you manage to fit all that in? When did you get that finished and ready to go? Was that this past March or April?
HCH: I guess what defines ready to go? I’m sitting here literally in the backyard surrounded with mailers to send out all the records! I recorded the album a year and a half ago. Then it took a while to mix it and master it. I put out the To Gentlemen EP, then did Captiva. In the meanwhile, finalizing artwork, sending stuff off to be manufactured, booking tours, all of that has been going on behind the scenes. It’s a bunch to do (she laughs).
MIM: So, a lot of these songs then have been in the works for a couple of years?
HCH: The songs all come out of a three-year time span of complete upheaval and transformation. Change. Deep deep change (after a divorce). The last song that I finished writing for that collection would have been about two and half years ago.
MIM: That was “Lamentation?”
HCH: No. Technically “Loving You” was the very last one I wrote.
MIM: A ruthlessly honest lyric, bye the way.
HCH: “Loving You?”
MIM: Yeah, those words ‘I think I’m ready to love someone new, but before I do I’m gonna catalog the truth.’ and ‘loving you was a house on fire.’ Most of your songs do not have this Nashville cookie cutter song style of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, etc. I mean we can go to sleep on those, right?
When you approach a song, do you generally create the poetry or story and then figure out the music?
HCH: No, I gotta say virtually all of my songs show up together. I’ll sit down and start writing, and work hard the first verse or the chorus to a song that might already have a melody. I can kind of hear the instrumentation beneath it. They kind of come together for me. It sounds kind of cheesy, but I feel like the songs already exist, and I have to tease them out and let them unfurl.
MIM: Writers are often asked whether lyrics or music come first. It’s different for many writers.
HCH: Maybe I was too influenced by Joni Mitchell or Tori Amos. I think, like how would I structure this song in AB, ABC or with modulation? I’m such a lover of modulation if you haven’t noticed (she laughs). There’s one song that the band and I…we’ve given up on how many keys it’s in.
MIM: Would that happen to be “Windswept” by chance.
HCH: Yes. Exactly!
MIM: I listened to that song the most off the new record. It must have like five movements.
HCH: That one has a very distinct metronomic pattern, like this Baroque pattern to it.
MIM: You have all these instrumental credits at the end of your album, how are you doing that as a band?
HCH: Well specifically with the recording of To Love, To Leave, To Live we recorded most of all of those songs as a live trio with jazz drum, jazz bass and me on piano or guitar. We were sitting around for days working out the ins and outs. I was working with the co-producer on this record, so there was a lot of give and take with Shane.
MIM: Who was your live trio you mentioned?
HCH: Shane Leonard was on drums and a bunch of other stuff and he’s the co-producer. Pat Keen was on bass, upright and electric. Everything was tracked from that space.
MIM: I was kind of refreshing to hear somebody throw in a little wind instrumentation. Like bass clarinet; I don’t hear that anywhere.
HCH: The touring band for this record is me and three other women and the instrumentation between us all is cello, two woodwinds, piano, electric guitar, classical guitar, four-part vocal harmony, and drum triggers. I’ve recreated a lot of the drum parts so we can trigger them to fill that necessary space. We’ll be touring for the next three months.
HCH: It is so fun to arrange these songs for cello and woodwind players. We’ll have dueling flutes! For a music nerd, it’s been pretty exhilarating.
MIM: Speaking of your group. Who will be joining you at the Icehouse on Thursday?
HCH: Band members are Siri Undlin of Humbird. She plays flute, sings, synthesizer, drum triggers, percussion. Hilary James, she’s in a ton of bands here in town… We are the Willows, Bathtub Cig. She plays cello and electric bass. Then Adelyn Strei of Adelyn Rose, she plays woodwinds, guitar, keys, drum triggers, synth, and sings. Siri plays guitar as well.
MIM: What can your audience expect at your show, mostly new material?
HCH: For these shows we’re going as far back as Ghost of a Gardner. We’re doing some Captiva stuff, and then the lion’s share is from the new record.
Show Details: Thursday, June 6th 8pm, with Idle Empress + Eustace the Dragon