April/May 2017

by Silke Hartung

Ex-Pat Files: Tattletale Saints

by Silke Hartung

Ex-Pat Files: Tattletale Saints

Following time in London where they performed and recorded as Her Make Believe Band, Cy Winstanley and Vanessa McGowan relocated back to Auckland for a few years. After securing the money needed by crowdfunding, in 2013 the pair recorded ’How Red Is Your Blood’ – as country-folk duo Tattletale Saints – in Nashville with Grammy-winning producer Tim O’Brian. The album won the NZ Music Awards’ Tui for Best Folk Album in 2014. The pair evidently loved the time in the US capital of country, had tasted its blood and wanted more. With itchy feet and general critical acclaim from both local and international music press they returned to Nashville – this time with one-way tickets. Though they haven’t been a couple for over five years, remarkably their relationship as friends and musicians is still going strong. Both pursuing careers as touring musicians (Vanessa gained a masters degree in jazz bass in Las Vegas in 2007) they released a self-titled sophomore album that displayed a new musical direction in September last year. Having spent the summer in Aotearoa they are now back stateside, from where they answered NZM’s questions.

In a practical sense, what were your biggest challenges around the move to Nashville?

Cy: When we arrived and for the first year especially, making ourselves known and identifying ourselves not as foreigners passing through, but [as] permanent residents was tough. Being that music is such a ’who you know’ business, getting seen and known by people took time. We’re three years in at the moment, and while we feel more settled there’s still a ways to go. With moving to any new country there’s all the bureaucratic crap which to get set up is a nightmare, but you just gotta do it.

We had come over to Nashville a couple years prior to record, had made a few friends and had seen the lay of the land, which made the decision a lot easier. We’ve moved countries a couple times before, so while the move itself was challenging, logistically it was somewhat familiar.

Vanessa: The month we spent making ’How Red Is Your Blood’, was a very inspiring time and I think both of us were ready for another change and challenge. Nashville seemed like a great place to pursue Tattletale Saints and careers as touring musicians so we set about working out the logistics, which were definitely a challenge, like Cy mentioned.

expat grand ole opry tattletale saintsWhat is it about Nashville that you find so inspiring?

Vanessa: I think it’s just living in a city with such a high density of musicians. You’re constantly surrounded by passionate, driven, talented people who are all here trying to forge ahead and make a life through music. It’s an inspiring energy to be part of and being able to work with people of such a high calibre only pushes us to improve and work hard ourselves.

Do you have other projects/jobs that do you do when you’re not playing or recording as Tattletale Saints?

Vanessa: Both of us perform with a variety of other pop, Americana and country acts – both in Nashville, doing sessions and also touring throughout the US. Cy has a main gig playing with Aubrie Sellers who is a young garage country artist destined for great things. He plays lead guitar and sings bvs with her and most recently they’ve been on tour opening for Miranda Lambert. I work with a variety of artists and bands. Over the next month I’m on tour with a bluegrass band The Danberrys, a country singer Michaela Anne and playing a festival with a New York piano pop artist Ron Pope. We both do a lot of diverse work to keep it interesting!

expat recording tattletale saints

There seem to be a number of Kiwis in Nashville right now – do you run into each other a lot?

Cy: To be honest, we don’t meet very many! The one Kiwi we randomly bumped into is Jackie Bristow – I heard a kiwi accent in a parking lot outside a club and lo, it was her! George Jackson is another – a killer fiddle player who’s doing the sideman thing. Lots of Aussies, but we need more Kiwis! I saw Marlon Williams and Tami Neilson both perform at the Americana Music Awards in mid-2016 and they killed it.

For people who are familiar with ’How Red Is The Blood’, the sound of ’Tattletale Saints’ is quite different. What sound were you aiming for with this album?

expat recording expat touring expat bw live tattletale saintsVanessa: We worked with Josh Kaler for this album – a multi-instrumentalist, producer and engineer who is a good friend of ours here in Nashville. It was a very different experience working with Josh to anything we’ve done before. In the past we’ve tracked everything live and aimed to be in the studio for as little time as possible, mostly due to financial constraints. Josh didn’t want to work that way, so we agreed on a project rate and just took our time over a few months. I enjoyed that style of working because it allowed time to be creative in the studio and really experiment with sounds and arrangements, especially electric guitar tones which are definitely are big part of this new album sound.

Cy: I think in the last two years, working more as side players has pushed us in the electric direction more so than before, so naturally we started playing with drums and really embraced the trio sound. For me, it has the space and scope for improv we had in the duo, with the option to be more dynamically varied. The record is fundamentally that approach, with a few additional parts added.

When you first used crowdfunding it was still fairly novel. It must be much harder now that the whole world crowd funds for anything from a new tattoo to paying for lifesaving cancer treatments?

Vanessa: When we crowdfunded our first album we were lucky to have incredibly supported fans who wanted to see us go to Nashville to make the album, and weren’t inundated with other album support requests. I think you’re right in that crowdfunding is much harder now and you’re definitely competing against a huge array of people/organisations also seeking funding through the various online platforms.

We crowdfunded our most recent album too, and though we didn’t raise as much, we were still incredibly lucky to have our fans support it too. Without crowdfunding it’s nearly impossible for independent bands to raise the money needed to record, create and promote an album so, although I think people are a little crowdfunded-out these days, I do think it’s a model that’s here to stay. As far as music-specific projects go, it’s better to view it as pre-selling the album, and try to create interesting, exclusive merch packages to entice people to pre-purchase rather than just wait until it comes out.

You are in the fairly rare position of being able to compare life as a working musician in two major music markets outside of NZ. What are the main pros and cons?

expat bw live tattletale saintsCy: To me, population and musician density, genre and cost of living are the main things that differ. NZ, as it’s smaller and relatively manageable to live, has great diversity and creativity in the scene, but can prove difficult to make money in original music because of the small amount of musicians.

London has almost every genre you can desire and a thriving scene, but until you’re making legit money it’s quite a mission given the size and expense of living. Nashville is cheap to live, easy to navigate, and there are lots of musicians, which is amazing – it really pushes you to be better as there are so many great artists.

Vanessa: Both of us have some issues with living in the South – given the politics and heavy religiousness of the region – but we also love the work we’re doing with our band, in the local scene and touring with the various artists we both work with, so even though we miss home, we’ll be here for the foreseeable future anyway. We just got back to Nashville after spending seven weeks touring our new album in Australia and NZ, so right now we’re letting the dust settle a little, focusing on playing gigs around Nashville and continuing our individual side-man work. We’ll be working towards another Tattletale Saints album at some point soon too, though really we’ve just toured the most recent one so there’s a little breathing room with that.

What’s your visa situation? Got any tips for other people keen to spend extended time in the States?

expat touring expat bw live tattletale saintsVanessa: We’re both here on O1 Artist Visas right now, but we came over on a P1 Band Visa. At the risk of getting into too much legal talk, basically to work here as a musician you need to be able to prove artistic merit in your home country, as well as a strong need to be in the States (like recording, gigs etc). It’s hard to book shows here through a promoter unless you have a visa, and you can’t get a visa without shows, so you can kind of find yourself stuck in a chicken/egg situation.
We basically got around it by working with another duo, 10 String Symphony, who are Nashville-based and who we met when they came out to NZ on tour the year before we went. We arranged with them to co-bill tours in NZ and the USA, sharing our contacts and making it possible to get the visas we needed.

Have you had any wow moments… like running into music superstars on the street?

Vanessa: We see Gillian Welch and David Rawlings out a fair bit. That still blows my mind every time it happens but I’ve learned to at least act like I’m cool and not fan-girling out. I can be a bit oblivious sometimes so I often miss people too. Sturgill Simpson was backstage at one of my gigs last year and I didn’t realise it was him until after he’d left. I was busy doing my makeup and didn’t notice the unassuming dude in the ball cap. I met country star Zac Brown at a party once, and he asked if I wanted to come outside to “light this cowboy hat on fire”, to which of course I answered yes!

Cy: Playing famous stages is pretty cool, as is knowing that the Velvet Underground, Roger Miller, or Patsy Cline has been there and in the very green room that you’re drinking bourbon in. I’ve done some massive arena shows which is always amazing, and to me it’s so nuts how ginormous the productions are – the whole empire of people that work to make an event happen.

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