When NZM last talked to Vanessa McGowan and her partner-in-music, Cy Winstanley, they were London-based and busy promoting the debut (and well-reviewed) album of their Americana country-tinged outfit, Her Make Believe Band. That was 2010 and quite possibly it was that trip back home to NZ that convinced the pair to return more permanently. HMBB is now gone and in its place is an Auckland-based duo called Tattletale Saints who have just released their own debut album, ‘How Red Is the Blood’. Silke Hartung talked with the pair about the change, tradition and juxtaposition.
The high school jazz scene is a good way to bring people from different schools together, says Cy Winstanley. He’d know, because this is how he and band mate Vanessa McGowan met back in the day; in their early teens actually. Having lost contact for a while, their paths crossed again a few years later in London, starting Her Make Believe Band – which featured in NZM’s Dec/Jan 2010 issue. Moving back to NZ, they went from being an amplified four-piece to the more country and acoustic duo they are now as Tattletale Saints.
“We decided we needed a new name when it became more apparent to us that we’d be a duo for the long term.
“The band’s name was plucked from a book. We thought it had a nice ring to it and we liked the fact that a ‘tattletale’ is someone you can’t trust and a saint is someone you ought to be able to trust – that’s quite a nice juxtaposition of these two opposing ideas, which we feel our music is, too, in a sense.”
Their just-released debut album, ‘How Red Is The Blood’, is a thoughtful collection of delicate acoustic songs reminiscent in voice and arrangement of the likes of Paul Simon and Harry Nilsson.
“Compositionally we try to play things that aren’t so traditional, while the instrumentation and singing definitely is.”
Cy says he hardly ever abandons song ideas. He wants every single word, image and melody to be meaningful, not just place holders, and he works on songs in quite a perfectionist way. The pair both like the introspective title track How Red Is the Blood from a Broken Heart best, describing it as a Jimmy Webb-style song “… with angular, straight chord changes. A gentle country waltz led by Cy’s voice and O’Brien’s mandolin, they feel it paints a good picture of trying to make sense of a broken heart. It sits near the middle of their gorgeous 12-track album.
Having supported others in it before themselves, it was Vanessa’s idea to give crowd funding a go for the Tattletale Saints’ first album. They’d had to borrow money for the last Her Make Believe Band album (‘A.M. Radio’) in 2009, which, they tell me they’re still paying back.
“This time round the idea of not being in debt was quite attractive to us.”
We briefly get into a recent TED talk held by American indie chanteuse Amanda Palmer on not making people pay for music, but allowing them to do so, and therefore to be part of the process and the journey of making an album.
“The crowd funding personifies that idea – you do it WITH them,” she says. “I was happy for us to do it. It didn’t feel like charity because I’ve been on the receiving end of this kind of thing a number of times and I’ve loved it!”
Tattletale Saints easily reached their pledgeme.co.nz target of $22,000 with the help of 220 people, most perfect strangers. Both seem to like the sentiment that by paying for an album in advance, you become part of the team. It also led them to feel very much accountable to the funders – in terms of hitting deadlines for example.
“There’s no separation between you and your fans, it’s quite community spirited,” says Vanessa.
Nashville’s Grammy-winning Tim O’ Brian was their first choice as producer.
“We wanted someone who values the song above all else,” says Cy. “We love his nice and clean production on other records. That’s what we wanted, to have a nice reproduction of how we sound live.”
Contact was made through a friend who had previously toured with O’ Brian. Cy and Vanessa prepared a short live show reel with video message for him, and he liked it. With the funds raised and producer willing, plane tickets were booked for January and off to Nashville they went. There was a shock moment on the way when they noticed that somewhere between Sydney and LA, temperature changes on the plane had cracked ‘Eva’, Vanessa’s beautiful 19th century upright flat back bass. Luckily the damage proved repairable for a relatively small amount of money.
Against Cy’s expectations it wasn’t all about cheesy pop-country over there. A band they met through Boston-based Kiwi banjo player Catherine ‘BB’ Bowness, who also plays on the new record, picked them up from the airport, and took them straight to a party.
“We had the best time ever in Nashville,” he says enthusiastically. “We were right in with the locals.”
There was a jam night, pickin’ party or gig to go to every night and in a few weeks the recording of ‘How Red Is the Blood’ was complete. They make it sound effortless… much like their sublime music.