Interviewed by Mae Hunt
In this interview with Girls On Grass lead vocalist and guitarist, Barbara Endes, we discuss her roots in music, the recording process of her new singles, and what we can expect from the band in the near future!
BE: Barb Endes TL: Twangri-La
TL: So let’s start from the very beginning. You’re an extremely talented guitarist and musician. I would love to learn a little bit about your upbringing and what inspired you to become invested in music initially.
BE: I wouldn’t say I come from a musical family. I come from an artistic family. My dad played accordion growing up and his father played. And my mother’s father was a piano player and a classical music aficionado. And there was always music around, of course. But the formal education in music I had was just in the grade school orchestra. But pretty quickly, I started cheating on that. I don’t know why just reading music didn’t appeal to me as much as memorizing it.
So I just learned what little skill I did pick up, but I was able to learn how to remember things and played by ear on the violin. I stopped focusing on the music reading aspect of it and just learned to play by ear because I think it was easier for me. And that was kind of the beginning of playing the instruments for me, but I didn’t keep doing it. At that time, there was a lot of stuff going on at my house, and I don’t think I could relax and focus on it.
But a few years later, my sister started dating this stoner guitar player guy. And I would hang around with my sister and her friends. Her boyfriend was in a band, and they’re into prog rock and all that stuff. So I started hearing a lot of guitar-oriented prog rock, a lot of King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, all that kind of stuff. My sister’s boyfriend was a really sweet, friendly guy. He would come over with his guitar all the time. He had this refinished Strat and he was a really good player. I made a guitar out of a yard stick and a piece of cardboard, which a ton of kids do, right, like playing dress up in front of a mirror, but I played with a fake guitar. Later on, Dave (the boyfriend) gave me a cheap guitar. I had a few lessons with him and then just kept going on my own.
Slowly throughout my teenage years, I picked up some stuff. I was all basically playing by ear. I was pretty young when I played in a band for the first time. I had no idea what I was doing. I was awful. But we played in the middle school talent show. I actually tried to play in the jazz ensemble in my middle school. Again, I was really floundering. I don’t know if I couldn’t get guitar lessons or I just was not focused on it or something.
I didn’t really get anywhere until I was high school or college in terms of really understanding the instrument at all. And I feel like I still barely do. I feel like I’ve really hunkered down and focused on a few kinds of things. But I’m playing a long time, and it really has been a lifeline for me throughout my life. I don’t really have a lot of technical skill, but it’s like my therapist. Throughout my life, I’ve really depended on playing a lot.
So I’m really glad that I’m stuck with it because there are a bunch of times in my life, I put it down. But I always picked it back up. And now, I’m writing music, and I have a band and it’s really fun.
TL: It sounds fun. And on my end, it sounds like you’ve mastered the guitar as a listener. When did you begin to transition into songwriting? Or has that always been a part of playing the guitar for you?
BE: No, I spent pretty much all of my time learning songs of the bands that I loved growing up. I think the first song I learned was a Pink Floyd song. I learned a bunch of prog stuff when I was a teenager, which was fun because it was challenging. And then I got into jangle pop, REM, all kinds of stuff from the Grateful Dead to the Gear Daddies. And then I learned about The Clash. And I got into punk rock a little bit. In college, I learned about the Pixies and a bunch of other post punk stuff.
But I didn’t really start writing songs until my late twenties. I wrote a bunch of songs for a little EP, I guess you’d call it. I didn’t release it or anything, but it was the first time I assembled a bunch of songs. I recorded them on a four-track cassette deck or a mixer. And a friend of mine, who is a musician, wrote commercial music and mixed it for me.
After that, I started playing with a series of other bands and didn’t really write again until maybe my mid-thirties really, early thirties. And at that point, I was actually classic country. Here in New York, at a place called The Weal and Woe, I formed this band with my friend, Russell, who is a great country and bluegrass guitar player and harmony singer. And that’s when I started really writing enough songs where I could put together a whole set of my own material. We formed the band with Russell and Jason Cade, this amazing fiddler, and Mark Deffenbaugh, a great lap steel, a guitar player. And that was my first taste of having a band and doing my own material, which was horrifying but really helpful and gave me a lot of confidence.
TL: That’s awesome. I feel like a lot of your songs or the lyrics, at least, are both very personal and very honest. It seems as though you’re not afraid to take a political stance. Is it difficult for you to write about personal events or writing about politics, or does it come naturally?
BE: I think it’s just my personality. I have a hard time writing abstractly or about experiences that aren’t my own. Sometimes, I have a song idea and I won’t know where to take it other than to try to relate it to a personal experience. And I think that’s one of the reasons I love country music. Getting really sucked into the older classic country genre is what made me feel like I could write songs.
I mean, of course, there are examples in other genres of this. But listening to someone singing about an experience that seems really personal and straightforward and honest…it felt like that’s the way that I could express myself and not feel like a phony. So when I was in a classic country band, it really made me want to write songs for the first time. And then I went back to rock music and started Girls on Grass. But I think that that kind of lyrical approach is still the only way that I really feel comfortable writing.
The only song on Dirty Power that is neither super political or very personal about a specific thing that’s happened to me or a series of things is Friday Night. And I just wrote that song on a whim—it was probably spurred by a movie or a show or something I don’t remember exactly. But that was the only time I’ve ever written something that was completely made up.
TL: You mentioned this earlier but it sounds like writing is like a release, a space where you can release your energy and thoughts, which is really amazing. And I do want to talk a little bit about your most recent songs. First of all, congratulations. I am sure it feels great to be putting out music in a time where the world feels like we’re in a standstill. Would you mind telling me a little bit about the recording process, where you recorded, how long it took, things like that?
BE: It’s been really nice to be able to put something out during this time because it does feel like we’re at a standstill. The band started to really pick up some momentum finally last year. We went on a couple of short tours and played the Swamp Stomp Festival again. We were applying for festivals and trying to get out of New York more. Recording those songs was intended to build on that so that we could have something new to tour behind because Dirty Power came out in April last year. It seemed like a good way for us to keep that momentum going.
There’s this group of musicians in New York City. There’s a scene that was around in the ‘80s here, and I guess probably early ‘90s, of all these incredible musicians who are now doing a lot of recording and producing. And mostly because Nancy’s (my drummer’s) social network, I’ve met a lot of these people and we’ve recorded with a bunch of them.
So Jay Sherman-Godfrey did the first record – he engineered it and helped produce it. And then Eric Ambel did the last record. These guys are like titans of the alt-country scene here. And the third person in that group that we’d been talking to about maybe recording with is Mark Spencer, who’s a phenomenal musician. He’s a touring musician with Sun Volt. And he’s worked with Cheri Knight and all kinds of people. Just so talented.
He has a studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn called Tape Kitchen, and we had considered doing Dirty Power there, and then we thought, let’s just try to do the single there. It’s a really cool, old, light industrial building on the Gowanus Canal. It’s got a recording studio on multiple floors and it’s got this big kitchen. It’s a really cool vibe. We recorded live as a trio and then did a little bit overdubbing. And we had a friend, Glenn Spivack, come in to play harmonica. And he’s just an incredible player. I mean, he basically played all of this stuff on Spill Your Guts off the cuff, right? Just one of those guys.
It was a good experience, but it’s also really different for us because I threw the songs at the band without much rehearsal time. I just thought, let’s see what happens. Who’s Gonna Cry had a really short rehearsal time. We had two or three weeks with that one. We worked out Spill Your Guts a little longer. It was really fun to see how the band responded to a shorter gestation period for the songs. It made it really fun to record them, if kind of anxiety-inducing. But that kind of energy can be really good in the studio because the last thing I want to do is to go into the studio with the band and have everybody be bored with the songs and know exactly what they’re going to play. It’s just not as exciting. There’s always that possibility that you’re going to regret not doing something on a song because, six months later, you know the song better. It was a good experience and I think I’d like to do it again.
TL: It sounds like it was a fun experience! And it sounds like it speaks to your chemistry to be able to pull it all together without as much rehearsal as songs typically have.
BE: Yeah – they’re both really talented players. Nancy’s a pro. And she puts with up with my….I can be a little control freakish. I think a lot of songwriters might be like that. But we’ve gotten to a good place in collaboration. Again, she’s just super talented and able to lay down all different kinds of things. And Dave, too, they’re really tight as a rhythm section and they love playing together. So it’s pretty awesome place for me to be as a songwriter.
TL: It definitely, it sounds it. I also wanted to mention the Who’s Gonna Cry music video. I’m curious as to how that idea came about.
BE: I just love stop animation. I mean, I’ll be honest. The specifics of it were largely left to Wendy Norton, the creator. We had a collaborative connection. She told me about her concept after I pitched the general idea to her and I was into the concept. I think the southwest theme was a response on her part to the kind of spaghetti western music behind it. I just loved how she rendered us in puppets. And I actually have the puppets in my house. Well, I have the Trump puppet and I have my puppet. Nancy and Dave have their own puppets.
TL: That’s awesome. I love that video.
BE: Yeah. Nancy and Dave didn’t want the Trump puppet. (laughter) I don’t know what to do with it. I’m thinking of doing various things with it.
BE: But I’m taking my time.
TL: That’s funny. Yeah. Take your time. Think of something good.
BE: Yeah, I’m glad you like it. I love the animated videos.
TL: It’s a creative way to pair visuals with songs.
BE: Also, it’s also really fun for me to collaborate with visual artists and see what they’ll do with music that we make. I like supporting people doing their art and keeping money flowing directly between artists. I’m really happy about being able to do that.
TL: Yeah. I think that’s great. And it turned out awesome.
BE: Thank you. Yeah, I love it. It’s cute, right?
TL: Yeah (laughter). It’s definitely cute. Thanks for all of that. I’m just curious, for my last question, what’s next for you? I know you mentioned you have a day job, so I’m sure that’s eating up a lot of your time, but what can we expect from you next music-wise?
BE: That’s a constantly evolving question in my own mind right now. This is a very tenuous time. This isn’t sexy or anything. Honestly, I’m struggling to find my creative flow right now. I’m really distracted by everything that’s happening in the world and in the US. It’s definitely throwing me off my flow. At the same time, the situation we’re in has, out of necessity, forced me to get my home recording situation more squared up. I’ve learned some new skills and done some recording that I’m really excited about. I feel like I needed to get those tools back because the only home recording I did previously was on a cassette-deck type situation.
It’s been a good time for me to work on some other skills. I’m constantly thinking about how to use those to try to adapt to the current situation with the band. So we’re working that out together. As far as playing together and songwriting, it’s [the pandemic has] slowed us down. I’ve got some new songs brewing and we’re hoping to sort out a cold weather situation where we can start playing together again. But our rehearsal space doesn’t really lend itself to being in the same room together. It’s super depressing.
I have no doubt that if the veil of all of this pandemic is lifted and everything reset, we would just fall back into the pocket and keep going. But I don’t think it’s going to be that simple. I think a lot of the venues certainly are struggling and may close. And the festival—we got into the Waking Windows, and that would have been this spring in Vermont. But who knows.
I think even outdoor festivals might struggle to get back up and running. The only crazy but fairly solid plan we have right now is to start doing outdoor concerts this spring and try to get the gear together to make that happen. Maybe start songwriting with the idea of recording again as a band next year. But it’s just so hard to know what’s going to happen.
TL: Yeah. I think the pandemic has definitely impacted everybody in different ways. I am sure that your anticipated 2020 plan has changed. But it’s also caused a lot of us to cultivate new skills, like producing music inside. So hopefully, that brings along some new material. But whatever you have in store for us, I’m sure it will be great.
BE: You’re very kind. We’ve really received a lot of support this year, like a support for the 7-inch. And it’s really helped us keep going mentally. And so we really appreciate your interest and your willingness to help us get the word out.
TL: Yeah, of course. It’s good music. So it makes it a lot easier when it’s good music.
BE: Thank you.
TL: No, thank you! Thank you for taking the time today. I really appreciate it and have really enjoyed speaking with you.
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