tourinG is like beinG in a play . . . the only difference is with tourinG, you have to crawl into a bus full of predoMinantly sMelly Men, and then hours later Go, ‘whoa, i’M wakinG up in aMsterdaM!’Ed Droste
Ed Droste, founder and co–lead singer of the New York–based electro-folk outfit Grizzly Bear, wrote much of the band’s first album, Horn of Plenty (2004), in a cramped Greenpoint, Brooklyn, apartment. It was a time when the “New York sound” was in the process of being redefined yet again (at least notionally) by multiple people in their mid-twenties writing songs in their Greenpoint, Brooklyn, apartments. The difference is that Droste’s record, which he completed with the help of multi-instrumentalist Chris Bear and released under the moniker Grizzly Bear, became a plaintive, restless, psychedelic launching point for the ever-evolving group, which has since taken on new members (Chris Taylor and Daniel Rossen had both joined by 2006) and further developed its mix of soulful harmonies and danceable melodies on albums such as Yellow House (2006) and Veckatimest (2009).
Grizzly Bear makes insanely adaptive music—it can be listened to for the lyrics, for the orchestration, while crying alone, or while getting ready to go out. It’s a formula that Droste and his bandmates continue to test the limits of on their most recent album, Shields (Warp), their most up-tempo, buoyant record as a group and Droste’s most stripped-down, straightforward effort as a singer. Droste, 33, married his longtime boyfriend, Chad McPhail, last year, and still resides in a tiny Brooklyn apartment not far from the one where he created Horn of Plenty. He met the actress Michelle Williams in 2009 when she attended a Grizzly Bear show at the Hollywood Palladium. The band was already set to do the music for Williams’s film, Blue Valentine (2010), but Droste and Williams took an instant liking to each other and have been friends ever since, even spending a week together in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, over New Year’s. Williams, who was at her house in upstate New York, recently caught up with Droste at his grandmother’s house on Cape Cod.
ED DROSTE: It’s been a while since I’ve seen you. You’re going to have to come here to Cape Cod. We don’t have horses anymore but we can wrangle some cattle for you.
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: We can ride cows.
DROSTE: They have horns, so you have to just jump on and see what happens. Today we’re making a fire and playing Rummikub and board games. I’m with a few friends of yours. [Droste mentions a few mutual acquaintances]
WILLIAMS: Oh, will you hug them for me?
DROSTE: I’ll hold them extra tight. And then I’ll whisper in their ear, “It’s from Michelle.” And then they’ll be like, “Whoa . . .” I will be sure to report back to you via text about how uncomfortable it made them.
WILLIAMS: Okay. Please do.
DROSTE: I know you’ve got your own getaway now—upstate. Are you still working on your herb garden?
WILLIAMS: I just cut some rosemary. I have a little patch that I tend to, with varying degrees of success and fruition.
DROSTE: The reason I mentioned horses is that I’m hoping to recreate the thrill of the horse riding adventure we shared together in Mexico last year.
WILLIAMS: I find myself unable to describe exactly how harrowing that experience was.
DROSTE: It was going down a crazy cliff with horses where you just had to believe they would stop and that you weren’t going to go over the cliff. Then all of a sudden, the leader yelled, “People who want to gallop, follow me!” The galloping was along the edge of a cliff—there were boulders everywhere, and cacti with branches that you had to duck. It was pretty wild, I must admit. But I did get to wear a poncho.
WILLIAMS: Only in Mexico. You did look cool on your horse with your poncho.
DROSTE: I’m a western-saddle guy. Eastern just feels too small for my frame. I need a horn to hold on to. I mean, I’m six-foot-four. But, you know, after that trip I basically went into an isolation chamber with my bandmates. We came up to Cape Cod and sequestered ourselves with no outside contact with loved ones. No Internet. And we finished this album— finally. What did you do after Mexico?
WILLIAMS: I went to L.A. and got sunburned. Then I went on a press tour for [My Week With] Marilyn. But you had been working on this new album even before Mexico. It took a long time to finish. It was a three-year break since the last one, wasn’t it?
DROSTE: Yeah, the last album came out in 2009, but we toured it for two years. I guess there’s really no equivalent in the acting world to touring. Maybe doing a play might be equivalent. Or press tours.
WILLIAMS: Press tours are related to your work but it’s less your work and more supporting your work.
DROSTE: Touring is like being in a play where you have to say, “I have to do these lines every single night and feel just as excited about it.” The only difference is with touring, you have to crawl into a bus full of predominantly smelly men, and then hours later go, “Whoa, I’m waking up in Amsterdam!” Touring can be a weird, harrowing journey. But it’s also fun and something I love to do. We did it for two years and it aged us all exponentially. So we took some time off after our last record, and went to Mexico to get our creative juices flowing.
WILLIAMS: Your creative juices can’t flow in New York?
DROSTE: I feel like I always need to leave the city in order to be in songwriting mode. There’s just too much stimuli in New York. It’s always someone’s birthday or there’s always some event to go to. And frankly, my apartment is too small for a lot of the musical instruments we use. I couldn’t even move my couch if I wanted to rearrange my furniture. So we find locations that are distant and start going for it from there. We’ve often gone to Marfa, Texas, during our tour for days off. We found this amazing space that was a bunch of old Army barracks and it was being used as a space for artists. So we rented it out for an entire month in June 2011. It was during a crazy drought with wildfires constantly around the region and Texas was panicking and you could see the burn marks encroaching on the town and there was no air conditioning. We went in thinking, We’re ready to write an album. And then we quickly came to the realization that we needed to get reacquainted with each other first because we had all taken breaks. We had all evolved a bit and were listening to different things. So we had to find some common ground. We recorded 12 songs in Marfa, but in the end, very little of it was used. So I guess you could say we took a long time to make this record. For me, personally, I had also gotten married and went on a really long honeymoon with my husband. And Chris Taylor released a solo album and toured the world on his own. In the end, we got the majority of the work done in isolation on Cape Cod and finished it up in New York last spring. It felt like our horseback ride—a real trek through many different terrains, climates, thunder—storms, rainbows, sunshine . . .
WILLIAMS: Was that different from how you had worked before?
DROSTE: Before, we never had taken a break, so we always had this energy going. We were younger and we were like, “We don’t care if we’re playing for 10 people in a diner. Let’s just keep going.” We kept going between Yellow House and Veckatimest—both of which you’re familiar with, as a fair amount was used instrumentally for Blue Valentine.
WILLIAMS: I can’t listen to that music anymore. It’s such a shame. I connect it so much with the intensity of that role.
DROSTE: I hope the new album is different enough that it doesn’t feel anything like Blue Valentine, so you can have a fresh perspective.
WILLIAMS: It feels entirely different. It’s more energized.
DROSTE: None of us really want to repeat ourselves and idle along in what feels comfortable. I think we’ve found more confidence. I don’t know if this applies to acting, but a lot of times in the past I wasn’t really comfortable in my own skin as a performer. I wasn’t naturally confident. I sort of chanced into music. It was not something that I trained for or grew up saying, “This is what I’m going to do.” I went to college to become a journalist. And then I started to do these little songs in my bedroom because I was depressed and I found it cathartic, like writing in a diary. When it came to the point of having to perform, I was scared out of my mind to stand in front of people and sing. I was uncomfortable with my voice. So this album, for me, feels like I’m finally speaking for myself and comfortable with my own voice. In the past I’d put five layers of my voice on so it’s super-smooth and there’s not a note out of tune. This time I was okay with slight imperfections in the delivery. I feel like there is a spe cial, intimate quality. I think it brings the audience closer. But we were all just trying to figure out what we had in common. I think maybe we were all a little tired of playing mid-tempo,slower things, and were excited by the new charged energy. We ended up writing 30 songs, and I feel like we picked the more charged ones because others hearken back to past efforts. And in the past, Dan [Rossen] would come to the table with a fully finished song, and this time Dan and I would often write from the ground up. So it was a new collaborative process. We always feel that we just need to extract ourselves from the chaos of friends and loved ones and pets and families, and get into this zone where we’re playing music all day. I imagine it’s similar to acting. If you’re trying to get into a role, the last thing you need to do is go to dinner parties every night.
WILLIAMS: Exactly. It really counteracts. I find that it’s good for your life and not so good for your work. When I work, I kind of go off the grid a bit. Friends and family have come to accept and expect and understand that. When you isolate yourself, do you still listen to music and get influenced by other artists?
DROSTE: Every night there’d be cooking and there was a lot of R&B being played in the house. In our own way, we noticed little moments, and I can see if someone listened carefully to this album that they might hear an R&B beat in it. But generally speaking, we don’t bust out an old record and go, “Let’s try to mimic this.” It’s more like we listen to other kinds of music when we’re doing things during the off parts of the day.
WILLIAMS: Were you trying to go for a more uplifting mood with Shields?
DROSTE: Well, it’s not exactly pretty music. It’s not, “Everything’s great and going to work out.” There’s definitely melancholy in the music. But I feel like the new album is much more hopeful and at the same time, a little cynical. And I think at times it projects this sense of, “I got through the tunnel,” or “I’ve made it to the other side.”
WILLIAMS: I really appreciate when I watch an artist’s work or I listen to their music and there is a growing sense of optimism as they age.
DROSTE: I think it’s true. You can start out with a young “What am I doing with my life?” confusion that fuels a burning energy and a motivation and a passion. But then as you let go of things, you are less bothered. I think that’s my biggest thing, learning how to not let things bother me through life. The more I’m able to roll with the punches, the better off I am.
WILLIAMS: Do you find it more difficult to work as you get older? Sometimes I feel so much more attached—to my life, to my friends—so it’s harder . . .
DROSTE: To go off the grid. But I can’t imagine having a child, like you do. That would be a whole different matter. I love making music. I just find it harder to find the time and the energy. And since I’m working with three other very distinct personalities with very strong opinions and who are also enjoying their lives—to some degree slowing down even more than I am in terms of relocating or having their own metaphorical herb gardens—they don’t necessarily want to tour all the time or isolate themselves in a barracks for weeks on end either.
WILLIAMS: I thought for a minute about taking a really ambitious trip this summer, and as it got closer, I realized, The last thing I want to do is get on an airplane. To me, a real vacation is to be at home and to have a routine and to be dependable again, to be the friend that can be called, that is around for the birthday party. So I’ve just had a very mellow, lo-fi few months. Actually, I think that the only time I really get the urge to work, that I feel that little spark start to ignite, is when I listen to music.
WILLIAMS: It’s really the only thing that makes me feel restless or creative or excited. I have a tendency toward melancholy music, so it’s playing in the house a lot. But then you realize when you’re raising somebody, how sensitive they are to all the influences that you bring to them. Once, I was listening to some music I really liked, and Matilda came in and said, “Mommy, it’s too sad. Turn it off.” It’s so interesting that when you’re young, you only want to feel good, but when you get older, somehow sad feels good.
DROSTE: Well, sometimes it’s just like this cathartic feeling that you have. Sad music is like a little journey you can take. But I think Shields is really less sad than some of our past albums. Don’t play Matilda our older stuff. [laughs] I wanted to ask you, didn’t you just recently finish working on a movie based on The Wizard of Oz?
WILLIAMS: I did. But I don’t have any plans to work for the rest of the year. One thing about having a kid, I find, is that it makes me very choosy about what I’m going to do because of the way you have to disentangle yourself from your life and from your habits. In that way, Oz [: The Great and Powerful] was so amazing for us, because it was the first project that I’d been involved in where Matilda could feel like she was involved in it, too. She always comes with me. We’re never separated, except Blue Valentine wasn’t an appropriate set for a kid.
DROSTE: But the Oz film is geared toward children.
WILLIAMS: It is totally geared toward children, which I was excited about. And Matilda was around the entire time. She was so thrilled to see her mom dress up like a fairy and to be the force of good. Matilda was so proud. She would say, “There are three witches: two bad ones, and there is only one good witch, and that is Mommy.” She really came with a sense of belief and possibility and magic. She thought that I could manifest bubbles and that I was a sorceress for good, so it was a really great head space to be in for six months.
DROSTE: That’s amazing. Will you please tell Matilda hi for me?
WILLIAMS: I absolutely will. You know, if you’re ever looking for a female member of your band, she’s been writing . . .
DROSTE: She can be our merch girl! She can model the T-shirts and sell the merch.
WILLIAMS: No, she wants to sing the songs.
DROSTE: We can jam out together next time I see her. I don’t know if she plays an instrument, but if you guys come here, there’s a piano, and we can sit at the piano and make up songs all day long.
Michelle Williams is a three-time Academy Award-nominated actress.