Artist: Dirty Mae
Hometown: New York, NY
Members: Ben Curtis, Cassie Fireman, Robbie Frost
TrunkSpace: The band is set to release its debut full-length “Holy Mama” on September 13. As you gear up to its release, what emotions are you juggling with?
Curtis: I’m dealing with lots of excitement to share this with the world, fear that people won’t listen to it or respond the way I’d hope, and both excitement and nervousness as we get to go on the road for five weeks to play it all over the Eastern United States. I’m excited for the tour. And it’s been a LOT of work. So there’s stress, too, but mostly excitement. We’ve worked on this for two years and people are going to finally get to hear it. I can’t wait to hear the response!
Fireman: Right now I’m juggling with my feelings of being so physically far away from my band and out in the wilderness for the next three weeks. Tomorrow I embark on the most challenging three week backpacking trip of my life At the moment trails are flooded with snow, rivers are high and we’ll be hiking 10 miles a day in silence with very little phone reception. A woman fell on a mossy rock the other day and broke her jaw so I’m just gonna do my best to come back in one piece so I go on our “Holy Mama” tour! I’ll go from hiking 10 miles on a mountain to driving 10 hours a day in a car with a bunch of boys. I don’t think I could be in a car with anyone other than my band for 10 hours. (Wow, I can’t believe I just said that.) I’m so proud of this album and of how hard we worked to create it and just wanna go out there and share it with everyone! I think being in nature will give me some time to reflect and look back at all we’ve done and how far we’ve come. I tend to just “go, go, go” and I really wanna breath it all in. Maybe nature will inspire some new tunes for our next album… as long as I’m not eaten alive by a bear. (But what a fun story that would be!)
Frost: Excitement, joy, nerves, but mainly, I’m just excited to share this album with people. I think it’s a really unique and dynamic album and part of who I am is in this album. I feel like it needed to come out of us, like it were secret stories we were waiting to tell and finally got a chance.
TrunkSpace: Harmonies are a big part of “Holy Mama” and the overall sound of the band. How does that collective singing impact the songwriting itself? Is the birth of a track just as collaborative as what we hear on the album?
Fireman: I’m gonna let Ben answer this one. He thinks every band is better with harmonies and I think he’s right. Plus when we nail our harmonies it feels like we float off into this magical land and it’s really cool how it connects us. When we don’t nail our harmonies… well, it’s a very different experience. (Laughter) Also, singing “Holy Mama” together on the chorus was a choice to create a feeling of kind of looking up to the gods or something bigger than yourself for guidance. The harmonies represent a sense of surrender and we wanted all of our voices to paint that image together.
Frost: Harmonies are a big part of Dirty Mae’s sound. So much so, that we take vocal lessons together every other week at the Krowne Vocal school. Collective singing is one of my favorite parts of our band but to be honest, there are only a few songs where it has really changed the songwriting itself. Sometimes one of us will start a song and describe the story to the others, then have the other two write verses over the same chord changes. This way we all get to participate in the story, it changes the melody a bit and gives the story different perspectives. We don’t have any one way we write songs. Sometimes we will just jam and a song comes out of that and other times one of us has a whole song written and brings it to the group to help arrange.
Curtis: I’m so glad you noticed and pointed that out. I’ve always wanted a band who can harmonize. Harmonies are in my blood. With Dirty Mae, that dream has come true. And we work for it. We go to voice lessons as a band twice a month. There’s always work to be done there with ear training and tuning. It definitely adds another challenge. However, for me, growing up listening to and loving bands who harmonize (Indigo Girls, Crosby Stills Nash, country music, Alice in Chains, The Rolling Stones) it has always come naturally to me. I’m just thrilled that my bandmates let me harmonize and are willing to work on harmonies with me. It is work! However, I think harmonies take our music to another level. That’s why I love to play with them and strip away the music, so that you can really hear and feel them.
As for the birth of a track, most of our songs are super collaborative. That’s why we say they’re by “Dirty Mae” versus saying, “lyrics by ___” and “arranged by…” Cassie writes most of the lyrics. Robbie and I work a lot on arrangements, but Cassie helps with those too. Every song, each of us brings to the table is a conversation, and one that almost always evolves. There are songs we all write lyrics together (like “Brown Water”) and songs that each of us sing and write individually. For example, Robbie wrote and arranged “Face in the Moon.” I wrote and arranged “Enchante” and “Overcome.” I love that about our band. It makes anything possible and it’s what makes us so unique. I love bands with different voices, like Fleetwood Mac, where there’s a lead singer, but everyone writes and sings.
TrunkSpace: From what we understand, Ben and Cassie were writing together long before the birth of Dirty Mae. Do you believe in creative love at first sight, and if so, did that connection exist immediately upon the two of you bringing your two minds together?
Frost: This one I can’t answer.
Curtis: Absolutely I believe in creative love at first sight. The universe brought our band together. No doubt. Cassie and I met on the dance floor. I had been going through an intense transition in my life and had writer’s block for over a year. Then she shared one song with me and the flood gates opened. We must have written 10 songs back and forth to each other in the first month of us dating.
With Robbie, we were playing in another band (Danny Fingers and the Thumbs) and Robbie showed up as this awesome, super sweet, humble guy who was an incredible bass player. Then one day we got to jam. He pulled out a guitar and started singing and I was blown away. This guy has such innate talent and soul. We started making music right there on the spot and the rest was history.
Fireman: Yes, for sure! I never sang in my life before this band (except in the shower and in my car when I had a car in high school). Out of nowhere… I just started writing songs obsessively and recording them on GarageBand in my bedroom. When I met Ben, he told me all about his background in music and I started sending him my songs on voice memos via text – I was WAY too embarrassed to sing them in front of him. He would send me little songs back and it was just an explosion from there on. So yes, I definitely believe in creative love at first sight. It was like that when I met Robbie, too… it all just sorta worked and there was a sense of ease and love when we were together. I think we sometimes forget that falling in love can be easy when it’s right and all we gotta do is let ourselves fall. Three years in the infatuation stage may have faded but I’m definitely still head over heels.
TrunkSpace: What could someone learn about the band in sitting down to listen to “Holy Mama” as a whole? What does it say about Dirty Mae right now in 2019?
Curtis: Wow. That’s a great question. I think that’s completely unique to the listener. I’d love to hear what you have to say!
But to answer the question, in my opinion, I think people will learn that we are incredibly diverse, full of soul and spirit. We’re old souls with lots of emotions and our hearts are connected to everything we do. And we like to have fun. What does it say about Dirty Mae right now? Well, I think it says all of the above. And if that’s what we’re doing now, who knows where we’ll be in the future. We’re growing so quickly that I almost can’t imagine.
Fireman: WOW! You guys ask just great and thoughtful questions. Hmmm… this is a good one. I would say that there’s a lot going on… meaning that we might not even sound like the same band on some songs and that this reflects the complexity of who we are as humans – multifaceted, ever-changing beings. It also reflects how we’re moving more toward mood and experience verses music genres and moving away from labels. I understand how classification can be important in helping us understand creations in a greater context but I think we just want the listeners to feel, experience whatever is there for them rather than tell them what they should be prepared to experience.
I don’t think there’s necessarily anything to learn from this album but my personal stories are in there along with all the pain, suffering and joy that inherently comes with being alive and I guess I just hope you can hear that in my voice and recognize some of yourself somehow… and that understanding of, “Hey, we’re all in this crazy world together” really gives me a sense of, “It’s all gonna be ok.” So, I guess that’s why I want when people listen to our album. Or if you just enjoy the sound that’s cool, too. (And extra points if you dance!)
Frost: One thing you’ll learn is that we like to change the groove a lot. You think it’s heading one direction and all of a sudden it goes to a Latin rhythm, or a slow ethereal harmony part. I think that it’s more accurate to real life. One moment you’re calm and the next moment you’re frantic or excited and vice versa. I think that you’d also learn that we all have very different backgrounds. I think we do a good job of showcasing all of those musical tastes. We change styles a lot but every song sounds like “us.” There’s a quality about Dirty Mae that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
TrunkSpace: We’ve heard a number of bands talk about the post-studio doldrums that set in after they finish up a record. Did you experience any of that when you called wrap and how do you channel that creative energy when the recording process is done?
Curtis: I didn’t experience that at all. There’s so much to listen to and work on after recording. Plus we made some amazing connections and friendships with the studio musicians we brought in: Joey Arcuri (bass), Archie Cowen (sax), TJ Schaper (trombone), Chris Ploss (engineer, co-producer, drummer), Rosie Newton (fiddle). I mean everyone we met were so talented and so special. It led to us getting to open for Driftwood, to being in their music video, to being part of the Grassroots Festival family. We feel so moved by what came out of it, and now we’re playing more than ever. I’m excited to record again because we already have so many new songs. Plus it made us all better musicians and brought us closer together.
Fireman: I think I felt even more inspired after finishing our album. I was like, “What’s next?!” So I created Big Red Fest, a festival celebrating women in music and art. That’s definitely kept me busy. We premiered our first music video “Big Red” at the festival. The song is a feminist retelling of the fairytale Little Red Riding Hood. Proceeds were donated to survivors of domestic violence and we gave a private concert to women at a local shelter. Since then, we’ve opened up for two of our favorite bands, Driftwood and The Blindspots. Ben and I actually were hired by Driftwood to act in their new music video called “Lay Like You Do” (I played the roll of a cheating wife and Ben played the devastated husband). It’s a beautiful song and a heartbreaking video. In July, we won the Grassroots band contest at The Grassroots Festival in Trumansburg! The winner plays in the festival so I hope you’ll all come see us next year. Grassroots has such a special community and the people we’ve met there (especially fellow musicians) have been so humble and supportive. It blows my mind how much everyone goes out of their way to help each other out. I think one of the best things about creating Dirty Mae has been all the amazing people we keep meeting along the way.
Other than that, we’ve been super busy with the business side of things… being in a band is really a business. We have business meetings every Tuesday, sometimes in our car so we can keep our parking space.
Frost: I never really do because I never really stop working or thinking about music. I just love it that much. Everyday I practice and get more ideas about new songs. I think all of us have more than enough material to make a couple more albums. I think we could have made another album shortly after we made the last one. After the tour, I’m sure we will be talking about making another one soon.
TrunkSpace: What are you most proud of with the album?
Curtis: I’m proud of how diverse the album is, of the journey that it takes you on, and the overall production value. I’m just so proud of the quality and that it came out so well. Secretly, I love listening to our album and it always makes me feel good, so that’s a good sign. I’m also proud of us for just doing it. It takes a lot of work and faith and patience. It was a huge accomplishment for us.
Fireman: I’m proud that we took our time to really listen to each song and make sure it got whatever it needed to be complete. I remember going back to the studio to record some vocals with Chris specifically because on one song it sounded like I was saying “Larve” instead of “Love” and it bugged Robbie. But what’s even funnier is that when I went back to the studio we got distracted and worked on another thing and totally forgot to fix “Larve,” which is now a little inside joke we have. I won’t tell you which song song it is, but if you can find it, I’ll send you a T-shirt.
Frost: I’m personally most proud of “Face in the Moon.” Just because it’s a song that I’ve had in my head since I was 16. I finally feel like I finished the story and I feel like the instrumentation just totally made it. It’s a song that has piano, vocal harmonies, bass, trombone, saxophone, violin, percussion. All of it just makes it feel complete to me, and it feels really good to let it out.
TrunkSpace: There’s a lot of genre diversity in Dirty Mae’s music, but regardless of the sound, what is always present is that the listener can FEEL it. Is building that connection to the listener something that the band thinks about, especially in the studio where forming a link with the audience is not as easy as it is in a live setting?
Curtis: I love that you spoke about the feel. Can I quote you on that? I think we trust that if we’re feeling the music, other people will too. We have all the instrumentation and arrangement in there because we really feel it, so we’re glad you do too! We are definitely performers and with Cassie and I having an acting background, we’re no strangers to putting feeling into everything we do. We were definitely conscious of making sure we captured the feeling in everything we did in the studio. Anyone can play music, but not everyone can convey emotion through music. You got to have your heart in it.
Fireman: Yes, building that connection with the listener is something I’m always thinking of and care deeply about. Sometimes, I find it easier to get even more intimate in the studio where I’m free of the logistics of performing a live show. I can really hear when we are connected to the heart of our music and when we aren’t. We’ll stop and call each other out if it’s missing. Sometimes it’s challenging to connect with the emotion that sparked the song after doing it so many times, but the place it originated from is always inside of us and we help each other activate that feeling by reminding each other why we wrote it, what it reminds us of… whatever will help stimulate our hearts strings.
Frost: I think that we find something that we connect to. We don’t really talk about what the listener might like. I think that if we’re really feeling it, then someone else might too and that’s what we’re going for.
TrunkSpace: Your music feels built for a smoky club atmosphere. How conscious were you about bringing that vibe into the album, and, how did you go about achieving it because it certainly has the feeling of a classic jazz or soul album in that regard?
Curtis: (Laughter) I love this. And you’re not the first person to tell us that. We used to call ourselves “a speakeasy band for the ages.” Honestly, we didn’t have to think about that much. When we get together, that’s just what happens. It’s who we are as a group. And that smoky vibe is something I can’t get enough of. That’s the blues and jazz in us. Robbie grew up listening to jazz and blues, I’m a blues cat, and Cassie definitely has a naturally jazzy vibe too so I think it’s just who we are.
Fireman: Not conscious at all. But now that you say this you’re right, it definitely has that classic jazz or soul album feel. I guess that’s the sound that wanted to come out of us.
Frost: We were pretty conscious of creating that atmosphere. We are very much a speakeasy band and that goes along with the atmosphere of the album. I always try to have a little element of jazz because it’s one of my favorite things in the world. I’ve always loved sexy soulful jazz and especially gypsy jazz and you can hear some of that on this album.
TrunkSpace: When it comes to what you do, outside of the creative aspect, what is the most important skill set a musician needs to have in order to go on this journey that you’re on?
Curtis: Great question. I think the most important skill a musician can have for this kind of journey is patience, love and a kick ass work ethic. I love making music, but to be in a band these days, there’s so little money, you have to love it and you have to be willing to work your ass off. It’s about 80 percent business and 20 percent actually making music. That’s just the nature of the beast today, and (I hate this saying but…) “It’s what separates the men from the boys.”
Fireman: Having patience, letting a song evolve into its own creature, the ability to work on music alone in addition to the band, showing up and picking your battles wisely. I often ask myself this question, “Cassie, do you want to be right or do you want to keep the band together.” Being in a band is awesome and it’s a complicated and vulnerable relationship that needs to be nourished and respected if expected to grow.
Frost: Networking, management skills. One thing that has helped us tremendously is meeting once a week for a business meeting. We wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we are now without them.
TrunkSpace: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
Curtis: Hell yeah! I’d love to see where that journey goes. It would also be scary to me because it might take me out of the present moment and the fun and excitement of the unknown in our future, but especially if it’s a really good outcome, I want to see it!
Fireman: Yes, for sure! I think I’ll love making music forever and enjoying whatever journey that takes me on.
Frost: Yes, I feel like I have to.
“Holy Mama” is available September 13.