Niki Becker plugs in, opens up on new album

It seems as if we are constantly trying to find our places in this world, and when we outgrow that place, we move on. On her new album, Reactor, Niki Becker has shed her old musical skin to find a new, soulful rock sound to build on top of her folk-rock sensibilities. Becker's music is a reaction to the reality of life, a kick back: cool, ordered, measured, gloomy, and introspective. As humans, we often project one thing and feel another. This album manages to be endearingly close despite all these things.

Before her album release Saturday at the Eagles Club, Becker filled us in on how growing up with Elvis changed her and why she decided to record in analog on this album.

Gimme Noise: How do you feel that growing up in rural Minnesota influenced your sound? Were there any particular artists that you gravitated toward growing up?

Niki Becker: The music I heard as a kid in rural Minnesota was mostly pop and country, Top 40. My father sang a lot of Elvis around the house and a lot of old-school country. I've always enjoyed a nice little pop song; three minutes of escape. Something you can sing along to in the car while you drive the 10 miles to your friend's house. I think that's what I always look for when I write, something that I'd want to turn up in the car with the windows down and sing along to. There's something very freeing about doing that.

I also gained a lot of musical influence from my friends. When you're a music obsessed teen in a small town, you find all the music-loving friends you can. I was close with guys super into death metal and ska and punk and goth kids; the main thing we had in common was that we all just really loved the music we loved and wanted to talk about it. I heard a lot of stuff that I never would have if it wasn't for those people and surprisingly (to me) liked quite a bit of it. It really helped to broaden my musical appreciation and can also make it frustrating when I write songs because I want to write in every style. I only gravitated to acoustic guitar originally because I lived in apartments growing up and couldn't crank an amp up and really get loud.

As far as artists, Ani Difranco was a big find for me namely because she taught me that just because you play an acoustic guitar doesn't mean you have to just strum it and play it nicely. I'm also head over heels for PJ Harvey. I love that every one of her albums sounds vastly different from the next one.

How do you feel you've evolved since your last album, Intermission?

My earlier records were definitely more folky than Reactor, because I grew up playing acoustic guitar; it's what I was comfortable with. The music I wrote in the past always revolved around that instrument. With Reactor, I wanted to step outside of that comfort zone and plug in and see what would happen.

Lyrically, Intermission was a very specific record about a very specific time in my life. It's a record about grief. They were a set of songs that really only could belong together. Reactor, I think still has a theme -- one that I didn't even realize was there until I looked back at the set of songs on the album. It's much more broad as I was kind of all over the place in my life while writing it. It's also much more inward looking than previous albums. I found as I've gotten older that it's much easier for me to look at myself and how I fit into the things going on in my life. There's a lot less blaming of others.

I don't think I could have ever written a song like "Introvert" years ago. It's way too self-reflective. Even the first couple of times singing it for the band as we started working on it, I would mumble through the lyrics in an attempt to hide them. One of the first times we played it out at a show, someone came up to me after and said it really reached out to them. It was then that I was like, alright. Cool. Other people feel this way and it's okay to admit that I do, too.

You recorded this album via analog. How do you feel analog is different than digital when recording? Why did you decide to go the analog route?

I've been recording with Mike Wisti at his Albatross studio since the first album. I've been a big fan of his band, Rank Strangers, for years as well as the work he's done with other bands in town and so it seemed like a no-brainer when I decided to start making albums. I was also friends with Rank Strangers' drummer, Shawn Davis, and asked him to play on the first album. That musical relationship has stuck - although he's now moved to guitar in my band.

I honestly went into my first recording sessions with Mike five years ago completely clueless as to what the huge difference between analog and digital would be. Since then, I've learned so much and have really grown to appreciate and prefer the warmth of an analog recording over a digital one. It's more human. It breathes.

The recording process [analog vs digital] is vastly different. There's no cutting and pasting. You can punch things in here or there, but most of the time you're working towards a great take all the way through. It gives a very natural, live feel to the recording that you just don't get when you have every option available to you. There's been times when I've let things go that I never would have let go on a digital recording because the fix would be so simple on digital. And those things end up being the things that I really love about the albums.

You say you finally found the pieces you needed to make this album. What do you mean by this? Where did you end up finding the pieces?

My band came together. I've had sounds in my head that I couldn't quite get out myself and my band came along and made those sounds happen. It started with Shawn and I working on the earlier album, Sea Salt, and arranging those songs together and me growing more comfortable working with others and giving up control and letting other ideas flourish. When Bart came on board with bass, and actually having all the players live in a room playing the parts and figuring it out together versus just always trying to imagine how something would sound next to something else, really helped these songs take shape.

I met Colleen and Laura Borgendale when we were in the Prairie Fire Lady Choir together. I don't even remember how we started singing together with just us, but I'm so glad we did! They're sisters and harmonize so beautifully. I love singing with other people, I love harmonies. I've always wanted backing singers (and, actually, I always say my dream job would be to be Leonard Cohen's backing singer) so they've really helped to bring these songs to where they're supposed to be.

I also think I finally figured out how to write a song. Or just to be comfortable with the way I write in that I learned there's no right way to write a song. Just being more comfortable with myself and my ability and letting some of that earlier fear go.

Tell me about the track "Reactor." How did that song come about?

It's a pretty simple song, musically, at its core. It's basically two chords repeated. I wanted to write a song that really put myself in the forefront of things that happen in my life. I'm responsible for the decisions I make. And I'm a total reactor. I'm an over-reactor. I have uncontrollable bursts of panic at sometimes the most seemingly mundane things and that can tend to cause more harm than good, so I wanted to address that. Once I had the lyrics, I started plucking away at those two chords trying to find a good rhythm.

The whole song, culminating in the declaration "I am the reactor" is about how I've always dealt with problems. It's almost an explanation to everyone I've ever argued with. It takes place during an argument and me finally realizing that maybe I just need to step back and take a breath for once before saying anything else that might fill me with regret and make things worse.

I knew I always wanted the music to be the opposite of the lyrics -- kind of a celebration of acknowledging that I've figured myself out at least a little bit. When I first brought it to the band, it went through a couple drafts, including a very reggae-influenced vibe, before landing on this very poppy, '80s dance song vibe. I didn't originally intend to have those backing vocals on it until we finished writing the instrumentation and I just started hearing those pieces when I would listen to it.

Any other songs you are favorable to on this album?

"Daughter" is a big one for me. By far my most personal song. That album version was actually recorded on Shawn's 4-track cassette for a demo. I thought it captured the feel so perfectly in that session that we kept it for the album and just added some backing vocals and another guitar. "I Wanna Know" was the first song I wrote with Colleen and Laura in mind and I love it because it helped bring that whole other aspect to the rest of the songs. "Safety Mode" is just a blast. "The Reminder" was an early favorite for me when we started recording it. I'm always going back and forth with my favorite. There's always a part in each of these songs that I get really excited about.

What are you excited to share at the album release show?

Can I talk about my band some more? I'm excited to share them. There are six of us now and everybody brings their own unique talents and personality to these songs. I just love being surrounded by these people on stage. We've been working on bringing these arrangements to a live setting and I'm thrilled with how that's come together. We have Sara Beth Horishnyk on drums and she's been such a wonderful addition.

I'm excited to share these songs. Finally. Reactor, from first initial writing to release, has been in the works since late 2012. "Yesterday" was written for my previous album, Sea Salt, but was one of those cases where all of the pieces I needed to make it the way it's supposed to be just weren't there yet. I'm so proud of these songs and happy with how they turned out. I can't wait for people to hear them. I'm also excited to share the love with Catbath and Strange Relations, two of my favorite bands in town. They rule. But most of all, I just really want to have a party, get a bunch of people in a room and let loose.

Niki Becker will release Reactor at the Eagles Club on Saturday, June 13, 2015 with Catbath and Strange Relations.
21+, $5, 8 p.m.
More information here.


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