KEXP Q&A: Goodbye Heart

Interviews, Local Music
Matt Pritchard
photo by Beth Crook

We caught up with Nila K Leigh and Sam Ford of Goodbye Heart to converse about some new projects, gain a little insight into the band's history and, of course, discuss their fascination with Tina Turner. The Seattle-based synth-pop duo just recorded an album, Restless Nights, with Shawn Simmons at Studio Litho. Recently, we featured "Just Kids" as a Song of the Day podcast. Take a break, and find out what Goodbye Heart is all about.

You’ve recently relocated from NYC. How has living and participating in the Seattle music scene influenced you as musicians? What are the differences, if any, between the music scenes in NYC and Seattle?

Nila: For the record, we relocated almost five years ago. There has been a little confusion about that in press blurbs about us, I think because our work playing out as a duo only started a little over a year ago. We identify very strongly as New Yorkers. Both of us were born and raised in the city, and ended up staying there for college. I love New York, but I think it’s unhealthy to live there all your life. Moving here was a decision we made to both experience a new setting — as people and as artists — and to hopefully be a part of the music community here in Seattle. Sam: Living in NYC, you are always contending with the energy, the adversity, and the elation that goes along with it. I will always consider myself a New Yorker first and foremost, but it wasn’t until we moved to Seattle that I was able to put my creative work right in front of me rather than having to weigh it against the day-to-day reality of my environment. That said, being away from NYC has given me a ton of perspective that I was sorely lacking by the time we left.

It’s pretty tough to compare the music scenes I think. I actually feel like the term “scene” is more applicable to New York. In Seattle it feels more like a community. That might sound a little mushy, but I think it speaks to the way people create, consume, support, and share music out here.

How did your new album Restless Nights come into fruition?

Nila: Sam and I spent a long time playing in bands with other people. Some of that was great, and some of it was really hard. People’s lives are complicated, so musicians came and went. We finally found ourselves in a position where it was like, “oh, we can just do this, just us two”. So we bought a drum machine and started learning about that, and we started writing all these new songs. We needed people to hear the songs to know what we were doing. Hence, Restless Nights...

Does “How to Make Friends in a New Town,” on Restless Nights stem from your process of re-locating?

Sam: It may to some degree. The title’s a little tongue-in-cheek cause I think the song has less to do with making friends in a new town and more to do with not being able to shake a past life or two.

I should acknowledge that I’m a bit deficient when it comes to talking about the songwriting, particularly the words. If I’ve done the work, then there’s a story in every song but sometimes the story wants the listener’s interpretation or imagination. As a writer, walking the line between specificity and ambiguity has always been interesting to me.

“Don’t Slow Down,” is one of my favorite songs off your album but, it’s not about leaving Seattle, is it?

Sam: Hahaha. Nah. I love Seattle too much to write a “let’s get outta’ this godforsaken town” type of song in her honor (or dishonor, I guess). I reckon anything can change, but the rain hasn’t gotten to me yet. I think “Don’t Slow Down” is about any place actually. Maybe it’s not even about a place but a state of mind, a set of circumstances, or even trying to leave a feeling behind.

Shawn Simmons, producer of The Head and the Heart’s Let’s Be Still, and Hey Marseilles', Lines We Trace, mixed, produced, and engineered Restless Nights, correct? What was the process like working with him?

Sam: When you’re working as a duo, the process is pretty insulated in a way. It’s extremely collaborative but also fairly tedious. Plus, as much as I love it, programming drums can be a bit of a rabbit hole. When we brought the songs to Shawn he, in turn, brought a lot of respect to the work we’d already done. He developed a relationship with the record; there was always a back and forth, always a desire to grow things but never artificially. Nila and I are very sensitive to being able to recreate live what we put on tape and because we don’t use a laptop, we are somewhat limited with what we can perform sonically between the two of us. Shawn was able to embrace that and enhance it. One of the luxuries of playing in this configuration is that you’re not relegated to a studio to track live drums, etc., so we were able to get a lot of work done on Shawn’s home rig. We went into Studio Litho in Fremont to track guitars and mix the record. We’ve worked with Shawn a few times now and I’d be remiss not to mention that we’ve all got a pretty easy rapport at this point. They failed to make the playoffs a couple weeks ago yet, I still get texts from him about the doom of the NY Knicks.

If you’re comfortable with it, could the two of you explain the statement written on your band’s Facebook page? It reads, “Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?” How has Tina Turner’s philosophy manifested for you both?

Nila: Haha. Sam should answer that. He’s the big Tina fan. We put it up there kind of randomly to fill the spot on the Facebook page. It’s sort of tongue-in-cheek, I think, because we both are very much guided by our hearts.

Sam: I confess. I love Tina Turner. Always have, always will. I’ll do you one better and tell you that I love Private Dancer era Tina more than Ike era Tina (although it’s all unstoppable). I once stood on a bartop and sang “We Don’t Need Another Hero” for an audience of not enough. Sadly, I think I was pretty sober.

What caused your transition from Cady Wire, a folk-heavy band, to Goodbye Heart, a dream-pop duo?

Nila: When we first started playing together, Cady Wire was where our musical brains were at. We were only playing acoustic instruments at that point and were both into folk/country harmonies and songs that clearly told a story. Sam writes all the lyrics, and I think he is primarily a storyteller. But growing up in NYC in the 80s and 90s, with synths on the radio and then a new wave of east-coast hiphop, we also have this other very deep-rooted taste and vocabulary. The more we dug in, the more those references started coming out. We finally turned off Cady Wire and turned on Goodbye Heart because there was a point when we couldn’t deny that it was a totally different band. We could have kept calling it Cady Wire, but we had found ourselves doing a completely different thing. The funny thing is, as a musician, it has all felt very natural to me. I never felt like we were pushing it one way or another. Sam and I always want to play whatever feels the best, and whatever is the most exciting and challenging, and so it just started changing on its own. The biggest change was when we decided to be a duo. It forced us to learn a whole new set of skills.

What’s it like working as a duo (as opposed to a full band)?

Sam: When we made the decision to work as a duo, I think there was a feeling of “oh shit...” and a feeling of “oh shit!” In other words, we knew that it was gonna be scary and new and extremely challenging, but there was also a sense of liberation. We knew we’d be able to work and create in precisely the way we’d always hoped to. Our relationship to making music has never been casual. Because it’s just the two of us, we’re able to completely invest in that energy.

Nila: We originally started out as a duo and then all through our time playing with a full band, we always had each other. At this point, we have a shared vocabulary and a very deep friendship, so it’s actually very easy. We hear things in a similar way, and we both relate very emotionally to the music. Sam and I are also kind of workaholics. It feels really good to have that just be okay.

What was the first show you saw and where?

Nila: My parents and I lived in a music commune in upstate NY when I was a baby, and I was going to shows since before I can remember. The first big concert I remember going to and having an oh-my-god moment was in South Africa, where we were living at the time. It was a Johnny Clegg concert and I was about 11 years old. I remember going up to the front to stand at the foot of the stage and just stare. A couple years later, back in New York, my dad snuck me into a CBGB’s show. That also made an impression.

Sam: I’m not sure I remember the very first show I went to altogether. An early-ish show was Black Moon at Tramps sometime in the 90s. To this day I’ve never seen so many people not in the band on stage. It was Buckshot, 5ft, Evil Dee, and then like 60 hype men. I think this was during the emergence of Boot Camp Clik, so a few extra heads on stage would make sense. But it was packed up there. Tramps is long gone like so many NYC clubs we grew up with.

Which bands are currently influencing Goodbye Heart’s musical trajectory?

Sam: I find myself focused more and more on production when it comes to the music I’m listening to. So to that end - Johnny Jewel, Young Chop, MF DOOM, Tiesto, Havoc (Mobb Deep), and too many more to list. In Seattle, Kid Smpl is doing some pretty amazing things.

Nila: Yeah, Johnny Jewel is a big inspiration. I love how he creates space in the music.

What’s next for Goodbye Heart (upcoming releases, new instrumental additions, new tour dates, etc.)?

Nila: We’re starting work on a music video. We also just recorded a cover song that we’ll release in the next few weeks.

Sam: We’ve got a couple upcoming shows including one at The Sunset on May 8th with two killer Ballard bands (Powers and Bad Motivators). We just bought a new piece of gear that’s gonna add a new dimension to the work we’re already doing. It’ll take a little time to integrate it but we’re excited to see where it and the coming months take us.

Goodbye Heart's next appearance will be in Ballard on May 8th at the Sunset Tavern, and the duo will also be playing the Ballard Seafood Fest on July 12th. You can follow Goodbye Heart on their Facebook and Bandcamp. In the mean time, here's some B-roll band footage, accompanied by Goodbye Heart's synth-dreamy sounds:

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