There’s the fun stuff, side effects the music that you’re humming along to instantly; and then there’s the stuff that’s a little harder to characterise. The first time I heard a piece of music by Old Earth, treatment the songwriting/performing side of Milwaukee’s Todd Umhoefer, I downloaded his entire back catalogue right away. Why, I can’t say: his often meandering, experimental compositions aren’t the sort of music that I normally listen to. But there’s a warmth to his voice, when it appears, that all the lo-fi production in the world cannot disguise – and when things feel right, sometimes they just are.
It’s most obvious on “2”, the ten-minute centrepiece to a new album which takes on the weight of an epic despite only being three tracks long. Each track breaks down still further, and by three minutes into what comes across as a straightforward take on Neutral Milk Hotel complete with ambiguous, poetic lyrics it has become something else entirely. It’s an album structured to warn off song-skippers, which is why it’s a good thing that the prolific artist has chosen to partner with eclectic Edinburgh-based lable Mini 50 Records for this month’s release of Small Hours.
Small Hours is released on 22nd April, but there are a number of limited edition preorder packages available which include treats like tote bags and a bonus EP – and buying upfront helps a small label out more than you know.
I spoke to Todd last month over email about the project’s enigmatic name, the “legitimacy” that comes with a physical release and just why an American artist is working with a label from Edinburgh anyway?
Confession: it’s taken me until now, as a result of our correspondence, to figure out that Old Earth is a solo project. Was the enigmatic name deliberate, in the sense that it maybe shields “Todd” from “Old Earth” as a musical project, and why did you choose the name?
I definitely appreciate mystery, and as much as it shields my name from the project, it’s also is a way to invite my collaborators to feel a greater sense of ownership. They truly change the songs, which is what excites me the most about working with other people. I like taking myself out at times.
The name is as much an homage to a giving mother as it is to the idea that I’m working in a traditional form. I don’t claim to be doing anything new here, just playing rock music. I think the words “Old Earth” set the listener up in a simple and direct way.
How did you get started writing music and performing?
I started performing in my late-teens and early 20s. I played in bands but didn’t really write much. I just watched my friends and learned from their songwriting processes. I’ve always made little recordings of melodies or guitar parts, but nothing serious until about 2005, when I started writing and performing originals and traditionals. I started to find my own way into recording, and still spend a lot of time patiently developing sounds and themes. Being a recording artist and performing artist are very different things, and I like finding the common threads and improving at both.
Three words to describe your sound…
Experimental folk rock
What influences you?
I get excited about making the best art that I’m capable of. My friends and family support me both musically and otherwise, so I just keep working and have faith in the process.
Let’s talk Small Hours, which is out next month on mini50 records. Is this your first time working with a label? What’s the biggest difference that you have noticed, as opposed to the more DIY releases you have done through Bandcamp in the past?
As Old Earth, I publish with my own label, Arrow Girl, I’ve worked with a co-established label called Sector Five, I work with Chad Addams’ Xes Records, and now with Euan. He’s done an amazing job, and it’s my first experience of working with a label in which I was afforded more time to concentrate on the songs. Writing and performing should always be at the centre of it all for me. I’ve done the business end for a long time and don’t get anything out of it.
On a related point, with a variety of physical pre-order packages available, I’m curious why you wanted to release this particular record in a physical format? Is being able to do so important to you, even these days when it’s relatively easy to self-release music in an electronic format?
I think there’s still a sense of legitimacy when you publish something. The work should be strong enough to justify its physical existence, and both Euan and I believe in the work to the point of struggling to bring a beautiful object into the world. He provided connections and exposure for myself, and artist Jamie Mills. We’ve all worked very hard and put a lot of love into this project!
Also, the experience of music is changed when words and images are presented on paper. There’s a richer visual experience beyond the cover art when a booklet is done right. Jamie masterfully composed the illustrations and layout, and it’s an inspired and considered presentation. When I write lyircs, the way the words and line breaks sit and move on the page is important to me. I think all the aspects should be working hard.
What are your plans for the record – or do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
This record has been done, for me, for a bit. I have a new 10-minute piece that will be released as a bonus EP for Small Hours, which is called Light Shaped. I’ve started writing what might turn out to be a full-length. We’ll see! I just keep making and performing and changing the process. Plenty more free mixtapes, and a full-length video for Small Hours by Blackbox Visual.
Does your new relationship with an Edinburgh label mean any Scottish shows are on the horizon (she says hopefully)?
I hope to get out to Edinburgh… If people are interested in live performances, I’d be happy to find a way there! A Toad Session would be amazing, and Euan’s got a lot of location ideas for video and sound recordings. Music has taken me to some surprising places, and this would mean a lot to me.
And finally – what are you listening to at the moment?
Just rap and my friends’ bands. A little bit of country. Most of all spending a lot of time with my own songs…