The Sweater Set interview: How to be a ‘Fly on the Wall’

The Sweater Set

Next week The Sweater Set will release their next album Fly on the Wall. But it’s not just their latest record; it’s a celebration of Sara Curtin and Maureen Andary’s partnership and the fans that have kept them going for over a decade.

The duo recorded the album in front of a live audience, rather than waiting to perform live until after the record had been released. They spoke with me about inviting their fans into the process, while also talking about how much their lives have changed since we last heard from them, and how those changes have influenced their music.

You can pre-order Fly on the Wall here. Music fans can also keep up with The Sweater Set on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Brittany Frederick: What inspired you to record your new material live instead of in a studio, and logistically, what went into that approach?

Sara Curtin: Interesting story! I’ll let Maureen explain the very unique situation she was in at the time, and how that inspired us to record this album the way we did.

Maureen Andary: I told Sara I was pregnant in November 2017. And at that time, she was planning on beginning a family in the coming year as well. We both realized that having kids was going to change our lives dramatically. Sara came up with the idea of recording a live album in front of our fans, as a way to produce an album efficiently and on a budget. We knew that we wouldn’t have the bandwidth or the pocketbooks to do an intricately produced album.

Also, we wanted to celebrate our ten years together performing (we began performing in 2008), and this was an exciting and creative way to do that. In January 2018, I found out that I was having high risk mono-amniotic identical twins and that I would need to move into the hospital in mid-April and live there for 10 weeks. (Spoiler alert: the girls are fine.) And so the pressure was on to make it happen, and we began rehearsing in earnest. We recorded on March 31, 2018, in front of an audience of 50 people at our neighborhood recording studio, Tonal Park. It was spectacularly fun!

A live concert, recording session, and party with cookies and wine, and we decorated the space with photos from our 10 years of performing together. Most of the people in the audience were special to us: musicians we’ve collaborated with, performing arts administrators, journalists, and close friends and loved ones. We felt the love – it was truly momentous. And they are the ones that made this album happen – their generosity (aka their ticket sales!) paid for the tracking and the mixing.

BF: Do you have favorite tracks from Fly on the Wall that music fans should start with?

SC: I think our favorite song on the album is “In Another Life.” It’s intimate and reflective and perfectly representative of how honest our music is. The song that I think folks might resonate with the most at this particular moment in time is called “Being Alone.” I wrote it way before the social distancing and quarantining we’re experiencing now, but it explores the challenges of finding yourself feeling isolated (and without internet, oh no!), and poses the question, “When did we get so bad at being alone?”

MA: I agree with Sara on “In Another Life,” because it was inspired by my father’s passing. He was an unbelievably loving person whom I miss every day. He passed in 2015, and it took me several years to truly digest what we lost and what that meant for me and my family going forward. “In Another Life” explores one’s relationship with the dead, in the afterlife, in your mind – the storytelling that happens, the memories, the dreams he’s in. The song asks the question, what is a soul? What is a memory? Are they the same thing? For years after his death, I was obsessed with whether the afterlife exists. When I wrote this song, I thought “maybe memories and the afterlife are the same thing,” and I don’t know why, but writing this song put it to rest for me. I’m comfortable with the mystery – that I’ll never know. And I do appreciate the memories I have, and those memories have to be enough for me. It’s the most important song I’ve written for my own healing process.

The other song I really hope people enjoy is “Sucker.” I’ve been kicking that song around for years and just didn’t have a place to put it until we began planning this album. I’m a huge believer in therapy, and this song highlights that in the chorus: “It’s you I’ve given my power to, I had to pay a woman to tell me that and it was worth every penny, my love.” We pay therapists to talk some sense into our lives: to help us navigate and embrace our challenges, to acknowledge and honor our true power, and to help give us perspective. A well-trained, disciplined therapist is priceless. I hope everyone can get one. There have been months when my normal therapist wasn’t available, so I began using Carefirst Video Visit. If you have Blue Cross, you can get therapy for $40/session. I hope people will give it a shot. We all need additional support during these crazy times.

BF: You mentioned starting families during this creative process. How have your families inspired or changed you as artists?

SC: We both have twins under two years old, which is completely wild, so our songwriting has slowed down significantly as of late. But I do find that I relate to our (and all) music differently now that I’m a mother. There was a long time after my twins were born when I couldn’t listen to folk music, let alone sing it, because it would make me too emotional! (Definitely the hormones, ha!) Thankfully, I’ve gotten over that and can play and listen freely again.

MA: There isn’t nearly as much songwriting happening in my house. I write late at night; around 1:00 a.m. is when my best songs come! I’ve written a couple lovely little songs about family life in the last two years. But not at my normal pace. I don’t have as much space or physical energy to do so. I do have one about family life, about my marriage. I just recorded that song and it will be on a solo record. I need to have discipline around songwriting if it is going to happen.

One thing that’s changed for us is we’ve begun hiring people to help us produce and release this music. When we were younger, we had the bandwidth to be super DIY. But now that I’m a mother, I’ve hired a producer for my next solo project, and I go out of town to get new work completed. Like an artists’ retreat. Worth its weight in gold. I can’t practice or focus very well here in my own house! I need to get over that. With the outbreak of COVID-19, I have set up a really nice workspace in my basement. Hopefully that will help with my songwriting, but really, for now, I’ve just focused on transitioning my ukulele teaching to be all online.

The other thing about being a parent is that I am listening to lots of kids’ songs. While they love all music, you can really see kids’ eyes light up when they are listening to music specifically for them. There’s a reason it’s a separate genre. I’ve learned the chords to “The Elmo Slide,” which is a silly song that has really weird intervals. I’m not sure how that’s going to influence me. I hope not too much, because, while I truly appreciate it, I’m not sure that kids’ music is the direction I’d like to go. But it’s rampant in my house. We’re always digging for extra verses on “The Wheels on the Bus.” I can tell it’s helping them learn to sing. The melodies need to be simple – and that’s what can be so grating about kids’ music. Real ear worms. But I know it works for the kids and their development. They’ve started to try and sing “Twinkle Twinkle,” and it melts my heart.

The Sweater Set
The Sweater Set (Photo Credit: Amanda Reynolds/Courtesy of Skye Media)

BF: You’ve known each other for more than 20 years and worked together for over ten, so what has it been like to see each other evolve personally and musically? It’s not easy to find a partnership that lasts as long as The Sweater Set has.

SC: It’s just such a gift we’ve been given to be in each other’s lives for so long. It definitely impacts the way we work and play. Sometimes it’s like we’re sharing a mind on stage. When one person makes a mistake, the other person makes the exact same one at the same time, so it seems like no one messed up! It also works the other way, in that one can make musical decisions on the fly and the other won’t miss a step.

Having started this band in our early twenties, we really have been there through all the career milestones together! When we began, I was a fishmonger in Brooklyn, and just two years ago, Maureen was the realtor who sold my husband and me our house! It’s great to have a built-in support-sister. We often text each other questions about how to handle career decisions completely unrelated to The Sweater Set. I even get emails from Maureen’s mom asking if our calendar is free for when they are looking to go on a family vacation. It’s the best.

MA: I’m so grateful for my friendship with Sara. Growing up, we weren’t very close; we were just choir buddies. We used to giggle during choir rehearsal, joking about stupid middle school girl stuff, and we would get in trouble with her mom (our choir director). But we didn’t hang out outside of church. We always liked each other. We actually had a great trio with this other singer, Emily, who was operatic. We did three- and four-part harmony arrangements of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” that I will never, ever forget. That was a special time, musically formative. After years of being out of touch, I reached out when I got an opportunity to perform in a songwriting contest (Mountain Stage NewSong), because I knew she could sing so welI.

It’s truly a lifted burden to have so much faith in another performer, to know they will nail it better than anyone else. When we got together again, we were two peas in a pod. Bread and butter. We made each other laugh, and the music was exciting to us. Sara was 23 and I was 25. While we were adults, we were still single, navigating our dating lives, Sara was still in NYC, and I was newly sober. I got sober before we began our band, so luckily Sara didn’t have to experience that process of hitting bottom and getting clean. But we were both really green in life.

Things really changed for both of us in 2011 after we toured the UK with Michelle Shocked. We had already served as Artists in Residence at Strathmore, Sara was in her first serious relationship since college with the man she eventually married, and my father began his cancer journey, which he eventually died from in 2015. I remember running out of the hospital after his surgery and burying my face in her chest with endless tears. She made my mom and me soup and brought me treats. She was really present, and she kept The Sweater Set flame alive and picked up a lot of slack for me then.

It’s been helpful being in a partnership with someone who is truly one of your best friends. There’s so much empathy when one of us is going through something terrible; we can do more for each other. We’ve been through a lot of bad times and good times. And we do a lot of other musical work together. We sing backup for other bands, and we sing at a church. I’m grateful to do those work things with someone who makes me laugh and with someone who’s going through what I’m going through, especially as mothers of twins. I can’t freaking believe we both have twins. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

BF: How would you describe your collaborative process musically?

SC: As far as songwriting/arranging goes, we usually complete the songwriting process alone and bring a finished song to arrange together. Lyrics and form and chords are sometimes changed in the arrangement process, and in that way the songs feel very collaborative.

MA: We really write completely separately – melody and chords. We arrange together, usually. I often just tell Sara to come up with a harmony she likes, and then sign off on that, after she’s come up with it. We usually arrange together, in the same room.

BF: What’s the most fun or interesting thing to have come out of your partnership as The Sweater Set?

SC: The most fun for me is always when we get to be on stage singing in harmony. Because we have been singing together for so long, and for so long as just a duo, it’s almost transcendent to sing in harmony with Maureen. I can often hear and feel the overtones in the bones of my face when we’re singing together. There’s nothing like that feeling. I wish the audience could experience it, too!

MA: It’s always going to be the harmonies. It’s always been the harmonies, and always will be the harmonies. I think that’s what makes this album special. It’s spare, and truly highlights how our voices blend and harmonize! I guess after harmonies, you’d have to go with the fact that we both have twins. I’m not sure we both would have had twins were we not together all the time. There’s something special about it. Something really eerie.

BF: What’s one album, or one artist, that’s been particularly influential in your lives? What makes that music stand out to you?

SC: Maureen and I have always listened to different music. I’m more of a folk/indie-rock gal, and Maureen is more of a jazz/classics gal. We both are enormously influenced by The Beatles, though, and I think that comes across in the way we collaborate as a duo. Two main songwriters, changing lead vocals, and experimenting with different genres to push ourselves and each other.

One album that I believe influenced me more than I’ve given credit before is The Burdens of Being Upright by Tracy Bonham. I live for surprising musical twists and turns, dynamic changes, and interesting lyrics. This particular album is dripping with all of it. The album that I listen to most often from start to finish is Tapestry by Carole King. It’s just perfect. I have it on vinyl, and it just makes me feel like my most excellent, calm self every single time.

MA: I truly love Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields. The way he plainly employs humor just makes me belly laugh every time. I also love how prolific he is. His opus, 69 Love Songs, is one of my favorite pieces of art ever made. It’s literally 69 love songs. He is not precious; he just gets the work out there. and it’s fun and fabulous and honest. He really encouraged me to write songs with humor. I also absolutely adore jazz standards. I love Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and stuff, sure, but it’s really the composers that get me salivating. The chord changes, the melodies. They’re just wild and fascinating. “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” is one that I spent months learning on guitar, and it definitely influenced some of my earlier songs. I haven’t been writing as much jazz lately, though. Standards were a big influence for a long time. But you won’t hear that on Fly on the Wall.

The Beatles are my favorite band of all time, like Sara said. It definitely influences our harmonies! The While Album slays me. I’ve listened to it forwards, backwards, and all around for years. I appreciate how weird The Beatles got in their later years. They were not following a formula. The Beatles should give us all more courage to be ourselves and go our own ways.

I also really love John Lennon’s demos from his solo record; there’s an album of them. I bought it for my dad for Christmas and listening to them made me feel a lot more confident about my own work. He wasn’t the best singer, and obviously he was struggling with his addiction then, so the demos sound terrible. But it’s encouraging to an unknown artist that even a huge star can sound bad, especially when they’re working something out. It’s nice to know even your heroes are only human.

Fly on the Wall will be released on May 8. For more on The Sweater Set, visit their website.

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