Singer/songwriter/actress extraordinaire Eszter Balint is set to release her long-overdue third album, Airless Midnight, on July 10. It was recorded in late 2014 and early 2015 in New York’s Brooklyn Recording and Richmond’s Montrose Recording, produced by JD Foster, and features masterful and provocative guitar work from Chris Cochrane, Marc Ribot, Dave Schramm, as well as distinctive vocal contributions from songstress Sam Phillips.
Eszter has been very busy for past few years. In 2014 she was making good progress writing material for the new album when out of the blue—after a long hiatus from acting—she was offered a part she couldn’t refuse. She agreed to be featured in a six-episode arc of Louis C.K.’s F/X series Louie, Season 4; her performance as his Hungarian girlfriend Amia earned her considerable critical praise. Eszter also improvised compositions, sang and played violin for the series. As soon as filming wrapped, Eszter returned to work on her album.
Airless Midnight boasts three of New York’s most distinguished and original guitarists: Chris Cochrane (John Zorn, Zena Parkins, long time EB alumni) Dave Schramm (The Schramms, Yo La Tengo, others) and Marc Ribot (too many to name!). They are joined by drummer Brian Wilson (Johnny Dowd, Neko Case), JD Foster on bass, and Sam Phillips on vocal harmonies. Andy Taub and Don Piper engineered at Brooklyn Recording, and Adrian Olsen mixed with JD and Eszter at Montrose Recording. This is her third album working with Cochrane, producer Foster, and Taub, and her second with Ribot, with whom she has also worked on many other projects over the years. Eszter is featured on vocals, guitar, violin, melodica, mandolin, random sounds, whistling, and wrote all the songs.
Ghettoblaster recently caught up with Balint to discuss the album and this is what she told us.
When did you begin writing the material for Airless Midnight?
It came together over the course of several years. The majority of the writing starting flowing around ’07. Wow. That’s a ways back. There were fragments from even further back. But I kept revisiting and working on the material for a long stretch of time. And some of the words were still being tweaked at the very last minute. So in this way, much of it still feels new and fresh to me, in its final shape.
What was the most difficult song to take from the initial writing stage through recording and mixing? Why was it so troublesome?
I’m delighted to report there weren’t any completely torturous ones in this collection. On my last couple of albums I’m sure there were at least a few which gave me much bigger headaches. For about a few minutes during recording I nearly lost faith in “Trouble You Don’t See.” It was one of the less road-tested songs. I felt the basics were recorded a hair too fast, I’m talking about a click or two, so I was missing a certain mystery or menace, which I’d heard in my head; it was lost at that tempo. Then we slowed it down a bit, added some instrumental touches, and it started to fall back into place. I always knew I wanted to hear impressionistic piano fills in between the guitar lines in that song, and when the pianist came in, he nailed it, exactly and also way better than I imagined. So that just really added that bit of a unexpected element which glued it together. Not to mention JD mixing the shakers louder than anything, ha! He knows what I like. When in doubt, turn up those tambourines and shakers.
Another tune, “Silence,” not recording-wise, but placement-wise, did create a pretty major dilemma, and I almost lost the song. I had a very clear idea about it being an end of side one type tune, a breather song in the middle of the record. It’s an outlier on the album. Much lighter musically, which I wanted; it’s a ditty. (Though the lyrics are no ditty; I wanted that contrast.) And nary a guitar lick anywhere on the horizon on an otherwise very guitar flavored record. Plus the vocals have a lo-fi, different sound, like the song was sung in my bedroom. (Hmm, wonder how we got that.) So it was meant to break up the mood in the middle, sort of like an intermission, or interlude. But this concept which I was very attached to and which made sense on paper, kept absolutely not working in every different song sequence we tried. It just created a giant pot hole in the middle of the record. So I did despair for a minute there. I think it was JD’s suggestion to put it where it lives now, at the end, next to the last tune. It saved the day.
Which of the songs on the record is most different from your original concept for the song?
Now that I think of it, there are some very essential elements of the original intent retained in all of them. Which makes me happy. “Exit at 63” is probably closest to the demo. All the tunes can have different iterations of course, but conceptually I felt pretty grounded in every song, making this record. Which means having a clear blue print but also plenty of play-space left up to mystery – hat’s a must. If I really had to pick, I might say “All You Need,” and “Lullaby for Tonight, Lullaby for No One” are two which were the biggest mystery to me, in terms of how they would translate. I’m still not sure I can tell, when I listen to them “Oh that’s what kind of song this is!”
Did you have any guest musicians play or sing on the record?
Oh yes. No superstars, but superstars to me. The wonderful Sam Phillips. I had her in mind a long, long time ago. Before there was really even a record, before the songs were finished. There is an intimate, naturally expressive quality to her delivery which I really love, I wanted to bring it in, and to bring her presence in. She was most gracious: originally when I approached her, she said yes, and I didn’t follow through with the material and the recording for several more years. So I was sure she had written me off. When I went back to her some years later, she immediately said yes again.
Also, Marc Ribot played guitar. He brings a lot with just a few gestures: very efficient that way. Particularly on the song Exit at 63 I had in mind from early in the song’s inception -I made the home demo when I wad doing quite a bit of work with Marc on another project – that I hoped to have the stamp of his feel. Dave Schramm, a truly original, fantastic and versatile guitar player, is also featured on this record. So happy.
But all of the other musicians were equally fantastic too. The drummer Brian Wilson is a real find for me. Thanks JD! Chris Cochrane deserves mention, his completely singular guitar playing is all over the record. But I can hardly call him a guest musician. We’ve been playing together off and on, and mostly on, since the dinosaur times.
Who produced the record? What input did that person have that changed the face of the record?
JD Foster, who produced my last two. We collaborate well, there is a trust and familiarity and also the willingness to continue to challenge each other. He added many wonderful touches: a 12 string guitar here, a piano cluster there, an organ line there, which I wouldn’t have thought of, which definitely influence the landscape in a major way, even when the sounds are subtle. I already knew he does that kind of thing so well, he is very intuitive that way; this is in large part why I thought of him. It really spices things up in a lovely way, and he gets the aesthetic of the song and my aesthetic in general, so there’s no need for a ton of discussion around which instruments should play which kind of fill exactly where, etc. I would say he brings a lot to it, impacts it in significant ways, but “change” is not necessarily the word I’d use. And that’s good; not sure I’d want a producer who would change the face of the record I’d make. I have pretty strong ideas and visions.
Is there an overarching concept behind your new album that ties the record together?
Not a concrete or literal one, but a feeling for sure, which binds it all together. I’d say quite a bit more so than my previous two albums. Well, there was this one funny moment, when upon reviewing the collection of songs, mostly words, I was working on, I went: “Oh. I see. So this record is about death. OK., well then.” But that was just the first phase. It was never an agenda at the outset, nor was it an agenda to adhere to that theme, once I realized what was at work. Yet it did set a tone, a palette to work from. There is also something more vague but cohesive: it feels like a collection of stories. That’s what really resonates for me with this: a group of stories, which are connected, some more, some less, but they all somehow stumbled into this exact collection for a reason, and very much belong together.
Have you begun playing these songs live and which songs have elicited the strongest reaction from your fans?
Except for two of the songs I’ve played them all live. “Exit at 63” seems to go over very well pretty much every time. It just works. It seems to hit emotionally. Also “The Mother,” I’ve noticed, really tends to shut people up. There is some intensity to it, which captures people’s attention, they want to listen – and afterwards sometimes there is this bit of ” whoa, that was a little intense” energy in the room. I don’t mean to make too much of it. It’s a subtle thing. But I’ve felt it.
(Visit Balint here: http://www.eszterbalint.com/.)