Seasons change, we rise and we fall, and our goal is to learn to appreciate these fleeting moments. These thoughts spun through the mind of Portland songwriter Clara Baker as she was recording her new album, Things to Burn. Produced by avant-folk experimentalist Shane Leonard (Kalispell, Field Report), the album was recorded in Shane’s mother’s house in the tiny village of Merton, Wisconsin. Joined by two stellar roots musicians, Courtney Hartman (Della Mae) and Zachariah Hickman (Josh Ritter, Ray LaMontagne), Baker recorded the album live to tape, no isolation booths, no cutting in-and-out of vocal takes, no headphones, pushing herself and the players to experience the music in the moment. Fellow Portland songwriter Jeffrey Martin and Anna Tivel stopped in while on tour through Wisconsin and added harmonies and fiddle to a song; there was a relaxed feeling to the days, and an emphasis on collaboration amongst the players. Recording engineer Brian Joseph (Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens) trucked over his studio in a U-Haul, and they all set up in the living room, taking the chance that a live performance without the cushion of a recording studio would lead to the best possible performances. “There’s an authenticity to a live performance that I wanted to recreate with this recording,” Baker says. “The experience of recording that way changes the way the music sounds. We set up this experience intentionally to have us be really focused on being in the moment. It was an emotional experience.”
As they recorded, they looked out on a large, frozen lake through bay windows as it slowly melted each day, passing from winter to spring. As a songwriter, Baker’s long looked to nature for inspiration, first through songwriting retreats in Oregon’s Burnt Woods wilderness near the coast; she sees a natural setting as key to her process of creation. “There's a lot of imagery in the album that has to do with the natural world,” Baker explains, “a lot of questioning about birds and mountains and fires and rain. When we were recording, we kept watching the lake, the life on it, the ducks, geese, and birds. We were really intentional about that. We needed somewhere that we could go on walks and be outdoors.” Part of the reason that Baker and Leonard worked so well together on this album, is that both understand the need for stillness in music. It’s the same stillness that draws us to a sunset, or a frozen lake, and it’s the same stillness we hear here in a long echoing bass note, a shimmer of electric guitar reverb that appears and then fades away, a soft hitch in the voice with just the right amount of vibrato. What’s so masterful about Clara Baker’s Things to Burn is how she was able to pair such subtle touches with powerful songwriting and a naturalist’s ear for metaphor.
Much of Things to Burn album draws from the push and pull between certainty and doubt. Raised in a religious household, Clara Baker understood the dichotomy of faith and doubt from an early age, but now she’s learned to embrace it. The kind of vibrantly shimmering live performances she’s tracked onto tape here wouldn’t be possible without that razor’s edge between success and collapse that live recording engenders. Taking a chance and pushing into something new and unknown is a scary thought for many, but it’s also the only way to create something beautiful.