Soon after finishing her acclaimed 2008 album Apple Tree, Colorado-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Katie Herzig received a fateful phone call. "I sat down to paint one dayI hadn't painted in yearsthen I got a call asking me to write a song for the Sex and the City movie," she says. "So I put down my paintbrush and havent painted since!"
What she did instead, as one assignment led to another, was write music for numerous films and television shows, and in the process, find a surprising and exciting direction for her new album, The Waking Sleep, her first release on Downtown/Mercer Street Records. "I was trying new things," says Herzig, "getting outside of what I would normally do as an artist. It was really fun and invigorating to use samples and build tracks digitally. I loved creating like that, and it really allowed me more freedom, because I was doing something less personal, and creating for something else."
But there was also no doubt that at some point, this accomplished artist would return to the distinctive, heartfelt material that made her name. After initially fronting the Colorado-based band Newcomers Home, Herzig released her solo debut, Watch Them Fall, in 2004, followed by Weightless two years later. When she relocated to Nashville, she immediately started to catch the attention of her fellow artists and was invited to perform as part of the remarkable new talent showcased on the Hotel Caf and Ten Out of Tenn tours.
As rewarding as the soundtrack work could be, there was another kind of work to be done. "I knew I'd have to get back to writing for me," she says. "I was kind of intimidated by it, but I knew a lot would come out. I do remember saying, though, I thought I might make a really mellow, stripped-down record."
It wouldn't have been a surprise for Herzig to go that direction. After all, her last release was Live in Studio: Acoustic Trio, a bare-bones 2009 re-imagining of some of her material. But there's another side of her musical interests that came to the fore instead.
"I just love bands, and I found myself making a record that felt like that. I was listening to lots of Coldplay, Phoenix, Vampire Weekend..." she says. Herzig and producer Cason Cooley were also especially taken with film composers Gustavo Santaolalla (Babel, Brokeback Mountain) and Mark Mothersbaugh who also influenced their thinking.
Herzig knew that she wanted to work with one producer and write a batch of songs that were specifically intended for a new album. Eventually, "The Waking Sleep" emerged as the project's initial composition. "It felt like the first personal song I'd written in a long time," she says. "That got the ball rolling, and felt like it might be the beginning of something."
"Wasting Time" followed soon after, written on a ukulele borrowed from one of Herzig's bandmates. As she and Cooley began to develop these songs, a new process and a new sound were surfacing. "I recorded a lot of these songs at my home studio and started to build tracks as I wrote them," she says. "It was very experimental and not rushed. Before I did all the film and tv stuff I would mostly just write songs on my guitar, now I was building tracks and writing songs within them."
The Waking Sleep was constructed over a full year of work, as Herzig continued to tour on her own and open for Brandi Carlile across the US. "I recorded whenever I was home, and each time it felt like it was a different season of the record," she says. Songs like "Make A Noise" and "Midnight Serenade" represented uncharted territory for Herzig, with skittery rhythms and multiple movements. By combining digitally programmed sounds with organic instruments, she was finding a fresh musical identity.
The song "Way To The Future" came suddenly, at the end of a session, when Cooley played Herzig a drum loop he wasn't sure what to do with. "I sat down and started playing this string sample against it," she says. "I was about to leave, but I stayed and we just wrote the song- it was really fast and fluky."
Herzig knew that these songs would present a new kind of challenge for her on stage, since she'll follow up the album's release with a headlining tour, as well as another run on the Ten Out of Tenn tour. Speaking a few days after her first live performance of five songs from The Waking Sleep, she says that "it felt like I was playing my first showa whole different energy, like we were a different band."
In addition to the changes that The Waking Sleep represent in her sound, Herzig also found that the lyrics of her new songs were moving into new areas. "These songs are less relationship-driven," she says. "Of course, there's still some of that but the key songs"The Waking Sleep," "Make a Noise," "Way to the Future," "Free My Mind"all raise bigger questions about things going on in the world. Like a lot of people, I've felt constantly overwhelmed by the state of the world, and finding myself asking how it will work out and how we can help solve things."
With The Waking Sleep, Katie Herzig displays maturity and creative fearlessness that extend far beyond her previous work. She knew the risks involved, and knew that breakthroughs only come from having the confidence to believe in your instincts. "I was afraid that all I wanted to write about was global warming and the economy," she says, "and I don't really know how to write about those things. But I just needed to raise questions. I see all these things happening around me, what can I do about them?
"On some songs, I don't even know what I'm writing about," Herzig concludes. "But it feels like exactly what I need to say."