Debbie Neigher is not the kind of person to unravel – at least not in the sense of coming helplessly undone. The San Francisco-based songwriter, whose accomplished, piano-driven, alt-pop is as vibrant and exhilarating as stumbling across a garden patch in the urban core, is the sort who chose to spend a semester studying abroad in Ghana to get out of her comfort zone, who picked up and moved to San Francisco after college sight unseen, and who recently quit her job of three years working with homeless youth to pursue music full-time.
On the contrary, Neigher’s version of unraveling, marvelously laid out on her sophomore album, is more about willfully tearing apart the seams and getting to the heart of things.
To that end, she explains, “Unravel is a collection of songs about vulnerability – avoiding it; embracing it and turning it into strength and power; the vulnerabilities of femininity and how that can be interpreted; emotional hibernation; falling completely in love with someone you know you cannot be with; the vulnerability of the young people I worked with on the fringes of the American economic system; simply wanting to sit bare-boned with someone you love and the struggle to be your entire, naked self.”
Even the recording of the album involved vulnerability. Deciding she wanted to push herself musically and stylistically, Neigher re-teamed with producer John Vanderslice (Spoon, The Mountain Goats). Where the first record was straightforward in that the piano was the main character and storyteller of each song, with drums, bass, and orchestration filling in the details, this one was tracked with drums, bass, and electric keyboard so that the piano sounds could later be replaced one by one with an arsenal of organs, synths, and keyboards.
“It’s a little disconcerting to have no idea what’s going to happen – both times,” she laughs, explaining the complete trust she put in Vanderslice’s direction. “And both times JV’s said, ‘Trust me, it’s going to be great. You have the right people in there and great things will happen.’ And he’s totally right. That’s what happened both times.”
The “Dream Team”, as they dubbed their collaborators, was an all-star list of San Francisco talent that included Minna Choi as the arranger/conductor for the Magik*Magik orchestra (Death Cab for Cutie), engineer Ian Pellicci (Deerhoof, The Dodos, Rogue Wave), Jason Slota on drums (Thao with the Get Down Stay Down), and Jesse Cafiero on bass and lap steel guitar (Thao, Sean Hayes). Justine Leichtling played violin and multi-instrumentalist Sylvain Carton provided a rich tapestry of other sounds.
“JV was much more hands-on this time around,” Neigher explains of the recording process, “pulling and adding instruments, live dubbing on synths while I was recording, writing vocal harmony parts, and going further with effects than we had gone before. Sometimes the recording process felt as vulnerable as the songs themselves – we once again recorded on tape without the use of any computers to edit or cut and paste. You have to be in the moment that way – you have to be prepared to do very few takes. Mistakes become part of the patchwork of the performance; natural creaks and cracks of the instruments and the voice leave the humanity in the songs.”
Thankfully, Neigher and her collaborators were up for the challenge. “We’ve taken a lot of lessons,” laughs the classically trained pianist. “We’re huge music nerds!”
Their proficiency is both stunning and graceful. Unravel is proof – as in all of Neigher’s leaps of faith – that with the right foundation and trustworthy partners, vulnerability can be more exciting than terrifying.
“I think it’s just really important to constantly be assessing what makes you comfortable, what makes you uncomfortable, what are your sources of confidence, what your insecurities are, and then to kind of push and pull and play with those things,” she says. “To try to keep yourself challenged but also to have the freedom to keep creating the world that you want around you.”
And sometimes to do that, you have to do a little unraveling first.