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Featherless Ideas We Would Hand Back and Forth to Each Other
On September 3, 2017, Mike Mills emailed Matt Berninger to introduce himself and in very short order, the most ambitious project of The National’s nearly 20-year career was born and plans for a hard-earned vacation died. The Los Angeles-based filmmaker was coming off his third feature, 20th Century Women, and was interested in working with the band on... something. A video maybe. Berninger, already a fan of Mills’ films, not only agreed to collaborate, he essentially handed over the keys to the band’s creative process.
The result is I Am Easy to Find, a 24-minute film by Mills starring Alicia Vikander, and I Am Easy to Find, a 68-minute album by The National. The former is not the video for the latter; the latter is not the soundtrack to the former. The two projects are, as Mills calls them, “Playfully hostile siblings that love to steal from each other” -- they share music and words and DNA and impulses and a vision about what it means to be human in 2019, but don’t necessarily need one another. The movie was composed like a piece of music; the music was assembled like a film, by a film director. The front-man and natural focal point was deliberately and dramatically side-staged in favor of a variety of female voices, nearly all of whom have long been in the group’s orbit. It is unlike anything either artist has ever attempted and also totally in line with how they’ve created for much of their careers. It’s complicated. And also kind of not.
“The National is not five dudes,” Berninger says, putting the lie to the photograph accompanying this press kit. “That's kind of been the core, but the truth is, very quickly with Boxer, Carin started writing. Kyle and Ben, who are our brass section, they became very much creative partners, and then Thomas Bartlett, Sufjan Stevens -- the doors have been wide open in terms of people coming in. It’s a big community.”
Carin is Carin Besser, Berninger’s wife, who saw her lyric-writing duties increase, but the most drastic change this time was that, for the first time, an outside collaborator has been credited as a creative producer for an entire project. “What felt new was to have an outsider in the middle of the creative process, giving a lot of feedback,” says songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Aaron Dessner. Traditionally he would be the band member charged with assembling a National album’s sundry pieces, and Long Pond, his studio in upstate New York, had become the de facto home base for a band whose members are now scattered across New York, Ohio, California, and France. “He wasn't producing in a traditional sense, it's more like he's been an interrupter -- a subversive force in the middle of everything, and kind of questioning and suggesting and subverting our normal process.”
When Mills first reached out to Berninger, The National’s seventh album, Sleep Well Beast, was just coming out, and the band was embarking on a long stint of touring and headlining festivals. “So we talk on the phone, and I was expecting to do a video, and Matt's like, ‘Well we've got all these songs, why don't we do an album, like a film for all the songs,’” Mills recalls. “From the get-go he was like, ‘You can do anything you want,’ which was super generous but very daunting. I don't know shit about music, so it was really interesting that they were so game.”
Berninger gave Mills a handful of tracks from the Sleep Well Beast sessions, including what would become “Light Years,” “The Pull of You, and “Quiet Light,” as well as “Rylan,” which dated back a decade. There were no conditions as to what Mills could or not do with the tracks, and he quickly landed on an idea that would be perfect for Vikander and wrote a script with her in mind. The film, which was shot in March 2018, is nothing more and nothing less than an intimate look at one person’s life from birth to (spoiler alert) death, a picaresque succession of subtitled snapshots and fleeting moments big and small that add up to a life -- existential bullet points.
“I often play around with condensing a huge thing into a small thing, playing out a telescoping of time,” Mills says. “My favorite art pieces do that. So why not a portrait of someone’s whole life, and Alicia’s so good she could play the whole thing without any aging prosthetics. I grew up with very powerful sisters and a mom, and a gay dad -- I grew up in a matriarchy. I'm used to trying to figure out women, so it's much easier for me to write a female character than a male character.”
The further along Mills got, the clearer it became to all involved that more songs would be needed; likewise, the band found themselves newly inspired the more they saw what he was doing and how opening up their process felt liberating. “In filmmaking there is a really broad and inclusive space where artists can really work together in a collaborative way,” says multi-instrumentalist and composer Bryce Dessner. “And so in a way the language Mike was speaking dovetailed pretty quickly with how we functioned.”
They wrote and recorded while on tour as they always have. When Berninger sings in a hushed, plaintive voice, there is a very strong chance that’s because the song was written, or even recorded, in a hotel room in Europe somewhere, or within earshot of a sleeping family. But now they were handing these parts to Mills directly to do with as he wished -- moving or even removing them at will. The guitars that had filled “Where Is Her Head” were taken out almost entirely, as were the drums that once anchored “Hey Rosey.” When the tour for Sleep Well Beast ended in October 2018, instead of settling into the customary sanity-preserving year off, The National instead continued writing and recording in earnest.
And they had plenty of reinforcements. “It’s a movie about a woman,” says Bryce Dessner, “so shouldn’t there be women’s voices? We're a band that's been largely defined by the sound of one person's voice where suddenly now we're hearing others.”
As the album’s opening track, “You Had Your Soul with You,” unfurls, it’s so far, so National: a digitally manipulated guitar line, skittering drums, Berninger’s familiar baritone, mounting tension. Then around the 2:15 mark, the true nature of I Am Easy to Find announces itself: The racket subsides, strings swell, and the voice of longtime David Bowie bandmate Gail Ann Dorsey booms out -- not as background vocals, not as a hook, but to take over the song. Elsewhere it’s Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan or Eve Owen, or Sharon Van Etten, or Mina Tindle or Kate Stables of This is the Kit, or varying combinations of them. The Brooklyn Youth Choir, whom Bryce Dessner had worked with before. There are choral arrangements and strings on nearly every track, largely put together by Bryce in Paris -- not a negation of the band’s dramatic tendencies, but a redistribution of them. “It's stuff we've never done before,” says drummer Bryan Devendorf. “It’s a step outside the rah-rah-rah.”
The presence of female voices isn’t meant to give equal time along gender lines in an effort to express allyship or explore the band’s feminine side or parrot Vikander’s character’s inner life so much as it is meant to reinforce the idea that this isn’t about any one particular person at all. And it was important from the outset that this not feel like a woman’s vantage point as portrayed by men. “I trusted the hands we were in,” says Besser, “and when I saw what Mike was doing, I thought, well, one of the things art does is show us how to look at each other. Also, the compression, that way of squeezing so much into a shorter space, plus the sort of list of events, to me is really emphasizing the universality.”
“Yes, there are a lot of women singing on this, but it wasn't because, ‘Oh, let's have more women's voices,’ says Berninger. “It was more, ‘Let's have more of a fabric of people's identities.’ It would have been better to have had other male singers, but my ego wouldn't let that happen.”
Beyond the roster of singers, the music itself is emblematic of an expanded worldview. “We're known for being a band that makes songs that build up to this big ta-da and then go away,” says bassist Scott Devendorf. “Making it more fluid and open-ended and not this grand statement all the time, there's more intricacies and more space in the music. To me, it’s not more feminine in any way necessarily, but about having a different perspective and not just having guitars chug along.”
The track that may most closely mirror Mills’ film in structure and substance is its sparsest and arguably most personal. “Not in Kansas” showcases Berninger hushed and in repose, reciting objects in his peripheral vision and flashes of memories -- not exactly stream of consciousness but a list of art and artists and loved ones that may seem minor or scattershot on their own but together comprise a whole life of experience and curiosity. (Berninger claims the original version he handed to Mills contained lyrics about almost everyone he’s ever known, including his massage therapist and an Uber driver). And while it is certainly autobiographical -- the book on artist Hanne Darboven was in his bedroom, he really was going through an R.E.M. and Roberta Flack phase, his dad really did suffer a spiral fracture while ice skating -- the reflection is part and parcel with both the film and album’s mission to figure out what, exactly, makes a person, and moreover, how the intensity of the current moment is forcing everyone to think about big ideas more acutely, to process chaos, to understand the stakes.
“I'm pretty much just pulling apart the same onion and every album gets a little closer to the center,” Berninger says. “Sleep Well Beast was a dive into our marriage in some ways, but if that was a three-foot diving board, this one feels like a cliff dive into not just marriage, but identity. I don't know if we're any closer to the center of the onion, but I feel like I understand the onion a little better, and I feel better about the onion. I know that I am my dad, my mom, my daughter, my wife, my band, my friends, my grandmother, the guy who cut me off in traffic, the guy who didn't cut me off in traffic. I am those experiences. I am those influences. This is just an aging bucket. All these records, and all these things, are my afterlife already.”
As far as where The National goes from here, Aaron Dessner thinks the effect Mills has had on the band’s process is indelible. “He said he often throws away a statement scene in a movie because he realizes that the actual sum of it's gonna be more interesting,” he says. “I think it was an important lesson to realize that you can let go of the thing that you wrote, that you're so attached to, that you think is the bird in hand, or the critical seed of something. A lot of times in the past, we never finished records until we would basically run out of time. So, in this process, we weren't holding onto anything. We were in fact throwing away a lot of what, in the past, might have been considered hit songs, or safe bets, or whatever. Next time I sit down and write National music, I think I'll have a different perspective.”
Until then, The National has to figure out how to translate all this to a stage; they ostensibly would love to bring all the singers with them, but that will be logistically impossible. This is a good problem, and one they could barely imagine having just a few months ago.
“It's purposefully an organic, ungainly, two-headed thing and that's what excited all of us,” says Mills. “We didn't know where it was going, and we didn't know what it was going to be.”
Matt Berninger is even more succinct in his reappraisal. “These were featherless ideas we would hand back and forth to each other and people would put some feathers in it,” he says, “and at the end it was a turkey.”
I Am Easy to Find was produced by Mike Mills and The National at Long Pond, Hudson Valley, NY.