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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014

Old Earth’s Homemade, Collaborative Folk

Old Earth
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For Old Earth’s Todd Umhoefer, songwriting is a long, continuous process. By Umhoefer’s estimate, he spends some 45 or 50 hours a week playing guitar, tinkering with riffs, and piecing together words and images until they fit together as one of his spindly folk spirituals. Some songs take him years to finish; others he may never complete. “I never consider a song finished until it gets a really strong emotional reaction from me,” he says. “Typically, if I get to the point with a song where I’m brought to tears by it, then I know I’m hitting the right spot. That’s happened with pretty much every song I’ve put out—at some point either during the writing process or after it was finished, it shook me.”

That’s a high standard for any artist, but Umhoefer has no qualms about investing the time it takes to meet it. He’s rearranged his life to prioritize recording and touring, with hopes of being able to make a modest living off of his music and a willingness to squeeze and sacrifice if he can’t. It’s that level of commitment that ensures Old Earth will likely always remain a solo project. “I could never expect other people to put in the time and dedication that I have,” Umhoefer says. “For me, this is it. I’m putting everything into this.”

There’s an upside to not having a set band, though: It frees Umhoefer to record with whomever he wants, whenever it fits the song. For each Old Earth album, he’s drafted a unique lineup of friends and players from the Milwaukee music scene. Old Earth’s latest release, A Wake in the Wells, employs his largest cast yet, with members of Field Report and Altos returning to lend their instruments and voices, and first-time collaborators Nathaniel Heuer of Hello Death and Jon Mueller of Death Blues and Volcano Choir joining the fold. Each leaves a mark. Some guests gently shade these songs; others outright transform them. They were all free to approach the sessions however they liked.

“Usually I’ll go into the studio the first day with Nick Berg engineering, and him and I will knock out an entire record just with my vocals and guitar,” Umhoefer says of his process. “Then I’ll share the songs and the other collaborators will have two or three weeks to live with what I gave them before they come in to record their parts. Whether they have ideas when they come into the studio depends on whether they want to do homework, but I welcome any improvisation. I welcome any writing. The main thing is that I don’t write anybody’s parts, or tell them what to do. I have the final cut, but it’s those contributions that give the songs their life and their character.

Though it retains the sense of exploration of Old Earth’s previous releases—thanks, as always, to Umhoefer’s expressive, impulsive electric guitar—A Wake in the Wells is the most direct and refined release yet from the project. Where Old Earth’s early works had a hazy, deliberately unfinished feel, nearly every tone on Wells rings out with clarity and authority. Some of that refinement can be chalked up to Umhoefer’s collaborators—any album recorded with this much top talent from Milwaukee’s folk and post-rock scenes is bound to sound pristine—but it’s also a product of Umhoefer’s growth as a record maker. For the album he upgraded from GarageBand to a more professional setup without sacrificing the hands-on touch that made his scrappier early recordings feel so personal.

“The whole self-made thing is important to me,” Umhoefer says. “This recording sounds better than anything I’ve ever done, but it’s still homemade. It’s taken 10 years of writing and recording to get these songs to sound the way they do now. I think some people could write that cleaner sound off as a bid for appeal or accessibility—which, don’t get me started on that—but to me it’s just a progression. It’s not like I sent some producer a pile of shitty, half-made tracks and had them make them sound good for me. I really saw this through from beginning to end.”

Old Earth shares an album release show with Twin Brother (who will be marking the release of their own new album,
Swallow The Anchor) and Joe Crockett on Sunday, Aug. 31 at 9 p.m. at Club Garibaldi.