Here’s a clip of poptastic LA outfit See Green featuring frontwoman, multi-instrumentalist, co-producer, and principle songwriter Courtenay Green.It’s the Yellow Submarine-esque video for her 2010 tune “Devil in the Details”, a playful blend of the tastiest pop ingredients from several eras and styles, from 60s ‘It-Girl’ pop to 80s Euro-synth, to 90s power pop. The song is taken from the digital EP Violet.
Making her stage debut as a drummer, Green continued to expand her skills as a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, and came to front her own band, Courtenay Green & the Red Scare. Later the name changed to simply See Green, now a vehicle for Green’s work as well as the name of the musicians Green works with in a live setting.
See Green the live band has played shows in LA’s famed The Viper Room, along with a mini-tour of the east coast. The group has recorded a cover version of LCD Soundsystem’s “I Can Change” , and is currently at work on a follow-up collection of new songs.
I talked to Courtenay about this song, and about making the video that accompanies it, about the value of aliases, cover versions, and about how pop music can still be fun even when you’re marketing yourself without a label …
The Delete Bin: This tune ‘Devil in the Details seems to borrow from nearly every decade of pop music since the 60s. I’m hearing a bit of late-70s Blondie in with 60s Nancy Sinatra, with a bit of 80s Altered Images, and even some 90s power pop. How much more liberated are you as a 21st Century songwriter to borrow from past eras, without being weighted down by any one of them?
Courtenay Green: I think I actually feel lucky more than liberated. Popular music, by nature, is a sort of cumulative experience in the sense that, like technology, new developments are rooted in older ones rather than pulled out of thin air. Even the earliest pop music came from something else, whether it was folk or blues or jazz. So by the time you get to artists like Blondie, who you mentioned, you’re getting rock mixed with reggae mixed with disco mixed with 60s girl group sounds.
I say I feel lucky because in 2010, I have so many decades of pop music to reference and draw from. Every year brings more and more potential influences, and that’s sort of my approach to music in general: the more diverse a collection you have in your mental library, the more ideas you can come up with, combine, and turn into something entirely new. It’s not how every artist operates, but for me, it’s the most rewarding and fun methodology.
I think past eras only weigh you down when you try too hard to stay wedded or pay homage to something specific. When you can pick and choose, the past only serves to enhance, kind of like genetics; someone might say you have your grandfather’s smile and your mother’s dimples and your aunt’s hair, but you’re still an entirely original being. Familiar, yet original.
DB: The video to this song is very playful, a lot of fun, and reminds me a bit of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film. Tell me how you came to make it. Did you have a specific idea as to how it should match the song?
CG: You’re actually pretty spot-on with your reference; the original inspiration came from my mom’s Peter Max posters for Yellow Submarine. I found them in her closet, folded up, had them fixed up and framed, and now they hang in my den. I’ve always loved the color palette and the animated figures on them, and thought it would look great in a video for one of my songs. “Devil” is primarily about paranoia, and when I teamed up with SKINNY (the trio of directors who made the video with me), they thought it would be cool to take the concept of paranoia and combine it with the look and the colors from the posters…and the result was this sort of bright, trippy video with crazy little monsters crawling all over me and wreaking havoc.
DB: You’re the central figure in See Green, which is the name under which you put out songs, and doubles as the name of your touring band. Why the name, and not just “Courtenay Green – solo artist with band”?
CG: I guess there are a couple of reasons, one involving other peoples’ perceptions, the other my own. As for the first: when people hear a name, especially a female name, they typically either think “pop star” (a la Katy Perry or Beyonce) or “singer-songwriter” (a la Colbie Caillat or Ingrid Michaelson)- often before they’ve even heard the songs. I felt that I didn’t want to be pigeonholed that way, and also that the music I was writing was becoming less and less of a good fit for the “solo artist” label and more and more appropriate for a band. Or at least the flexibility/lack of constraints that a band name brings, combined with the autonomy of still being (technically) on your own.
A lot of female artists have aliases, whether it’s Bat for Lashes or St. Vincent or A Fine Frenzy- and perhaps they do it for these similar reasons. The second factor involves my own mental state. Maybe this makes me sound slightly insane, but it’s nice to separate “Courtenay Green” from “See Green,” almost as two different personas. It makes me feel like, no matter what, my name is still mine and the music thing is something else. It’s oddly comforting, and liberating too.
DB: You started out your musical life as a drummer, and then expanded to frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist. Being both a drummer and a woman, which are arguably both disadvantages on the path to male / guitar dominated frontperson-dom in the world they call rock, how did you tread that path?
CG: I guess I should first make the distinction that I started my public musical life as a drummer, in that I played drums in bands before I ever sang or played guitar in one. But I played piano and guitar (and even trumpet) long before I played drums, and I started recording songs when I was about 15. Drumming was just the first thing I felt comfortable doing in front of crowds, which was a whole different ballgame from anything I did in my basement at home. And being a female drummer actually served as a big advantage for me, since there are so few of us out there. It was ridiculously fun, and people found it interesting and wanted to watch, which in turn, gave me the confidence to start fronting a band and playing the songs I’d been accumulating for years.
And now that I’m playing guitar and singing, I don’t even notice gender or male dominance in that field. It would be silly to focus on that anyway, since I can’t change it and can’t imagine it would play a role in whether or not I succeed. I guess it’s irritating sometimes when people feel the need to compare me only to other female artists instead of to other similar artists in general. But I think that’s more from a cultural (and industry) need to classify and label everything. I’m an equal opportunity listener, and in this day and age, I assume other people are too, and as long as they like the music, they don’t mind if it’s being sung/played by a male, a female, an alien, or a sheep.
DB: In addition to original songs, you’ve also done a great cover of LCD Soundsystem’s “I Can Change”. What is it about the song that resonated with you enough to cover it?
CG: I can actually thank my band mate Nick for that one. He heard that song and immediately saw potential, and despite the slow tempo and length, felt that there was a pop song just dying to get out. And get out See Green style. When I heard it, I thought it was a really pretty song with relatable lyrics and a great musical foundation to build on, so I agreed that we should try to do something interesting with it. We rehearsed it for a couple of hours, brought it to a studio, and went from zero to fully mastered track in one day. And I love it!
DB: There’s a real sense of fun to your music; it is undoubtedly pop music. Since you’re working hard promoting your own material as an unsigned indie act on your own, what are some of the ways that you keep it fun for yourself as well as you do for an audience?
CG: It’s true, there’s a lot of drudgery and frustration that comes along with the “business” side of things, whether it’s promotion, maintaining websites, dealing with rejection, booking, etc…but the sense of fun in the music is very genuine. And I keep it that way by just doing as much as I can of what I love, which is writing, recording and performing songs that make people tap their feet and want to sing along. Every new song is a challenge, and while the process of writing and arranging may be similar, the songs themselves aren’t.
I think that’s why I enjoy blending so many styles and eras together; each time I start working on something new, it’s like starting fresh with a whole world of decisions to make. What kind of bass line will I write? What will it be about? Should I add another synth part? And that sense of endless possibility keeps music consistently fun for me, along with the simple joy of performing and rehearsing with a talented group of guys, who are also having a great time. As for an audience, all I can hope is that the fun is contagious!
DB: You’re currently working on your first full-length album as a follow-up to the Violet EP. Besides more songs to collect and arrange, What have you learned by writing, touring, and promoting the EP that most informs your approach to the recording and touring of the new record?
CG: I think, funnily enough, that the biggest lesson I took away from the whole experience is that I DON’T need a full-length album at this stage in the game. I put a lot of thought into what direction I wanted to take after Violet, and realized that I’m probably much better off making another EP, getting my new material out there quickly, and doing it as cost-effectively as possible. When you’re self-financing these days, it seems to be more about the quality of the songs than the quantity, and also about just staying active and keeping your name out there. The concept of an “album” is getting (sadly) outdated anyway, and bands are routinely signed off of EPs or even demos.
So I think I’m going to keep my spending down, record a slightly more guerrilla-style EP as a follow-up to Violet, and devote more resources to playing shows in other cities and promoting in hopes of getting some interest from people who might want to help finance or distribute a full album, for which I’m already starting to stockpile material. I could be totally wrong about all this though. The music industry works in mysterious ways. I guess only time will tell!
[UPDATE, Oct 2010: You can now BUY THE NEW SEE GREEN EP, Ultramarine at iTunes!]
You can hear more from See Green on the See Green MySpace page.
Follow Courtenay Green on Twitter.
And you can drop by SeeGreenMusic.com for more news and features.
Read this other interview with Courtenay Green. And check out this review of See Green’s Violet EP.