Days, Decades And Rivers, Too

A Conversation With Stephanie Hatfield And Bill Palmer

August March
9 min read
Days, Decades and Rivers, Too
Stephanie Hatfield (courtesy of the artist)
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Sitting at his IBM Selectric and staring at the bright winter sun, August March took in the lengthening day whilst listening to the latest release by Stephanie Hatfield and her hot band. The album is titled Out This Fell and so far, it felt grandly expansive but also dark and mysterious, contrasting features of the high desert in these parts that the local rock critic had no trouble applying metaphor to Hatfield’s brand of music.

“It also had something to do with the studio and the players, to be sure,” he said as he swung around to face the door where I was standing. “That guitar player of hers is one of the premier players and engineers in the state and together they truly are a power rock couple,” he continued.

And it’s true, the multi-instrumental work of Bill Palmer is singular. A tried and true studio perfectionist, Palmer’s sound is big and timeless, a vast blue sky wherein music and voices—especially those emanating angelically with a Southern sizzle from Hatfield—fly.

Out This Fell is more than a clever record. Deeply personal, intricately presented and passionately played, the record also sounds mighty, fecund but not febrile—and radio-ready, too, one might add. This record is as beautifully complete—but never maximalist, instead demonstrating very tasteful restraint—as anything ever recorded in New Mexico. But the main thing that separates this recording from any number of rock and Americana and country releases has to do with its authenticity.

From the minute the needle drops onto the vinyl—metaphorically speaking—and the band gets rolling, it’s clear that the whole schmear is the creation of a vibrant, professional music culture with deft control of the medium they choose to make art. Hatfield’s songwriting lends a touch of magic realism to the melodic proceedings. Plus, it rocks out like heck and that’s even after playing
Sweetheart of the Rodeo beforehand.

“Don’t put that thing in about the Byrds,” March screeched. “Working musicians hate comparisons. Better yet,” he concluded as he rose, “you might want to mention that it’s another unique iteration of the post-war hybridization of folk and popular music traditions peculiar to New Mexico and West Texas.”

I agreed with March but told him as I left that they might as well just read this interview.

Weekly Alibi: Could you tell our readers about who you are, about the music that you make?

Stephanie Hatfield: Well, for me it’s about making people feel something. That’s really the biggest goal I have in music. I would never presume to dictate what those feelings are, what they might be.

Describe that kind of music with feelings.

Indie anthemic folk rock is what I am going for—big sweeping emotions, drama, not only in the sounds that you’re hearing but of course, in the lyrics and through my vocal delivery.

Tell me about your band.

I’ve had a full band for 11 years now. Members have varied but the main creative inspirations have stayed. Mostly it’s been myself—I’ve been writing most of the music—and Bill Palmer. He has consistently been in the band all of those years. He’s the longest-standing member of the band, besides myself. He’s a guitarist and a producer. He produced this new album with me.

Bill Palmer: I record all of her records.

Is that the essence of collaboration?

Stephanie: It started off with Bill having more, being more in the driver’s seat in terms of production. I really heavily rely on his skill and experience. Now, the project has transitioned into a reeal cooperative, collaborative effort. On the last couple of albums, he has stepped back and given me the space I need to put forth creative ideas during the recording process.

Describe your songwriting process please.

I come up with lyrics, the melody, chord progressions. Then I bring that to the band and it gets collaborative. That’s when Bill typically comes up with some beautiful signature guitar line. Noah Baumeister, the man who plays bass with us, then comes up with his part. Matthew Tobias played drums; we recorded the main tracks for “In Those Woods” at his studio.

And the recording process? Live recording or overdubs?

We’re going for bass and drum tracks at the very least. Sometimes we’ll get Bill’s lead guitar and my guitar. There are a few overdubs.

Bill Palmer: We get a lot of the vocals and stuff. That work and the way that I’ve worked with a lot of Stephanie’s music is to realize nothing is a throw-away. When I’m recording, I’m recording as if this is going to be the album. Then you have the luxury of going in and editing. There is a lot on that record that was cut right on the spot.

Is this record going to be a big moment, a push forward for you and the band?

Stephanie: There are aspirations for this one. We’ve hired promoters in Europe and in the UK. That’s where we’re putting a lot of our marketing efforts and energy; we want to push into those markets. We hope to tour in Europe, but of course we’ll play wherever and whenever we can.

The scene in Burque is wide open right now. What are you doing to conquer Duke City, New Mexico?

I’m all about that. We’re playing at the Monte Vista Fire Station on Feb. 22. Bill is playing with his brother, as the Palmer Brothers, on Feb. 1.

Bill: We’ve been making weird noises together since 1977.

Stephanie: I typically play bass with them. I played bass with them last night at the Mine Shaft in Madrid.

Awesome! I’ll for sure check those out. And the Mine Shaft rocks. I know a lot of blues guys that play at the Fire Station, too; Jeff Stipe, Jimmy Stallings.

Bill: One thing I’d like to say about the kind of venues Stephanie likes to play is that the places where she really thrives is in listening environments. Like this CD release at the Jean Cocteau in Santa Fe. The tickets are seated. Loud, roomy environments where the audience is there for something besides music are not the right venue for her music.

I can dig that. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more apt to see a sit-down concert than a bar gig.

Stephanie: Right?

Bill: There’s a thing with this album where there’s an overarching concept in the music. This isn’t something that’s just supposed to make you dance, but it’s still completely entertaining. These are theatrical pieces. They need to be performed in that context or they lose their essence.

So this is, like, art music?

Stephanie: Yes. Exactly. We used to do the full-on rock band with loud and blazing electric guitars. That was like our first two albums. The transition in the subsequent two albums has been toward a more sophisticated listening experience.

There’s something to be said about informed playing, even in rocanrol.

We hope with these songs, that people feel something, but also that they catch something new each time they listen. That’s the kind of music that intrigues me.

What influences do you draw upon?

I love Neko Case. I’m really into Lucy Dacus’ new album. I love Ben Howard and Dry the River, out of England. When I was young, Van Morrison, Nina Simone and Otis Redding. I want to combine that raw energy of Van Morrison—his shit is not contrived—with the theatrical performance of Nina Simone. If I could achieve that, I think I’ve done something good.

Bill: Stephanie is very calculated about how she performs. She’s a highly skilled and trained vocalist. She knows what she’s doing with every little movement of her voice. Every take of every vocal, every performance, she’s going to deliver. Hers is the sound.

Stephanie: I want to deliver the emotional content people are yearning for.

Passion and authenticity seem to be watchwords for the music industry going into 2020. Discuss.

Bill: There are cuts on this new record that you could swear would work in Nashville.

Stephanie: I talk about some hard subjects in some of these songs. I talk about personal struggles. Some of these stories are inspired by things I’ve seen and heard or dreamt about. Songs like “In Those Woods” is about something I went through.

And listeners relate to those sorts of intense narratives?

I feel like one of my goals, one of the things I’d like to be able to achieve is to make people feel that they’re not alone in these struggles. We have an isolating society. With social media, we’re just seeing the gloss, we’re not seeing the real shit. It’s like we’re living with Snapchat filters on everything.

Bill: So much songwriting is linear, especially in the country realm. The thing about Stephanie’s writing is that there is a bit of a magic trick to it. Her themes works their way into your blood and you absorb it, like a sort of magic.

Stephanie Hatfield

Out This Fell Album Release Party

Jean Cocteau Theater • 418 Montezuma Ave. • Santa Fe

Saturday, Jan. 25 • 7pm • $10 • All-ages

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