Still Corners on How Dreams, Peter Weir, Traveling, and More Inspired Their New Album ‘Dream Talk’

    Dreams are not uncharted territory for Still Corners. They’ve haunted their way into so many of the duo’s songs since their 2011 debut Creatures of an Hour that it’s almost a surprise it’s taken them so long to make an album like the recently unveiled Dream Talk, which plumbs inspiration directly from Tessa Murray’s dream journal. But just as it finds the group continuing to home in their mastery of ethereal vocals and lush soundscapes, the album – their sixth overall – is also a testament to the level of craftsmanship that sets them apart from similarly-inclined dream-pop acts. Less intent on shrouding their sound in a haze of effects, Greg Hughes’ production favours a kind of classically pristine clarity while leaving space for some oddly beautiful details, and of course, Murray’s delicate, hypnotic vocals. Rather than lingering on fragmented scenes, images, and emotions, Still Corners work to weave them into an immersive experience, a labour still infused with their love of the ineffable. It’s like being revisited by a dream you still can’t describe, yet knowing exactly what it has – or you want it – to say.

    We caught up with Still Corners to talk about some of the inspirations behind Dream Talk, including nature, dreams, Peter Weir films, and more.


    Nature

    Tessa Murray: We moved around quite a bit when we were we were working on the album. We have this little suitcase where we’ve got a portable setup that basically means we can work on new songs from anywhere, so we did some in the south of France and also worked in rainy England for a bit, and then we were in Woodstock in New York. I think being in those very different environments definitely kept us inspired and kept the process of working on the record interesting. It was nice to play around with that as well after being forced to be at home. Lots of the places that we’ve been in have been very quiet, out-of-the-way-type places, the type of places where there’s stillness and moments where you can look around and, like, notice the tiny caterpillar walking on the floor, or a hummingbird up on the trees; those little beautiful moments were key inspirations.

    In a statement for ‘Today Is the Day’, you brought up a quote by Yeats: “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” How have you felt that awareness grow sharper over the past few years?

    Greg Hughes: I think it’s something that you practice over time, and I guess you get a lot of practice because we’re in a van traveling, sometimes for 7, 8 hours, and you just sit there and you’re looking out the window. You do practice a sort of stillness, and you can take that into nature. It’s like that old thing I read somewhere where you go to the beach and you bring all your stuff with you, you’re gonna read this book and you’re gonna do all this stuff, but you end up just sitting there staring at the waves, often not doing any of it. I love that. The traveling that we’ve done and the practice that we have when we go walking in the woods and things like that, we try to take the feeling of that and put it into the music.

    TM: There’s so many distractions in today’s world. I personally constantly look at my phone and have to work hard not to to do that, so just putting that completely out of the way, not having that as a distraction and thinking about actually what’s way more real and tangible than all this internet stuff, and it’s the thing that’s been sitting here for thousands and thousands of years: the earth and the beauty in that, and that’s really inspiring to try and connect with.

    Dreams

    I feel like you treat the mysteries of nature and the realm of dreams with a similar sort of reverence, connecting them on a line like “Do fishes sleep, in the ocean blue? Do you dream of me like I dream of you?” from ‘Crystal Blue’. In your mind, how do those worlds meet?

    GH: We have read about what dreams are scientifically, but I don’t feel like that really satisfies what they are. It’s a bit like, if you had a blind person and you tried to describe the ocean, it wouldn’t really capture it, because words really can only describe things. There’s a reality beyond language that is hard to describe, but I think music can kind of tap into that mysterious power a bit more than words sometimes. I guess we use lyrics and music to capture the parts of the world that are not really describable, and dreams are part of that world.

    TM: I was taking notes of dreams or fragments of dreams I could remember, and we used a lot of that as the launch pad for songs on the album. There’s definitely that thing of the tangible and the intangible, and sometimes you wake up from a dream and you don’t really remember much detail at all; it’s just a feeling or a scene and nothing else. It was really fun to take that initial snapshot and let your imagination take over and build up into an atmosphere and a kind of soundtrack for that moment. It was definitely a fresh way of doing things that we hadn’t done before.

    GH: Dream soundtrack, I like that. That’s cool.

    Was there anything that surprised you about how those fragments took on a new resonance as you were piecing them together, trying to make meaning out of them?

    TM: I think so, especially ones like ‘Turquoise Moon’, for example. I think the dream of that was just a beautiful sky, something very basic, and it almost turned into a very special moment with the moon, at night under moonlight, all of that emotion and vibe. That was definitely one.

    GH: The general approach to the whole album was a fun, surprising exercise because of the way that the lyrics came about, just going through the various writings of the dreams. I don’t know if one stood out more than another, but it was more or less the combined process that was something we hadn’t – it seemed obvious, but we hadn’t really tried it before.

    I remember this line from ‘Cuckoo’: “Stuck in a time machine/ That was just a dream.” Dreams are obviously something you’ve been singing about for over a decade now, but you’re finding new ways to approach and channel them. Do you feel like engaging with dreams in that way has altered your perception of them?

    GH: I think we’re more interested in them now. We want to practice things like lucid dreaming more, and I’m very interested in what they are, if they’re messages from the deep or if they’re just a byproduct of your brain parsing the day’s information, as you read the technical description of what they are. I think they’ve fascinated every culture forever, so it’s a great universal thing to work on and do our take on.

    TM: There’s been a lot of stuff going on in the world, and as part of that, maybe from a technical standpoint, a lot of information and data for the brain to process while you’re sleeping. But I think also what comes out of these turbulent times is really crazy dreams [laughs] – sequences that you’d never imagine and encounters with strange people, or recollections of really weird situations. I think that made it even more of a fun process. With ‘The Dream’, you’re kind of stuck in this dream loop and you can’t get out. It was great writing the song, but then we had a really fun time with the video as well, playing on that concept of being in this dream loop time.

    Film soundtracks

    GH: I mean, the thing that we listen to the most seems to be film soundtracks. One that we’ve been listening to loads of is Maurice Jarre’s 1985 soundtrack to the Peter Weir film Witness. It’s a beautiful film and a beautiful soundtrack. [Weir] did another film that is probably our most important film and soundtrack, Picnic at Hanging Rock. What else? John Barry.

    TM: Vangelis.

    GH: There’s one for a film I haven’t actually seen–

    TM: Is it ‘L’Enfant’?

    GH: Mm-hmm, Opera Sauvage.

    TM: Opera Sauvage, and the song is ‘L’Enfant’. We’ve listened to that so much.

    Peter Weir

    TM: Greg’s already mentioned, but the biggest one is Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s really mysterious and creepy and dreamlike. These girls disappear in the middle of the Australian outback, and they’re on a school trip, and no one really knows what happened or where they went. It shows the power of nature, but it’s also got this really supernatural, weird feeling. I think there’s a lot of that in the album, that fusion of nature, the supernatural, the dreamlike qualities – it all melds together in the album as well. It’s a huge one.

    GH: I did think of another one that we were listening to a lot at that time. It was another Maurice Jarre soundtrack from the film Mosquito.

    TH: The film starts off really mysterious, and it gets a bit crazy. But the beginning bit, this is actually in the jungle, and this man uproots roots his family from an American suburb and takes them out in the jungle and tries to make ice. It’s again one of these crazy, weird juxtapositions of human impact on nature and what we can do with our imaginations to try and control nature, but then you can’t really control it. We’ve obviously got a Peter Weir obsession, because the three that we’ve mentioned have all been directed by him. But I think he’s a master of atmosphere, and that’s probably why you the soundtracks and the films have really infused what we do.

    Production

    You tried different mics, amps, and effects before settling on anything during the production. Are there elements of the songs or moments of inspiration that arose from that process of experimentation?

    GH: Yeah, definitely. I think this album sound started in 2008 when I started listening to Chet Baker. This is ‘50s production, so it’s typically really great mics, but they didn’t have a lot of gear. His vocals are very upfront, very beautiful-sounding, and everything else is very well recorded, but it’s very simple-sounding. Flash forward to today, and this time I wanted to just take it step by step. We did things like, I tried four different sets of bass strings, so I would record the part and then take the strings off and do another set of different type of strings. But what ended up directing the album was all the older stuff that we use. We used two mics, they just sounded the best. It was all quite old techniques. Everything was miked, so there’s no plugins or anything like that. We bought a console to mix it, old-school, by hand. All those classic techniques of recording and mixing just sounded to us right, but that’s because we listen to music that is made like that. We listen to modern things, too, but whenever I really like something and we research it, it’s always been mixed very old-school style. We wanted it to sound very natural and just simple to listen to and pick out the instruments.

    TM: As we went through the process of finishing the album, there was more very methodically going through and translating this song that we’d done on our demo station in some faraway land, and then working through step by step to fully make it this 3D song that had the right vibe and the right feel.

    GH: It’s like two stages: first, things are really messy and quick so you don’t let your brain get in the way, and then when you decide on the songs, you meticulously re-record them to bring out the most they can be.

    Tessa, could you share something that inspires you about how Greg’s production has developed over the past few years?

    TM: Obviously, he’s been doing it the whole time, so it’s been a huge learning trajectory through the years. I feel like with this album, it’s probably the first one where most of the technical things are known, and there’s a level of knowledge now that means that you were actually more in control of exactly what’s happening, exactly where the sounds are; rather than doing that, but then maybe there’d be some technical thing that slightly held back the true realization of the production. As a partner and a witness to that process, it’s amazing to see the results, because I think this is the best-sounding album and really shows off the songs and the emotional quality that we wanted to to present. As a band, you think about working with producers or mixers through the years, and we’ve constantly been talking about that – you know, maybe it would have sounded more polished if we’d worked with someone a few years ago on a different album, but it wouldn’t have been fundamentally Still Corners, because it goes through his production filter, which I think makes what we do quite unique.

    Simplicity

    At this point, what does simplicity in the process mean to you?

    GH: I immediately think of a Rolling Stone interview with Bob Dylan from 2006, where he’s being interviewed about his album that’d just come out called Modern Times, and he says that all this modern music, there’s “sound all over” it. That was his quote. And that really struck me, because at the same time I had been listening to a lot of Chet Baker. So simplicity for me means being able to listen to something, and I don’t have to work hard to listen to it; it’s not a barrage of information. I can hear the vocals clearly, and if the vocals aren’t being performed, I can hear the other instruments. So for me, simplicity means the ease of experiencing the music.

    Do you feel like achieving that simplicity, though, comes with ease, or is it still sometimes a challenge?

    GH: I think that now, after having done it for so many albums, it’s a little bit easier. But I think that comes from more of a technical appreciation of, like, “That is inherently a harsh sound, so I will use a ribbon mic because that seems to absorb those frequencies better,” and “That’s a soft sound, so I’ll use a really nice, detailed microphone.” I think it’s become a little bit easier to bring those qualities out.

    TM: And to create the simplicity. I think again, it’s just that learning process of understanding what fits in with what, and it’s probably gotten easier because we’re like, “OK, if we’re gonna have a keyboard part and a guitar part, let’s not have them in the same frequency, because you want both elements to be heard.” Through the many years of working on stuff, we’ve got better at that delineation between the registers. In some ways, that’s liberating because you can be like, “Let’s fill this gap up here,” so even though it’s simple, you’ve got the option to do nice little extra bits that add to the vibe of the song without it getting in the way of something else.

    In terms of lyrics and song structures, is simplicity something you reach for more over time?

    TM: I think there’s a simplicity in terms of wanting to have a message that people can understand from the song easily. We’re not going to be writing songs with really complicated words or difficult constructs, because I think it will just make it harder for people to connect instantly with the song. So, simplicity in that way, but I think in terms of song structures and the overall arrangement of the songs, we probably got better at doing that.

    GH: That’s it. We definitely want people to be able to hear every word and know what the song is about. That’s changed, because before we used to drown everything in reverb and we’re fine with that, but as we worked more on the lyrics, we want people to understand those and feel something from those.

    TM: And still be open to interpretation. We can’t control how a person responds to the lyrics and the song, but we just want people to be able to know what the song is saying, and then they can take from it what they want to.

    Traveling

    This was obviously a theme on The Last Exit, where you explored the kind of mythology of the open road, but it runs through this album, too. I’m curious how conscious you were weaving that thread into Dream Talk.

    TM: We talk about the environment informing what we do, and traveling is a key part of that. And yeah, on The Last Exit and many of the other albums, we really thought about this feeling of the open road and that connection with the endlessness of America. With this one, I think the traveling was more about that feeling you get from being in a different place and the freshness that you get from your environment. I mean, you’ve spoken previously about “environment is mind,” and I think that links in with this.

    GH: Yeah, there’s this saying – the environment affects your mind, but if you take it one step further, the environment is your mind. I think in a way, we use travel to impact and break up the process. It was great because the places were so different: rainy England, hot France, being in Greece by the ocean – it’s so inspirational. That’s why we created this little demo station so we can take advantage of these emotions that you feel when you’re in all these different places that you love.

    TM: And I think there is that dreamlike quality if you’re on holiday. It’s so different to day-to-day that it adds this real mysticism and energy and beauty, that vibration of: this is something special. And I think that’s where the travel really fed into this album, that feeling of beauty and being able to connect with different parts of this amazing planet.

    One song this relates to is ‘The Ship’, where traveling seems less like a literal inspiration and more of a universal metaphor. What goes through your mind when you think about that song?

    GH: I remember thinking about that song because my friend had lived in England with his wife and child for 18 years – he was in the early incarnation of the band – they’re from Australia, and they decided after a really long time to move back to Australia. I had this vision of them on a ship, so this is quite a literal kind of inspiration – there’s other inspirations for that song, but that was the first thing, because it was such a big thing for him to uproot himself and his family and basically change cultures. But it ties in with dreams and travel and the changing world and change in itself.

    TM: I always imagine, when I hear that song, the “Where will we go?” thing – it’s almost like everyone in the world who maybe thinks things are a bit crazy, like, “What are we gonna do next? Where do we go? How can we bring this all together or have a path forward where we don’t all fight with each other, where we actually think about what people have in common with each other and try not to have so much polarization?” Everything you could possibly throw at that “Where will we go?” is what I think when I’m singing it. It’s really big and really emotional – almost too big. That’s why I find that song so special, because you’re just going on a little journey, but I almost feel like it’s the collective journey of everyone on the planet. They’re all on this ship, we’re all going forward and we all have choices that affect our lives and affect each other’s lives – and what do we do with that?


    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Still Corners’ Dream Talk is out now via Wrecking Light.

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