May 9, 2019
Claire Dickson and Camila Ortiz have joined forces as Myrtle. The two sat down with Magdalena Abrego for a conversation about songwriting beyond the bounds of genre.
Photo by Sasha Pedro
I/O: Tell me about how each of you first started playing. At what point did you start writing your own original music?
CO: My dad is a composer, so music was always a part of my life. I played piano and sang like many kids do. In middle school, I was very much drawn to indie pop and I’ve been writing my own music ever since.
I/O: What kind of music did your dad compose?
CO: Contemporary classical stuff. Tango, also.
CD: I didn’t know that! That’s cool. My dad is also a musician. He plays clarinet and does experimental Klezmer music, so music was always around because of him. And I always loved singing and would go through a lot of intense musical obsessions. At one point, I started getting really into jazz through Ella Fitzgerald. Then, that lead me to Esperanza Spalding, and I remember thinking, “Esperanza is my hero!” It felt obvious that I needed to write music, because that’s what she did.
I/O: So you both had musical parents. Did you feel like you had a sort of expectation to play music imposed on you from your parents at all?
CD: I don’t think so. They were supportive for sure, but it was definitely my initiative.
CO: For me, there were things that were parent-motivated. I played double bass growing up and my dad was like, “Yes! She’s going to play in an orchestra one day!” I learned a lot from that experience, but it did feel like something that wouldn’t have happened had I not had a musical parent. On the other hand, I think that writing songs has always felt like my thing. My dad was always really supportive, and when I really got into indie music, he got into it too, listening to Grimes and Radiohead with me.
I/O: Let’s fast forward to the present. What are you both studying at Harvard?
CO: History and Literature, and my focus field is ethnic studies.
I/O: Do you feel like you’re compartmentalizing your focuses or do you feel like what you’re studying at Harvard influences your musical practice in a fairly direct way?
CO: I feel like it influences insofar as that it has changed the way I read the world and it has changed me as a person. But, beyond the general ways that studying has changed the way I think, it’s pretty compartmentalized.
CD: I would second what Camila said. The other day, I was reading this neuroscience paper, and it was really hard to read. It was a very neuroscience-jargon-y paper, but then there were a couple of lines that were just so beautiful. I thought to myself, “Okay, I’m going to write that down and save that for songwriting.” So, there have been some direct connections like that.
Photo by Sasha Pedro
I/O: So, how did you two meet?
CO: We met the first week of our freshman year. We were both in the same arts pre-orientation.
CD: My first memory of Camila-
CO: Oh god. *laughs*
CD: *laughs* My first memory of you is that you introduced yourself as a classical bassist and songwriter.
CO: Yeah, that’s not what I would introduce myself as anymore.
I/O: How would you introduce yourself now?
CO: I think I would introduce myself as a songwriter or just, a performer. I hate saying singer-songwriter, because that has a very specific genre implication that I don’t like. But…I write songs. That’s mostly what I do.
I/O: You’ve spoken to this a bit already, but I’m wondering if you could tell me about the musical experiences that you both are bringing to the table, now that you’re joining forces in a collaboration. Do you find that you have fairly dissimilar backgrounds or were you occupying the same spaces of the music industry before starting Myrtle?
CO: I always thought about us as occupying pretty different musical worlds with different sets of experience and knowledge. Then, when we started working together, it actually felt like we were coming from a very similar place.
CD: Our general reasons for writing music are similar enough that the other stuff is kind of irrelevant.
CO: Our approach has also been very much based on stories. It hasn’t been overly technical or genre-based. We have a similar way of thinking about stories and characters that we write.
I/O: The idea of characters is interesting. When you’re thinking about writing songs from the point of view of a story, are you thinking of the characters as yourselves or people you are singing about?
CO: Something that I’ve never done on my own but I have done with Claire is write from the perspective of character that is not myself. And with the two of us writing together, many of our characters are a fusion of us. We wrote one song that was based on something that happened to Claire in middle school, but the protagonist of the song was someone who is not quite middle-school-Claire and not quite contemporary-Claire.
I/O: This is interesting to me because I don’t write songs, I’ve never written songs, and so I wonder: when you make up a character and write the song from that character’s perspective, do you ever get concerned about listeners misinterpreting that as coming from your perspective? Or is that just where liner notes have to do the job?
CO: I feel like we haven’t really shared this music enough to know what the implications of that might be.
CD: Yeah, that’s true. I don’t know how people will interpret that.
I/O: Do you consider lyrics to be an especially important aspect of the music or does it play a secondary role to the actual musical content itself?
CD: We definitely think lyrics are super important. We always start with lyrics. The music itself serves to support the meaning of the song. We like to think of songs holistically – the music is not separate from the lyrics.
I/O: So with a holistic approach to songwriting, do you have specific models in mind in terms of people who have done this before who have had an influence on you?
CD: Every time we write, we’ll often have a few different songs or reference points in mind.
CO: We do have artists that we gravitate towards a lot. During the writing process, it is usually a process of picking out particular songs that we like or song that have something that we want to be doing too. One example is “Rest in Pleasure,” by Esperanza Spalding.
I/O: You’ve mentioned Esperanza Spalding a few times and I know you have a personal connection with her. Can you speak to that a little bit?
CO: We took her songwriting course at Harvard. Before that class, Claire was already a fan of hers, and during the course, I became high-key obsessed. *laughs*
I/O: Like openly obsessed? In your interactions with her? *laughs*
CO: I hope not! But, probably. I’m sure she knew. *laughs*
I/O: How often did the class meet?
CD: It was 3 hours, every Tuesday night, and we had to write one song every week.
CO: It was the most stressful experience of my life. Every Tuesday was whole-body anxiety. *laughs*
CD: You could map the stress of the week off of Tuesday. Wednesday morning my stress would drop and would slowly rise as Tuesday approached. *laughs*
I/O: So you wrote a song every week. Were you given prompts?
CD: Yeah, I think that was one of the best things about the class.
CO: Yeah, she gave us a lot of tools, a lot of entry-points into writing that I hadn’t used before that were really amazing and that we’re still using.
CD: So every week, we would have lunch on Wednesdays, which was really how we became close friends and musical collaborators.
I/O: How many people were in the class?
CO: Oh, right- somebody dropped out! *laughs*
I/O: Wow, really? It seems like quite the opportunity to pass up.
CO: He wanted to take a computer science class instead.
I/O: There are two kinds of people in the world…
CD: And then there was co-writing week and the two of us co-wrote.
CO: It was so exciting! I hadn’t co-written much at all and I wasn’t very excited to do it, but she gave us really good prompts.
CD: Her guidance and presence was very powerful in general.
CO: Yeah, I feel like that was very important. She was always present and deeply tuned in, which is more than I can say for a lot of professors.
CD: She could have taught a lot of things, but the fact that she taught songwriting in a way that takes the craft very seriously was important to us.
CO: During the first co-writing assignment that we did together, Esperanza asked each songwriter to think of something that only they knew and then, write it down on a piece of paper.
CD: At the time that it was presented, no one had any idea what was going on. Mine was like, “Nobody knows that I don’t like my most recent haircut.”
CO: Mine was that my sister and I had buried pieces of our hair in our backyard and I was like, my sister technically knows that this happened, but I don’t think she knows where it is…so, I thought, I’ll go for it.
CD: So then [Esperanza] explained that we were going to pick two random slips of paper and then we would create a world within a song that could encapsulate both of the secrets.
CD: So, if she had picked my hair secret and you hair secret, there would have been an obvious connection there.
CO: The things that emerged from the two secrets that were chosen were actually much weirder. One was like, “My grandma’s house smells like whatever” and the other was like, “I want to dropout of school.” So, the results of that prompt were really cool.
I/O: How did you enter your first co-writing session? Did you have a specific strategy in mind?
CD: It was really hard. The first day, we wrote lyrics and that went really well. We had a set of lyrics, but then we were like, how does this become a song?
CO: The lyrics were weird. They weren’t in any kind of form. They were very unwieldy and hard to say. So we spent hours with weird melodies.
CD: We did a bunch of free improvisation and recorded ourselves as we did it.
CO: And it just wasn’t working. The big breakthrough we had with that first song is that we had the thought, “Why don’t we just speak the words?” We treated every line or every word as its own thing, which resulted in speaking and speak-singing, sometimes even talking over each other.
CD: I remember we were really frustrated and we thought about why we were saying these words. Like, who is this person that is speaking? We realized that this character is basically gossiping, so speaking made sense.
I/O: How much are you considering the implications of the term “song” when you are writing these pieces? Is traditional song form or song vocabulary something that you’re trying to preserve or dismantle or a bit of both?
CO: That’s a really good question. We’re not bound by those ideas, but it’s nice to think about because it connects to the ways songs have a central meaning. It makes it easier to connect to our audience and it’s less abstract to be thinking about these pieces in that way.
CD: We don’t usually start with traditional song forms, but usually a song form emerges in a roundabout weird way, which is cool. For instance, most of our songs usually end up having a chorus.
I/O: It’s interesting to think about potentially confining terms like “song” and other categorizations. For instance, there is the impossible task of describing your own music in reference to genre labels. I think of Claire as a bit of a jazz heavyweight. You have all these DownBeat awards. You’re very deep in that world. Camila’s music, on the other hand, makes me think of indie rock. Now that you’re working together, you’ve become wholly uncategorizable. How do you describe your music to other people?
CD: I don’t like any of these terms, but I’ve been saying, “experimental pop jazz.”
CD: I usually say, “Well it’s not that, but I can’t tell you what it is.” I like to describe how the lyrics are very narrative and dramatic and how there are a lot of vocal harmonies. I think that description gets at it.
I/O: What do these songs look like on paper? Are you giving your accompanists charts or is it totally improvised?
CO: Color-coded lyrics sheets have been the through-line. Often, the colors indicate which of us is singing or when we are singing together. Sometimes it indicates the type of singing we’re doing. It often indicates a kind of allegiance to pitch, too.
I/O: So why did you name this project “Myrtle”?
CD: We had always talked about having a name as our band name.
I/O: You mean like a person’s name?
CD: Yeah, the name has become really important as we grow towards becoming the entity that is Myrtle.
CO: I second that. Something that has been increasingly happening as we write together is that we can’t distinguish our voices from each other all the time, which is awesome.
Photo by Sasha Pedro
CD: With our earlier songs, it was easy to see that Camila wrote one line and I wrote another, but it’s becoming harder to tell who wrote what. It’s becoming one single voice.
I/O: Do you think that’s a function of having a band name in general?
CO: Oh, that’s so interesting…
I/O: Well, you sort of give up the responsibility of yourself a little bit. At least, that’s something that I’ve experienced in projects. Once I put a name on a project, things change. I often think about this in terms of ensemble dynamics. It’s a very different thing to have a quartet named the Claire Dickson Quartet versus a quartet named Myrtle. You can really mess with hierarchy.
CO: That’s a smart observation. I think that’s true and it makes sense because we really wanted this project to have its own personality separate from our solo projects.
I/O: So what’s up for Myrtle in 2019? Are you playing shows or recording?
CD: We’re doing both. Right now, we’re in workshopping and writing mode. It feels good to take that seriously and recognize that we need time to do that. And I think it speaks to the seriousness of the project. Like, we’re not just throwing something together and seeing how it goes. When we put something out there, we want it to be very intentional and true to our vision.