Words by Tommy Johnson
When venues and festivals began shutting down in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, the magnitude of the moment seemingly crushed many musicians around the world. No longer was the stimulation of being in various towns each night, performing in front of live audiences. No longer was the chance to soak in the crowds that gathered. No longer was the cumbersome yet, in some ways satisfying routine of loading the equipment in the unyielding perimeters within the van.
California-based Sour Widows were on an upward trajectory with dates locked in, including several showcases at South by Southwest. As soon as the news broke of everyone needing immediate notice of the rapid acceleration of positive COVID reports, the band – singer/guitarist Maia Sinaiko, guitarist Susanna Thomson, and drummer Max Edelman – became despondent. Even after a year passing, you could sense the impact of the moment. “I think it went in waves for me,” Sinaiko said. “For us as a band, honestly, we really had to work through some stuff, asking big questions like ‘What are we doing?’, ‘How does this work now that we don’t have our typical outlets?’ Our shows collapsed one by one, and it was really dramatic and awful.”
What came out of these uncertain times for Sour Widows was Crossing Over, an EP that allowed the band to explore inward within the music they create. The four tracks offer radiant vocal harmonies and guitar play, pushing more complexity for the group. Going along with the balanced drums, Sour Widows dial back sonically from their self-titled 2020 debut. Both Maia and Max referenced that the production of Crossing Over allowed the group to throw out a different vibe to see where it would take them. “It’s really meaningful to see it take wings, you know,” Edelman says on the EP. “It’s been a crazy year, but you know what? We are stronger for it.”
Off Shelf: There seems to be a sense of a slow buildup to get everything moving again. Have you heard anything about getting back on the road yet? Have you talked about that at all?
Maia Sinaiko: I thought about the touring side, yeah, but we have new material that we’re working on and have been working on for the past two years. So the plan we’re focusing on this year is to get to a point where we can practice together fully. Hopefully, get into the studio towards the end of the year to record that material. I mean, it would be wonderful to play shows again. I think it’s going to take us some time to kind of feel out what feels good, though.
OS: Recording Crossing Over, you all did it all separately but tried to match that intensity of being together. How difficult was that for you for all three of you?
MS: We had a long time demoing the songs, which we haven’t done before with our music. So we had this kind of premeditated concept for how we wanted the production to sound, which made it easier to get those performances. We were also really deeply attached with Cody Hamilton, who engineered and helped produce our last EP. He knows our sound well, and we were working with him closely. We borrowed some of his equipment, and he was talking us through how to use it all. It was kind of like a home studio set up with an engineer from afar guiding us through.
OS: Hamilton seemed to be a real rock star for this whole project, where you got three different parts you’re trying to put it all together. I also read that he helped you through some of the challenges with the equipment?
MS: It was definitely like working with what we had. I think I’m really proud of the way that we handled all the technical issues that popped up. Cody was instrumental in working through some of that, for sure.
It was nice to be in touch with Max because Susanne and I were together in Mendocino recording our parts and he was separate. And then Timmy, who’s our bass player on the recordings, was also working from afar. And so, it was a little bit like Mendocino was kind of headquarters; we were integrating the parts from afar that way. I think we were also giving a lot of notes to each other because we’re all deep perfectionists. It was kind of an intense process for sure.
OS: Did it help to work on this album during the pandemic? Did it help to keep your mind off everything and be focused on just continually working?
Max Edelman: Yeah. I think we were going to demoing just for the future of the project. I’ve been doing many session drums in the bay area for different artists, so we were all in studios a lot, nerding out about all the gear and kind of product that goes into it. Of course, when the pandemic hit, we were just like, we’re definitely going to do something, but how can we do it?
OS: With some demos already in place, did anything change during the recording process, like with lyrics or new material come up?
MS: Yeah. We had a few of the songs prior to even deciding to record them because this project was kind of a pivot for us. We intended on recording our first full length in a studio last year, and then we were like, “oh, that’s, that’s not going to happen, so what can we do ourselves?” We chose a selection of songs that we felt were going to be easier to record ourselves, and they were a very different vibe from the new stuff we’d been working on. So, yeah, in terms of the writing process, I think “Crossing Over” was kind of the only new song that we had like Susanna had been working on, and then I helped her complete the song.
Then a song like “Bathroom Stall,” for example, we had never played any of those songs together before. So even though the lyrics and the melody and maybe one guitar part had been written, it was a lot of collaboration on fleshing out, you know, where’s this bridge going to go? I hadn’t intended on it being played by the band, so when we were all working on it in Mendocino, it felt fresh. Because we had been playing so many shows prior to the pandemic, we really hadn’t gotten much of an opportunity to write together. I think that was one thing about our chemistry that we weren’t familiar with, which is interesting. Susanna and I tend to bring lyrics and a melody and a guitar part to the band already completed and build from there. This was very, very new material; we had not been able to test it out on an audience, for example. So I think it did really affect the writing process, but for the better, because we had the time to do it. It would not have existed without this circumstance which is wild to think about.
OS: What made you decide to share “Bathroom Stall?”
MS: I thought it would fit the direction that we had chosen for this EP. We had all decided, well, we can’t record in the studio, so let’s choose some more stripped-down songs and arrangements. Let’s do some quieter stuff. All of us had been listening to U.F.O.F. and Two Hands from Big Thief a lot, so we were like, let’s go for something that feels close and intimate and that we could probably do ourselves. And so that was a song that I brought up because it was new and quiet, and we could work it out together.
OS: Does the band still want to continue doing EPs and continue pumping out music?
MS: I think we’re all eager to get that LP recorded. It does blend these two facets of our sound, which is kind of represented on the first EP and Crossing Over. There’s plenty of dynamic space to work with the louds and softs, which is core to what we value in our songs.
OS: All of you in the band have known each other for a long time. When did this project become kind of a thing you wanted to set in motion?
MS: That’s a good question. Max and I went to middle school together and grew up almost in the same town, and Susanna and I were friends from summer camp. And then we all kind of coalesced in high school. So definitely like a small town upbringing which is sweet and funny.
I had graduated, and I was living back in the Bay Area. I was living in an apartment with Susanna, and we were like, “well, time to start a band” [laughs]. I guess it was kind of like, “uh, well, what else are we doing?” I was kind of lost, figuring out what I wanted to do post-grad, and she had just kind of been in a similar place.
We really love to travel together and it was a great excuse to get out on the road. The first thing we did was arrange songs and set up a tour, a tiny little DIY tour up to Seattle and back down.
Then we played like that as a duo for a few months until I think; actually, Max-you saw us play at 924 Gilman at Berkeley, our first show ever, or something like that. I remember us having this conversation after where you were basically like, “look, the music’s great as it is. If you need a drummer, I love to play for you.” We were like, “hell yeah”.
ME: I remember Maia and Susanna saying, “hey, we’re playing a show and check us out”. I was like, definitely see the homies play, not thinking anything like this is going to be the future, you know? I’ve always known that they were both extremely talented and just amazing musicians.
But that one show, I remember being completely floored; it was just already so advanced. It was so unique. It was so different. I remember it being one of those moments where you just have all these ideas in your head of like, there could be this drum part on here and you know, where can I make this work with this? This can hit here or like, whatever. Just being like, these are people that would be so incredible to work with and just to see what happens. Now here we are!
MS: Getting to play together those first few practices and just work on stuff, it felt like “oh, wow. This was missing”, you know? I think we’ve just developed so much from there.