JUNO Award winners, The Fretless, have teamed up with a handful of influential Canadian artists to bring us Open House, a collaborative new project pairing the rich texture of a string quartet with stunning vocal arrangements.
Comprising of Ben Plotnick (Fiddle/Viola), Karrnnel Sawitsky (Fiddle/Viola), Eric Wright (Cello), and Trent Freeman (Fiddle/Viola), The Fretless released Open House October 22nd via Birthday Cake.
Since April, the band has been releasing a beautiful collection of singles, with their version of Maggie Rogers’ Alaska featuring Taylor Ashton as the first one. Follow up singles included James Blake’s Retrograde featuring Ruth Moody, a collaboration with Dan Mangan on his single Troubled Mind, and a fresh take on a rendition of The Bros. Landreth Let It Lie featuring the brothers themselves. The Fretless also featured Celeigh Cardinal on a cover of William Prince’s Earthly Days, and Freddy & Francine on Steely Dan’s Dirty Work.
We caught up with the group to discuss their creative process in making the album and what it was like to work with so many different artists.
You can listen to the breathtaking new album here.
ADDICTED: Open House is a 10-track vocal collaboration album and the first project that features vocals so prominently. Why did you decide to take on such a collaborative project?
Trent: Vocal collaborations have always been one of our favourite things to do. We’ve recorded a few in the past, and often end up working out an arrangement to perform with a singer at a festival or a concert. The way strings and voice blend together is so rich, and our more rhythmic, and fluid approach to the instruments allows for a very interactive, responsive and exciting type of collaboration.
As an artist, being collaborative can open you up to new perspectives and take your music in places you maybe wouldn’t get to alone. What has been the most interesting thing you’ve learned or experienced while working on this project?
Trent: The freedom a singer provides the quartet is very liberating. We can work together as a 4 part accompaniment ensemble and let the singer carry the melody in ways that a fiddle can only try and emulate. This gives us so much space to be creative and think of new ways to really support a singer, while hopefully giving them something new to experience. Also the original pieces we are covering provide a lot of new ideas. For example, when a piano part from a pop song is transcribed to a two part hook played by a violin and a viola, the texture is completely different. Following these new sounds and expanding them or distilling them has been a wonderful learning experience.
The arrangements for the tracks sound so beautiful and intentional. I feel there’s always something unexpected in the arrangements. What is your process for putting your creative spin on the songs? How do you go about putting together these arrangements?
Ben: We arrange and write together much more like a band than a string quartet. When we conceive of new music, rather than composing onto paper, or a computer, we just sit in a room, bouncing ideas off each other until something sticks. This process tends to create sounds and textures born from our collective minds, more so than just one of us. We take influence from all over the musical spectrum, but for this particular project, we found ourselves hugely inspired by the original production of the tracks we were re-creating. Often the goal of our sessions was to try to distill the essence of the original track into string quartet form. Invariably our instruments will take us in different directions than a drum kit, synth pad or guitar line, and as such we ended up with textures we might not have conceived of otherwise. This album had a lot of “how can I make that noise on a fiddle?”
You’ve worked with incredible vocalists on this project including Taylor Ashton, Dan Mangan, Celeigh Cardinal, Nuela Charles, and Rachel Sermanni. What has it been like working with so many different vocalists?
Ben: It’s honestly been a dream. Turns out we teamed up with some first-class humans, as well as musicians. We spent so long on the tracks in their instrumental form that hearing the songs with vocals completely blew us away. The act of sitting in on the sessions (personally and virtually) was always such a joy. The idea of “giving direction” was hard for us, since the first listens with vocals universally floored us. The collaborations twisted and turned the tracks in totally beautiful and unforeseen ways, and it left us with a record that continues to surprise us, in a way.
How do you ensure the rich instrumental arrangements balance with the vocal arrangements, so all the elements complement each other?
Trent: There was a fair bit of trust involved, since we recorded all of our quartet parts first, then sent them to the vocalists. We selected the singers very carefully and knew they would also be able to interpret our arrangement in a way that showcased them, but also enhanced the song as a whole. Also, with our producer and engineer, Joby Baker, at the helm, he was able to bring some magic out of all of us individually, while keeping the sound of the album cohesive.
You teamed up with The Bros. Landreth on a rendition of Let It Lie. The Bros. Landreth said they liked the project so much, they insisted on signing The Fretless to their new record label. Congrats! What has it been like working with them and their team on the artist side, as well as the business side?
Trent: It’s been such a treat! It definitely made us all more comfortable signing a deal with people that are not only artists and friends, but are also collaborating with us. And so far the team at Birthday Cake has been a total dream to work with. I think what really won us over was that they promised to get us collaborating with Beyonce 😉
If you could pick one, what has been your favourite track from this project so far? Why?
Trent: Ohhh come on! You tell me your favourite first.
Learn more about The Fretless and listen to Open House here.