Lovers: They love most things. From left is Emily Kingan, Kerby Ferris, and Carolyn Berk. Photo via CMJ.
Never was a band so perfectly named as Lovers. As we talked over coffee last week about their new album, A Friend in the World, and upcoming national tour, a fan from England who happened to overhear the coffeeshop conversation stopped by the table to warmly great the artists. That's typical for the Portland electro-pop trio, who compare their performances as community celebrations akin to weddings and say they're far too sincere and loving to be a "cool" band. Their dreamy beats make for excellent dancing, but after the sweaty, sweaty shows, the friendly musicians always make time for heart-to-hearts with fans who stop by the merch table.
The band—Emily Kingan, Kerby Ferris, and Carolyn Berk—describe their new album as a fusion of "intimacy and empowerment" with "a modern atmosphere of honesty, new feminist humor, and rhythmic complexity." As a listener, I'd just call it a good time.
Lovers also made Bitch a special mixtape of music that they listened to while making A Friend in the World—check it out at the bottom of this interview.
SARAH MIRK: Can you tell me about the process of making the new album? Where did it come from exactly?
EMILY KINGAN: Some of the songs are three years old, but also some of them we were writing right up until the minute we were recording them.
Oh really? Your music has a lot going on but it also feels really tight. Do you actually plan it out precisely beforehand or do you write it on the fly and riff off each other a lot while you're recording?
KERBY: I would say the riffs are mostly vocal and rhythmic. But with the instruments, with very few exceptions, we worked on intensively for months beforehand.
EMILY: We had what we called Band Camp, where we met every day for a month and hammered out details. I'm a tax person, so it started on April 16th and went all the way until we started recording in late May.
You're a tax preparer? That must be useful to have in the band.
KERBY FERRIS: Incredibly.
CAROLYN BERK: Emily does a shit ton of work.
KERBY: Money can be so confusing with bands, trying to budget for things you need and still take care of yourselves on tour. Emily is incredible about collecting our resources and managing them.
EMILY: Well thank you.
CAROLYN: It's true! You're the one disciplined thinker.
I was just talking to JD Samson and was surprised to hear honestly how hard it is for even musicians I consider successful to make much money.
KERBY: We work pretty hard to break even. People have this cute thing where, like, they heard of you on Pandora, so you must be huge. I had this one girl say, "You're on Pandora and you live here?!" It was so cute to me.
EMILY: I had someone come up to the merch table who was looking at the record and then looking at me and was like, "Is that you? I can't believe that's you!" I was like, "It's not that unbelievable. This is my show and we don't have a merch person."
KERBY: I think people have weird ideas about who can make music. Anyone can make music and lots of people do.
EMILY: But to get back to your question, whenever we do make money, we put it back into the band.
So from a tax specialist perspective, what's the best way for musicians to make money? Do you get annoyed when people listen to your music online and then don't buy an album?
EVERYONE: Oh no! No! No!
KERBY: I listen to music in so many different ways. Obviously the whole recording industry has had it wrong for so long, we're not trying to be on the wrong side of the winds of history. I think that the movement to monetizing music via live performance is really nice. I think that's a really lovely way to buy into a band. I like that the economics of the music industry are pushing musicians to work harder on their live shows. Buying a prerecorded thing is nice and I've definitely had spiritual experiences buying a record of a band that's changing my life, but it's so much more powerful to see them live.
EMILY: There's two ways we make money and they're both from shows: money from the door and money from merchandise. We get a little bit of money from royalties, but it's not that much. If we go on tour, we don't make much money, but we'll come home with some. And I think that's because we play places where there's a fan base; we're really connected with the people who host us and put on the shows. It's an organic gathering.
KERBY: It's kind of our version of a wedding. Other communities connect through weddings and we connect through tours. A Friend in the World is very much a thank-you note to our fans. The title is a reference to the experience we have traveling the world and having these month-long reunions, getting to meet people all over.
There's a campaign now to boycott bands that played at Michigan Women's Fest, because of the festival's exclusion of trans women. What discussions did Lovers have about playing Michfest?
EMILY: We played the festival twice, once in 2011 and again in 2013. This year in particular has been an incredibly heated year for the issue of trans inclusion at Michigan. We take our commitments seriously, so we didn't feel right about cancelling. We talked about this issue amongst ourselves pretty tirelessly for months. That discussion continued and intensified while we were at the festival. Our stance is that trans women should be welcomed to the festival, rather than simply tolerated, which is my impression of how it is now. Kerby made a very powerful statement from the stage that brought many people, including myself, to tears. First she thanked all the women who had come before us, who had made this festival possible and who had made it possible for us to come out and to hold our girlfriends' hands in public, etcetera. Secondly, that the issue of trans-inclusion is not an issue of the past or the future but of the present. We asked for them to welcome their daughters to the festival, and to trust us that this was the right decision.
Moving on, how do you feel like your performance style has changed since you've become a band?
KERBY: We moved around a lot on instruments.
EMILY: When we first started, I was playing guitar, Kerby was playing drums—
KERBY: —on some weird electronic drum kit. We had some MIDI keyboard that was always searching for the WIFI network rather than wanting to work.
EMILY: And then sometimes I'd play the bongos.
KERBY: You played the bongos! It's true!
What happened to the bongos?
EMILY: We don't have room in the Corolla.
KERBY: I think they were a very serious joke. We were kidding but we were very serious about it.
CAROLYN: Very serious. The way the Beach Boys are kidding. The way John Stamos is kidding.
How have your ideas about performance changed, not just your instruments?
CAROLYN: Well, I feel thrilled to have two people that I think are compelling, visually compelling. I feel like I have some help up there being interesting.
EMILY: Oh girl, you don't need help.
CAROLYN: I feel like I have support up there. I find it's much, much, much more satisfying to be in a band than to be solo. I find the interaction helpful. I've started to have a shift in my own perception of performance where I realized that it's fun. Before, it felt more, like, a compulsion. And now we do it because it's fun. Now I just try to relax and have fun and that's what it's about, the energy of the experience. More and more, I feel like I'm in a good mental space with what I'm doing.
How did that shift from performance being compulsion to being fun come about?
CAROLYN: Pretty recently. I'd just been doing it. It was just a lifeline. It was a lifeline. It was a basic lifeline for years. I think for a long time, it was something that I needed really badly to do. And then somewhere in my own process, it became something that I felt like I had to give. For a long time, it was something that was keeping me engaged and keeping me alive, to be honest. And now I'm at a part where art is much more of a celebration.
Do you feel like you hear that difference in your old music?
CAROLYN: Yes. I look at old stuff and I think, "God, I am just barely coin' in." And now it's really much more of a pleasure, I guess. I know what I'm doing up there and I know what I'm up there to say. Things in my life have changed so that I'm not that same person who was just… where there was no prototype and I didn't feel like I knew what I was doing and I felt like I wasn't a proper musician but I felt this incredible need to do this weird thing.
Who do you learn from?
CAROLYN: We learn a lot through trial and error, but we're really just following our heartpath at this point. Sometimes it's just bizarre and sometimes it's embarrassing and sometimes its weird looking and sometimes it's joyful, but what I try to do is just cultivate some faith and I feel like that's all that anyone can do. The more that I'm happy in my personal life, the more it comes through in performance.
KERBY: There's a real energy in the world right now where there's a lot of people begging the world and themselves and everyone around them to just be truthful. There's a real hunger for authenticity. People come to shows and I go to shows as a prayer, to say, "I love what you do, I'm here to watch you."
What do you feel like you've tried and thrown out?
CAROLYN: Oh, everything in life.
EMILY: I've thrown out the idea that someone—most often a man—will swoop in and do everything for us. I'm resigned to be self-made. I've resigned myself to be the do-er and the maker of the things I want to do and make. We do get help in some ways and we have had success—Dylan who owns our label was someone who got in contact and said, "I want to put out your next record." But there's been other times, more often than not, when a stranger has approached us to help us and it hasn't worked out.
Wouldn't it be nice sometimes to just have someone hand you a record deal?
CAROLYN: It's all trickier than it seems.
EMILY: If someone's going to offer you an advance, they're going to have a lot of opinions.
KERBY: Yeah, money doesn't come cheap. Money can be expensive to have.
EMILY: I also think there's a lot of creativity in the business aspect of being a band. When you have something you believe in, you can decide what path you go down.
CAROLYN: Absolutely, the choices you make—that's beautiful.
KERBY: I also think being present at every level of that struggle, of that process, really shapes the art you end up making. While I wouldn't say I've totally let go of the fantasy that everything administrative in my life will be taken care of and I can just sit in a cabin and make beautiful things, I'm fully aware that the struggle helps shape the work that I make. So I'm appreciating the struggle of that process.
EMILY: I think the art that we make‚ we were talking about this the other day, I think we're a very uncool band. It's almost, like, we have a vendetta against cool.
KERBY: We're not cool enough to be against anything.
EMILY: We're just approachable and kind and real with people.
KERBY: And it creates a frequency with people that causes them to treat us with great kindness and openness. People treat us with an openness that's really cute and nerd-ly.
CAROLYN: I feel like we've been more and more intuitive with what we're trying to create in a space and it's been really helpful with everything, with shyness and nerves. It helps with everything to have a space where we get to have a certain degree of control over the energy. We want to be operating on a love energy. That feels empowering, honestly. That feels very feminist and very exciting.
Catch Lovers on tour this October and November! The band made Bitch readers this mixtape of music they listened to while recording the new album. It's great! You can listen to this and more than 100 Bitch-made mixtapes on 8 Tracks.com.