As she sang out, sans microphone, to the high ceiling of Saratoga Springs church-turned-art-gallery Spring Street Gallery, Elise Percy was reminded of her early days as a songwriter. The intimate New York venue serves as the perfect location for a show on Percy's first tour as e.p. hall, the name she took on in 2003 when she began recording her lo-fi gothic-folk.
"It made me remember those times of being a kid in my room, playing and singing and not wanting anyone to hear me," Percy said. "There was just something so magical about it."
The tour followed the November 2009 release of Mommy Crow
, Percy's most ambitious album to date. Although she recorded much of it in her bedroom, as she has her prior albums, the 27-year-old Bloomington-based songwriter enlisted more professional help this time around. Between signing with UK indie label IFF Transponder, booking a tour and mailing out promotional CDs herself, Percy has been busy; she's even taken a year off from her graduate studies in social cognition at IU.
"It can feel really anticlimactic to put this much effort into something and feel like it's just sort of sent out into the abyss," Percy said. "It's certainly really encouraging to know that people are listening and hearing it."
As a teenager, Percy discovered a guitar that used to belong to her father (who died three months after her birth) in the closet of her Sacramento, Calif. home. She began writing songs shortly thereafter, teaching herself how to play by "just sort of banging around."
Andy Goheen, a graduate of IU's guitar performance program who collaborates with Percy in e.p. hall and his own songwriting vehicle Sticky and the Bees, attributes her unique musical abilities to her self-training and musical exposure as a child.
"She grew up listening to a lot of classical music, and was never actually trained in music," Goheen, who plays drums, percussion and synthesizer on Mommy Crow
, said. "She has that sort of intuitive musical sense, but doesn't exactly know any rules for making music, so it comes out weird. Which is awesome."
Early on, Percy rarely shared her songs and she didn't begin playing shows regularly until moving to Bloomington in the summer of 2005. But after giving a tape of her music to boyfriend Jerel Hall when she was 16, he became her first collaborator.
"We actually ended up, about five years later, getting married, so my name actually used to be Elise Percy Hall," Percy said, explaining the origins of her sobriquet.
Though the couple split in 2007, Percy continued to use the name e.p. hall for her musical endeavors, both for the sake of continuity and to distance herself emotionally from the project.
"e.p. hall didn't feel like my name anymore, it just sort of felt like, I don't know, a ghost or a figure or something - just something that wasn't exactly me that I could separate from," Percy said.
Black clouds of smoke roll past the titular bird which graces the cover of Mommy Crow
. The stark and textured artwork, designed by Bloomington artist David Woodruff and silkscreened at In Case of Emergency Press, reflects one of the album's themes.
"To embrace failure and disappointment is to sit under the wing of a dark and frightening bird," Percy said. "Mommy Crow
personifies the seductive temptation of the notion that it is safer to lose hope than maintain it."
And while Mommy Crow
isn't exactly about her divorce, it is about the devastation it caused.
"Making the record, getting to name and narrate everything, was really an important component of that process," Percy said.
Percy began recording Mommy Crow
in the same way she had her last album The edge the middle
, by laying down guitar tracks, vocals and electronics (via her MiniKorg synth) on a MacBook in her bedroom. But she wasn't happy with the way a lot of the recordings sounded. Goheen suggested that she speak with Neal Warner, a local engineer who records artists in various Bloomington locales using a mobile studio.
Percy went on to re-record vocal tracks with Warner in Bloomington venues like The Bishop and Schoolhouse, but she opted to keep many of her bedroom guitar tracks. Thus, the record is a blend of both high and low-fi elements.
"Because we kept a lot of the DIY recordings it sort of maintains both of those feelings," Percy said. "What I didn't want when I rerecorded stuff was to sterilize it."
Though each song is built around her dynamic, quivering vocals and acoustic guitar, Percy has recruited some new personnel to help fill out the record's sound. She's been actively collaborating with Goheen on live performances for about a year now - the two of them are the sole performers for all e.p. hall and Sticky and the Bees shows.
Songs like the lush opener "The Emperor's Note," which features Russian Recording's Mike Bridavsky (who also mixed and mastered the album) on electric guitar, are a departure from e.p. hall's typical minimalist style. Percy says she'd like to continue incorporating a broader cast of musicians for future recordings.
"When things are added it can feel like an unwelcome change - it can feel like its varying the intimacy or things that you valued about it," Percy said. "But at the same time I really like having that kind of range and flexibility."
Percy feels that music and academia will always have parallel roles within her life, but she's skeptical about the viability of a musical career after a year of handling nearly every aspect of her music's production herself.
"It just seems dangerous," Percy said. "Of course, ask me again when I have the opportunity."