Interview: Lean Year’s Transcendent Storytelling

Three years ago, Emilie Rex quit her job at Indiana University, making room for a collaboration that would eventually lead to the forming of Lean Year.

The other half of the Richmond based duo is filmmaker and musician Rick Alverson, known for his more experimental work with films like The Comedy and Entertainment. The two started playing music, and quickly discovered they could create something together, something that in Rex’s words “provided a lot of solace.” Traveling between Richmond and the Chicago home of producer Erik Hall, the three recorded a debut album that so beautifully pulls from various worlds and microcosms, which on paper, have no clear link. Yet provided with such a distinct and connected sonic backdrop, the stories become a melded string of vignettes, at once autonomous and tied together. The sound itself is rooted in folk, but often feels like a study in classical minimalism — a meditation rather than a narrative. Quiet, arcing slowly, the album is an impressive debut, and one worth listening to on repeat, if only to catch a story that might have been missed. To dive a little deeper, we caught up with one half of Lean Year, Emilie Rex to talk language, history and figure skating. The group’s self-titled debut is out October 20. Pre-order here. 

With Rick coming from film and you coming from academia do you feel like music is the synthesis of these two worlds in a way? That you can bring together the theoretical and the visual in one place?
I think there’s definitely some of that. In a lot of ways we tend to be really drawn to music because it feels like this really important intersection of physicality and emotion and intellect because it is so bodily. I think that’s where our flirtation with the secular spiritualism of it rests. It still feels very intellectual to me but it feels like a reprieve from some of those more solely mind oriented things we have to do. I think for Rick, we both really love film and he is obviously very embedded in that world. There’s probably even more crossover for him. As you’re watching a song unfold in the space between you and someone else you’re writing with, it starts to take shape drawing on visual material whether it’s a painting or an actual film. It’s a way of anchoring the song in that moment in time and then allowing it to go from there along the way. We definitely draw from a very similar visual vocabulary in that way.

It does feel very literary in a way. As a whole it feels like you’re reading a book, and there are disruptive moments but the whole thing is very steady and hushed. Is there a story you’re trying to tell with that kind of cadence?
Maybe that’s just our vibe. We’re pretty intentional about not wanting to read in any meaning to it. For us, and especially for Rick with his films, how do you give the reader, the listener, the viewer as much autonomy in bringing themselves to a space and do the work of interpreting or experiencing it on their own? We co-wrote everything together and he brings, from his years of playing music and love of poetry really, I think a really unique viewpoint. And then in my professional life I am a writer. I write about resilience as a concept, resilience as sustainability, so maybe that’s where some of that comes from? But I wouldn’t say that there is a coherent story that we were trying to tell. If anything we’re pretty anti-narrative [laughs].

You did mention spiritualism before and it does seem that there are these themes of obsession, even with one of the songs being called Sonja Henie. What was the meaning behind focusing on these micro-worlds like figure skating?
One of the things that worked out and I think this speaks to Rick and Erik’s producorial mind, was that it feels very stylistically and tonally weaved together, but some of the songs feel like little vignettes in a way. For Rick, a lot of what he’s learned from his films is this myth of American utopianism, and a lot of that is present in skating culture. This idea that anyone can go to the Olympics. It’s a very bizarre, sort of toxic and for many people I’m sure an enjoyable space. But it was a compelling space for us to write about. And then the more we learned about this woman, Sonja Henie…are you familiar with her at all?

Yeah I looked into it. She seemed big in the 30s, I think from Norway, had some controversial Nazi run-ins.
Yeah and there was something about her story. She’s both compelling and so complicated. This idea of being stuck in a narrative. There was just something interesting about her. She was incredibly ambitious and very successful as a woman but also obviously willing to do pretty much anything in order to be successful. Like spending time with Hitler, which there’s no defending that. But there was something dark about her and I don’t even really feel the song is about her at all almost. The darkness felt like the root of that story and then it kind of took off from there.

I saw in a bio somewhere that your work references the “dysfunction of contemporary dialogue.” Especially now it feels like that represents our current moment completely, do you think this was the purest way you could get across a message?
We wrote this record last year during the period of time that I think will continue to haunt the United States. It just feels like it keeps getting darker and darker. But we weren’t intending to be overtly political. So I think we both feel there is something important about us writing songs together being another way of exploring dialogue between people. I think we just rely so much on language to convey meaning and it’s really really challenging to be able to do that effectively. Especially in such a polarized environment. There were elements of exploring a different kind of language between each other and also the different pitfalls and complications of that experience, and what comes through in miscommunication too. I think we occasionally would go back and forth and be like “did you say this?” and I’d be like “no, but that’s amazing.” [laughs] It’s like the way in which confusion can kind of be like a ghost writer.

Lastly, I was just curious how Richmond provided a backdrop to this because it feels also very specific to that area. I don’t know, but there are sounds that come out of that part of the country and I recognize that in your music.
Well I’m from the midwest, and I moved to Richmond about three years ago, and certainly can’t claim any southern sound, but Rick has lived here for the last two decades. I think there’s definitely elements of being here that sounds like Spokane, Rick’s old band, at least tonally and stylistically. Maybe that has something to do with it too. Richmond is also just a very complicated but also rich place to live and work. I think there’s some of the quiet haunted sleepiness of Richmond that frames the music a little bit, because it certainly feels like that here. On paper it could be a bustling metropolis, but it’s still pretty neighborhoody and quiet all the time. It’s just a very complicated place to live, a complicated history.