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FUV Q&A: The National's Scott Devendorf 2019

The National's Scott Devendorf (photo by Gus Philippas for WFUV)

The National's Scott Devendorf (photo by Gus Philippas for WFUV)

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The National has often added other musicians to their mix for various occasions, but on the band's eighth album, I Am Easy to Find, the group collaborates with outside artists on a whole new level.  

Singer Matt Berninger, multi-instrumentalists Aaron Dessner and his twin brother Bryce, and bassist Scott Devendorf and his brother Bryan, on drums, connected with filmmaker Mike Mills. The director, with credits like 2017's critically acclaimed "20th Century Women" which starred Annette Bening, approached the National with an idea for a project. The result is a short film and a long album, both called I Am Easy to Find.

Rather than rely solely on Berninger's voice, the quintet reached out to female musicians and friends like Gail Ann Dorsey, This is the Kit's Kate Stables, Sharon Van Etten and even the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

Earlier this spring, the band brought some of those collaborators to Philadelphia for a performance at Non-Comm 2019, the public radio conference, and I had the chance to chat with Scott Devendorf. We talked about the new album, its range of collaborators, and the invaluable artistic input of Berninger's writing partner and wife, Carin Besser:

Alisa Ali: Congratulations on the new record. It's beautiful although I expect no less from you. Is that stressful that we have such high expectations? We expect beauty and nothing less!

Scott Devendorf [laughs}: Yeah it is! It is stressful. We try and make records that we like and that evoke some emotion. That kind of beauty is in motion, but we try to make them as best we can. 

Ali: Well, you certainly have made many great records. Sleep Well Beast won a Grammy. And I understand this new record, I Am Easy to Find, came out of the sessions for Sleep Well Beast.

Devendorf: We had about five or six or seven songs, and then we played those songs on the Sleep Well Beast tour here and there, to moderate success.

Ali: You've been playing "Rylan" for years now. And it's finally on this new record. Was that a song that didn't quite work and [you all decided], let's keep working on this?

Devendorf: Yes. It's a simple song in a lot of ways. We were like, "Okay what is the important thing in this song?" or  "What could lift it or take it in a slightly different direction?" One of my favorite things about it is [This is the Kit's] Kate Stables singing in part of the song where it’s doubled and harmonic — finding things like that through the years, and then trying to play them.

Ali: Kate is all over this record. There are a lot of female vocalists on this record. Pretty cool, but very unusual for a National record.

Devendorf: We love it.

Ali: How did [the collaborations] come together? Were you guys just sick of Matt’s voice?

Devendorf [laughs]: I think maybe Matt was sick of his voice. [Laughs again.] Mike Mills was doing the film. He started to break apart the songs and find things in them that we didn't realize or didn’t think about ahead of us making the record. Mike came into the studio with us and started to identify those things and suggest other things. We've known Kate for years — she's an old friend of Bryce and also just like a genius songwriter-performer person. And Pauline [de Lassus, Bryce's wife], Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan and Sharon Van Etten — everyone we've either toured with, recorded with, produced records with,  and just generally love. They all are so unique and wonderful. As themes of the songs started to emerge, and the whole movie thing, it all started to make more sense that this is a story about a woman's life. Having Matt narrate that was weird. And then I was like, okay, let's all work together.

Ali: What do you think is for you personally the most moving part of the film of I Am Easy to Find?

Devendorf: The whole arc of it is — I get a little choked up. It's hard to pick it out. I mean, it’s easy to watch, but hard to sort of pick out a moment. Life happens, but it’s so condensed: birth, death, and everything in between within 25 minutes.

Ali: It's a really wonderful, moving film. And it's great that it's available for everyone to watch for free. What are your thoughts on the lyrics? What do you think when you first hear them?

Devendorf: Matt keeps lyrics close to his chest for a while — which is smart because we get really attached to things that he sings sometimes. Then he'll change pronouns or something, and then we get a little confused. But, he and his wife Carin [Besser] write the lyrics together and have since Boxer. Not all of them, but she is a great writer with a great mind. Just being able to kind of wrangle him ....

Ali: That's interesting that you say "wrangle" him, because the song "Not in Kansas" references R.E.M.

Devendorf: That started as a 12-minute piece and it was wrangled down to six-and-a-half minutes — Carin was instrumental in doing that for sure. But Mike Mills — not the R.E.M bassist but the director — was was an early adopter of that song when we were kind of like, hmmm. Because it's sort of like a spoken word thing with poignant moments, but then there was a lot of detail that you sort of didn't want too. Carin helped Matt hone it to what it is now, which has more of a narrative arc.

Ali: I do think it's cool that you let Matt go off on spoken word stream-of-consciousness.

Devendorf: It's like [Bob Dylan's] "Desolation Row" or something! In a different way, but [we wondered] where's it going. It was like this continuous sort of snapshot.  So yeah, it's good that it's six minutes.

Ali: Maybe in concert, it can stretch out longer.

Devendorf: We're gonna go for the 12 [minutes]. We'll go for the twelve, guys! 

Listen to the National live in concert from the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival on Wednesday, June 12, on 90.7 WFUV, also streaming online.

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