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Interview: Minor Alps on the Freedom of Limitations

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(Brad Walsh for Barsuk Records)

(Brad Walsh for Barsuk Records)

By Courtney E. Smith

There is no space between Juliana Hatfield and Matthew Caws of Nada Surf on their collaboration as Minor Alps. The pair co-wrote, played all the instruments themselves, and made the unorthodox decision to try vocal layering so both end up singing lead on most of their recent-released debut, Get There. It is, perhaps, not the choice many of their longtime fans would have expected from the collaboration, but it does differentiate the work. Hatfield chalks it up to the freedom that certain limitations can lead to.

“Maybe I’m not the best keyboard player, but I think that’s an asset sometimes,” she said. “If you’re not technically the hotshot you can be more creative. I think limitations can be really freeing. Whatever kind of limitations: budgetary, technical or anything. That’s when creativity happens, I think.”

Get There is, on the surface, a harmony-filled nugget of power-pop that remains referential to their signature sounds, nods to the ’90s aesthetic in which they first came up musically. But after they point it out, the limitations become this interesting sonic element that pops out, the quest for a catchy hook chief among their self-relegated boxes.

Related: Radio.com Show: Minor Alps @ NYC’s Rockwood Music Hall

“I feel like, maybe if I was a more mature songwriter I wouldn’t want everything to be catchy all the time,” Caws said. “But I kinda do. I want it all to be sing-songy and catchy and repetitive, kind of for comfort. People have said a lot of corny things about songwriting, but it is like meditation. It’s therapy. And for me it’s just a compulsion. It feels really good, in a way, to compartmentalize feelings.”

The album is a collaboration first and foremost, though Hatfield isn’t known for being a collaborative songwriter. Separately the pair are excellent at crafting songs about universal ideas using the specific details of everyday life (see: “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Hands”). Caws chalks it up to a shared sensibility and describes their writing process as “kind of like producing the other person.” Still, Hatfield was unsure about collaborating in the writing process.

“I was afraid it would be hard to go to that vulnerable place I need to be when I’m writing, to access the feelings — the uncomfortable feelings,” Hatfield says. “I thought it would be hard to do with someone else in the room, because I always write alone. But after the initial nervousness with Matthew, it got easier. Just because we both do this. We both write about the same sorts of things and I knew that I could trust him because he does the same thing that I do.”

Although they’ve been doing this separately for years, Get There reflects this set of songs about being nervous, being insecure and waiting for a moment to happen: the anticipation that makes up mundane life. For Hatfield and Caws, the feelings of anxiousness never seem to quite go away.

“It seems that other people have an easier time of things,” Hatfield said. “I don’t want to complain about anything but it doesn’t ever get easier for me. I’m a nervous person. That’s why I write songs. For me, communication is so difficult if not impossible…I can’t figure out how people make that work.”

(Jeremy D. Larson/Radio.com)
Minor Alps’ recent Radio.com show (Jeremy D. Larson for Radio.com)

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