Interview with Old Earth (Todd Umhoefer)
- By Isaac Kuehnle-Nelson
- July 27, 2013
Old Earth is on the verge of embarking upon a Milwaukee – Scotland tour, the Kickstarter for which you can view here. With a week left to go on the Kickstarter, Inyrarea succeeded in getting an interview with Todd Umhoefer, the man behind Old Earth.
Beyond the location of your record label, was there anything specific that drew you to Scotland?
Honestly, I have a lot to learn about Scotland… The closest I’ve been is Ireland, where I studied art for a month. Western Europe is very interesting and exciting to me, both the landscape and the cultural history. I look forward to the way it feels to stand near the ocean, near mountains, and in cities and buildings with a rich past.
Many of your songs include foregrounded verse lines, where a single exposed verse surfaces against a melodic backdrop. An example of this would be the verse on ‘uncollected voices, on The orchard moan’; the vulnerability and poetic ‘I’ of these lines seem to be an intimate exposition of self. In terms of writing and composition, what do you draw upon when creating music?
Smell the leaves now. Smell the cold on my sweater like, it could almost cry.
Smell it on my hair and hands, it piles like heaven on earth, until the basket’s full.
I like that… I’ve never thought about there being a back and fore ground with the lyrics!
There’s always an intimate expression of self in what I do, but I keep an arm’s length. The lyrics usually take on the voices of multiple narrators, and sometimes they’re intentionally misleading. With music, I’m looking for ways into emotions, and then as an artist, expressing the experience. The Old Earth narrative is a spiritual journey, so it can’t help but get intimate.
It’s more poetic to find an interesting metaphor or image. If I’m too literal, then my private life is being published. The exercise of making music as a spiritual act is already diminished by involving it in the market, so using poetry keeps it sacred.
I draw upon my experience of being alive, and consider it all in a reflective way. I’m usually writing from hindsight. I’m trying to ask meaningful questions, and use my lifetime to make meaningful work.
Your music seamlessly melds influences of American folk and the post-modern, how did you arrive at what your music is today?
It’s a combination of everything I’ve listened to since I was a child, I’m just reinterpreting my favorite parts. These songs simply feel like my voice. I’m trying to make challenging rock music, for both myself and the listener, and to participate in the art of song writing with my own ideas and “antiquated” ones.
The past year has seen the success of several Kickstarter products, such as the Pebble Smartwatch and Tim Schafer’s video game, dubbed ‘Broken Age’. Do you think that Kickstarter has impacted the way consumers interact with creators?
It’s a consumer choice that was once limited to investors. Instead, we see small amounts of money from many different people supporting dreams and innovations. The supporters of these projects are directly involved in the process rather than just the product.
Defining ‘Old Earth’ presents a unique conundrum, as your discography includes the assistance of several other people. What has led to this rather nebulous composition of people, and how do they figure in to the creative process?
They’re all friends first. The talent pool among my buddies is absurd, and it’s impossible to work with everyone, so whoever seems to serve the songs best is who shows up on the recordings. My main team- Berg, Porterfield & the Whitties, they’re the backbone. They understand my process, are amazingly talented people, and most importantly, supportive friends. I only work with people I trust deeply, and they can do as much or as little as they see fit. I don’t write anything outside of my vocals and guitar lines, so my collaborators are playing what they wrote. They all have different backgrounds, so their approach is always surprising. They hear it all differently, and it makes the work come alive in a way I couldn’t develop myself.
Live, I typically perform solo, mainly for the sake of efficiency. Most people don’t understand how much time and effort it takes to organize a practice with more than one other person. Putting on a quality performance takes hours of rehearsal. Everyone has busy lives, so I try to involve my friends without being too demanding.
Overall, it’s a lot like being a director working with a loose stable of actors. Not everyone shows up in every scene, or in every movie, but they’re all vital to the vision.
“They hear it all differently, and it makes the work come alive in a way I couldn’t develop myself”
If people want to read more about you, or your tour, where can they go?
Facebook is a good start. The timeline has a lot of links to interviews, and I try to keep the page relevant and direct. The Bandcamp page has become a pretty sizable archive, somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 hours of music from this nearly decade-old project.
As for the tour, they should go to the kickstarter page.
If you were to recommend an album or an artist, who would that be?
I think people should find local artists and support the hell out of them. Buying the work directly from the artist is the only way to know they’re getting paid. Go see them live… Streaming services aren’t feeding artists, and the rest of the industry has been tipped on its head. We need to help each other out!