Rachel Stolte, one third of L.A.-based trio Great Northern, has no misgivings about her band “selling out” or losing their proverbial “indie cred.” On the contrary, Stolte displays a refreshing enthusiasm as she speaks excitedly about the fact that her band’s song “Home,” off of their debut album Trading Twilight for Daylight, was featured in a Nissan commercial during the Super Bowl.
“I’m open to that, because we just need to make money,” Stolte says without hesitation, speaking backstage after Great Northern’s set at New York’s Webster Hall last month. “If we can get a song that we already wrote in a commercial and make money off of it, we’re like all about it. … I don’t want to worry about paying my rent when I get home. I want to be able to spend my time writing.”
To that end, Stolte and her songwriting (and romantic) partner Solon Bixler have literally put their money where their mouth is. They used the commercial proceeds to build a home studio and are anxious to return and record new material with drummer Davey Latter. For now, they’re laying down demos whenever they get a chance while touring as a support act for The Gutter Twins, Stolte said.
Stolte and Bixler, both of whom are in their early 30s, were friends for years before they began working together – an idea Bixler proposed off-handedly while the two were attending an Elliott Smith concert in 2003, Stolte recalled.
“He gave me all these tapes, like rough ideas on the guitar and stuff that he was working on … and he was like, â€˜Do you want to sing and play piano on these?’ she explained. “We always talked about wanting to do music together, and it was just never right timing-wise.”
That night, Stolte recalled, she stayed up until 7 a.m. listening to the tapes and coming up with vocal arrangements.
“It was exactly what I needed at that moment,” she said. “It was really a pivotal night in a lot of ways. The night before, I literally wrote down, â€˜What do I want in my life? I want music to come back in my life. I want all these things.’ And it was pretty amazing that literally he handed (the tapes) to me the next night … We came together in a place in our lives when we were both sort of feeling this way.”
Four years later, Stolte said, the songs that made the final cut for Trading Twilight for Daylight reflect those quarter-life crisis mentalities. She describes the album as a “vomit” of raw emotion expressed through a smorgasbord of genres.
“I think our record is a little bit all over the place,” she said. “We just got it out of our system.”
Stylistic variances aside, Trading Twilight for Daylight is unified by ethereal melodies, lush harmonies and sentimental lyrics. Stolte said she and Bixler came up with the title of the record during a trip to Mandecino, north of San Francisco.
“It was that time of day, you know, when the light is just perfect and everything feels like it’s going to be ok,” she recalled. “If we could trade the hours of daylight for that, how happy would everyone be?”
Stolte, who had been singing in bands since she the age of 16 but never played a musical instrument, began learning piano when she began collaborating with Bixler. She developed her vocal style by listening to singers like PJ Harvey.
“PJ Harvey I think taught me how to sing,” she said. “I literally would sit in my room and lock the door and try to mimic her. I don’t know that I sound like her, but I learned to kind of sing from my gut from her. She’s somebody, for me, who doesn’t always sound beautiful, but always takes risks and blows my mind.”
Many of the tracks on the album, including “Home,” address a false sense of nostalgia about childhood memories.
“As a kid, you have this mindset where you’re less judgmental. But (as you get) older, you see things maybe more clearly or overall negatively,” she said. “When you go home, you want that feeling you had when you were a kid but you can’t ever get it again, because as an adult you see things that you didn’t see as a kid.”
“Searching for home is a major theme (of the album), searching for a feeling where you feel safe,” she continued. “I think Solon and I have this common thread. We’re both searching for that feeling of home and we kind of found it in each other and in our songwriting and in music. It’s a solace for us.”
A fitting description, because songs like “City of Sleep” and “Low is a Height” evoke the feeling of being softly lulled into slumber by a gentle lullaby.
“Home,” in addition to being used in the Nissan commercial, is also featured prominently in the film “21.”
“It’s really funny because that song was not going to go on the record,” Stolte said. “We didn’t really like it.”
As much as they’ve embraced the song’s advertising appeal, Stolte said supporting their first major-label release doesn’t come without pressures.
“I feel like the music industry has changed so much,” she said. “Getting signed to a label doesn’t mean what it used to mean. They can almost fuck you more than they can help you. … Are they gonna push us so hard on people that people are gonna hate us?”
For that reason, the band members aren’t measuring their success in terms of commercial placements.
“I think a good song always speaks louder than some gimmick, some label trying to push something on people,” she said. “I think building up a real fan base who genuinely like the music and then any way you can make money and music to do that is the way to go. … We’re in a good place at the moment, because we have real fans from the beginning, when we used to play shows where there were literally nine people in the audience. And those people are still coming to our shows, and that’s fucking awesome. That’s amazing. It’s such a driving force.”
Stolte, who gushed about the nearly-completed Gutter Twins tour (“Every night, I’m glued to the stage”), said the audience enthusiasm is part of the reason she prefers life on the road.
“Being on the road is so stimulating,” Stolte explains. “You’re in a new city every day. It almost speeds up your evolution a little bit. You feel like you learn so much. … I feel way more creative. As soon as I get in the van, I’m ready to write. I feel way more creative. The hardest part is going home and adjusting to less stimulation. … It’s almost like it’s a heightened sensory overload, and then when you’re at home, everything’s flat.”
It’s both a blessing and a curse that her and Bixler’s personal relationship has evolved along with their musical partnership, Stolte said.
“We fight all the time,” she readily acknowledged. “Solon and I have a completely different songwriting process … It took us a while to kind of get to know each other’s (style).”
Stolte works out the melodies and lyrics while Bixler tackles the layering and more technical aspects of production, she said. It’s not uncommon for the pair to be up until the wee hours of the morning hammering out the minute details of tracks. (“We’re both Capricorns,” she explained. “It’s kind of like going out with yourself.”)
“In the beginning both of us were fighting to do everything,” Stolte explained. “And now we’ve kind of relinquished control over certain things. … It took us a while to get to that place.”
Now that they’ve found it, Stolte said the band is eager to return to their studio and begin recording again.
“I feel like we were totally put together for a reason,” she added. “We’ve finally figured it out.”