JOHN AND LAURIE STIRRATT
By guest interviewer, Marie LeClaire
Photograph by Maudie McCormick

AN ADMIRER OF BOTH UNCLE TUPELO AND WILCO, IT WAS NATURAL THAT I'D COME ACROSS JOHN AND LAURIE STIRRATT. WITH LAURIE OF BLUE MOUNTAIN FAME, AND JOHN BEING WILCO'S PROLIFIC BASS PLAYER, I WAS INTRIGUED. PICKING UP THEIR CURRENT RECORD, ARABELLA-- WHOSE EMOTIONAL WEIGHT IS PALPABLE-- LED ME TO PURSUE THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW.

 

Marie LeClaire: Where did the title Arabella come from?

 

Laurie Stirratt: It is the name of the street we grew up on.

 

ML: One of the things I noticed listening to the record, but also just by flipping around your website, was that it had a very family album kind of feel. Was that a motivating factor in recording?

 

LS: I think so. Maybe not originally, but then it really started to feel that way. It was just a great project. Because even though we had played in bands together, we hadnít recorded a full-length record together in a long time-- since The Hilltops, which was the first band we had together.

 

ML: Could you have seen yourself recording any of these songs with anyone else?

 

John Stirratt: I think it's the only kind of project I could have seen some of these songs appearing in. I think they have a nature that can only be shared by the family or something. (laughs) You know? Frankly, you know what kind of songs you gravitate toward. It's almost like writing songs in itself: sequencing records, sequencing songs. It's like you donít really know why at the time, but it becomes a little more obvious later on.

 

ML: When did you form The Hilltops?

 

LS: That was from '88 to '91. Then we parted ways. At the time, my boyfriend and I formed Blue Mountain, and John went on to play with Uncle Tupelo and Wilco. We wanted to get something together again, but we were touring a lot and couldnít really get it together until after Blue Mountain broke up. And then I had plenty of spare time. (laughs)

 

ML: How does this record fit in with or differ from the different projects you've been a part of?

 

LS: Itís the first thing Iíve done where a lot of the songwriting was my writing. A lot of the stuff from Blue Mountain was co-written with my ex-husband. Musically speaking, it's a lot mellower and the songs are super-personal. And with Danny [Black, lead singer of Healthy White Baby], the music is more in the vein of what Blue Mountain was doing. Iím playing bass in that band like I did in Blue Mountain, and it's a pretty rockin' band. It's just nice to be doing that again.

 

JS: I think we knew these songs were destined for this record. It's a little more reminiscent of The Hilltops. We wrote together and had some songs in mind, but they generally tended to be more folky kind of songs. The tone was just a little more on the folk and country side.

 

ML: (to Laurie) What made you want to move to Chicago? Were you still living down South at that point?

 

LS: I was. I was in Oxford, Mississippi for 14 years, and thatís where the band Blue Mountain was based out of. My husband and I split up, but we played together for another year. But then it became too hard to keep it together, you know, given the divorce situation. So I was in Oxford and I really loved it there. It definitely felt like home. But it was just time to move on. John was up here [Chicago], and he was really loving it. I was coming to visit him all the time, so it just kind of made sense. There was just so much going on musically here.

 

ML: (to John) What kind of a place were you coming from at the time?

 

JS: You know, it was really a productive time for me. I was really getting into the swing of living in Chicago, and it was really an upbeat time for me, as opposed to Laurie. So I think she definitely brought some of the heavier material to the record, and I think that it was a great thing. Some of the songs definitely have a little more weight, you know?

 

ML: When I listened to the record, I thought a lot of it sounded very personal and touching. But it was also hopeful, in a strange way.

 

LS: Good! A lot of the songs I wrote-- well, I was coming from a pretty dark place at the time, so I was concerned that some of the songs were just too dark. But I intended it to come off as hopeful, so thatís good to hear. Iím glad.

 

ML: (to John) Did you have the same kind of feeling toward it?

 

JS: Well, I have to say that I kind of embrace that a little more. A lot of my favorite records are really super-downer records. A lot of times those are the records I come back to; I kind of embrace it. The record definitely had a bleak quality to it, you know? (laughs) At least from a subject matter standpoint. But I think that kind of music can be as uplifting as anything else. I'm glad you got that impression. I felt the same way. When you write, there is this weird optimism in a lot of dark songs. And in a lot of my favorite dark records, like [Big Star's] Sister Lovers or something like that-- it's weird. (laughs) I hope you don't ask me to describe the optimism. It's kind of like that over-simplistic idea; like the blues actually being a healing thing. It's probably not far from that idea.

 

ML: Personally, I think any kind of art-- whether it's film or music or whatever-- the most powerful stuff is the stuff thatís the most personal and maybe the hardest to express and show to others.

 

LS: I agree. My favorite songs are the ones that are the most personal, even if they're really sad. If they're really personal, it's straight from the heart. Those are my favorite songs. So that made me feel a little bit better about writing some of the songs I wrote for this record. You start to think you may be bearing a little too much of your soul, but I'd much rather do that than write songs that didnít have a lot of meaning to me. I can't really write that way, because writing is so hard for me. It's really got to mean something. I don't think I have the patience to sit down and write something that doesnít have any meaning to me.

 

ML: You both come from a musical family. How much do you think that played into the paths that you have taken?

 

LS: It definitely formed us early on. My dad is a musician and he still plays in bands. He's in his seventies, but he's still playing. It definitely influenced John and I in a big way. Our parents had all these great instruments stashed in their closet. When we were in our teens we were totally into music, and our older siblings were great about turning us on to good stuff. So we sort of gravitated towards it and started playing. Our parents were very encouraging. Everyone in our family played an instrument at one time or another. But we just kinda went with it. (laughs) Our parents were real supportive, but they didnít like the idea of us actually trying to make a living at it.

 

ML: They didnít?

 

LS: No. They wanted us to play, but when we really started to do it as a profession they were concerned about us making a living.

 

JS: Yeah. Like any sane parent, I think, they felt that way. We werenít... (pauses) you know, I donít think we showed any sort of prodigal promise at an early age. (laughs) So there was no reason to really believe that we would be a success or anything. (laughs) So my situation-- being able to be in a band for this long-- it's really outrageous, you know? So they werenít thrilled at the beginning, but slowly over time they just accepted that it was something we were going to do. We were quite serious about it.

 

ML: (to Laurie) Being that there was so much time in-between you and John working together, where do you think you were coming from when you went in to make this record?

 

LS: Well, for me, that was a tough couple of years. I mean, my marriage fell apart and the band split up, so I was sort of in limbo. Everything I had done for the past 12 years was just gone all of a sudden. So it was a really positive thing for me. John has always been super-supportive and a great brother. I think it was a great way to get back into recording and playing again, and having someone I was close to, to do it with. It felt really safe. We work really well together, and it was really symbiotic both personally and musically. It was a great experience and something I really needed to do. It made things a lot easier for me.

 

ML: I have a sister, and I'm pretty sure that if we tried to work on a project together for an extended period of time it would be, well, disastrous. Were there any times that working with your brother made things difficult?

 

LS: You know, when it came down to recording, everything just sort of came naturally. We were pretty much on the same page. I have to say it was great, probably the easiest recording experience Iíve ever had. I mean, there usually is conflict, you know? But there wasnít, so it was great.

 

ML: Any songs that stand out as favorites?

 

LS: "We'll Meet Again".

 

ML: How come?

 

LS: Well, John and I actually wrote that one together. It was really fun because we did it in the car on a road trip. We were driving from Chicago to New Orleans to visit my dad, and we were working on the material for the record. It was a long drive, and we wrote the song together on the trip. I just have fond memories of writing it.

 

JS: We kind of traded off. We traded arrangement ideas and lyrics and stuff. It was great. All of the collaboration was really second nature on this album.

 

ML: (to John) About a year ago, The Autumn Defense [John's other band] played a little place in Manhattan, and you mentioned that it was a weird experience playing a smaller venue. Do you still feel that way?

 

JS: I prefer it. Frankly, I think the only thing weird about it is running a band again. (laughs) That's probably the weirdest thing about it. As the Wilco thing has gotten bigger and bigger, I've really missed playing in the environments that I'm used to watching music in. (laughs) It was probably weird playing a show there to a lot of people... unexpectedly. (laughs) But it was really great. All of The Autumn Defense shows-- with the exception of a few-- have been really great and well-attended. But I do miss and really love playing in venues that size. And, of course, I prefer to attend shows in that size of venue.

 

ML: But you've played in venues of all sizes, seeing as how Wilco played Madison Square Garden on New Year's Eve this past year.

 

JS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was such an... (pauses) aberration. (laughs) Not that we won't continue to do that. It's just that there was definitely a surreal quality to it.

 

ML: Well, I think it was something that was really important on a lot of different levels. A few years ago, most people wouldn't have thought they would see The Flaming Lips and Wilco playing Madison Square Garden on New Year's Eve.

 

JS: Oh, completely. No, it's definitely a weird thing. I mean, we play quite a lot of venues that size, but we're always opening for someone. But to actually keep playing and not get off after 20 minutes was really what seemed weird.

 

ML: What is the next step?

 

LS: For me, I think the next step is to get this record with Healthy White Baby finished.

 

ML: When is that going to be?

 

LS: Iím hoping that will be in the next six months. I think that will give us plenty of time to do it and just go on from there. And personally, Iíve started to write again, so a solo record is what Iím shooting for in the next year or so.

 

JS: I mean, I guess we're [Wilco] going to start working on the next record. Probably another Autumn Defense record down the line, followed by another record with Laurie. After making Circles-- The Autumn Defense record-- and A Ghost Is Born [Wilco], and finishing up Laurieís record, I felt like I definitely needed to stop for a while. (laughs) It was a lot of output from me.

 

ML: And with three totally different kinds of music.

 

JS: Yeah. (laughs) Different enough, really; as different as I could get. I really felt like I wanted to... well, I bought a house and Iím working on that a little bit, so I just wanted to step away from it all a little bit. Just step away from writing all the time. And I feel great about it. I never have too much trouble putting it away for a little while.

VISIT THE STIRRATTS HERE.
VISIT WILCO HERE.
VISIT BROADMOOR RECORDS HERE.
VISIT HEALTHY WHITE BABY HERE.
VISIT THE AUTUMN DEFENSE HERE.