Before they played The Annie O Music Series at The Standard, East Village Penthouse, we sat down with Kelly to reflect on the past three years.
KELLY ZUTRAU: I've been thinking about that a lot lately because it feels really different with our second album. With our first album, it felt like we were defining ourselves with that one thing, and there was a lot of pressure. There were a lot of situations I remember not knowing how to navigate. We made a lot of mistakes as we were figuring things out.
Now we’re expanding upon that, and it feels less pressurized—maybe slightly less exciting in a way that it can never really be again. But I feel a lot more relaxed, and I have less expectations. I just feel happy to put out something that documented this really strange and interesting time over the past two years, and I feel like that's enough right now.
This album seems like it was a huge release for you. It's unapologetically emotional.
I think it's the same as it's always been. The music that I write is coming directly from a place of processing my experiences, especially painful experiences. When things are going well, I don't feel the same need to write songs. Maybe now there's less passivity, and maybe there’s more of a directness in the language. I really wanted it to be an exploratory body of work where we just tried different things and were a little less precious about it.
I think just developing as an artist, person, and woman. I had some experiences over the last few years of doing this that brought me to a place of really feeling like it was my duty to myself and to fans to be less passive and less apologetic about who I am, what I'm asking for, what I need out of the world, and how I feel as a woman in the world. There are still moments where I don't feel that way, but there are more moments of confidence and more moments where lyrics feel revelatory. I uncovered an experience or a feeling in myself that I wasn't aware of by organizing my feelings and my thoughts to write the song. Something was revealed, and I feel like there's more of that on this album.
Could you give an example of one of those revelatory moments?
While I was writing "This Woman Loves You," that song started off as a song about a relationship with a specific man and then expanded to be about my relationship to all men—romantic, platonic, professional. And then it expanded further into being a song about my relationship with the country at that moment in time. I wrote it when Trump had just been elected. We were driving through the South and it just turned into something completely different than what it started as. When you set out to do one thing and then the process completely changes it, and you uncover something more interesting, deeper, and more complicated—I think those are the best moments in any art.
We just opened for Florence and the Machine, and it was a really big stage with an audience of 10,000-plus people. Those are situations that I still have pretty bad stage fright, but I'm so much more used to the feeling now. It used to be this feeling of pure chaos, and I thought I would actually die. Now I don't feel like that. I've never done anything for this long in my life. If you do something long enough, you can actually change, grow, and adjust to difficult circumstances. It's still an uncomfortable feeling, but I know it very well and I know what actions I need to take.
What's it like to perform such emotional songs in front of [your bandmate] Joe and other people the songs may be about? Is that tough to do?
It is in a way, but I'm kind of a psycho and get something out of that. It feels very intense. I won't say I like it, but there's something very meaningful about getting to work on a song with Joe that may or may not be about him. We’ll send a song back and forth exploring ideas and arguing, but then have a breakthrough moment about the song that's also about our relationship. I feel like it's really lucky to have this almost metaphor where we work through something bigger. Similarly, singing out to a crowd where I know there’s an ex-boyfriend and they know the song is about them, it can be overwhelming, but there are moments when I think this is such a pure, intense form of communication. It's a crazy experience to be allowed to have. Singing "Don't Want to Be Your Girl" to a crowd full of girls singing along and crying and all I can hear is them singing the words…it’s moments like that where I remember why I'm doing this and why I'm so lucky to get to do it.
Right now, the new album’s title track, "Still Run." That one just feels really intense. The lyrics are pretty straightforward and there's no hiding behind them. It feels very clear what I'm talking about, and I feel very vulnerable.
Is it about Joe?
Yeah, it's about a lot of things, but it is about that relationship. It's amazing and cathartic, but also really overwhelming and intense. And it depends. There are bad shows where it doesn't feel good to be saying this stuff, but then on a good show, it's really cool.
Now that the album's been out a month, have any of the responses been surprising?
I haven't been paying too much attention. That's something that I think has changed since the first album. I was really aware of reviews the first time around, and now I don't know if those are necessarily valuable for me to read. I've been trying to stay focused on what I'm doing, stay focused on the fans and the people who are really excited, and anything else is fine and totally fair but I don't know that it's useful for me. I tend to dwell on negative stuff obsessively, so I don't really remember any good stuff I hear, but every negative criticism I've ever received in my life is in a list in the back of my head. It doesn't help me.
You’ve said making the album was a messy, emotional rollercoaster, and now you made it out alive on the other side with a fantastic body of work. Right now, what do you foresee for your next album? Do you think you have to go through a hard time again to create something great?
No, because I think the thing that pushes me to make music or express myself in these ways has always been…I don't think this is an uncommon perception of the world, but I've always felt an alienation in a lot of ways. I'm not very good at talking, writing, or doing things that come easy to other people. This is my way of getting through my life. Those intense, negative feelings I have that push me to write or be a better artist I think are always going to be there.