Denver-based vocal quartet DeVotchKa's songs always reach, and the space they're reaching through could be any number of things: a desert, an empty dance hall, possibly just a quiet room. And through it all, frontman Nick Urata's soulful voice rises above dense, taut arrangements to capture heartbreak, existential crisis, elation, sometimes all of these at once. DeVotchKa's new album, This Night Falls Forever, due August 24 on Rough Trade, touches on a lot of different subjects but always circles back to one: love. And it does so with the group's trademark mixture of romping waltzes and bittersweet, elongated pirouettes. On the eve of the album's release, I spoke with Urata about the recording process and bringing his songs to life.
To me, the new album plays out like a love story. It seems like the early songs are about becoming acquainted, then near the end you've got the breakup song, and then sort of an arrow of hope right at the very end. I'm wondering how the structure of the album developed?
That's interesting that you pick up on that arc. That was somewhat intentional and somewhat subconscious. But, I think overall, that's where I was getting the motivation and the emotion for those tracks, which is going back and reviewing the track that a romance takes.
How do you structure your albums, generally?
I very rarely just finish them and then move on. I'm sort of dabbling on each song throughout the process before I record them. So, it's funny how they develop, because I think at the beginning, you have delusions of grandeur. It might just be me with a couple of a lines on a guitar, on an iPhone recording. But your mind fills in the symphony. [laughs] But I feel like, for all of these, I keep going back to that time in youth when you're so excited about getting an album home and tearing off the plastic and putting it on and just listening to the whole thing. I always kind of fantasize about that, hooking you with the first track and then the second track and then…
That's the way it feels. Is this an organic process? How closely do you work with the other people in the band or with producers to develop an album?
It varies. On this one especially, it took me so long to get the songs up and running that I got very close to them. It depends on the song. On some songs, I let people in early. This one, I spent a lot of time on my own with them. You get sort of protective of them. You get too close to them. But in the end, you realize that, usually, your co-collaborators and co-conspirators, who are my bandmates and my producer, have nothing but good ideas. But sometimes you do have to stick to your guns and make sure to keep that original spark. It's a very elusive thing, trying to get the song from the paper to recording, then making sure the recording is listenable. You win some, you lose some.
To what extent does the place where you live affect the way that you write? I know you've alluded in the past to having a studio where you were thriving on the isolation of the desert and the way the landscape works.
Most of the time I was writing this record, I was in Los Angeles. My band still lives in Colorado, but I've been working in Los Angeles for the last few years. But I think it did have an effect on me. I was always enamored with old Hollywood, and I was right in the middle of it, recording at some of the big studios. I can only hope that had an effect. I did a bunch of the work at Capitol Records, and I felt some really strong ghosts in there. Some of them are my favorite ghosts. We got to play on Nat King Cole's piano. It's sitting right there and you can use it, if you ask nicely. But one of the things about being a musician is that we travel a lot. Once your feet get off the ground and you're rolling, it does kind of open up your mind, in a good way. I kept drifting back to growing up in New York. I kept drifting back there a lot for these songs. I think some of that influenced it for sure.
What parts do you think are evocative of New York?
I had the unique experience of coming of age and exploring that amazing city in the '80s. Not to date myself, but that feeling of walking up out of the subway when you haven't been in the city for a while is a powerful experience.
What's really remarkable to me about a lot of the songs on the album is that they have a sort of context already set up. They remind me, in a lot of ways, of parts of a musical or opera; there's a very clear storyline before them, and you think there's probably a storyline after them. That kind of intensity also reminds me somewhat of New York. There are stories going on all the time.
Stories everywhere you look. And everybody has their unique vantage point on that town and what happens to them when they walk out of that subway.
It's a weird thing though—New York, and you must know this, has changed so much. When I moved here, Times Square was a completely different place.
I remember that Times Square. People wouldn't believe it.
I notice that some of the songs on the album—for instance, the first song, “Straight Shot,” and to a certain extent, the last song, “Second Chance”—return to a major chord. They seem resolved in a certain way, whereas in some of the other songs the melody lines come back to a minor note. You're sort of left suspended in terms of the melodic line. When you're writing these songs, to what extent do you think about things like that?
It's very important. It's something you at least have to aim for. When you get to that point, that's one of the very interesting things about writing songs. They guide you where they want to go. Sometimes you get to the end of the road and it wants to be unresolved. And that's interesting too. I'm a very structural person when it comes to music. So, I always aim toward that resolve and work backward sometimes.
Is that something that changes from the recording process to the end? Or is it something you sort of have in your mind from the beginning?
I think there's an initial plan or spark or dream. It's more like a dream for me, like it's your child. And it does take certain turns, and sometimes you find yourself forcing yourself to go some way that's not going to work. Then you have the added outside pressure of other collaborators wanting it to go a certain way. So, you're constantly steering. I think the song usually tells you where you want to go. It's also good to kind of zoom out and make sure that, like you're saying, it does have a story arc and it does have an ending.
I saw you perform at the Highline Ballroom in New York a few years ago. I remember thinking afterward that you must have been profoundly exhausted after finishing such an energized and completely driven, performative show. How do you personally prepare to do that, to go on stage, to perform that way? And then how do you decompress?
I think what draws us all in is that it's like touching a live wire. And once you feel like you sort of have to keep doing it, you don't really know why. We also get very focused before we walk out there. I always think about how many moving parts there are, and how many things could go wrong. You try to put that out of your mind. Then, really, you feed off the audience. And the energy of playing with your bandmates and having a plan really does help. You take that plan with you on stage, and you hope that it works, and it goes in many different directions. You never really know what's going to happen. And that's part of the excitement of what makes a live show a good one. And afterward, when you're done, there's a very long decompression period.
Going from one performance to the next, how do you sustain that kind of energy? Are you always thinking about the narrative in each performance?
When I get on stage, when you think about the entire set, it can be overwhelming. I always try to take it line by line and song by song. I have the best job, I think. Because I get to embody these songs and stories and characters, I can throw myself into them. That sort of guides me. When I do feel overwhelmed, I just think calming thoughts, you know, take it line by line, chord by chord, and embody them. That's the way to bring a song to life.
The impression I have is that your songs, in general, have a very romantic feeling to them, in the poetry sense of the word. There's a sense of the presence of a sublime force or sublime emotion. Have you ever thought of doing something political in nature, or tied to a specific issue?
I'm pretty involved and engrossed in what's happening socially and politically. But I do know what you're saying. I have attempted it. But I try to do it in a subversive way with my lyrics and metaphors. But it's sort of an island for me, like you might take your shoes off before you go in the temple or something.
Right. That's a statement in and of itself. That's sort of the beauty of it.
I feel connected to that energy, though, you know? I don't want to be obvious about it. But I do feel really connected to that energy. I can't even articulate it in a sentence, and that's probably why I can't put it in a song. [laughs]
It's a strange time, and I'm wondering how all this is affecting what you do.
I've had to be careful not to get into depression, because it leads to inactivity. That's a big fight. But then I see how music can be an escape and lift people's spirits. I feel like it's such a force of nature that it can—and I've experienced this in hostile environments early in our career—bring people together. I don't mean to sound corny, but poetry and art, that's what connects. When you break it down, it makes you feel like part of this human family. I think that's really important right now. That's what I try to focus on. By stark contrast, it just seems that much more magical to be able to make music for people.