Dead Hoses are about to embark on their US tour, but Sarah Vos spares a moment to chat with Loud Hailer.
If you don’t know of Wisconsin-based Dead Horses, it’s hard to pigeonhole them into an arbitrary category as music journalists often like to do. “Folk,” “Indie rock” and “roots/Americana” have all been mentioned but, labels aside, it’s enough to say that this is a band that write beautifully melodic songs with lyrics drawn from Sarah Vos‘ experience of the world around her. You can listen and stick your own label on their music if you’re so inclined or maybe just enjoy it for what it is without worrying about the label…. The band are about to embark on a hectic tour schedule that kicks off tonight in St Louis and will initially take them to the east, southeast, and northeast US.
Sarah took time out of rehearsals and preparations for the upcoming tour to chat with us her writing process, self producing new songs at the Refuge in Appleton, politics, the universe and everything in-between!
LH: Thanks so much for talking to us, for taking the time. Much appreciated.
Sarah: No problem.
LH: The first time I saw you guys the beginning of last year, at Colectivo in Milwaukee.
Sarah: Oh, my God, yeah.
LH: It was because I’d interviewed Ben Jaffe the week before about his solo album, and then he was nice enough to say, “I’m going to be supporting Dead Horses in Milwaukee. I’ll put you a ticket on the door if you can make it over there.” That was the first time I saw you guys, and it was great show.
LH: Then again I saw you in Salt Lake City when you were supporting honeyhoney.
Sarah: No way.
LH: That Salt Lake City show, from you guys coming on to Honeyhoney finishing it, was just one of those shows where there was a feeling in the room. I’ll remember that show for a long time, actually. It was fantastic.
Sarah: Awesome. I remember that show too. That was a really fun show. The venue was really cool. I know that was one of the last shows, too, that Honeyhoney indefinitely is playing. I think that added to some of the emotion.
I was actually, healthy admission, really hungover that day. Like, really, really bad. I don’t know what happened the night before. I remember just feeling like, “I don’t know if I can even … I just got to pull myself together.” Then as soon as we got onstage, I just felt like a million bucks. It felt like a really good night. That was a fun show.
LH: You guys were great that night. It was just so fun. And talking of hangovers, the morning after your show in Milwaukee was one of my worst in a long time. I ended up at a bar with some people I met at the show and can only vaguely remember getting back to my hotel! Anyway, I digress…….. I read through a lot of the other interviews you’ve done and you talk a lot about your upbringing, and how that’s influenced your writing and your music. One thing I didn’t see was, outside of singing at church and things like that, were there any other musicians in your family? Were your parents, or your siblings musicians?
Sarah: Yeah. Both my parents actually still are organists. I just saw my mom, Christmas Eve, sing in the church choir. That was really cool. I was really proud of her. My siblings all took different musical lessons. That was just kind of part of our education. It was considered as important as any other school things that we were doing. Then, yeah, so much of my upbringing was based around church that some of my strongest memories of learning how to sing and learning how to sing harmony are even just sitting next to my mom in church every Sunday, and she would sing the alto parts. I’m so lucky. I feel like that I got to have that experience. I don’t really remember a time where that wasn’t very familiar to me.
LH: Yeah. I think it’s great to grow up in a household like that, where there’s music all the time, I think. When I talk to musicians, it’s not a common thing, but it is fairly regular that there will be at least one member of the family who was a musician or wanted to be a musician in the household. It seems to help people develop.
LH: You started singing very early on, obviously. Did you start playing an instrument straightaway? Did you start playing guitar?
Sarah: Yeah. I took piano lessons really briefly. Didn’t really like the environment of a lesson type thing, so I stopped that. Then I was in a hand bell choir at school. That actually is so neat. I still think about it fairly often, because it’s like the ultimate team sport of music. You’re really only playing two notes, and then the sharps and flats. You all have to be perfectly concise with the timing. I did that, and then my brother had tried guitar and didn’t really like it, so I inherited his guitar and started playing that. That was definitely just a portal to being able to write songs. That’s what I really wanted to do. I started just teaching myself songs that I wanted to learn how to play. I would sit in my room and just belt them out, and struggle through the chords. That’s really how I did it.
Then I got old enough to go to open mic nights, and meet other people that played. In high school I played with two of my best friends, and it was a three-piece girl band. There was drums and electric bass, and I played electric guitar. We would put on our own shows in my friend’s garage. I had a lot of fun with it. It was always something that I wanted to do, and was very drawn to.
LH: Early on, as you picked up a guitar and you were doing that, did it quickly become about writing your own music, about creating something?
Sarah: Definitely. That was really what kept me playing the guitar, was that I finally had a way to string stuff together and sing along to it, even if it was just four chords or something with no words. Or more. That’s, I think, what kept me with it.
LH: Then your earliest influences … I’ve seen you say that, obviously, Bob Dylan was really important to you. Then the other thing I thought was interesting. I know when you wrote “Swinger in the Trees” that was inspired by the Robert Frost poem, right?
LH: Are you a big poetry reader, as well?
Sarah: I would say I’m not a huge poetry buff. That may be coming, that may be for a different part of my life. I’ve been reading a lot of Mary Oliver lately just since she passed away, and I find her poems just very gorgeous. But, more so, fiction, and even a lot of … One of our older records, “Space and Time”, a lot of those songs are directly influenced by Steinbeck, because I’m a big John Steinbeck fan.
LH: Yeah. I think when I listen to your lyrics, it sometimes has a very poetic tint to it, a lot of the way that you write, a lot. It’s very … You can tell that it is drawn from experience, a lot of what you write about, but it also has that sort of poetic edge to it, as well.
LH: I’m always interested in that. I always ask that question, just because I think there’s a few musicians who kind of blur the lines there. I think Leonard Cohen is one of those guys who writes like that. Tom Waits, to an extent. But definitely Dylan, as well. Dylan, the fact that he got that Nobel Prize and everything, he’s known as much as a writer of words as he is for the music, I think, which is really interesting to me.
Sarah: Absolutely. Same here.
LH: Coming from the UK, and coming over to the US seven years ago, it opened me up, to the country style of writing, of telling stories, writing in a different way to the kind of music I was used to hearing in the UK. It’s been a real enjoyment for me to get into that kind of music, and come across these musicians like Jason Isbell and John Moreland. I don’t know if you know that guy.
Sarah: I don’t think I do.
LH: The last two albums, you worked with Ken Coomer from Wilco. I just finished Jeff Tweedy’s autobiography, which I really enjoyed.
LH: I was interested just to understand what it was like working with him in the studio. When I read Jeff’s autobiography, the way that Wilco always worked, and the freedom, and no boundaries in the studio, and everything like that. Did he bring that to sessions with you?
Sarah: Yeah. I think so. I’d say a difference, though, between what Wilco, what they were working with in the studio, versus how we had to approach the albums with Ken … I’d say the difference was that, I think, Wilco had a lot of time and funding to relax and really build the songs from the ground up. Whereas that’s certainly what we did in the studio, but we also were under a lot of pressure to do it quickly, or more quickly than would really allow us to have, maybe, the kind of freedom the Wilco did. But, Ken was always really open to trying out different things and different sounds, but we had to come into it with a pretty deliberate intention just to have the time to finish it.
But, the songs that we’ve been recording recently, we just put out a single last Friday, we’re recording ourselves. We’re doing it up in Appleton at this place called the Refuge. We’re able to approach it more from the standpoint of, just, a lot of openness and time to try different things. Get it the way that we want, which is super fun.
LH: Yeah. That must be really freeing, as well. I guess there is a practicality to studio time with a producer in terms of the cost of that, and having a set period to get it done. Whereas now that you’ve gone to this approach of being self produced. It must feel very different doing it that way.
Sarah: It does. It’s a great learning experience. I think our plan is to do a lot more of it. Then when the time is right, we’ll work with another producer, just learn a whole lot more.
We were really fortunate, when we were out in … Gosh, I think it was Seattle last time, we got to go see … It escapes me, now, the name of the studio. But all these awesome albums have been recorded there. We talked to the guy that runs it, and he produced not Brandi Carlile’s last record, but the one before that. He was talking about it so much. It sounds like they just had two or three months to literally be in there and live there. I was like, “Wow.” I can’t wait for the day where, hopefully, we can stretch our legs out in that sense.
It’s good, too, to have the pressure, in a way, because that creates an interesting environment to work from as well.
LH: Yeah. I think it’s probably a balance, right? I think maybe, sometimes, that’s a double-edged sword. Maybe some good things come out of that, as well. Under pressure, you come up with something that you wouldn’t have if you weren’t under that pressure.
Sarah: Totally. Yep.
LH: With the new album, is it just recorded live in the room?
Sarah: Nope. We’re still tracking it. But the cool thing is, they have all these different rooms that you can record in. There’s a chapel there because it’s actually an old monastery. There’s also all these rooms to sleep in and stay. I’ve been recording both guitar and vocals in the chapel. Doing vocals in there … I don’t know if I’ll want to record vocals in any other room again, because it’s the cleanest, most realistic vocal sound I’ve ever gotten. We’re not really using much effects, or even having to pull any frequencies or anything, because it just has this great room sound. When I project, you can hear the actual reverb of the room, rather than trying to add that effect digitally. It’s been super fun. Usually we approach it, Dan and I, Dan playing the bass … He and I play our parts, and then we generally build it from there.
LH: The reason I ask is that the song’s got a live band sort of feel to it. I’ve been listening to it this week, and I was like, “I wonder if they just recorded that live,” because that was the feeling it gave me when I listened to it.
Sarah: Awesome. Yeah, that’s the idea. That’s what you’re trying to convey in the best way that you can. I’m glad that that’s how it came off to you.
LH: Yeah. It definitely came across. I love that idea, as well, of just using rooms. I read a lot of autobiographies on music, biographies, and things like that. I love those stories about … I think the Stones’ “Exile on Main St.” where they were just using all the basement of that house, which was just stone walls, and putting the amps in different places, and getting the sound bouncing off the walls in different ways. Led Zeppelin, I think it was, who … It was “When the Levee Breaks” where John Bonham got that drum sound that everybody tries to get. It was literally just his drum kit set up in the hallway of Jimmy Page’s house. Everyone now tries to digitally reproduce it, and no one can quite get that sound, which was just the sound of the drums in a great room. I love hearing stories like that, that you found this room that just gives you the perfect representation of your voice.
Sarah: Absolutely, yeah.
LH: Yeah. Nice. I like it.
Sarah: Me too.
LH: I was going to ask, as well, a bit about your writing process. I think when I read through some of the interviews you’ve done, you said it was always evolving. Is the typical way, will you write something and then bring it to Dan or the rest of the band? Or do you ever write together?
Sarah: We have never started a song from the ground up together. It’s always been, to this point, an idea in my head first. There’s some sort of basis to the song. Then I bring it. But sometimes, even, it’s only half the song, and then we work on that. Then I get an idea for the second half, or Dan does, for some sort of structural part of the song.
But it’s hard, and I’ve had people … You hear, especially folk musicians, they like to write together. I’ve always been, to be honest, kind of afraid of that. For me, the writing, I’m trying so hard to have it be just like a door into my psyche or my subconscious that I always fear that I couldn’t do that on the spot just when asked to. I think about that, and it’d be good to challenge myself. I’d be open to it.
Actually, we were just hanging out with Ben Jaffe a couple months ago, and he’s been doing a lot of writing sessions with people. I’d be into that, to try to learn from someone. My songs, and the words, and everything about it, the feeling … It’s so intimate. It may be very hard for me to cross that bridge.
LH: I think that definitely comes out. I think, in your story, I love the fact that writing music and playing music seemed to play such a huge part in helping you out of the down period you were in your life. I think what comes out of a lot of your lyrics is, you can hear that you’re working through some of those things that you need to think about, but ultimately, your music … Or I feel, anyway, when I listen to your music, all the albums, there’s a redemptive feel about it, a lot of the time, as well. I was interested to hear how you write. I find that very strange and can’t really imagine, in Nashville, you know where they just stick two people together and say, “Now write a hit song,” kind of thing.
LH That doesn’t make any sense to me.
Sarah: Kind of same here. Some people, just, they’re really good at the whole band thing, and the music thing, and maybe the singing thing, but, maybe, the songwriting doesn’t come as easily for them. Maybe having help from someone just to … There’s all these things you can talk about. You can talk about how … This is things that Ken Coomer would think of – “We need the hook to come sooner in this song. It doesn’t need to come as soon on this song, but, say, this song, the hook needs to come in quicker.” Learning little tricks like that, I find is cool, as far as working with someone. But the birth of the song or the idea, to me, can’t be just called upon in a room like that.
LH: No. I think to write music that … This is my personal opinion. To write music that means anything, I don’t think it’s conducive to that. I do think it takes a certain type of person to write as openly as you do. Some people, I just think, wouldn’t be able to do that. They’ve just got something holding them back from laying all that out in a song to perform in front of others. Which…… I think that’s another part of it in terms of whether you write personally or in a group. Some people just can’t write that way.
Sarah: Yeah. Some people write … Again, to bring up Ben Jaffe, he did a solo run with us this end of summer. He had this cool concept to his new songs where, through all the songs, he was telling the story, and the story was about someone else. That made me think a lot about, “All my songs are … ” They’re not necessarily about me, but they’re about what I see. There’s always this personal basis to it. I wonder what it would be like to approach it … Maybe that will never be my thing, but I wonder what that would look like.
LH: Like a narrative arc to it through the whole session.
Sarah: Totally, yeah.
LH: I saw Ben do that in New York, actually. I managed to get to see him there and he did it that way, where he was telling the story and how each song linked to the next in between.
LH: It was really cool. Maybe that would be a project for you, when you get another few albums in. “How can I link all these together in one show from beginning to end?”
Sarah: Yep. It also made me think, though, with Ben, “What if it was 10 songs, though, that were all you?” What would you write about, then? That’s what I was left thinking too.
LH: Yeah. Sure.
Sarah: That’s cool that you got to see him in New York. We love him.
LH: I thought it was really cool. I really enjoyed the way he did that, actually.
Sarah: Me too.
LH: On the last three albums, obviously, you dig into your family history, a little bit on politics and things like that. I think for “Family Tapes”, I saw you said it was maybe inspired a little bit by one of your friends getting old family tapes digitized, and memories of your dad videoing you guys as kids. Is that what primarily inspired it?
Sarah: Yep, that’s true. That was kind of the spawn of the song, but there’s also these verses in there that talk about seeing a homeless guy on the street. That really has nothing to do with the family tapes. But it’s just this other memory that wanted to pop out of me while I was writing it. Something worth, I feel like, putting down on paper and singing about, the kind of ridiculousness of … You could look at that a lot of different ways, but you could just sum it up like a disparity of wealth type thing. A Mercedes, and then a homeless guy checking it out. Just, the ridiculousness of that.
Then how … The way I feel about people out on the streets that are homeless. I’ve actually had a phobia of becoming homeless, this weird fear of that throughout my young adulthood. I think it comes down to this empathy for them that they’re really not any different than me. I have self destructive habits, and none of them have made me end up on the streets, but I feel fortunate for that.
LH: It’s something I think about a lot. Living in Chicago, when the weather’s like this, when you see guys on the streets. Really, I think about it, for probably 95% of us, we’re all just one bad decision or one wrong thing away from being in that position. It was a line that jumped out at me from that song. I think the way I heard it in the song was you drawing a contrast between maybe the way you saw it when you were younger and then understanding that, really, maybe as you got a bit older, that we are all just the same. That that is the case, that that could be me or you tomorrow, effectively.
Sarah: Yeah. Really, it truly could. It’s interesting. A lot of homeless people … They do have family members that would perhaps take them in, but they don’t want to do that. It’s almost too shameful. They’re trying to pull themselves out from under that. It’s really easy to just think of them as a different breed, and just not want to think about it. It always shakes me to my core.
LH: I think, unfortunately, as well, it’s a natural human habit to … A group that’s not the same as you, just automatically think of them like that. That, “These people are different than me.” None of us are different, really. None of us are different at all.
LH: I was listening to something this morning on … I was actually listening to Joe Rogan’s podcast, and he a cosmologist called Brian Cox on, talking about the universe. The numbers he was talking about, the number of planets and galaxies in the known universe. When you start trying to even conceptualize those numbers, you realize how infinitesimally tiny we all are. How ridiculous it is that us, on this tiny little rock in this infinite space, still find ways to draw lines between each other, and fight, and treat each other as different. When you try and think of it on that scale, it seems so nonsensical. You can’t understand humans, to an extent.
Sarah: Yeah. I’ve been digging into evolutionary psychology, because it kind of explains why we have some of the behaviors that we do that were built into us for thousands of years. Now we’re finally reaching this point where we’re smart enough, and we have enough technology to understand that it is better for both parties if we are all nice to each other and want to take care of each other, but it’s just … Are we going to realize that, as a whole, quickly enough before we destroy ourselves? The ultimate question.
LH: Yeah. Hopefully we do. Hopefully … Might just be in the nick of time, but I’m always hopeful, or try and be always hopeful on that kind of stuff.
Sarah: Me too. I think that’s the wiser choice of the two, to be hopeful about it, and build that into the way that you think and live your life, and know that that will make a difference.
LH: Yeah. I think so. You’ve traveled pretty relentlessly. You’ve toured a lot over the last two years. Me coming from the UK, how I feel about the US … I travel a lot for work. I’m on the road a lot. I really enjoy the traveling. People say there’s a perception outside the US that all US people don’t travel overseas as much, but when you come and live in the US and get an idea of the scale of it, to me, as someone from outside the US, every state kind of feels like kind of its own little country, in a way.
Sarah: Totally, yeah.
LH: Does all the traveling, that must’ve … Has that fed into some of your writing and influenced the music that you’re writing now?
Sarah: Yeah. Absolutely. The traveling is one of the main incentives for the whole lifestyle, and wanting to pursue this kind of life path. The amount of learning that I feel like I get to partake in and the different regions, and seeing how they’re different, but realizing, too, that everyone is the same …
The thing that I’ve noticed a lot, and it mostly comes from other people telling us that we’re this way, but there’s just a Midwestern niceness that is totally a thing. There’s also Southern hospitality. That’s certainly true. But, yeah, I love … I think last year I figured it out. I think we drove, just drove, across the country. I think it was either three or four times in totality.
LH: That’s nuts.
Sarah: I feel like every time we do it, to use a religious metaphor, it’s like being baptized by the land again. I find it very, very therapeutic, and not anything that I want to stop doing anytime soon.
Even though, when we’re traveling, you’re never in one place very long, the other thing that I’m realizing the longer – we’ve been doing the national touring for a couple years, now – you might not be there for super long, but you’re probably going to be back in two months. You kind of get to experience it at all these different times. Make friends all over the country.
LH: Yeah. I try and do that as well, because a lot of the time I travel on my own for work. It can be in and out. I fly in somewhere, I’m at the office or I’m at a hotel. Then, maybe, I go for dinner at a bar somewhere on the night, and then I come back, or even if I’m there a few days. Now, I really try and make an effort to go for a run around the place, or go and book something that I can go and see on a nighttime. Go and see this show, even, like I did in Salt Lake City.
LH: It really makes a difference. Then when I do that on my own, it’s similar to what you’re saying. I meet people when I go to shows, and things like that, and chat to these people I would’ve never met otherwise. I think that must be a great source of material for you, just those people you meet, these different places, the different ways that it feels. Even though it’s kind of a cliché, I can say from experience, when I first arrived here, I’ve found the Midwest much different than the East Coast. Much friendlier, in a way.
LH: Last year we went down to Mississippi, and stayed in Clarksdale, and went to the blues clubs in Clarksdale. It was just amazing. We stayed in this motel, which was right in the middle of the Mississippi Delta called the Shack Up Inn. These old shacks there, and you get to rent one for a week. There was that sort of Southern hospitality feel there. Everybody in that town, when they heard my accent, wanted to talk to me, and ask where I was from and why I was there. Couldn’t believe that we were coming all the way down there to go to the two blues clubs in Clarksdale, kind of thing. But, yeah, that was really enjoyable.
Sarah: That’s awesome.
LH: In terms of your writing, I think there’s definitely a folk feel about a lot of the records that you’ve done. Within that, there is kind of a political slant. I don’t think you’ve really shied away from writing some songs about the current situation in the US, and what’s going on. Do you ever get frustrated, because I see a lot of the time now, on social media, any musician, or even actor, or anything, that proffers any idea about their own political standing often gets all these messages saying, “Stick to what you do. Why are you talking about politics on social media or in your songs?” I’m like, “Hang on.” What makes the person who’s telling you that any more qualified to talk about politics, anyway? You know, they work in an office all day or something so they can speak about it but you can’t because you’re a musician. It doesn’t make sense.
LH: Do you find that frustrating?
Sarah: Very, because, to some degree … I’m not a political analyst, but I do travel the country a lot. I see a lot. I feel like, to some degree, that lends me credence, in a way, on what my opinion might be. Of course, my end-all goal would be to bring people together, which I think music does. You even talking about going to shows when you’re traveling, and you get to meet people and make friends … That’s the end-all goal. I certainly don’t want to divide people, which was the risk that you take when you get political. It’s not even a risk, it’s inevitable, at this point.
One time, a couple years ago, we were playing with Elephant Revival in Colorado. Pretty much, it’s got to be over 90% of their fans are very progressive, and liberal-minded. We had this awesome show. I mentioned … I never even flat out said something super specifically political. I think I was even talking about Thich Nhat Hanh, and being depressed about the last election. Then we played the political songs.
After the show, this woman came over by the merch, which was where we were, and scolded me. Said exactly what you were saying. “Leave the politics out of it. That’s not what folk music is about.” I was like, “What do you mean? That’s exactly what folk music is about.”
LH: Exactly. What kind of folk music’s she listening to?
Sarah: Yeah, I was like, “I think we have different definitions of what folk music is.” I understand that she was in an environment where she felt that she was the minority. She was the one that felt differently than everyone else, and that was frustrating to her. I can sympathize with her on that. But it’s so prevalent right now. How do I keep that out of my writing?
It will continue to be a strange puzzle, to … Also, sometimes I get a feeling, too, like it’s a cool club to be in, to speak out against sexism, and all this. That’s not the main point of what I’m trying to do, but I do have messages that are political in nature that I do just personally feel like I want to convey to people. In large part, that message would be more so for liberal people, because those are the people coming to most of our shows. My message would be, we, as human beings, tend to surround ourselves with people that believe similarly to us. It’s very easy to forget that there’s a lot of people out there that don’t agree. I think that part of the solution is really trying to understand and empathize with the people that you feel like you disagree with the most.
LH: Absolutely. I think that’s got to be the way, right? Unless people can just learn, whatever side they’re on, to actually have a discussion about it again rather than it being everybody naught to a hundred, demonizing the other side as soon as anything comes … Because it just feels so polarized at the minute, that that’s where every discussion seems to go. Hopefully, it can slowly get brought back around to trying to understand the other people’s point of view. People do live in vastly different circumstances, and in entirely different parts of the country. That’s the other thing that living in the US has shown me. There are parts of the US that I, living in the UK, I wouldn’t even know existed. I wouldn’t know certain small towns and attitudes, and different things like that that even really existed outside of movies, which sounds ridiculous.
Sarah: No, it makes sense.
LH: Traveling ’round the US, that’s opened that up to me. I see that there are people living in massively different circumstances than in a big metropolis like Chicago, or L.A., or New York. They will come at things from a different angle. No one’s wrong or right, it’s just trying to understand other people’s viewpoint.
Sarah: Totally. Yeah.
LH: Wow, we’ve hit on some big issues. The universe, politics…..
Sarah: Yes, we have. It’s been an enjoyable conversation.
LH: Yeah. Thanks so much for taking the time. One last thing. Are you touring extensively again, now?
Sarah: Yeah. Starting, actually, on Thursday, we hit the road for, I think, just over six weeks. Then, yeah, we enter into a much busier period where we’re gone for a big chunk, and then we’re home for a couple weeks, and then we’re gone to a different region. But this next tour takes us east, southeast, and northeast, and also on a … We’re doing that Cayamo cruise that goes to Jamaica and Mexico. Jason Isbell’s on that one.
LH: That’ll be awesome.
Sarah: I’m looking forward to it.
LH: Yeah. Then, the songs that you’ve done recently, is it going to be an album, or are you just going to be releasing them periodically?
Sarah: It’s awesome, because it just feels very fluid. So far the plan is to just release a new single every couple months. If that turns into a project that we’re going to put together on a record, or maybe an EP, we’re waiting to see. It feels nice to have new material to put out without, again, the pressure of a full record.
LH: Excellent. Good stuff. I’m looking forward to seeing you guys on Friday.