Sisters Bethany Valentini and Jenny Kochsiek have been writing songs and performing as the Ericksons since 2006, but only recently did they get the courage to tell that harrowing story of their musical beginnings.
“I think we’ve both seen it coming,” says Valentini, groaning and locking eyes across the table with the red-headed Kochsiek as she nods her head sympathetically.
“Even with our name, the Ericksons—in past years people would be like, oh that’s your last name? And we’d be like, yes,” Kochsiek says. “Just to not get into it, and not have to be like, I could tell you where that comes from, but then you’re going to feel really sad and weird.”
In truth, the duo’s name is an homage to the man who first encouraged them to take their music seriously. Lee Erickson was Valentini’s first husband and he tragically passed away from cancer in 2006, leaving Valentini and her sister with a parting message that they needed to pursue their artistic careers. Shortly afterwards, LaCrosse natives Valentini and Kochsiek moved to Brooklyn, spending three years playing open mic nights and testing the waters before returning to the Midwest and setting up a home base in the Twin Cities.
The sisters have pursued their music doggedly in that time, winning over fans with their sweet, synchronous vocal harmonies. But they’ve been hesitant to divulge many details about their history—until now. With the release of their third full-length, The Wild, the sisters are letting it all out.
Produced by renowned engineer Beau Sorenson (who has worked with artists like Field Report, Bob Mould, and Death Cab for Cutie) and recorded at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studio, The Wild builds on the duo’s previous acoustic folk arrangements and pulls in atmospheric elements like moaning electric guitars and pedal steel. It’s darker, deeper, and, for the lack of a better term, cooler, and the new undertones help to further accentuate the sisters’ vocal strengths. As Valentini tells it, it’s an album that finds them letting go of their inhibitions and embracing a more open-minded, experimental approach, and the results are clear—opening track “Gone Blind” is easily their best song to date.
In anticipation of their album-release show at the Cedar this Thursday night, I recently sat down with Valentini and Kochsiek to learn more about this newfound creative freedom and the meaning behind The Wild.
Local Current: You’ve been a band for seven years now, but have just recently opened up about the story of your origins. What’s that been like?
Valentini: Never in a million years, last album or the album before, would we ever have talked about any of that. For a lot of reasons, probably mostly emotional, but also it’s like if you put out this group of songs and you link it to this tragic story, then people are hearing these songs through this story. And for me it was like, the music is just the music. It definitely comes from all of that experience, but for me I guess I’ve always just wanted it to stand on its own. If it’s good and people can like it, do that. Don’t like it because of this crazy thing that happened. But again with The Wild, it was kind of like, maybe just maturity in the music, but even letting it go when we recorded it, and being open to more players and more minds—it’s kind of the same thing with the story. The music stands on its own, it’s great, we love it and believe in it, and yeah, that happened. That shouldn’t be a secret. You know?
Kochsiek: It was kind of owning up to that. And talking with really good friends, too, who have just been like, you need to tell your story! Put it out there and man up to your life and your story and where you come from. And I think we finally felt free to do that.
Valentini: Now, it feels amazing. It just feels like here’s the music, it’s it own thing. And yes, that’s true too. I mean, coming from where I’ve come from, never would I have been like, ‘Yeah, I make music.’ I don’t know if it’s our Norwegian background or what. But then to have this person, Lee, be like ‘Excuse me, this is your art — this is amazing.’ To have that—it’s like Jenny was saying recently, he was kind of this different spirit.
Kochsiek: The last thing Lee said to me was ‘You have to do your music. You guys have to play your music.’ And that’s huge. I think that so much of our music grew from this person who was half in this world, half going wherever, just in between, and saying something like that changed the course of my whole life. I was 22. But I was also thinking about, ok, that was many years ago, and that is not why we continue doing music. It was our foundation, and I think it’s what made us as intense and serious about it as we were, but it’s like the journey of making music now and meeting Beau and meeting people who like what we do and respond to it—that’s why we do it.
Valentini: I’ve been thinking about him a lot, and the thing about with him is—first of all he’s so kind, he’s so funny, he’s so loving. But also, in a professional situation, it’s like he puts a mirror up. It’s not about him. Even though he’s doing his life’s work and he’s such a hard worker, it’s like this ego-less thing. And in art or music or life in general, you just encounter people’s egos all the time. And seriously, he’s this bundle of energy, and he just feeds and feeds and feeds and feeds. And if we want to go to bed, it’s time to go to bed. And if we want to eat, it’s time to eat. He had zero needs throughout the entire five days. Zero! He just had a blanket and a pillow on the couch. There was no question between the last two albums that we would ever seek out anything else.
Kochsiek: He’s such a gift. And so humble. He left our session and recorded Bob Mould. He’s done all these big projects, but he’s so humble, you’d just never know.
Valentini: You almost want him to sit back and just look for a minute, because he’s done such a good job.
Kochsiek: I think his motto—I mean it’s similar to us, and we connect in this way—he always says, ‘Be kind to people and work really hard, and that’s all you can do as a person.’ Like, make sure you’re nice and love people, and work so hard at what you do. And that’s all you can do.
What was it like recording at April Base? It looks like a beautiful space.
Valentini: It’s gorgeous. It’s really beautiful. It’s so warm, it’s just wood everywhere.
Kochsiek: It was so wonderful to be able to work all day, record all day, and then walk upstairs and go to bed. That was wonderful. Having the kitchen there, so homey, it was the perfect place for us. Because we are family and we’re comfortable with Beau, it was a no-brainer, really.
Do people live at April Base or is it more reserved for guests now?
Valentini: It is Justin [Vernon]’s home. I gather that when he is not on tour when he lives there.
Kochsiek: I think that’s why we were so lucky to book it—it’s not a studio that’s always open. It just worked out because they were on tour in Australia or something. There are cats that live there full-time.
Valentini: That’s kind of the agreement—just make sure the cats have food and water.
What would you say are the main differences between Don’t Be Scared, Don’t Be Alarmed and your new album, The Wild?
Valentini: Preparedness. We went into April Base pretty well-practiced with the two of us, drums, and bass. Just straight band set-up. So then when we started recording it wasn’t, oh, we need to figure out drum parts for these songs.
Kochsiek: With The Wild, we recorded full-band, and then added pedal steel or added piano. I think coming into Don’t Be Scared, Don’t Be Alarmed, it was really just the two of us. It was pretty folky, and then through the years we’ve learned to open up what we do.
One thing that really stands out to me on The Wild is your use of guitar tones, and how well they complement and accentuate your voices. Can you describe the process of selecting guitars for this album?
Valentini: The cool thing that happened—so we had always just been playing acoustically. We had a four-string tenor guitar and then just acoustic guitars. And then, I don’t know, maybe it was a year ago, I just knew we needed more. The guitars couldn’t really do it, they couldn’t really keep up with what we were doing vocally, or at least what I knew we could do. So I was just like, it is time. I have to get an electric guitar just to get more sound.
Kochsiek: We were craving more sound.
Valentini: So then I just bought this beautiful Gibson hollow body. I just knew I needed it. It’s just this beautiful, beautiful electric guitar. So yes, it was a very conscious step to find something that could sustain under what we’re doing.
Kochsiek: I think, too, in The Wild it was huge to work with Beau a second time, because he knew our sound and knew how we sing together. I remember after the first mixes came back I just said, ‘You got our vocals. The vocals are so beautiful. Thank you. You recorded what was there and made it sound like we sound.’ I was so happy. Because I think our voices are these kind of unique instruments within our sound, it’s not like the lead vocal and the backup vocal. In most songs it’s this sea of sound that the pedal steel communicates with and the guitar communicates with, and I think that’s something I’m so proud of with this album, is how that all came together.
There is a definite progression happening on this record, with both the voices and the overall sound—to my ears it sounds richer, fuller, and more true to your live performances.
Valentini: It’s funny. I worked at—I don’t know if you’ve ever been to St. Peter, but there’s this coffee shop, River Rock Coffee. I worked there for a while, and there was this customer who was a little off, but awesome. Really loud, really bombastic, whatever, but we’d talk about music. So I gave him Don’t Be Scared, Don’t Be Alarmed, and he came back the next week and was like, ‘The whole time I was listening I was just thinking, you’ve got to let it go!’ And I knew exactly what he was saying, and I really took it to heart. Let it go. Just sing!
Kochsiek: He was giving you a cosmic message.
Valentini: That was, for me, that was a big moment. I will forever be really proud of that album and how it sounds and what it is, but I was like, he is saying something that needs to happen with what we do.
Kochsiek: It’s so much more fun when you let it go, too. It’s so much more fun! The whole recording process becomes more open, and experimental. I had so much fun with this last one. This album was much different.
What is the meaning behind the title, The Wild?
Kochsiek: There’s the song on the album, “The Wild,” and it is totally this unknown thing. That song—it says ‘come to the wild with me,’ and it’s not an enticing thing. ‘Come to the wild with me, face first and you will see that it’s not easy.’ But it’s the most beautiful thing. To me it’s almost like ‘Come to life.’ Because life is really real, you know? It’s real, and it’s hard, and it’s raw, but because it’s that, it’s so beautiful. And it’s just it’s own thing. It’s not like this thing we can control or contrive. Yeah we make decisions and we make choices, but it’s its own animal. It was funny, when we were deciding on the album title, I don’t think I ever really entertained anything else. It’s The Wild. It just is what it is.
The Ericksons play a CD-release show for The Wild on Thursday, January 17, at the Cedar Cultural Center with support from Jimmy Peterson of Bellwether.