Faster Than Sound: Natalie Jane Hill Finds Her Balance on Sophomore LP
Folksinger and guitarist details Solely, created alone and in community
Natalie Jane Hill's sophomore album Solely came out two weeks ago, but when I initially reached out about an interview last month, she was politely preoccupied on a road trip. She traveled to a farm and artist retreat called Snaggy Mountain in the high country of North Carolina, where she previously lived for several years, furthering her stirring, naturalistic style as a fingerpicking folk musician. She returned recently to perform at a small music festival, but afterward traveled alone.
"I stopped along the way and saw some people, and did a little loop and went down to the gulf," says the 27-year-old. "I just camped in my car with my dog and had a little solo adventure."
Since moving back to her native Texas in 2019, Hill has lived in San Marcos, where she cultivated a cast of Austin music connections on display in the credits of Solely. Still, this winter, she considers cooping up in a studio on her parents' property in Wimberley, where she grew up. Daughter of an artist and hobbyist drummer, she tried living in the building one summer but sweltered without air conditioning.
The precarious, essential balance of introspection and connection weaves through the songs of Solely, on which the title track considers:
"And it's okay to feel lonely
It's true that I know it well
But if you seek from that solely
It's gonna hurt like hell"
Hill's 2020 debut, Azalea, gathered observations on the flora and fauna of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. Hill calls her second effort with Philadelphia-based Dear Life Records much more personal, largely written back in her native Texas. Still set firmly among plants, flowers, and trees drawn in Hill's remarkable place-making poetics, her second album's scenes more often contain their narrator, concerns and feelings present.
"I've had a lot of people tell me that it's a good quarantine album," adds the singer-songwriter. "That wasn't why I did it, but I was definitely in my own little world. That just created the whole thing – having time to really think about myself, things I've been going through, and how I feel."
Thematically burrowing inward, the album sonically expands from the minimalist composition of Azalea, which captured only Hill's voice and guitar. Still restrained, layers of unconventional orchestral acoustics swirl under the production of Jason Chronis. The Tele Novella bassist approached Hill after watching her perform at Lockhart's Chaparral Coffee and asked to record her music.
When they began working together last fall, Hill was pleased to discover similar detail-oriented sensibilities and that Chronis previously played in Voxtrot, one of her favorite bands in middle school.
"I wanted vocals and guitar to be the backbone, but I still wanted to introduce more instruments," explains Hill. "Mainly because my guitar playing can be kind of all over the place, it seemed easier for me to find instruments that could fill in those gaps in a fluid sense, like pedal steel and cello."
Recorded to Tascam 8-track, Hill's album marks the first originating from Chronis' Lockhart home. The two assembled a scene of folk-minded players to contribute, including both Mat Davidson of Twain and Bob Hoffnar on pedal steel and Sadie Wolfe of Batty Jr. on cello. Alongside barely there bass and percussion, Chronis' tastefully whimsical sensibilities added autoharp and bell-like chimes made by spinning a treacherous-looking landscaping tool called the Garden Weasel, a favorite of Tele Novella. (Listen close on Hill's "If I Were A Willow.")
They tried to bring in a drummer, but the forceful, tempo-shaping push and pull of Hill's concurrently recorded voice and guitar proved unwieldy to accompany.
"I would have had to redo my recording, because I didn't play with a metronome," says the guitarist. "I learned that I just play following my singing, so it's hard to pick out a steady rhythm."
Hill attributes her bespoke style to teaching herself off online chord charts as a teenager. She particularly remembers learning the Moldy Peaches' "Anyone Else but You" off the Juno soundtrack: "It's real simple, two chords. Whenever I was like 15, and I got that down, I was like, 'Oh, I can do this.' That song got me to keep going and learning other songs.
"Going from there, I started experimenting with a lot of open tunings. From the beginning, I enjoyed the fingerpicking style because you could create a lot of different sounds, even if you didn't really know what you were doing. I listened to a lot of folk music when I was younger, and that was definitely intertwined, but I really just tried to create sounds I hadn't heard before."
The night before our interview, Hill sang supporting Jordan Moser at Captain Quackenbush's, alongside Julian Neel on keys. Moser directed a video for the album's darkest ode, "Plants and Flowers That Do Not Grow Here," where Hill leaves the applause of a backyard show to walk, then run, down long streets alone. For her album celebration, Hill tentatively waits out until vinyl pressings arrive in late January, delayed by national shortages. She's considering assembling some of the album's players for a band.
"I liked how it turned out – naming it Solely, yet having these be the first songs that I'm working with a community of people," the artist says. "It's very introspective, but once you experience working with other people and connecting on some level musically, it makes you want to keep doing it. I think that's pretty special."
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