Saturday, September 12, 2020

A Very Candid Conversation with South of Winter

South for Winter (Nick (center), Alex (top left), and Dani (top right) (year unknown)

South for Winter is a folk band that started in 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. The band is composed Colorado native Dani Cichon (vocals, mandolin), New Zealander Nick Stone (vocals, guitar), and Michigan cellist Alex Stradal. Dani’s vocals, Nick’s intricate guitar work, and Alex’s cello give South for Winter a unique sound. Dani’s lyrics alternate between romantic themes and dark themes (one of their upcoming songs is about America’s first female serial killer). This unique sound has been described as “folk blues,”  “folk jazz,” or “renaissance.” 

In 2018, South for Winter released a five-song EP titled How the Mountain. While making their EP, they met Grammy award-winning producer Matt Leigh, who helped them craft one of the songs on the EP, “Whispers in the Trees.” Since then, they have worked with Matt on recording their upcoming album Luxumbra. They have taken the time during the coronavirus pandemic to perfect this album. (In addition to being a gifted lyricist and singer, Dani also works as an ICU nurse in the Nashville Covid-19 unit.) South for Winter has released various singles in 2019 and 2020. 

In this candid conversation, we cover South for Winter’s beginnings, their future plans, as well as Dani’s lyrics and their unique musical sound. I want to thank Nichole Peters-Good from Good PR music group for setting up the interview. But most of all, I want to thank Dani and Nick for doing this interview.

Jeff Cramer: So whoever wants to take this first, I’ll start off with the first question: What got you interested in music?

Dani Cichon: Nick, do you want to go first?

Nick Stone: Yeah, sure thing. I got into music pretty young. Most of my family are classical musicians or jazz players in New Zealand. My uncle is an orchestra composer. Grandma has perfect pitch, so it was always kind of pretty standard in the family to follow down that line. So it wasn't until you get a bit older and you start finding the music that you really enjoy and it really connects with you. 

DC:  My family is also musical—not the same level as Nick's, but they are people who do other things for work. Music is on the side. My dad is actually a surgeon who plays four instruments, and both of my parents sing in the church choir together every Sunday. 

[My parents] always had us singing and taking music classes, but I was the first one in the family to really want to do it as part of a career. So I started writing when I was younger, and then realized that I could combine my love of music and my love of writing with songwriting. It was kind of this big revelation when I was around 12 years old that I could take poems and turn them into songs.

Since then I've kind of just been completely addicted to it, taking opera classes in high school and learning several instruments. And then getting to Nashville. I actually did a degree in nursing and became a nurse there, but I have always done music on the side.

JC: How did you two meet?

NS: I used to be a tour guide for an Australian volunteer organization. I was doing some work out in Peru and Dani was also there. I saw this beautiful girl playing with the guitar and I thought we should jam. That was kind of how we first met.

DC: Yeah, so the long and short of it is that we met in Peru. We actually dated long distance between New Zealand and the US for several years. Then I moved to New Zealand to continue the relationship and he moved to Nashville afterwards, and we started South for Winter here in Nashville.

NS: Yeah, that was when we met the cellist, Alex Stradal from Michigan.

DC: We pretty much just started the band when we met Alex. He is a classical cellist. He was looking for friends and connections, and we were looking for a graphics designer. So we posted on a Facebook page, “Hey, are there any graphic designers out there to help us create this website?” Alex posted and asked if we wanted a cellist instead. We had talked about wanting a cellist in the band but hadn't really pursued it. We first jammed with him in September 2017, and that's pretty much how we all met.

South for Winter (year unknown)

JC: How did you come up with the name South for Winter?

DC: Well, I was starting to figure out a way to describe all of these random places that we have met up in the past few years because the relationship has been in so many different places, and that's kind of the same with the music. Most of the places that our music really took shape was in the south, so South America, the South Island of New Zealand, and the South in the United States and in Nashville. So it kind of just felt like we were traveling south for the winter.

NS: Something like that.

JC: I like to discuss your first single, “Whisper in the Trees.” It’s on an EP, How the Mountain. On the cover of the EP there’s a mountain, and it looks like it's cold at the mountain. I’m also thinking of winter because of the band name. Yet, when I played “Whisper in the Trees,” the melody and guitar riffs reminded me of surf music. (Surf music is a subgenre of rock music associated with surf culture, particularly as found in Southern California.) 

NS: Yeah, yeah, it's definitely got a surf-folk element to it. Interesting. Yeah, well the mountain on the cover of the EP is Mount Cook or Mount Aoraki. It's the highest mountain in New Zealand, so we try to tie back into my homeland quite often. 

When it comes to the actual music that was a huge leap for us. I played in rock before, so it's kind of normal for me, but playing in a folk band was very unusual. "Whispers in the Trees" was the first song we did with our producer, Matt Leigh. It was just a great opportunity. He was doing a course for a sound engineering school here in town, and he was just offering a chance to do a free single.

We played him the song acoustically and he said, “How would you feel about putting a drum kit on this and bass?” I was like, “Yeah sure, give it a shot.” And we turned out to the studio, and the cellist got on the bass and a drummer turned up with a drum kit. We ran through it a couple of times. (To hear “Whispers in the Trees,”  click here.)

It was the first time we played the song in that format. So we basically gave our producer all the options in the world to see what he could create. And I was really quite blown away. It's like you can still hear all the acoustic instrumentation, but you can hear a band as well. I think that helps in the studio recording environment. Whereas live, I don't think you necessarily need all the additional players.

DC:  Yeah, when played live, that song tends to feel more gypsy. Because we play as a trio, it's acoustic guitar and tambourine and cello, but in the studio setting that gypsy sound translates more into surf when you add an electric guitar. (“Gypsy music” is recognized as instrumental music played in Eastern European countries notable for its style in idiom and ornamentation. It is usually played in coffeehouses, restaurants, at parties, and sometimes on stage.)

It's really interesting because that happened with another song, “Fallen Seeds,” we just recorded for the album, which will be coming out in a couple of months. "Fallen Seeds" has always been our South America song. We wrote it in Peru. It's very gypsy, and then it becomes a surf-folk song when you add in all the other elements and some grooving electric guitar.

JC: I want to talk about the guitar work in these songs. Usually in folk music, a guitarist strums a few chords. But the guitar work is very intricate here. There’s a lot more notes here than there is usually in folk music.

DC: Yeah, that is all Nick. It was one of the things that really drew me to writing with Nick in the first place. He has these guitar parts that already had a melody in them. He has these really creative guitar parts with these riffs that were so easy to write to because they already felt like a song . . . like you could hear the song in them. He is really good at that. 

NS: Well, thank you. It's definitely a relationship that goes both ways. If there is a melody that Dani has created, I can incorporate the melody into the guitar parts that I'm playing and then add a harmony to the melody that I'm playing.

I'm not the fastest guitarist out there, but I like creating interesting guitar parts. Alex, the cellist, is really great too because he alternates between playing bass lines and harmony lines. Yeah, I really appreciate the compliment on that. Thank you.

JC: Your guitar riffs on “All We Have” remind me of one of my favorite guitarists Ritchie Blackmore, who played guitar in Deep Purple and is now with Blackmore’s Night. Ritchie likes to come up with riffs that were inspired by classical music. “All We Have” has guitar riffs that sound inspired by classical music.

“All We Have” single cover (November 2019)

NS: A lot of these riffs were written over a decade ago. In fact, I came out with a lot of these ideas when I first started getting into acoustic guitar when I was 9 or 10 years old. But it's brought to life in such a different way when you play with other instruments. When you play with a cello, it gives you this extra sense of melody and lead and drive to it. So I think the instrumentation that we have leans itself to classical motifs all the time. (To hear “All We Have,” click here.)

I've always really enjoyed the sound of an orchestra arrangement. Alex does maybe two or three cello parts and all of the sudden it sounds like we just hired a whole string section. We're very, very lucky to have the talent that we've been able to run into, and I think that is largely in part to making the move to come to Nashville.

JC: The other thing I noticed in the How the Mountain EP is that Nick occasionally sings lead vocals. With the singles that came after the EP, it is almost entirely Dani taking up the lead vocals.

NS: Yeah, for the most part for me personally it’s nice to be able to focus on riffs rather than doing both myself. I also like to focus more on the guitar than singing a lot of the time as well. There is definitely a lot more lead vocals for Dani on our upcoming album. That's all right. I'm still learning how to sing. I'll get there one day, mate.

South for Winter  (year unknown)

JC: I also want to talk about your single "Ten Black Crows.” I think it’s interesting because I listen to heavy metal, and even though “Ten Black Crows” isn’t metal, it doesn’t sound like you would need to do a lot to turn the song into metal. (To hear “Ten Black Crows,” click here.)

DC:  Yeah, there is a song that you'll hear later called “Black Widow in White Lace.” It's actually the story of Lavinia Fisher, who is the first documented female serial killer in the United States. That’ll be coming out in about two months. And that one you'll be like, “This is a heavy metal song.”

NS: It’s definitely metal folk, yes. Like there is no other way to put it. If you like the "Ten Black Crows" song, I think you'll probably enjoy "Black Widow" because it takes the concepts that you heard in that song to another level.

JC: Dani, you’ve written some very dark lyrics that wouldn’t be out of place in heavy metal. First, there is "Ten Black Crows.” Another song is “Devil Is a’Calling,” and now “Black Widow.” Where do all the dark lyrics come from? (To hear “Devil Is a’Calling,” click here.)

DC:  I love dark folk, and it's weird because I am not a dark person. I mean, I work as an ICU nurse and I deal with a lot of heavy stuff, but I have always loved crime shows, thrillers, and listening to heavy music. I’ve always been really attracted to dark stuff in storytelling songs. And I always say I learned in literature class when I was in high school that a good story never ends happily. 

I think maybe I'm taking that literally, but it's just so much fun to write those kind of songs. I used to write pop songs. If you look at my old music on Spotify, you wouldn't think it was the same person because it's all very up, very happy. I just started to get bored with these pop songs as a songwriter. I think with these murder ballads and these stories, you can't run out of topics. It's so much more fun to write, and it's mostly what I listen to as well.

JC: Another interesting thing I found lyrically was the single “Twine.” What I find interesting is that you rhyme “twine” with “mine” or “your kind.” Now “twine” is not thought of as a personal word, but the words “mine” and “your kind” are thought of as personal words. What was sort of the inspiration in that? 

DC:  That song was one of those cool songwriting moments that don't happen often enough where the song kind of just falls in your lap. I was actually listening to a lot of the Paper Kites. Do you know the Paper Kites?

JC: No, I haven't heard of them, but I'll check it out.

DC:  Such a beautiful, beautiful folk band out of Australia. And they have a lot of really gorgeous songs with these running bass lines going through them.

Nick was at work, and his guitar was on the wall, so I took his guitar, sat down, and started strumming some notes and ended up being inspired by them. There was this melody . . . so I just hit my recorder on my phone and was playing a few things and singing along. And I just kept having this image of a beaver and a sparrow.

JC: Oh really?

DC:  Whenever I introduce it at shows, I say this is a love story of a beaver and a sparrow, and it doesn't go well for the beaver. It is the love story I've told from the beaver's perspective in terms of trying to create something stable, trying to create something here on earth, but it's just not meant for the sparrow. They're just two different kinds of creatures. I think that's applicable to many love stories, where there is nothing wrong with either one—they just need different things. (To hear “Twine” live, click here.)

"Twine” cover (April 2019)

NS: Yeah, now that you know it's about a sparrow and a beaver it might change the perspective on the lyrics for you.

JC: It sure does. Even though “Twine” is about animals, two of your songs—“To Be Next To You” and your most recent single “Always You”—appear to be love songs about humans. Dani, while you do write some dark lyrics, there are also some romantic lyrics you write as well. (To hear a live version of “To Be Next To You,” click here.)

NS: It's like we have happy folk songs and murder ballads. I think there is a good balance between the two.

DC:  We actually named our upcoming debut album about the balance between happy folk songs and murder ballads. On every show that we played in 2019, we would ask people, “What would you name this album based on what you heard?” One person who I actually grew up with Colorado Springs said, “You should call it Luxumbra, which is Latin for “the light and the shadow.” So the name of the album is going to be Luxumbra.

JC: Also the recent single “Always You” has a faster tempo than most of your songs. 

DC:  Well, “Always You” really picks up the energy and people can clap along with it, so that was definitely the inspiration for that. We’ve done a lot of touring and have been lucky enough to play with a lot of different incredible folk artists. You look at all this interaction. You look at someone tapping their feet. Look at someone moving in their seat and clapping along, and you want something like that in a set. 

The idea was really inspired by everything going on right now. In all these dark times, there is that one person or pet or whatever it is that is your companion that you can hold on to. I really feel like we needed to balance. None of us love writing. I mean, I don't mind it, but Alex doesn't love playing happy songs.

NS: It's no secret that the single was Alex's least favorite song we've written. But I think as songwriters it's good to challenge yourself and not just stay in the same realm of what you're comfortable with. So yeah, we definitely try to look analytically as well at what people will listen to. It's like we can't just have five murder ballads in a row, you know? That might get a little depressing. (To hear “Always You,” click here.)

JC: I like to get back to the debut album coming out in a couple of months. Is it different or similar to your earlier EP How the Mountain?

NS: The album is more evolved. 

DC:  Yes. How the Mountain was a test for us. It was the first time we recorded as a full band. Besides recording it in our closet in our apartment, we also put together that EP. We wrote the songs and recorded them within two months. 

NS: Yeah, it was pretty quick turnaround, so we did a lot more producing our own music on that EP, and then we sent it to our producer to make a mix out of the parts we created. Although, I still love that EP, and I think it's got a lot of great, great moments to it. 

I just think that lot of the ideas are more thought out and get  executed on the album largely in part to the studio equipment we had and the time that we put in to preproduction as well.

DC: And we’ve been working on this album for almost two years.

NS: Two years.

DC:  So we end with all this studio minds on it, having our producer Matt Leigh constantly in the studio and challenging us.

NS: Yeah, Matt did a phenomenal job saying like, “Hey, you guys are musicians. Why don't you create interludes?” Something that ties the album together and makes it a little bit different, or draw in a motif from one track to another. The album feels like a well thought-out piece of a  body of work rather than just a lot of singles.

When you hear Luxumbra as a full album I hope that it will take you on a bit of a journey where you still hear the three-piece acoustic folk band, but also that we are in a studio and built the music as big as we can. 

And yeah, I'm really, really excited to release our upcoming single, “Stone” because I think that’s one of my favorites off the album. Our drummer used African custom instruments on that one. It was really quite a beautiful thing that he created. (To hear “Stone,”  click here.)

JC: Definitely curious to hear that.

NS: Well, the cool thing is that our drummer is primarily a classic rock player, but he’s also been a drum teacher for years, and he plays very classical percussion style as well. 

DC:  How the Mountain felt pretty folk. I mean, there are drums in it and some rock elements, but in general it's somewhat like a folk album. Whereas Luxumbra definitely feels more like a folk rock album, but we tried to make it really diverse. It's got a jazz track on it. Actually, one of the first songs that Nick and I wrote is a straight-up jazz track. We really tried to push ourselves to write something that we hadn't created.

NS: Yeah, that jazz song has a guitar part from a song that I had worked on in my early twenties. And so I played her the guitar part, and she just said, “Don't sing . . . don’t, you know, you'll corrupt the music with your melody.”

DC:  He has some ideas.

NS: I think that's really awesome because it brings these ideas back to life in a completely different way. That's the joy of collaborating, you know? So it's been a real labor of love working on this album, as all albums are. But yeah, we're super excited to release it this year, to finally get it out there, you know?

JC: I'm going to shift a little . . . Dani, I understand you are a nurse who works in the Covid-19 unit. There are no words to say how impressed I am by that, because that's really frontline work in dealing with the coronavirus.

DC: Yeah, it's been a weird time to be between both worlds, where you see your musician friends' livelihood getting destroyed, but then you see the other side and how serious the virus is. We’re in Nashville and most of our friends are musicians. Each of us has gone through our own “corona depression,” as I call it. 

We've had all these really exciting plans. We were actually in New York City in March and played a sold-out show with this amazing artist. This was the night before the city shut down with Covid-19. 

South for Winter on tour (year unknown)

And at that show we were getting all these offers for summer concerts, and we were like, “Oh great, we can each go part-time or quit our jobs within the next years and tour all the time.” All of that is gone.

But at the same time, it let us really focus on the album that we're releasing, because we would have been so busy this summer. It's given us the time to focus on it. It's given us time to think about our plans for the future, our online presence, and we now have a manager and a publicist and a distribution deal that we might not have had time to really think about before.

And also I'm an ICU nurse. I did one crisis nursing assignment in a Covid-19 ICU, and then I've worked in the Covid-19 ICU in Nashville. And so I think sheer gravity of the situation with how sick those patients are and how real and scary the virus is . . . 

So we're not touring at all until it's safe. It's just not worth it to even play a couple of shows in-house, even if you're trying to be safe. I think other bands might be touring a little sooner than us, but because of my perspective and what I've seen, I think we should be the most careful. But we're just lucky to be safe and be healthy, and I think that's all we're thinking of right now.

NS: We just bought a new van. We got a ProMaster Dodge Ram, so we're kind of getting that out for touring hopefully next year. Yeah, so we’re just working that out, like how to convert that van to be exactly what we want to take on the road. We're looking at building a stage on top of the van so that we can do socially responsible concerts.

DC: We'll be six feet away.

NS: We'll be always six feet away from everyone, that's right.

JC: Hopefully you’ll be on the road soon.

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