20:20 — 20 Questions, 20 Answers
In part 31 of our continuing 20:20 Q&A series,
Hilary Kaufmann and Robert Watts—of the Austin-based duo These Fine Moments —
who just released their fifth full-length album titled Season 10, join us to talk about their new album, working with Ken Stringfellow, creating during the pandemic, and more.
Season 10 is a stirring and hard-hitting album that lives up to their self-described “honest blend of folk, pop, and depression.” There is beauty and truth within as well. Enjoy the words they share and then listen to “Beneath the Storm,” the first track from Season 10.
Welcome, Hilary and Robert, and thank you for joining us.
20:20 with These Fine Moments
NWM 1): Please introduce yourselves, briefly, as musicians and humans of Earth.
Robert: Love this; thanks for making me contemplate my humanity! I am a work in progress, hopefully making some progress, musically and otherwise.
Hilary: As a human of Earth, I try to engage with people I encounter and get them to smile. As a musician, I try to put myself into the song and allow myself to be vulnerable.
NWM 2): Tell us about your individual backgrounds, musical tastes, and what brought you together to create this harmonic duo.
Robert: Hilary left college in Upstate New York to move to St. Petersburg, Florida, to play music. She made that her base, and played in numerous bands traveling southeast U.S. in the late 70s and 80s, fronting cover bands, and doing singer-songwriter stuff on the side.
After a brief stint in Nashville doing jingles and waiting tables, she moved to Austin in 1986 and continued playing solo, duo, and in bands.
We met here in Austin back in the 90s, when we were in different bands but had the same drummer, and we both sang at his wedding. After my kids were born, I got away from music to focus on raising the family and making a living.
When I ran into Hilary again years later, she asked me to join the church band she was leading, and eventually we started writing together and playing out as a duo. In 2011, we recorded our first record and came up with the name These Fine Moments.
What we want to convey is the contrast between the beauty and messiness of life.
NWM 3): Name three things that make you smile.
Robert: Being around friends, the beach, a nice martini or glass of red wine.
Hilary: White sand with turquoise water, kittens, fall colors in the Catskills.
NWM 4): Your music has been called ‘anxiety folk’ and your website calls it an ‘honest blend of folk, pop, and depression.’
Please tell us about your vision of your music and what you seek most to convey through your art.
Robert: What we want to convey is the contrast between the beauty and messiness of life. I think our vision for the music is being realized better and better with each record, as we get more confident in the studio and in our writing and performing abilities. For me, the creative process is more therapeutic, it’s an outlet for my own anxieties and a way to express myself emotionally. And it’s always rewarding when a listener can relate to one of our songs.
It took a while for us to come to terms with what style or genre we were. At first we thought it might be Americana, but it’s really not, even though some of the songs may lean that way. It’s not really rock either, but some of those elements are there too. Pop-folk or folk-pop seemed to best capture it, so we kind of invented our own sub-genre we could use as our elevator pitch. ‘An honest blend of folk, pop, and depression’ usually elicits a chuckle.
‘An honest blend of folk, pop, and depression’ usually elicits a chuckle.
NWM 5): Where were you and what were you doing when you realized COVID-19 had just changed your lives as performance artists?
Robert: We were here in Austin, and when they cancelled South by Southwest we figured it was about to get serious. We had shows booked in the Bay Area, Seattle, Colorado, Kansas City, Oklahoma, and here in Austin and were looking forward to a busy spring and summer. Over the course of the next few weeks the schedule fell apart.
With our shows cancelled, we started having weekly concerts for our neighbors. We kept a PA set up in the garage, and we would open the door and play for them and whoever happened to be walking by. We also started doing live stream shows, so we bought some gear and learned how to use the software, which was a huge learning curve for us.
When it became apparent that it would be many months or even a year before we could travel again or play out, we decided to focus on making the record, and put everything we had into it.
NWM 6): Your new album, Season 10, marks ten years of playing together. It is your fifth full-length record and was created during the pandemic. Produced by Mark Hallman (Carole King, Ani DiFranco), who also provides the rhythm section and multiple instruments, with special guests Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, REM, Big Star) on guitar, keys, and vocals, and André Moran of The Belle Sounds on guitar.
Please tell us about the creation of this stunning album and the difficulties you overcame working during the pandemic.
Robert: First of all, thanks so much, we are humbled that you think it’s stunning!
The recording process took a lot longer and cost a lot more, even though we were able to do some of it from our home studio. The biggest challenge was not having the in-person communication and real-time feedback with Mark and André, since we couldn’t all be in the control room at the same time, and for a while couldn’t even be in the studio together. We really missed that spontaneous ‘in the moment’ magic that you often get in the studio.
But, it forced us to work a lot harder to get things right and give it that extra ten percent, and when we started hearing the final mixes we knew we were headed in the right direction.
We really missed that spontaneous ‘in the moment’ magic that you often get in the studio.
NWM 7): Please share about living and working in Austin and what makes it conducive to your music. To what extent is location a critical part of your career?
Robert: Being from Austin, the self proclaimed live music capital of the world, definitely has its advantages. Most everyone who has visited here loves it, so there’s always that commonality when we meet new people.
But … it’s a big pond and on any given night we may be competing for gigs with national or internationally known artists. And even before the pandemic, lots of venues were shutting down due to the escalating cost of rent, and musicians and artists are being priced out. We are working musicians here in the sense that most of us work side jobs so we can afford to be musicians!
On the other hand, we have access to a lot of those great players and producers.
Austin is a good geographic location, we are about mid-way between coasts and can head east or west on IH 10. We can also get to St. Louis or Colorado in a long day if need be.
Seems like every time we visit a new city, we get excited and talk about relocating there. But when we sit down and do the math, Austin is still our home and the right place for us now.
NWM 8): Strangest road story?
Robert: Nothing particularly stands out as strange, but on one of our first road trips we left the suitcase with all of our merch and cash at a bar in New Orleans after a gig. We didn’t realize until two days later when we were loading in for a gig in Florida.
At an outdoor gig in Florida, there was a manatee swimming in the canal right next to the stage.
We picked it up a week or so later on the way back to Austin, and everything was still there, even the cash. But in the meantime we had to play the rest of the gigs with nothing to sell.
And at an outdoor gig in Florida, there was a manatee swimming in the canal right next to the stage.
NWM 9): What are your before-you-go-on-stage rituals?
Robert: In a perfect situation, we put our heads together and connect for a minute and get into the moment. Robert takes care of most of the setup and deals with the sound person, and Hilary chats up the staff at the venue. But more realistically, Robert is stressing out over something and Hilary is trying to calm him down.
NWM 10): These Fine Moments started as a duo, then became a trio, then a full band, and back to a duo.
Share with us about the evolution of your music through these transitions and which combo most compliments and/or accommodates your music. Does the music you want to create determine the composition of your group or is it the other way around?
Robert: We don’t really think about writing songs with a band in mind. In the studio, we try to have enough accompaniment to make it catchy and intriguing without obscuring the meaning and emotion of the song, and not to get too far afield from what we can pull off live.
Right now, the duo is working because the shows we have been doing are small venues like breweries, listening rooms, and house concerts, and that’s the best fit sound-wise and economically. Sure, we’d love to get a slot at a festival and put a band together, but that keeps not happening.
NWM 11): What is a favorite of your songs? Please tell us a little bit about it.
Robert: ‘Sensation of Flying.’ It’s loosely based on my dad’s battle with Parkinson’s, and what I envision people think about when they know their time is up. Questioning one’s belief system, wondering what you could have done better, or different.
Hilary: ‘OK to Drive.’ On the surface it’s about a predictable guy who doesn’t want to talk.
But it’s about the diamond in the rough beneath the surface, a flawed person who is unable to live up to his own self-expectations because of distractions from substance abuse.
NWM 12): What in particular fuels your inspiration? Tell us about your space or what is most necessary for your writing.
Robert: A lot of the songs draw from raw emotions we’ve experienced ourselves, and that sets the tone and mood of the song. Sometimes the chords come first, sometimes a lyric idea comes first.
A lot of the songs draw from raw emotions we’ve experienced ourselves, and that sets the tone and mood of the song.
Ideas hit at different times and places, too; in the middle of the night, first thing in the morning, while out for a run, watching a movie, listening to music, or sitting in a hotel room. I keep notes either in my phone or on scraps of paper or notebooks and use my voice memo on my phone a lot. It’s definitely a 24-hour news cycle.
NWM 13): Your lyrics are often raw, conveying those hard truths inherent to our human nature.
As a long-time pair of songwriters, you offer a unique perspective of writing together. Please share about your writing process and how you compliment each other.
Robert: I usually get the song started, and Hilary helps me as it develops. She does a great job of balancing me out, and not letting the song get too abstract or off track. She also has a great ear for melody and harmony. And knowing me as well as she does, she can often help me say what she knows I’m feeling.
NWM 14): To what extent do you think the pandemic will be looked back upon as a songwriters’ renaissance? Thoughts?
Robert: I think it goes both ways, a renaissance for some, a sticking point for others. Taylor Swift put out two records, right? And a lot of our friends who play in bands haven’t done anything in the past 12 months.
It certainly was a period of time for us where little was expected since we aren’t front line or critical workers. Being freed up from social obligations gave us time we wouldn’t have had otherwise to work on the new songs, and to put in the time to make the best record we could.
Being freed up from social obligations gave us time we wouldn’t have had otherwise to work on the new songs.
But it’s still about work ethic and showing up whether you feel like it or not. I was talking about this to a neighbor, who is a great jazz player, and he said, ‘You know, I’m not nearly as disciplined as I thought I was. A lot of days I find myself doing the bare minimum.’
Also during the pandemic, social inequality and injustices were laid bare and brought to the forefront, and that definitely informed several of our newest songs.
NWM 15): What comes to mind as an unusual or weird show you played?
Robert: We played a show in Upstate New York. I stayed with the van by the back entrance while Hilary went around the front to check in. A few minutes later she came out and said ‘Uh, you’re not going to want to play this gig.’
So we started loading in and there were video games everywhere, a flashing, beeping cacophony. And on the actual stage was one of those basketball shooting games, and occasionally while we were trying to set up, an errant ball would roll across the stage.
When it was time to start though, all the machines went dark, they moved the basketball games, the lights were mood adjusted, and people migrated over and listened to our set. When we were done, the games came back on.
NWM 16): What has been a particularly memorable or rewarding experience of your career so far?
Robert: I’d have to say working with Ken Stringfellow, even though it was long distance. I’ve been a huge fan of his for many years. He was on lockdown at his home in France, and put out a post on social [media] that he was looking for session work. I reached out to him, and he got right back with me and said he’d love to do it.
We had scratch tracks for two new songs so we sent them to him and told him to do whatever he wanted. We loved what he came up with, and we went back and forth with some ideas and suggestions. It brought a new energy to the record for sure.
Hilary: The band I was with previously, The Cosmic Dust Devils, played a lot of shows with outlaw-country legend Rusty Wier. He had us join him on stage many times and got us to sing back-ups on the last record he made before he died. We were also finalists at the Kerrville Folk Festival and played the main stage two years in a row.
NWM 17): What is the best piece of advice you have ever received that you actually follow?
Robert: Steven Pressfield’s War of Art is my go-to when I need a pep talk. Don’t give in to resistance, or fear of success. Show up every day and do the work.
Hilary: Stop walking on eggshells, don’t take things personally, let people have their stuff, imagine the best outcomes, and accept the way things are.
Even though our music is often sad or melancholy, and dark or cynical at times, we are actually pretty happy people and are crazy about each other and enjoy being together.
NWM 18): Apart from live music, what are you most looking forward to when things return to ‘normal’?
Robert: That would definitely be traveling, both for playing and to just see new places and have new adventures.
NWM 19): What is one thing you would want our readers to know about you which we might not know to ask?
Robert: Even though our music is often sad or melancholy, and dark or cynical at times, we are actually pretty happy people and are crazy about each other and enjoy being together.
NWM 20): What’s next for These Fine Moments?
Robert: In the short term, we [were] live on Sun Radio on April 7! [It was] the biggest show we’ve done yet. Sun Radio has half a dozen affiliate stations across Texas and broadcasts to hundreds of thousands of listeners around the world.
After that, we will continue to promote the record the best we can, and start picking up the pieces and trying to reconnect with our contacts and venues around the country, as well as our fans and friends. We have no idea what’s left out there for us, but are definitely ready to get back out there and see what happens.
Beneath the Storm
These Fine Moments
The Austin, Texas-based duo of Hilary Kaufmann and Robert Watts celebrates ten years of writing, recording, and performing together with the release of their fifth full-length record, Season 10, produced by Mark Hallman (Ani DiFranco, Carole King). Hallman also mans the rhythm section and multiple instruments, with Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, REM, Big Star) helping out with electric guitars, keys, and backing vocals on two of the tracks.
These Fine Moments sums up their sound as an honest blend of folk, pop, and depression, with tight harmonies and strong co-vocals. Kaufmann provides a backdrop of tremolo guitar for Watts’ acoustic guitar picking and melody lines.
To learn more and buy stuff visit https://www.thesefinemoments.com/
You may enjoy our previous 20:20 with Amanda Cook
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