Timber is the collaboration between Birmingham mainstays Janet Simpson-Templin and Will Stewart. The debut album, The Family, has been in the works for quite some time, but the duo was very attentive to the details. This weekend, they’ll celebrate its release not far from the first conversation that led to the recording.
Janet and Will talked about how it all came to be. They talked about the space that Timber exists within and how it relates to their other projects and their solo work. And Janet revealed that she has much on the horizon that we don’t even know about yet.
How did the Timber project happen?
Will Stewart: Timber started as a long distance project. I was still living in Nashville and Janet was in Birmingham. We would send each other song ideas and eventually got enough together to record an EP with Les Nuby at Ol Elegante in Homewood.
Janet Simpson-Templin: Once Will and I established that we’d like to work together, we began emailing songs back and forth. That probably went on for a few weeks or so. I remember he came to town one weekend and we met at Crestwood Coffee to talk about how we’d approach recording them.
Had you guys known each other a while?
JST: Will and I were really only acquaintances at this point. We didn’t know each other’s musical tastes, influences or anything like that, so that first intentional conversation was really fun and revealing for me. Like, I learned he liked Bill Frisell – that gave me some really great common ground to build from. Not that we said – hey let’s sound like Frisell on this EP – but more it gave me an idea of what his aesthetic might be, where he might go in the studio.
So you were both already familiar with each other’s work, you just didn’t really know where the inspiration came from?
JST: Right. Exactly. From there, we started texting about music a good bit. Hey, have you listened to this? Do you like this album/artist? And built a really good rapport about our ideas, influences and tastes.
Will, what led you back here from Nashville?
WS: A lot of projects I was in at that time were coming to an end and I just needed a change of scene. Nashville is an amazing city and I go back often, but it just got to be a little outside of my vibe. And I was eager to get back to work on Timber material and be able to rehearse with Janet on a regular basis. I wrote most of County Seat (Stewart’s solo album, also released earlier this year) that first year I was back in Birmingham, too.
Did one of you reach out to the other or did someone else encourage you to collaborate?
JST: Well, we actually met a few years before because of Les Nuby. Will was recording his Coosa EP at Ol Elegante. He wanted someone to sing harmonies and play keys on that EP, and Les brought me in for that. That was the first time I’d even really heard of Will or knew anything of his music. We only had about an hour together that day, but I recorded a few tracks for the EP, which I instantly loved. Will is a pretty effortless musician.
Over the next few years I listened to that EP a good bit. I think I may have gotten Will’s band to open for Delicate Cutters for our album release for Ring, but that may have been the only time we interacted in person during that time. We kept in touch loosely over the internet. One day I think I said I was listening to the Coosa EP and how much I loved it. A few months later, I think, Will reached out and asked if I’d like to do a project together.
Janet has done several male/female vocal collaborations. I was chatting with someone recently about how great the Gum Creek Killers project with Duquette Johnston was. Why does that type of project work so well?
WS: Here’s the thing with Janet: she will complement any project with which she’s associated. She could play in a punk band and seamlessly mesh with ease. It’s really just a testament to her skill as a musician that she can elevate the project, regardless of the personnel.
JST: I love collaborating in general, I think. I love singing harmonies, I love finding little places to put a guitar or piano flourish of some sort. Anytime I can encounter new creative energy from someone, it kicks my creativity into gear. I always hope to complement the musician I’m working with.
And that’s a thing you’ve always done really well. You’ve always complemented other people well. Always made other people sound great. Do you prefer it that way?
JST: Well, that’s hard to say. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to collaborate, so I’ve certainly given that a lot of time, but I am constantly writing and recording my own songs. What’s great about Timber is that it’s pretty balanced between our two songwriting halves. Will is really great at complementing others I think. He’s got good taste and is easy and natural to work with. I can be a ham, though. [laughs]
Will, you mentioned that this project is actually older than County Seat. How did you prioritize their releases?
WS: Right. We did the first session (four songs at Communicating Vessels studio) back in 2017 and then took a break until we had the rest of album ready to record (which we did in early 2018, if I remember correctly) – but the County Seat album came together in a matter of one month in late 2017 and we released it four months after it was mixed and mastered. That’s a very quick turnaround, in my experience. So it wasn’t really planned that way.
Did that move quickly because you weren’t coordinating as many schedules? Or was there some other strategy to that?
WS: I think County Seat just had less moving parts, so to speak. I already had the cover art done, etc. and everything was basically ready before Cornelius Chapel came into the picture. With Timber, we were a little bit more delicate with some of the pre-release stuff that can be tedious at times. But all that said, it has been a seamless process and we’re very pleased with the way everything came together.
As this record has been complete for a while now, have the two of you begun writing new Timber music that we haven’t yet heard?
WS: Oh yeah, we’re constantly writing new material and workshopping it in rehearsals and live shows. I’m getting ready to record another full-length solo album in a few weeks and Janet is planning to record her debut full-length solo album in Spring 2019, too. On top of all that, we have new Timber material that we hope to record in 2019. I like to have multiple projects going all at once if I can swing it.
A Janet Simpson-Templin solo album? What can you tell me about that?
JST: The set of songs I’m planning to record may be the most straightforward I’ve ever written or released. In Delicate Cutters, which was my primary “solo” outlet for many years, I tended toward impressionism and poetics, shying away from really saying anything directly. This set of songs is probably influenced by some internal changes I’ve had the last couple of years, and maybe the fact that I’ve started listening to more classic country music lately. I’m excited about them, and of course, I’ve roped Will into playing guitar and contributing some backing vocals on them.
So when you were writing for Delicate Cutters, you were more influenced by rock music?
JST: It may have been listening to artists like Kristin Hersh in my early days, but I really read a lot of poetry in my formative years. I think I was a still so much of a kid when I started that band, even though I was in my twenties. I just sort of wanted to be “different” than the mainstream, so maybe that was my way of giving some slight of hand. But maybe I was really afraid to be direct. I was a mess of a person, and bad, messy poetry made that feel better.
Do you ever see yourself revisiting any of those older projects? Delicate Cutters? Gum Creek Killers? Or is the solo work and the Timber project enough for you right now?
JST: Right now, Will’s solo band, Timber and my solo stuff has got me pretty busy. There’s also another project on the horizon I’m pretty excited about, but I can’t say much about yet…
JST: I’d love to return to some of the old collabs sometime. I still love all those projects and am really glad I did them. Delicate Cutters group-texts about once a year proposing a reunion show, but we haven’t actually made it happen yet. Maybe one day, though.
When did your tastes begin to change and how did it allow your own art to evolve?
JST: I’d say my tastes are always evolving – or maybe a better way to say it is becoming more inclusive. I don’t think there are any artists or bands I’ve listened to that feel like bad fashion choices in the past. [laughs] Maybe I should be embarrassed, though… I have to reflect on that… But I do remember that in the 5th grade, that’s when I started buying my own tapes. Since then, it’s been a process of discovery. The more I learn about and collect, the more I grow, hopefully, as a musician. I hope that never stops. I don’t have any sense I’ve arrived or am good enough or have learned enough.
Will we hear solo music from either or both of you on Sunday or will this be focused on Timber?
WS: For the show this Sunday, we’re going to stick with playing the Timber album front to back. But beyond that, we mix stuff in all the time from our various projects.
Timber will celebrate the release of ‘The Family’ on Sunday at Mom’s Basement. Doors open at 7 p.m. and music begins at 8 p.m. Chelsey Whild and Sarah Langford open. Admission is $5.