In Conversation with Early Riser's Kiri Oliver

Early Riser In Conversation Kiri Oliver

Early Riser Band Photo
Early Riser band photo credit: Toni Skotcher

Getting to the heart of it seems to come easy to Brooklyn, NY-based four-piece, Early Riser. The band, led and formed by Kiri Oliver (vocals, guitar, keyboard), and Heidi Vanderlee (cello, vocals), began as two friends who had equal interests (live music, comedy, feminism, cats), and formed out of the easy and vibrant East Village/Brooklyn and Williamsburg D.I.Y. indie scenes that frequented now-closed but beloved venues like The Cake Shop, and Death By Audio. It also didn't hurt that Oliver and Vanderlee were fast-friends from working together to book feminist benefit shows which led to the opportunity to book talent on The Chris Gethard Show.

Their mutual friend, TCGS colleague and current band member, drummer Mike Yannich (aka Mikey Erg), actually made his first appearance in the band's video, "The Nevers," during a hilarious 'cat séance scene,' and later went on to become the band's full-time drummer after the release of their debut album, Currents, released in 2017 on Pittsburgh's A-F Records and NY's Anchorless Records.

Recorded at Noisy Little Critter Recordings in Downington, PA, mixed with engineer Mike Bardzik (Spraynard, Mischief Brew, The Sundials), and produced by Plow United, and Ex-Friends' Joel Tannenbaum, the energetic album became a defining moment for the band to experiment with their live performances, giving them fuel to tour, and the time to, 'just start dancing.' Over the years, and since their debut, the band has found themselves touring with A-F label-mates, The Homeless Gospel Choir, and opening for artists like The Hold Steady, Anti-Flag, Jonah Matranga, Chris Farren, Spanish Love Songs, and Katie Ellen (ex-Chumped) among others.

Finding the 'Vocations' lineup

When Oliver and Vanderlee met and became friends with bassist Nicole Nussbaum, who had moved to New York from Boston and was looking for a new band, the current lineup and pre-cursor to creating new songs for their second full-length, and latest release, Vocations, was fully-realized. A-F Records initially planned to release the album in the spring of 2020, but due to the pandemic, the release was delayed until March 2021.

Early Riser's latest album, Vocations, finds the band (once again) at their best: as a four-piece that combines and draws on the strengths of everyone's individual talents, digging deeper into their 'cello-driven, pop-punk' sound. When we listen to their latest album, everything you love about the band's original elements are still there, but in their new songs, Oliver says that she wanted to 'get back to writing songs about more positive and life-affirming experiences.'

In describing the new album, Oliver wrote, "While Currents was about closing the door on the past, Vocations is about being fully immersed in the challenges and opportunities of the present. It’s a powerful love letter to self-acceptance and the decision to double down on what’s most important to you."

Vocations is an album that draws you in and makes you sing-along: the lyrics are smart-y pants clever, without being a turn-off, along with being an exercise in listening (and, I mean really listening) to where each song will take you:

"When I'm nervous I talk like the SATs / Trying to ameliorate the obfuscation of something, or something / Motormouth, slow down, they say / I've heard it all before / Do you really think that I want to be this way?"
"Metronome Heart" lyrics by Early Riser

Tracks like title-track lead single and opener "Vocations," and final track, "Blood on Canvas," become rallying calls of searching for, supporting others, and coming into oneself, while songs like "Skeleton," "Wallflower In Red Lipstick," "Drop The Torch," and "Other People's Riches," find the band in darker territory. Vocations by Early Riser contains some of the band's best writing yet, and includes more heart-on-their-sleeves elements (as-with Currents) but shows that the band have deep roots in their abilities to perform and write together as a unit.  We recently spoke with lead vocal-, guitar-, and keyboardist Kiri Oliver, to dig into the motivation behind a few of their songs and the making of their latest album:

Carly: Early Riser released their new album Vocations on March 26th, 2021. What can you tell us about the recording process for your album, and what stands out about putting this new material together?

Kiri Oliver: We recorded it over two weekends at Wonderpark Studios in Brooklyn. The writing process was very different from our last album, when Heidi and I had been performing as an acoustic duo and only had a short time to work on the songs with a bassist and drummer before going into the studio. This time, we had solidified our permanent lineup with Nicole Nussbaum on bass and vocals and Mike Yannich (aka Mikey Erg) on drums and vocals. So we were able to write the songs together and play them live a lot before recording, which makes all the difference.

I love the tracks on this album: the sound is so big compared to your album Currents: was this related to adding new members to the band? Or production and writing choices?

All of the above! In arranging the songs together as a full band, we were able to bring out the strengths of every instrument (and all four members’ voices) and make the songs as big and anthemic as possible. 

Early Riser - Vocations (album)

I love that when I listen to an Early Riser album, it's kind of like listening to a good friend. The band's lyrics sound real, and personable, and I feel like the writing reflects on feelings that are really empathic. Like, 'wow,' I recognize these feelings and can relate to these songs... were these songs created very intentionally or specifically to Early Riser, or is that just the way that you all write together (or do the lyrics come together after the songs are written)?

I always write the lyrics first, and I bring a draft of each song (including the melody and chords) to the band to flesh out. Early Riser is a name I came up with for my solo project in 2012, and I think it embodies the approach to songwriting that I’ve taken since then. My previous band, Delta Hotel, was once described as an indie-pop version of Daria--the lyrics were much more cynical. Early Riser songs are more earnest and optimistic overall, and they focus on personal growth through life’s challenges. 

What was your favorite song to create on this album and why?

Probably “Vocations,” the title track and opener. It’s short, fast and anthemic, and we had a lot of fun in the studio doing the group vocals at the end. Chris Krasnow, who co-engineered the album with Eva Lawitts (and also mixed it), played trombone on that part as well.

What can you tell me about the lyrics and instrumentation for the band's song, Drop The Torch

It’s a song about realizing that it’s not worth it to put so much time and energy into idolizing other people and trying to get their approval. I built it around the lines “Looking up to you is hurting my neck,” and “Pedestals are for statues, not people.” In terms of the instrumentation, I remember that Nicole and I got to the practice space early one day and worked specifically on writing a bass intro for that one. It’s one of the best examples of how the songs come out differently (and better) when writing with the whole band rather than finishing a song myself, first. 

What is the story behind the Vocations album track, "Skeleton"? 

It was inspired by a specific experience I had, and that the band witnessed, where another musician made me feel really uncomfortable. He and I had previously talked about collaborating, so I felt really angry and disappointed that I had to turn down this opportunity I had been excited about. On a larger level, it’s about being a woman in music and the things we constantly have to be aware of, like our safety, when we just want to be seen and treated as equals and peers. 

Are there any songs that did not make it on the album when it was in the process of being recorded? 

Nope. I write a lot of songs, but I only bring them to the band if I see them as being my very best, and as fitting with the overall theme that’s coming together for the album. We also knew pretty early on, that “Vocations” and “Blood on Canvas,” were going to be the opening, and closing tracks.

I love the spaceship storyline used for the video "Vocations," (title-track) and seeing you all in space (sweatshirts). What went into creating that video and also: how many times did Mikey have to make that omelette? Is there a recipe for the perfect Early Riser omelette: and is Heidi running for Prez?

Making that video was so much fun! The brilliant Jess Lane directed each of us via Zoom from LA, helping us set up the shots and film our own footage on our iPhones. We each had a separate day of filming, and then she did all the editing and animation to bring the astronaut storyline to life. Mikey shot the omelette scene in one take--he says if he wouldn’t have filled it as much on take two if there had been one. Heidi isn’t currently planning a presidential run, but she has been active in the campaigns of local candidates for State Assembly and City Council. 

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