To say that Widowspeak is a Northwest band is to tell a halftruth. After all they formed in a Brooklyn apartment thousands of miles to the east, and their guitarist has never even seen the Pacific Ocean. There are aspects of the band’s sound— abrasive guitar hooks, immediate drumming, and incessant codas—that speak to living in a big city. But there’s also a dreary sparseness, a David Lynch-esque darkness, culled from the other members’ native Washington.
Singer/songwriter Molly Hamilton grew up in an old house in Tacoma, drummer Michael Stasiak in nearby Lakewood. While grunge put Seattle on the map and Riot Grrl and the DIY aesthetic are synonymous with Olympia, Tacoma remains grittier, darker even. Infamous for the acrid smell of its paper mills, this blue-collar city somehow fosters a fertile music community—if few outsiders know about it. Michael and Molly first crossed paths in that tight-knit scene, both contributing to a local compilation label. The label lasted all of one summer before half its roster decamped for New York.
There, three summers later, Michael approached Molly about starting a new band. Molly’s crippling stage fright and inexperience with the electric guitar seemed good excuses to decline, but at Michael’s urging she bought a used Danelectro and put pen to paper. Soon after, Michael invited guitarist Robert Earl Thomas to a tentative first practice. Though Robert had to plug his guitar into the stereo, and Michael played only two drums, something was palpable in that first hour. They chose a name Molly had picked months before, and Widowspeak was born.
The band’s skeletal sound began to take shape, with Robert’s rust-belt guitar parts lending a restless, sinister edge to Molly’s subdued melodies and soft vocal style. Writing became a collaborative effort, and Widowspeak racked up an arsenal of songs. By fall the trio had recorded a six-track cassette using only a built-in laptop microphone and Garageband. The self-released October Tape, as it was called, fell into the hands of Brooklyn’s Captured Tracks. Weeks later, after only their sixth show, Widowspeak recorded the 7” single, “Harsh Realm,” in anticipation of a full LP.
That album, recorded at Rear House with Jarvis Taveniere of Woods, documents Widowspeak’s inaugural year. In a relaxed studio setting songs born from those first jittery practices could breathe. The trio expanded their modest instrumentation while retaining a sparse aesthetic. The resulting record offers an eerie ambience, at times channeling 1950’s jukebox pop, at others, 1960’s psychedelia. While garnering comparisons to slow-moving 1990’s acts such as Mazzy Star or Cat Power, Widowspeak have defined a sound that’s earnestly nostalgic, and increasingly confident. Even so, these are songs about heartache. They are songs about homesickness, about longing for pine forests, reckless youth, and dark nights in strange cities.