Iowa City Music Scene Profile: Part Two - Nora Petran, Curt Oren

Nora Petran - Vice President (VP)

By Graham Johnson

Acoustic singer-songwriter Nora Petran’s debut solo record is a quiet, atmospheric, and understated highlight which stands in stark contrast to the bombast of Dana T’s recordings or the aggression of Curt Oren’s saxophone work. The most brilliant moments of the record come with the short dissonances, the tight tensions that emerge from floaty murmurs.“Armadillo” is Oren’s favorite track on the record, in which the guitar dominates the mix over background whispers in a surprisingly effective and gorgeous production choice. The music of “Rib Phone,” another highlight, reminisces gently of Joanna Newsom like a wistful daydream.

“We've been friends since high school, and she had been making music for awhile, but not sharing it with anyone. The day she had her first public performance we were all completely floored by how beautiful it was.” - Curt Oren

INTERVIEW WITH NORA PETRAN

Rare Candy: First off, it seems like the majority of the crew/pseudo-collective that you seem to be a part of - Ben, Curt, Dana, Cooper, Dan - are all guys. Does it ever feel like a boys club? Are there any other female performers part of the scene that I'm missing and should be aware of?

Nora Petran: Oh man I didn't even notice that. I don't feel like it's a boys club at all. They're just the ones that have inspired and supported me since the beginning.

RC: I'd love to know your thoughts on DIY. Some underground musicians it seems to be an integral part of their artistry; others seem to use it because it's cheap and functional and would happily have someone professional helping out on the boards, booking, etc if they could afford it. Do you have any feelings about whether a "punk" or "DIY" approach is important from an authenticity standpoint, or whether you think that's a bit of a baloney?

NP: For acoustic music, authenticity in recording is a huge challenge. It can be easy to connect with certain audiences live, but to capture that connection through technology is something completely different. I don't think there is anything wrong with going through a professional and I would do it if I had the means. DIY certainly does place you in the artist situation, but sometimes it can become so personal that nobody else gets it. I don't even see my old album as a DIY project as much as an attempt at it. That said, I do appreciate those artists that can pull it off; I would love to be able to do everything, but the reality is that that is not always possible and working with others is a good learning experience.

RC: So I loved both VP and your stuff you did with Curt on Home. Can you tell me a bit about recording with Curt, and what that was like, how that came together etc? Had you recorded much music before VP? Were you happy with how the record came out?

NP: I had not recorded anything before VP, but at shows a lot of people expressed interest in me making an album. I initially just released it online and our friend Bob Bucko in Dubuque offered to make it for free, then Becca Kacanda did some artwork for it and it turned into a really nice thing. I think I could do much better than VP, but I’m saying that after I've improved a lot, so considering what I knew about music and recording at the time it is pretty impressive.

For Home, Curt and I sat in Dan [English]'s house with no ideas; we just went straight to it and recorded some things. For those songs the mics would give feedback and pick up on the sounds that each other person was making, so I ended up sitting in the kitchen and Curt was in another room across the house with the door shut. We didn't put any thought into lyrics or planning so it was entirely improvised and I remember describing things that were in Dan's kitchen in Down To The River and making up a story about it. For the I Love My Dog album Curt asked me to help him write some lyrics so I asked him questions about his relationship with Sam (his dog) and came up with that one. The recording he ended up putting on his album was just me when I thought we were recording only to come back to it later. He plays the piano part when we perform it, though, I've long forgotten it.

RC: Lastly, it seems the Iowa scene is splintering up, with a lot of people headed for Minneapolis, Ben in California (I believe?), Dan joining up with Frankie Teardrop and touring all over. Where does the future (and present for that matter) find Nora Petran? Any plans to try and stay a part of the scene?

NP: It is very sad that everyone has moved on because that was all of my friends, but I am so happy for them to be following their dreams. At the moment I am stuck in Iowa City because I have to get a degree, but who knows where I'll be when all that is over.

I am working on a new album and it is full of very good things! It will take a while to finish because I want this one to be more cohesive. I am mostly trying my hardest to move away from writing about feeling bad and instead getting angry and/or happy which has created a lot of new stuff that's more enjoyable to work on. Last summer I wrote three part harmonies and performed them with a couple of my friends which got a great reaction, in fact it's probably the best thing I've ever done so far. So I'm hoping to get something like that together again and to do a tour next summer instead of getting a job. Gemma Cohen and I helped do back-up for Dana T's next album, but i don't know where he's at on that. I am also working with Brooks Strause for one of his projects which should be a very very good time.

Curt Oren - Home

Curt Oren’s Home is a vibrant and aggressive saxophone record channeling the work of Colin Stetson. His music is hypnotic and beautiful on record; in person, it’s breathtakingly impressive

“With Home, a lot of changes were happening in my life (one of which included actually moving back to my hometown) and I was starting to become more and more optimistic. The music reflects that I think by starting off with “No Exit,” which is probably the most angry and hopeless thing I've made yet, and then there's a very gradual progression towards more and more happy and bright sounding music, culminating with “Home” and “All My Friends Together at Once,” which to me conveys the feelings of what it was like to move out of the environment I was in to my home, a place where I felt safe and happy and where I could actually be myself and comfortable with where I was and who I am.” - Curt Oren

“The record is like an hors d'oeuvre. It tastes really good, doesn't fill you up, and leaves you hungry for the main course... and that's the live performance: Witnessing Curt's face get redder and redder as he continues to seemingly not breathe at all... The way he sways back and forth while you wonder if he might die... He talks about his ass shirts and you're thinking to yourself what the fuck is up with this guy?” - Dana Telsrow

Interview with Curt Oren, September 2013

(interview done for separate publication, modified and reproduced for publication here with permission)

Rare Candy: We deal with a lot of self-released lo-fi and cassette records. Why'd you choose to release Home on cassette as well as CD and digitally?

Curt Oren: Honestly, I didn't really have too much to do with the decision of making them on cassette and CD. The guy who has put both my albums out, Bob Bucko Jr, a wonderful musician and human being, simply offered to put out my album on cassette and CD after hearing it on my bandcamp. That being said, though, I think that it makes much more sense these days to release something on cassette as opposed to CD, with vinyl being the ideal method of physical release. It's simply an economic thing. People want to buy cassettes and vinyl, CDs they don't really care so much about. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that these days CDs just feel really cheap and disposable, something you can get a stack of 100 of for $5 at Wal-Mart. Cassettes and vinyl records have a special quality to them, a feeling that you can't get something like that just anywhere. And with my physical releases, I like to make them as personal as possible, because to me, that's the whole point of buying a physical copy of something in the first place. You have something that is yours, you can hold it in your hand. That's a special feeling, and it's made even more special when each one is unique and hand made by the person whose music you're supporting. I released it digitally as well because it's by far the easiest way to get the actual music to people. I have a lot of cassettes myself, but I don't own a cassette player. I have all of the music on those cassettes on my ipod. I just like having the physical copy of what it is I'm listening to. And even if you do have a cassette player or record player, it's still not very easy to listen to whatever music you're buying in the car, or on a run, or wherever, if all you have is the cassette or record. 

RC: Speaking of digital releases, all your records are available for free on your Bandcamp. Why'd you decide to release them free of charge? The monetary value of music, music piracy, etc is a pretty contentious issue in the music world nowadays. Where do you stand on all that?

CO: I think from where I stand in terms of an artist, I haven't earned the right to charge for my music, for a couple of reasons. I'm really just starting out, and I feel like if I release the music for free then more people will be liable to check out the music and be able to enjoy it. My recordings are also all home recordings, so not only is the quality not very good, but my only expense in making them is time. I don't have a record label or producer that I need to pay off, so why not pass the savings on to the consumer? For me, making music is just something that I feel compelled to do, and people seem to like it, so I share it with them. I would be making these recordings regardless of whether or not anyone listened to them, so it feels a little disingenuous for me to squeeze money out of people for something that I do to make myself happy, especially when I'm not using it (at the moment) to support myself financially. That's all going to change as soon as I decide to quit my job and focus on art full time though, I'm sure. Get back to me in a year and see where I stand on charging people for my work.

RC: Nora Petra's voice is gorgeous on both her tracks, and I especially love "To Wade in the Water." Her vocals really compliment your playing, and the track really contrasts the speed and energy of preceding track "No Exit" and "Life Is a State of Mind." How does she fit into the picture of your project? Why'd you choose to mix in vocal tracks, as opposed to the purely instrumental records The Elder and Is Anyone?

CO: The decision to collaborate with Nora was a very simple and easy one. We've been friends since high school, and she had been making music for awhile, but not sharing it with anyone. The day she had her first public performance we were all completely floored by how beautiful it was. I've always loved her music and so it was very natural to make music together. We share a lot of the same sensibilities and so when it came time to write, it was just as if I was composing by myself and making my own music. The inspiration to use her vocals in the way that I did on Home came from Julianna Barwick's huge choral soundscapes, and I thought that it would fit very easily with my sound. There wasn't really any kind of conscious decision to make something different from the previous two releases, that's just what I wanted to make at that time. Nora has her own music at NoraPetran.Bandcamp.com. Since it came out I've listened to it constantly, and it's definitely some of my favorite music. 

RC: Tell me about Home's artwork. It looks like a World War I era photograph of trench warfare? Where'd you find it? Why'd you pick it?

CO: I owe everything to reddit with the artwork. I found the World War I picture on r/historyporn, and the picture of the sunset on r/natureporn if memory serves correctly. I had made that collage about 4 months before I finished Home, and as I was making Home it became more and more clear that the feeling of the music I was making and the feeling of the collage were one and the same. When I was making Is Anyone, that was a very hard time in my life, and so a lot of the music was very desperate and lonely, at least to me. With Home, a lot of changes were happening in my life (one of which included actually moving back to my hometown) and I was starting to become more and more optimistic. The music reflects that I think by starting off with “No Exit,” which is probably the most angry and hopeless thing I've made yet, and then there's a very gradual progression towards more and more happy and bright sounding music, culminating with “Home” and “All My Friends Together at Once,” which to me conveys the feelings of what it was like to move out of the environment I was in to my home, a place where I felt safe and happy and where I could actually be myself and comfortable with where I was and who I am. The artwork reflects that as well, with the soldiers who are at war, constantly struggling to even exist, but at the same time they're always moving forward towards the warm, comforting light in the distance, a place where they can escape everything that is going on around them.

RC: You're stuck on a desert island for the rest of your life, and you can only bring one person (anyone at all), one album to listen to, and one book/movie. What do you pick and why?

CO: If I were on a desert island I would bring my friend and collaborator Ben Crouse, who I've been friends with since Kindergarten, and who has made me into the person I am today. I think if I could bring any album to listen to, I think it would probably be Sgt. Pepper by The Beatles, just because first of all it's a fantastic album, but also because it's probably the singular album that encompasses most of my musical interests. Rock, electronic, world, jazz, folk, it's all there and it's all great. Book would be Slaughterhouse Five because again it's got nearly every element of what I like in literature, and movie would probably be either Baraka, Samsara, or Life in a Day, simply because I'd get bored and lonely if all I had to look at all day was a desert island. 

Listen/Download to Nora Petran http://norapetran.bandcamp.com/

Listen/Download to Curt Oren: http://curtoren.bandcamp.com/