The world has changed immensely in the last several years.
The digital landscape has grown beyond what most of us could have imagined, political and social tensions are at an all-time high, and we are still experiencing the effects of a global pandemic. Now more than ever, we are in need of creativity and art that will help us to maintain our humanity, love, and sense of interconnection.
Enter Pert Near Sandstone.
This mighty Minnesota bluegrass group is working to do just that—to use their music to charm and connect with its listeners while providing them with a welcome break from the tense and fast-paced world we live in today. To that end, Pert Near Sandstone is set to release their eighth studio album, Waiting Days, on October 20th.
They aim to represent the classic beauty and traditionalism of the bluegrass genre while simultaneously bringing something new and modern to each of the album’s eleven tracks. Leading up to the release, the band dropped several enticing singles with the latest few being “Out of Time” and “I’ve Been Traveling.”
Aside from their own musical prowess, the band also hosts and curates the annual Blue Ox Music Festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, perpetually championing their musical peers and counterparts in doing so.
We got to chat with Nate Sipe (mandolin, fiddle, steel guitar, vocals) about the new album, the band’s creative process, dream collaborations and much more.
How’s the year been for Pert Near Sandstone? Any extra special highlights or bits of excitement?
So far this year has been packed with anticipation and gathering resources for releasing our new music. We seem to be on a three-year cycle for producing new albums, so it’s now consuming swaths of time and energy to get our new music out to the world.
Also, this year was the first time we’ve sold out the Blue Ox music festival. Not having to focus on and worry about selling tickets was a big element that led to the best year yet concerning overall energy and vibe of attendees, organizers, and musicians. It was also a celebration of things finally returning to a sense of normal with the music industry, summer in full swing and festival season kicking off right!
So y’all have your new album, Waiting Days, dropping this Friday October 20th. What are some primary themes or influences behind this collection of songs?
I think a primary theme overall could be a connection to others, both individually and as a community. That’s a large part of what has kept us together as a band for so long, almost 20 years, our reliance on the larger music community and interpersonal relationships that we’ve formed along the way. I originally tried to persuade the band to write songs with a theme around traveling or narrative story songs. This album ended up being a bit of all that, along with the eclectic styles of our four songwriters. Somehow it always ends up sounding and feeling cohesive as Pert Near music.
How might it compare or contrast from your last album, 2020’s Rising Tide?
I think the voice of all the songs on Waiting Days is clearly written from a post-pandemic reality. There is a lot of searching for a new way to belong from a distance beyond an old way of understanding. I also hear a lot of hope throughout the songs, which I believe is as important, or even more important, than identifying the obstacles that we face in life.
What did the songwriting and creative process look like for this album? Any specific hurdles this time around?
We tend to finish a lot of our songs in the studio, and with that comes the challenge of arranging and writing parts collectively, trying ideas without being partial but to best serve the song. Ideally we’d enter the studio with completed, arranged and rehearsed material for efficiency, but that’s not often where we’re at when scheduling studio time. I personally thrive with a deadline, so by booking time I’m prompted to finish a lot of the work while striving to not feel precious about lyrics or melodic parts in order to allow collaborative ideas from the others.
Our recording method is most satisfying after the foundational track is recorded all in the same room together, then the track is built in pieces by overdubbing, and finally we hear what the songwriter had envisioned, like a secret finally revealed. The studio in this way is like a kitchen laboratory where we can be playful with ingredients and cook up what we like. It is truly exciting to hear it all come together.
How do you go about choosing which singles to release in the lead up?
Singles for us are usually selected by imagining which songs might have a greater appeal to listeners while also being a strong representation of our band’s musical approach and sound. We’ve always had an easy time reaching consensus on this; one of the several ways we function well as a collective. Our long-time manager is also a trusted opinion on matters like this.
How important is the order of tracks on an album like this, and is it a fairly painstaking process to get it just right?
It is a bit painstaking. We want the songs to flow well sonically from track to track, but it’s also important that there’s a kind of story being told without great leaps in theme. As with ordering a performance set list we also want to switch around the lead vocalists in a somewhat even spread. I believe we reordered the songs only a few times before we agreed on this final album order.
What has been the most rewarding part of making Waiting Days?
As individual songwriters, I’m always eager to hear the songs that my bandmates are working on. I like to respond to them by choosing what material I bring forward to either relate or contrast their ideas. It’s always exciting to collaborate on arranging, working lyrics and writing vocal melodies in the studio together.
Personally, it was rewarding to be able to track pedal steel and lap steel guitar on a few of the songs. I hope to do a lot more of this as I’ve become obsessed and fascinated by the steel guitar for its tonal capabilities, versatility of application in many musical styles, and its unique history of cross-cultural blending that led to its innovation and popularity.
What does a dream collaboration look like for Pert Near Sandstone, whether it be in studio or on stage?
I think we’d each have a different answer to this. As a songwriter that often allows more capable vocalists to sing my songs, my dream collaboration might be to have a guest vocalist. I am enchanted by many female vocalists and would love to write a song that could be sung by the likes of Sierra Ferrell or Melissa Carper. I also dream of linking up with a living legend to back up, record an album and go out on the road with. For me this might be Mike Compton, the mandolin master who played with John Hartford for years. Or Gillian Welch, who we hold as much reverence for as oxygen and sunlight.
What are your goals/aspirations as a group for the rest of 2023 and into 2024?
As always, we hope to get into many festivals around the country as possible. If things can line up correctly, we hope to get back to Europe this next year.
In 2020 we had the most extensive EU tour yet planned. Since the Covid shut down we’ve had a challenging time getting Europe back on our calendar. It’s really the best touring we’ve experienced as a band; the venues and promoters are really hospitable and put the musicians first, rather than simply using us as a vehicle to sell concessions. It’s culturally a much different scene and just interesting to travel through the old country, our ancestral homelands of the Netherlands, Germany, and hopefully one day we can play through Ireland.
We also have three band members who have lived and traveled extensively in Japan. I don’t know why we’re not playing in Japan.
Featured photo by Tony Nelson Photography