Interview: Caroline Davis & Ben Jamal Hoffmann (My Tree)

1. What inspired you to create your project, My Tree?

Caroline: I started this project back in 2009 in Chicago all by myself. I was going through tumultuous times and I was thinking about writing lyrics because I was having a lot of personal troubles, I was going through a divorce. And I have this amazing friend, named Rob Clearfield. He's an amazing piano player and he lives in France nowadays. So I asked him if he was down for playing keys for this project that I had in mind where I'd be singing. He was very encouraging. I was reading this Buddhist book called When Things Fall Apart because I was going through a divorce, so that's partially the reason why I called the project My Tree.

2. Let's talk about your new album, Where The Grace Is. It references social issues, yet it manages to preserve optimistic notes in its sound. What's the secret?

Caroline: I feel like a lot of it has to do with the instrumentation choices that are set against this outlook, so the listeners can decide for themselves what they're hearing. And in terms of the lyrics, it looks like in certain cases we were describing the whole situation of injustice and not necessarily giving hope, but the sound itself was still hopeful, if that makes sense. The lyrics are a little dark, but the music compensates for that. 

Ben: The music isn't necessarily reflective of the lyrics. There is this dichotomy. They fight against each other in a way. When we write songs, we try not to filter ourselves too much. Sometimes the lyrics come separately from music. 

3. Do you feel the need to sign a contract with a label? Would you consider that helpful for an artist or not?

Ben: Well, we didn't really contact a label for this one, we did it independently. There were a handful of labels that we wrote to... but I think labels are more for the community these days more than anything. Usually, you're not really better off with the sorts of deals that you would get, financially speaking. It's more about being a part of this community, or maybe reaching new listeners. Certain people follow certain labels and certain artists so they look up to the labels to find other artists, so that's the main benefit that a label provides. We weren't necessarily finding that in the options that we were exploring, so we decided to release it independently. 

Caroline: I feel like most of the labels don't offer PR. Only sometimes. Most labels offer their whole catalogue for a price. You pay a subscription and get access to everything they have. The benefits are mostly having a platform to release your music on.

4. At your concert devoted to the release of Where The Grace Is you said that people should buy flowers more often. Could you explain why this is such an important thing for people nowadays?

Caroline: First of all, because it relates to the first song on our album. This whole quote of "I saw you standing there amongst the flowers", and to me setting the tone for the concert is very important. It's an orienting action. Also, I love flowers, I like buying flowers. The act of going and doing something for yourself is important these days because it's hard to get that from the world, there is a lot going on, there is so much grief... The coronavirus, all these things. So, sometimes we have to look internally to give some compassion to ourselves. 

5. How would you describe your own sound?

Ben: We've been calling our music experimental R&B just in order not to create our own genre or anything like that. But we've gotten some different write-ups over the years and sometimes we've quoted those as well. For example, someone called us interstellar funk one time. It's always interesting for us to hear those things because we don't know how to categorize ourselves. 

Caroline: The instruments come out of traditional R&B and soul music for us. And because all of us improvise in the band, we take different directions at times and improvise together. 

6. What is so unique about the 70s?

Ben: The 70s were kind of a weird time for music. There was a lot of change going on. Music was very different in the beginning of the 70s in comparison to the end of the 70s. I've always gravitated towards the early 70s music, and even the late 60s, the "Vietnam era". It was partly due to my parents but then I got into it more personally. Some of the later 70s I rejected for a long time because I almost felt like the sound got a little smooth, and I always liked the rawness and the roughness of the early 70s stuff. But now I've grown to appreciate a lot of that music too.

7. What plans do you have for the near future?

Ben: We're booking some more local shows, and we're going to play some out-of-town shows too. We haven't announced those yet. 

Caroline: It's a very tenuous time for everyone right now, so some of the venues are being very cautious and waiting to see what's going to happen with these variants. Maybe their capacity will be changed from indoor gatherings. It's such a strange time, so we stay cautiously optimistic. We have plans to eventually bring our music to Europe as well. Hopefully this year or sometime next year. We're always excited to write some new songs.

Official website of My Tree

My Tree on Bandcamp

My Tree on YouTube

My Tree on Facebook

Questions: Ilya Kudrin