Interview mit Courtney Swain

BENT KNEE ist ein Art Rock-Kollektiv aus Boston, das seit sechs Jahren besteht und mittlerweile zwei Studio- und ein Live-Album vorweisen kann. 

Zumal das aktuelle BENT KNEE Album ´Shiny Eyed Babies´ so überzeugend ist, das es jeden Liebhaber intensiver und emotionaler Musik nur vollkommen entzückt zurücklässt, war es uns ein großes Bedürfnis, ein Interview mit der Band zu führen. Glücklicherweise hat sich Sängerin Courtney Swain Zeit nehmen können. Hier unser Interview im englischen Original.

Hi Courtney, very nice that you could take time for us, so that we can talk about the new album. The reviews all over the world are great. Did you expect such an euphoria?

Hey! Thanks for your interest in BENT KNEE. I’m happy to have the opportunity to talk about the band, our music, and our new album with you.

We put a lot of time and thought into creating ´Shiny Eyed Babies´, so the amazing response we’ve received has been really gratifying. Even though we’ve never been to Germany, the album has grown its own legs there. Many people have heard about us and our music through word of mouth, and it’s extremely inspiring to know that good music travels on its own!

What difference do you see between your two albums, how big is – in your eyes – the leap?

The biggest difference between our first and second albums is the writing process. Our first album was mostly written as a file-trading project between our guitarist Ben Levin and me. However, ´Shiny Eyed Babies´ was written as a group, and the songs really shine when we play them live. We dedicated a lot of time to carving out sonic space for each instrument and each part. That leap in the writing process was a big one, and it took some time for us to learn to write as a group.


How do you judge the new album after a few months have passed since the release?

I love listening to ´Shiny Eyed Babies´, and I’m so proud of the work and growth that came from it. I have a very strong visual memory, so listening to the album is like flipping through a photo album of the last three years. Even though we play many of the songs live each week, listening to the album is a different experience. The subtle but profound details of Vince’s mixing, and the plethora of instruments like the pipe organ and string quartet really enhance the music.

There surely are tons of various descriptions concerning your musical style. What was the most unusual one until today?

Hmm … Good question. I think the most bizarre comparison was either when we were compared to the DAVE MATTHEWS BAND, or when we were compared to Taylor Swift. I don’t think it exists on YouTube anymore, but there used to be a fan-made video that set our song ´Dry´ to a re-cut version of Taylor Swift’s music video for ´Empty Space´. Surprisingly, the mash-up worked pretty well.

How would you describe your style to a person that never heard any of your songs?

Our music is dynamic, dramatic, emotional, and multi-faceted. I’m often asked to define BENT KNEE to a genre when I meet people and the topic of the band comes up. It’s a stifling question in a sense, because we strive to bend genres in our writing. Some of my favorite reviews have called ´Shiny Eyed Babies´ as genre-defying, and I find that to be a really high complement. We are a progressive and forward-thinking group of musicians, so I expect that our style and sound will continue to evolve and change as we write more music.


I haven’t heard deeper music than `Sunshine` for years. How did you come up with the brilliant coverversion of ‚You’re My Sunshine’?

´Sunshine´ is the fourth cover that we have done as a band, and our bass player Jessica Kion was the one who pitched the idea of the cover. In the past we have also covered ´Creep´ by RADIOHEAD, ´Since I’ve Been Loving You´ by LED ZEPPELIN, and ´Closer´ by NINE INCH NAILS. The reason we picked these songs is because we felt the original renditions didn’t do justice to the the darkness and devastation expressed in the lyrics. If you could rate songs for how disparate the musical accompaniment is from the lyrical content, I think you would agree that ‘You Are My Sunshine’ would get a really high score. So, bringing that darkness to the forefront of the song was a big goal of the arrangement process. Our arrangement keeps most of the song harmonically minimalist, and we drone on the note D for a very long time. The dynamic contour consists of small builds that increase tension throughout the piece. At the very end, we explode in a cathartic loud section with even more dissonant builds, and we finish the song with discord and tension by truncating the refrain at the end.

How do you compose such intense music – can you tell us the secret?

Our music is dark, cathartic, and yes; intense. But, if you meet us in person we’re pretty upbeat and cheerful people. The truth is, we are all introverts masquerading as extroverts and writing and performing our music is an important emotional outlet for each of us. Being a very close-knit group, we’ve gone through a lot together. The trust we’ve forged with each other allows us to be honest and vulnerable in our writing, and I think that’s an important ingredient of our chemistry that leads to the intense music.


How long do you play piano – since your childhood?

I started playing piano when I was four or five years old, and studied classical piano rigorously through high school. Classical piano requires a lot of focus and diligence to perfect the performances, but I wasn’t a great student because I didn’t have the passion or patience for it. I abandoned the piano for a while after I quit taking lessons, but I rekindled my love for it after studying music history and classical composition in college.

Did you all study music or what’s the musical background of the band members?

We all studied music at Berklee College of Music, but we all had different focuses. Ben studied guitar performance, Chris studied film scoring, Gavin studied a plethora of different styles as a drummer and writer, Jessica studied songwriting, Vince studied music production, and I studied classical composition as well as commercial writing and laptop production.

Your band is based in Boston. Do you all come from this area?

BENT KNEE met and formed at Berklee College of Music in Boston, but none of the members are from Boston. Ben Levin (guitar) is from Missouri, Chris Baum (violin) is from Colorado, Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth (drums) is from California, Jessica Kion (bass) is from Washington State, Vince Welch (sound design & production) is from Maryland, and I am from Japan.

Is Vince Welch a permanent member?

Yes! BENT KNEE is a democratic and collaborative band by nature, so if Vince wasn’t part of the group, we would be completely different (and probably worse off). I like to explain that he is BENT KNEE’s Nigel Godrich (An English engineer, producer and musician – known for his work with RADIOHEAD – A.Note). Since we haven’t toured in Germany, most of our fans there know us only through our recordings. Vince’s work as our mixer and producer defines who we are as a band in recorded format, so you could argue that without his work you may have never heard of us at all! Until recently, Vince’s role in the live band wasn’t very obvious, but as of late he is taking on a more important role as a synth and MIDI guitar player.


In which bands did you sing before BENT KNEE or have you been in other bands only playing an instrument?

Before BENT KNEE, Ben and I used to be in a great band called JOHNNY STRANGER. We both sang background vocals and played guitar and keyboards. It was a really great band, and Ben and I were both devastated when it broke up. In retrospect, it may have been a blessing in disguise, since we would not have started working on BENT KNEE so seriously if JOHNNY STRANGER was still active.

Ben also has his own project called BEN LEVIN GROUP. Our violinist Chris and I are members of the band, and Vince is the producer. If you want to know more about BEN LEBIN GROUP, or Jessica and Gavin’s bands, we just started an artist collective called ´Secret Dog Brigade´ ( that showcases all of our collective projects.

How did you met Ben and get the band together?

I came to Berklee College of Music in 2008, and the first person I met when I was moving into the dorms was the original drummer of BEN LEVIN GROUP. He talked me into coming to see a BEN LEVIN GROUP show, and I was completely mesmerized by the performance. The music was crazy, the musicianship was incredible, and Ben seemed like a really crazy-awesome guy. Ben and I eventually met in-person, and I jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with him when he hosted a session to explore the possibilities of spontaneous choral improvisation. Through the session I learned that Ben and I communicate in a very special and powerful way through music and this lead us to pursue a further collaboration that became BENT KNEE. The first song we wrote together was ´Urban Circus´ and it was influenced by BJÖRKs song ´Pagan Poetry´. I wrote lyrics and vocals to a track that Ben sent me. Ben and I were both very excited by the results, so we started writing more songs as a duo. Vince was Ben’s roommate around this time, and he asked us if we wanted to arrange one of the songs to record for one of his production classes at Berklee. We chose to record ´Styrofoam Heart´, and the live band dynamic and Vince’s mixing resulted in a beautiful track that defined our dynamic and emotional sound. The track was so powerful that we decided we needed to continue working as a live band instead of an electronic duo. This was around April of 2009, and by February of 2011 we had our current line-up of musicians with Jessica on bass, Gavin on drums and Chris on violin. Chris joined early on, after he saw us play one of our first shows. Gavin was the third drummer, and he joined the band one week before we recorded our first album. He always jokes about how he was still reading sheet music at the recording session. Jessica joined just a few weeks after Gavin joined the band and we’ve been a tight-knit group since.

Have you been able to gain experience in other genres?

For me personally, I gained a lot of experience through the classical music background. I also played violin and clarinet at points in my life, and learned a lot from that too. As a band, all six of us are weary of genres, so we never say no to something because of the style of the music. Last summer we were invited to headline ´Campbell Bay Music Festival´ on Mayne Island in Canada. Most of the acts in the festival were acoustic, folk or bluegrass acts, and we were by-far the heaviest act. Still, it was one of the most amazing experiences we’ve had as a band and the energy from the crowd was unbelievable.

Where do you get the inspirations for it?

Most of our songs come from personal experiences or emotions that are dramatized into a story. There are also some songs that came from free-writes, which is something where we all write about a set topic for five minutes in a stream-of-thought style inhibited writing, and share the results.

Are you responsible for the lyrics?

We write as a group not only musically, but lyrically too. Ben, Jessica and I all contribute to the lyric writing and everyone edits to improve the message and the story of the song.

Do you have a main composer or is it also all communal work?

It’s all communal work. Ben often brings in songs in demo-form, and we arrange parts and work on arrangements. Jessica and I write together, as well as contribute songs individually. These are all seeds of songs though, and the actual writing happens with the six of us.


Did you ever have musical role models that you wanted to emulate?

My musical role model is a Japanese artist called Shena Ringo. Her third solo album ´Kalk Zamen Kuri-no-Hana´ is one of my favorite pieces of music ever. I love the diverse samples and sounds that she weaves into the music and the dark topics and lyrics she writes really hit home for me. Her lyrics involve archaic forms and uses of Japanese, and there’s a lot of wordplay with dual-meanings and the phonetic sounds of different words. Her band TOKYO INCIDENTS was also fantastic, and they had an amazing blend of rock grooves and intensity with jazz chords and sultry feel. In one of my favorite live clips, she performs the last chorus of a song called ´Funeral Procession´ with a children’s choir wearing bunny ears. The children singing about death is really eerie, and it makes for a ballsy and amazing performance. Unfortunately, I don’t enjoy her current material as much, but I still see her as the queen of my musical world.

Are there any idols besides music?

One of my biggest idols is Ichiro Suzuki, a US Major League baseball player from Japan. He played Seattle Mariners for a long time, but now he plays for the Marlins. Ichiro is a national hero in Japan, because of his success and his humility. He is somewhat legendary for an essay he wrote when he was in 5th grade that depicted extremely detailed goals and a vision of his career as a star baseball player. He had specific numbers for stats like his batting average, and a list of teams he would consider getting signed to. He is so serious about his work that he sometimes chastised reporters who asked him novice or unresearched questions. He never revels in his fame or his status, and he just puts his head down to work hard and play more baseball. From him I learned that dreams don’t have to be something you wish for, but instead a logical destination that comes as a result of calculated steps and goals.

… and any other interests besides music?

I like doing yoga, and I enjoy working on small projects around the house. Lately I’ve been planting and growing herbs and vegetables, and I love tending to them and watching them grow.


Can you make a living of music?

Yes. It takes a lot of discipline and patience, but many people make it work.

Do you want to stay independent or are you about to sign a contract with a record company?

We are currently reaching out to booking companies and management companies to expand our team. We’ve learned that connections do make a difference, and it’s really helpful to get help from people who are professional bookers and managers. We’ve been booking and managing ourselves for a long time, but ideally we want to focus more on the creative side. At the end of the day, we can write emails and book shows, but we are best at playing music.

The development in the music business is not very bright for new bands. What is your prediction for the next – let’s say – ten years?

I have no idea! Things have changed a lot, and continue to change. I like to think that the chaos gives us more opportunity to create a band and a community that we want.

Your live shows seem to be quite intense. Can you describe the „Knee-Experience“?

I think you won’t know until you see/hear it 🙂 It gets quite sweaty and warm!

Did you play many concerts with the new album? Are you on tour already?

We played close to 100 shows last years, and we will be on tour for 12 weeks this summer all throughout the US. We haven’t figured out a financial solution to bringing BENT KNEE to Europe yet, but we’re sure we can make it happen soon. I can’t wait to play in Germany!

Yeahh, when can we expect some concert dates here in Europe?

We’ll let you know as soon as we figure something out. With six band members, flying the band out alone costs several thousand dollars, so we’re trying to find a way to do it without ruining our credit… ha!

Thank you so much, Courtney!

Many thanks and much love from Boston.

Pics: Eric Freeman, Zoe Ruth Erwin, Bent Knee