INTERVIEW: THE BALLROOM THIEVES
Interview by: Sofia Butler
Sofia Butler: Hello! How are you guys doing? How is your day going so far?
Callie Peters: Oh, that’s really nice of you to ask. We’re great. We’re rehearsing. Yeah, just having a nice Monday. How’s yours?
SB: Oh, thanks for asking! My Monday is going well. I just wanted to give you guys that space and check in because I know however the day is going influences everything else.
CP: It really does.
SB: Okay, cool! Well, I’m glad you guys are doing well and rehearsing. Also, if you hear a screeching sound that is the T passing by my apartment, so just bear with it. So, Callie, I know that you are from Boston. You were born here and you went to Berklee College of Music, is that right?
CP: That’s right. And I miss that screeching T sound so much.
SB: [Laughter] I’m glad you miss it. I get enough of it every day.
CP: One day, maybe you’ll miss it.
SB: [Laughter] I think so. And then Martin. I know that you were born in Switzerland, right? And then you came to Maine when you were young?
Martin Earley: Yeah, when I was 13. I went to college outside of Boston and lived in Boston for a while.
SB: Awesome! Okay, so New England, Boston– this is like your guys’ spot. I love that so much. Are you feeling excited to play this show? Because it’s so close to home this upcoming week?
CP: Yeah, especially because we’ve haven’t done a lot of shows as just a duo, so it’s all very new.
SB: Yeah! Very Exciting. So, there is a ton of information, as you guys know, already out there in the world on your background, how the band got together, and all of that stuff. So, I wanted to focus this interview more on your band’s impact and authenticity. Because you guys really bring unique wisdom to the world. If you have objections, let me know!
CP: Oh, that’s so nice! That’s great.
SB: Awesome. I came across a quote on your website where you both said, “We try to let change inspire us, even when it comes with difficulty.” What were some moments of difficult change that inspired the songs on your most recent album, Clouds?
ME: I think the big one there is the pandemic. A lot of musicians are, you know, the albums you are hearing people put out now are often like the pandemic albums, you know, the COVID albums. And so, that’s the biggest one. And that’s what we were thinking of when we were saying that we’d like to let change inspire us. Because the pandemic really changed everything and forced us to be at home, forced us to rethink our business model because a lot of it was based around touring income. And so we had to kind of figure out how we were going to keep things afloat while not being able to tour at all. And we’re just now getting back to some sort of normal, you know– something approaching normal–when it comes to ticket sales and that kind of thing. So I think that’s a big one. And then, just changing things in our band to having some new members. We’ve been having new friends come and join us to play. I mean, we feel like life is a process of change, and you have to be always willing and accepting of the changes that come your way because otherwise you end up as a crotchety old person who resists everything that’s new, and that’s not where we wanted to become.
CP: You might let change inspire you. You might let it stop you. It often feels like those are the two choices. So, it feels like we have no choice but to let it inspire us and make something new out of it. Because we don’t want to stop.
SB: So well said. It does feel like there’s often two choices. You either pivot, or you shut down. I feel that your writing and your music creates these openings for reflection that go beyond the duration of the song or your performances, especially regarding our current context and political climate and all the implications of that. There’s also a lot of stigma that comes with combining politics and music. Do you believe music can be separated from the context it is a part of and made within?
ME: Great question. I think it can. But I think when you look at the history of music– music and politics or music and social justice– really what’s happening in the world has always been intertwined. And one kind of inspires the other and so, yeah, I get upset when people are like, we’ll, “just stick to music.” You know? We’re a folk band, at the heart of it. And folk music is all about commenting on what’s wrong with the world and, you know, kind of speaking truth to power.
CP: Even if we weren’t a folk band though, music is art. And art is life. [Laughter]. It’s not, you know, it’s a little silly, but art is a reflection of life. It can only be what the surroundings are. So when you have an art form that has words as part of it, you’re gonna have words about our experience, and our experience is just the time we live in.
SB: Yes. Your words resonate a lot because I’m studying to become a teacher. And there’s this whole idea that teachers can walk into a classroom and suddenly not be political, whatever that means, as if their whole lives are not informed by politics. So, I love that you guys are challenging that collective stigma. I really appreciate that.
ME: I think there’s also just a big difference between broadcasting your own views or your own experience with stuff and trying to convince other people that your view is the “right” view, or the “only” view. That’s problematic. But, you know, I think especially when you’re talking about art, it’s always been the view of the artist or some comment on something that they’re trying to bring to light to expose.
CP: Just to talk about it. It’s kind of the same with teachers. It’s like asking a teacher to walk into the room and not be a person. You’re not clearly broadcasting your opinion–you’re just sharing that there are multiple perspectives of what’s going on in the world.
ME: And the best teachers I remember from my life are the ones that made you question things the most.
SB: Yes! That is a beautiful answer. One interviewer described your music as”shining a light on an unlovely world.” Was there ever a point where, in your own lives, you both thought you wouldn’t use your voices to inspire meaningful change? Especially being on a journey to widen your fan base to reach more people. Was it always the hope that you would be using your voice in a powerful, resonant way, or did it happen more organically?
CP: I would say it was mostly organic, but you are making me think about a couple of times in my life where I’ve had to think twice about what I’d like to share in the media or in an interview. Because I had to really think about the balance I want between being an advocate, and being about issues and, you know, having the words all the time in an eloquent way– and just living. And being able to live more privately, and therefore make mistakes no one knows about, and have opinions that might change. So, yeah, there’s definitely a balance there that you’re really making me think about. I thought about it before, and you’re totally right.
SB: Yeah, that’s a hard thing to hold and balance! When the whole world is kind of peering on your comments and your life.
CP: It is. You’re right. And the words you say– you’re held to those forever. And you might still have some changing to do or some new ideas to pick up, but not if you say them too publically.
SB: Wow, isn’t that ridiculous, though? It’s like, as if you guys aren’t people that are like changing and evolving too!
SB: This wasn’t a question I had before, but now it’s coming up. You are talking about that balance between privacy and being an advocate. How do you feel like music can provide a good avenue for that kind of reflection, while also maybe maintaining some privacy?
ME: Yeah, I think– that’s a really, really good question. I think the part about music that kind of gives you that freedom, is that it doesn’t always have to be 100% literal. And it allows you to express things that you wouldn’t otherwise express. It’s kind of like poetry in that way where you can use it as a vehicle to say something without overtly saying it. And then, you know, because you say something in a song that doesn’t really hold you to that statement as much as you saying it in a public form.
CP: Yeah, it’s less direct in that way.
SB: Yeah, and then you have the instrumentation piece of it too. Where that’s almost like a hidden commentary you could make, or just let the emotion out. I’m thinking of in “Oak,” that part where it switches in the middle and then there’s just the gorgeous strings, and how much emotion is there in that song. But there’s no words. You’re not making a “political statement” or anything like that. But it’s all the more powerful for that reason.
CP: Yeah, yeah! It’s actually– instrumentation is sometimes something you can kind of hide behind. You can be your private self and still put a lot out there.
SB: Ah! This conversation is awesome. Okay, so with all of that, one of the last areas I wanted to touch on is your craft of live performance. I had the privilege of getting to see you guys in October 2019. It was the first time I’d seen you live, and I was struck by how much you were able to hold space for all these ranges of emotions and experiences. I remember, at one point, Callie was on the ground, on her back– in heels— playing cello. I was like, “Well, she’s a fucking rockstar.” There were these moments of joy and partying, but also some somber moments like, Martin, I remember you addressing the crowd about what the country was facing at that time. There were moments of that slowness and intentionality. How do you decide what energy to bring to your life performances, when it’s both your job and your passion?
ME: Yeah, I think the first thing that we try to bring at the live shows is just it has to be natural. It has to be organic and something that we are experiencing, or that we’re going through. We are not the kind of people who can fake that kind of emotion. You know, like, sometimes if you’re on a long tour, you do the same songs every night and so you can get into a routine but the emotion has to still be real. At least for us.
CP: Yeah, we really work hard on crafting a set way before a tour. We know generally what we’re going to say and when we’re going to say those things. And we obviously try to find an arc to our set. We have a first song, you know, all the songs in the middle and the last song– it’s always the same. And we plan so much, and then we just go out and we’re ourselves. And you can’t plan that. So some things happen every night that we didn’t expect. Some things work, some things fall on their face. But all the things that we say, we have to really be feeling them or they’re not real, they’re not right. So they just don’t come out.
ME: And then I think part of it too is like, when you go to a show you don’t want to be hit over the head with one rager after another. You want some space to breathe and take a second and reflect on the ragers. So, since our music is kind of all over the place when it comes to the genre and style, it provides an opportunity to kind of showcase all the things we do. So that makes it possible for us to do some of the more upbeat and energetic songs and then transition to a portion of the set where things really calmed down. It’s all about manipulating the dynamic of the set so that you have a nice flow to the whole evening.
SB: Wow. As you’re describing that process and the thought that goes into it, I feel like that’s almost a whole other kind of art you guys do!
CP: [Laughter]. It’s something we’ve gotten better at over the years. Yeah, it’s tough to guess how– well actually we used to think of it as guessing how the night would feel and building a set around that week before we’re even in the city– but actually, what’s happening is we’re controlling the vibe of the night. And I think I realized that maybe only recently during the pandemic when we weren’t playing at all, and I had a lot of time to think about missing playing live and how much fun it was.
ME: There is a great interview with Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist, about this kind of thing and about making mistakes and how to handle that stuff. He had a great quote where he talked about how when he does a concert, it’s like he’s hosting a dinner party. Like the audience there– we’re all guests at the dinner party. And if he is bringing out the chicken and drops the chicken on the floor, the dinner party doesn’t end. You pick the chicken up, you wash it, and you keep going. I really agreed with that when I read it because I feel that way about making mistakes. You want to you perform as well as you can, but you also don’t want to build so much pressure and put so much pressure on yourself that if you fuck up then the night is ruined. Often the best shows, and the best moments of shows, are our mistakes that then turn into something new and that’s really fun. I think it’s fun for the audience too because–
CP: They seem to like that part better! Like, you all just love to watch us make mistakes, huh? You love this? [Laughing].
SB: [Laughing]. No, I feel like– you know what it is? It is because, as someone who’s been in the audience and seen artists mess up, I feel like it just humanizes everyone. Because often the audience kind of rises to meet that– maybe I’m just going to good shows.
SB: But I feel like the audience usually extends some grace for that too. And then everyone feels a bit more connected because, yeah, it is just a very real moment when there’s a mistake or you can feel that something wasn’t planned.
CP: Yeah, it kind of breaks the ice. I think crowds really do rise to that. And they generally are giving the performers the benefit of the doubt. And they want you to do well. And when you don’t, they say, “That’s okay. Let’s keep going.”
ME: It’s also how you handle it, you know, like if you mess up, they’re very attentive to like, oh, how are you going to deal with this? Then, as long as you do something positive with it, then they will applaud that even more and then that makes the night more memorable.
CP: More personal.
ME: Yeah, it’s a more special thing because it doesn’t happen every single night.
CP: Well that’s a metaphor for life. [Laughing].
SB: [Laughing] Please speak more on that if you want to.
CP: Oh just, you know, it’s just like with the rest of life. It’s more about how you handle adversity. If it kicks you down and you’re down, I don’t know I guess life got you. But if you handle it, that says a lot about you.
SB: Yeah. It’s so funny. My friend always says this phrase when things go awry. She’ll just repeat to herself: “This or better, this or better. And so it is.” And it’s like this invitation that “Wow, this totally went the wrong way. It feels like it shouldn’t have happened,” but maybe this could be unfolding opportunities I don’t even realize, or a deeper moment we couldn’t have constructed, like you guys were talking about.
CP: I love that. I might take that.
SB: You should take it! I use it all the time. I used it before this interview. However anything in life goes, there’s always a part we can never control. But we can control our reaction to it.
CP: Yes exactly right.
SB: Wow. It sounds like you guys, almost each night you perform, create this container, you know, and that’s the hard work. And then the even harder work is to surrender and be like, okay, whatever happens in this container is gonna be what it is.
CP: That is exactly how it feels. Yeah, you put it in great words.
SB: Well, I am so excited now to see you guys live this weekend with all of this in mind. I have one more question. This one is a super challenging question, but very fun. It’s inspired by one of my favorite podcast hosts, Lewis Howes, who ends every episode with this question. And like, what you were talking about before, Callie, those rules don’t apply here. This is something that, over time, you can always change your answer to. I’m not going to make you live by it for the rest of your life. But let’s just imagine that you have to pack up and leave Earth tomorrow. I don’t know why–that would be awful– but let’s just say. And you have to take all of your music, all of your interviews, everything that your voice has ever been a part of with you. And you can only leave three pieces of wisdom or advice for the people that are staying here on earth. What would you say?
CP: [Pause]. Wow.
SB: To make it easy. [Laughter].
ME: I think one of them has to be something about kindness. Be kind.
CP: Be compassionate.
ME: Some sort of thing like that would have to be one of them.
CP: And I think one could be something like, I mean, I think I could put this into better words if I had more time, but something like: if something is good, it’ll keep coming around. It’ll keep coming to you. If it’s not good, if it’s not worth having, you shouldn’t have to hold on tightly to it. It will keep coming to you.
ME: [Pause]. Do we get to take our dog?
SB: [Laughing]. Yes definitely. Good choice. You can take your dog.
ME: Mm. I don’t know how he would do on a different planet.
CP: In space, yeah…
ME: Okay, so….be kind.
CP: [Laughter]. Because if it’s good it comes around.
SB: And we’re taking the dog. [Laughter].
I love it. Um, wow. Thank you guys so much for your time. I’m so grateful. Thank you also, for your dedication, the work you put into the music you make, and how you show up in the world. I think I can speak for a lot of people when I say it’s having a very positive impact. So keep it up.
ME: Thank you so much.
SB: Thank you! Well, I hope that you guys have a really good rest of your Monday and a safe journey this weekend. I look forward to seeing your show.