Actress-musician-songwriter Claire Wellin. Photo by Tiffany Topol.
This Friday, Claire Wellin is bringing her band Youth in a Roman Field to Icehouse in Minneapolis. Youth in a Roman Field’s “ghost folk” sound emphasizes haunting strings, acoustic instruments, and multipart vocal writing. The MSU-Mankato graduate spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about the touring life and musical collaborations.
Where are you right now?
Taking the train from South Bend – had a show there last night – and going to Chicago for a show tonight. Then I’m taking the bus up to Minneapolis.
Since you’re in show business, naturally you’re traveling in a deluxe tour bus.
All of my travel with my bands and my own work is not glamorous yet, I can assure you. I’m keeping it real here – this is just a regular bus.
What is the itinerary like for this tour? How did you get to South Bend?
I flew to Los Angeles, and then to San Francisco, to play with another band called San Fermin. We played some stuff in LA and San Fran, then I flew to South Bend for my own solo tour.
With no apologies to my friends who went to Notre Dame, why on earth South Bend?
My dad grew up here, so my aunt and uncle and cousins are still out here. I have a lot of family in South Bend. It just happens that I planned this tour so that I could see them.
I have a very nice, supportive family even though I’ve had some very dramatic stuff happen within my family, it’s generally (in terms of a support system) very intact, and I’m very grateful.
We last spoke in 2014, when you were on tour with the Broadway musical Once. What are some of the things that you’ve been doing since?
The tour for Once wrapped up in December 2015. I actually had a shoulder injury and had left the tour for a while, but I got to come back and finish the run. It was super special: even more friends had come and joined the cast [while I was away]. It was definitely one big happy family.
I’ve worked on a lot of projects with [my former castmates] since then. [For example,] I arranged strings and recorded them for Stuart Ward’s album Pictures. I’m very happy to say that he’s one of two Once alums who’s in the new Harry Potter thing.
I also worked on Ben Magnuson’s album with our friends Tiffany Topol and Ray Bokhour (who was also in the tour). Tiffany and I have since worked on quite a few projects.
Jessie Fisher is another Once person – I worked on strings with her and a few other Once people on an album for their group Erik and Jessie.
I also played a few gigs with Zander Meisner, for the Zander and Friends project.
Common Jack‘s another group by friends of mine, almost all of who were involved in Once. We used to play and do a lot of benefit shows while on the road. I got to play with them a couple times back in the day and he (John Gardner) is doing very well. He’s playing a lot in the NYC area.
Typsy Spyres are another Once band.
You’re coming to Minneapolis to perform as your band Youth In A Roman Field. What is the story behind the band’s name?
Eight years ago, I did a summer study abroad in Rome. I had never spent an extended period of time in a large city before; my dad (he’s a violinist as well) had always talked about how much he’d connected with Rome specifically and traveling all over. He said that he loved it and was at peace in Rome, so I wanted to travel there as well.
I had the same feelings; I’ve always struggled with depression and anxiety, and this was one of the moments that I felt more at peace – being traveling and out in the world.
While in Rome, I was walking home from school one day and saw this huge field and a girl twirling around. I don’t know where her parents were, but she was just having the time of her life. I was really struck by it – she was embodying this feeling I wanted to get back to – and I just wrote the idea down.
In 2012, Youth in a Roman Field took off, when Tiffany Topol and Scott Stangland (two of the founding band members) and I started playing together, doing music that’s sort of exploring the inner child and how that contrasts with adult life. It’s also about getting to the place where you can be at peace and find some joy, because I really do find a lot of joy in this – even when singing songs about depression and things that aren’t necessarily joyful. It helps me to communicate to other people, even with the darker side of things.
You’re currently based in New York City, correct?
We all live within a 10-minute drive of each other in Queens.
What are you doing driving in Queens?
(laughs) Tiffany’s from the Midwest, so she has a car.
Yeah, but you’re from the Midwest and you know better!
(laughs) I take Lyft.
Living and working in New York City can be hard for musicians who need space to practice, and Queens isn’t exactly known for lots of elbow room. Where do you practice?
I am very lucky in that I live in a big apartment with a number of roommates who are very music-friendly. We actually rehearse in my apartment, which is amazing. We have a piano and can keep instruments there – part of the reason that we can keep going.
I really like my apartment. Having lived in and out of NYC for 4-5 years, it’s nice to say that you like where you live!
The last time we spoke, you were playing guitar, ukulele, and violin while on tour. Which instruments will you be playing on Friday at Icehouse?
I will be playing all 3 – guitar, uke, and violin.
That’s a lot of instruments to pack…
I’m doing this little tour solo [with guest stars along the way]; when touring solo, I get to play more instruments than when I’m with the band (when I stick more with the violin). I always sing.
While playing all of those instruments?
Yes, even when playing the violin.
How does that look? Do you hold the violin with your chin and shoulder rest using a classical violin hold, or use more of a fiddling hold?
The classical violin hold – it’s how I learned. It’s difficult, but it’s a skill that I’ve developed and it’s getting close to second nature.
Back during the Once tour, you were down to one suitcase plus your instruments going in a road case. How’s your packing for this tour?
I’m also toting one suitcase, but it’s carry-on, roll-on size. I also have my violin and a backpack for the computer and stuff, but I borrow the guitars and ukuleles from musicians along the way.
When I find where I’m going, I have to do outreach [to get instruments to borrow].
What’s the quality of instruments? Do you ever end up with a really cheap plastic ukulele?
(laughs) I think mine is probably not as good as everyone else’s.
How do you carry the violin when you’re moving all your stuff on tour? Shoulder strap, violin in hand?
We’re talking shoulder strap. Usually, I have a system where the violin goes on my back, the backpack goes on my front, and I pull the suitcase along. But the wheels on my suitcase are broken, so I kind of drag it around. (I fit all of my merchandise in there.)
You have some Minnesota roots – what are they?
I was born in Wisconsin; moved to North Dakota; went to school in Mankato, MN; and then stuck around for a while. My dad’s still in North Dakota, my mom in the Twin Cities, my youngest brother in St. Paul, and my other brother in Brazil. The St. Paul brother will be sitting in on guitar on Friday – he’s a super-talented jazz guitarist.
Your brother’s not playing with you because he wouldn’t let you borrow his guitar, is he?
He’s going to play it and let me borrow it.
What’s your preparation like before a concert?
Most of my preparation is vocal and maintaining my voice. The voice is a super-fragile thing…when you boil it down, it’s the most important part of the show. My voice is how I can communicate the best, so the preparation is mostly vocal warmups and basically “checking in” with each other instrument – playing a few chords or whatever. Making sure how it sounds and all that.
How important are merchandise sales for you as a touring artist? We just wrapped up the Minnesota Fringe Festival, which can hit touring artists hard because they’re not allowed to sell merchandise after shows…
I’ve done a few solo shows around town, but this is my first real tour as a solo artist. Back home, merch is huge. I’m just doing CDs and download cards this time, but I really want to get T-shirts and such [to sell].
So, since you were visiting family, did you get a lot of requests for free merchandise while you were there?
I’ve given so many CDs away for Christmas that they all have them already.
You mentioned that you sell download cards – what’s the proportion like of CD vs. download sales?
The Internet has changed everything and most stuff happens on the Internet these days. We’re working on this album right now that people can pre-order on their website, and we’re thinking about not doing CDs at all.
A lot of computers don’t even have CD readers anymore.
Yes. It costs so much to make, and most people just download.
There are still lots of changes going on, and we’re kind of having to adapt to that. I think a lot of us in the [music] business just don’t know what will go down and what will happen. It’s kind of fun, because it’s not clear…and hasn’t been for the last 5-plus years.
How do you listen to music yourself?
I listen to vinyl and to music on my phone (Apple Music, etc.). I have conflicts about using subscription streaming services, but use it because that’s how it is.
Does your listening change based on where you are and whether or not you have WiFi for fast Internet access?
I hadn’t thought about it at all before, but it totally does. At home, I like to listen to vinyl, which is usually not new music. With streaming services, I usually listen to new music and ask people for recommendations. I’ll save up a list of five songs or so and listen to them when I have WiFi.
Your website uses the term “ghost folk” to describe your sound. Tell me about that term.
To me, we are a folk band – the songs are written in a folk tradition, that’s where a lot of the inspiration comes. We’re telling stories that way, but we use a lot of other elements.
I’ve written so much about death and loss and memory and feeling haunted – that kind of thing. I try and mimic that in the music, with eerie strings and such. The term almost was a joke – it was a joke for a while – and then we decided, “Why don’t we just start calling it that?”
The term is kind of funny – it makes me giggle a bit when we hear it. I also heard another band use the term and thought, “Oh, man – I hope they didn’t come up with that”…but we’re still going to use it.
Since you’re streaking into different cities for these performances with local collaborators, how do you manage rehearsing? Do you rehearse via Skype, send recordings, etc.?
For my brother, I just sent him a recording. We’ve played “on the fly” a lot, so I’m looking forward to it. He’s also played my music before on recordings, so it’ll be just like that.
My friend Mason, who’s a brilliant musician in the Twin Cities, will sit in as well. We’re kind of an “on-the-fly” kind of crew as well.
So your interest in music is a family thing?
Yes. Both brothers played cello from a young age. We were all very involved in choir and singing; my brother Christopher went off in the tech world, and my brother Patrick – the amazing guitar player who will join me. They both went into languages; I went into music as a career. They’re both fluent and adept in different languages, which they use as part of their work. It’s been cool to see how that’s the same and different in that way, and how a musical background helped them learn languages like Russian, Farsi, and Portuguese in their adult years.
My dad’s a violinist and also plays guitar, and he was a symphony conductor for many years.
Funny story… My dad was actually in a rock band in his youth and played an electric guitar with effects pedals as well. We were talking about how when he was young and electrified the violin and guitar, people would talk about how he was going to hell. I think he sees something of that in me.
Hopefully not the going to hell part.
(laughs) No, I don’t believe in that.
My mom is a piano and music theory teacher in the Twin Cities as well. They’ll be at the show.
Hopefully she won’t be, like, “About that chord progression and those parallel intervals…”
(laughs) I hope not – I’ve gotten pretty lucky so far.
Why Icehouse in Minneapolis?
I love Icehouse. I love the menu and the drinks, and I have a lot of friends who live in Uptown still. The sound is great, the community is great, there’s always been a lot of people there.
I also have some other friends who are touring musicians as well who just toured through Minneapolis, so it’s been on my mind. When Eric Mayson (a Twin Cities-based keyboard player and writer – we used to write songs together, and he was one of the first people to inspire me to write music and do shows) and I reconnected and decided to do the show, he set it up. Then my brother separately called me and asked if I wanted Icehouse…
Youth in a Roman Field performs at Icehouse in Minneapolis, MN on Friday, August 18 at 9 PM. $8 advance/$10 at the door.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.