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“We never got to experiment with psychedelics before you knocked me up,” Molly Venter sings on “Settle Down,” the opening song to Goodnight Moonshine’s new album, I’m the Only One Who Will Tell You You’re Bad. “We never had that three-way in the heart of Paris, and now we’re all grown up.” The band behind her settles into an easy strut, groovy without getting in the way. It lets Venter play with the phrasing all the way through the verse, until she reaches the end: “Baby I love our life but I don’t want to settle down.”
The New Haven-based Goodnight Moonshine is composed of Venter and husband Eben Pariser. At first listen, it’s tempting to hear “Settle Down” — and, to some extent, all the album — as autobiographical. The truth is that it is. Sort of. But not really. But maybe kind of.
“I’ve always written with the same process since forever,” Venter said on WNHH FM’s “Northern Remedy” program, “just strumming around and making nonsensical words. And then, all of a sudden, a few words will come out, and then a few more, and then I’ll say ‘oh, that’s what the song is about.”
“‘Settle Down,’” said Venter, “is totally autobiographical. There are maybe one or two that will sound autobiographical but are maybe imagined versions of what we’ve gone through as a couple. But this one is straight up, ‘these are our thoughts, these are our feelings.’”
However, said Pariser, “one of my best friends always pressures me to admit Molly is actually writing through my eyes in that song.”
“No way,” Venter said. “It’s all me, of course.”
“I’m not surprised for you to say that it’s all you,” Pariser said. They both laughed. “I do think it’s interesting terrain with songwriting in general, where, like acting, you draw on personal experience, but being that I kind of live it — it’s my job — I never find myself asking or curious or wondering, ‘is this your personal experience?’ Of course it is, and of course it isn’t.”
“What kind of a biography is three and a half minutes long?” he added. The song “chronicles a moment, or a thought, or one tiny piece of something.”
Try to Hug Me
Venter and Pariser met seven years ago at the Folk Alliance International conference in Memphis.
“It’s thousands of musicians and hundreds of booking people all shoved in a hotel, and you play in little hotel rooms and try to hawk your wares for people, but the best thing that comes out of it is that you meet other wonderful musicians.” Venter was there with her trio, Red Molly. Pariser was there with his band, Roosevelt Dime.
“I was so fresh and starry-eyed,” Pariser said. “I was handing out chocolates in the lobby to anybody who would listen.”
“We just took a band liking to each other,” Venter said.
Through messing around in the van on the way to Memphis from Brooklyn, the band members in Roosevelt Dime had invented a game called Try to Hug Me. “It’s hard to explain exactly on the radio, but you challenge someone to try to hug and then you evade them using various physical barrier methods, or psychological methods, or distraction methods. The idea is to keep them from hugging you.” The musicians in Roosevelt Dime played this with people at the conference. Pariser challenged Venter.
“Molly’s a varsity athlete,” Pariser explained. “so she was playing to win.” Pariser had figured out that if he buried his chin in his chest, so that his head was “sticking out at 90 degrees from the rest of the body,” he was unhuggable. “But she just went in for the kill.”
“I wasn’t looking,” Venter said.
“And I just straight-up head-butted her in the nose,” Pariser said. “I thought everything was over now. I thought we were going to be leaving, that we wouldn’t be allowed here anymore.” But she just looked back at him and said, “it’s okay.”
“If You Have An Idea, Use It”
They kept in touch. Venter was living in Austin, Tex., but Red Molly was based in Jersey City and Venter’s family was living in New Haven, so Venter visited all the time. Roosevelt Dime was based in Brooklyn. A few months after meeting in Memphis, “Eben made a pitch and we went on a date,” Venter said. “And then it was no turning back.”
They didn’t play music together right away. Both had their own musical projects. “It was discussed: We will never, ever have a career together. We will absolutely not do that,” Pariser said. “I said, ‘well, we could do something,’ and Molly said, ‘No. I never, ever want to do that…. can you imagine if we were just living together and working together and had all our finances tied together? It would be horrible!’”
Fast forward, through a marriage, the birth of a son — and a move to New Haven, where Venter grew up. “My dad got sick and he passed away,” Venter said; her father was Josiah Venter, who died in 2011. Venter and Pariser were living in Brooklyn. Pariser was working part-time at a neuroscience lab in Rockefeller University but wanted to try being a musician full-time. Her mom made them an offer. She “was living in this big house,” she said. “Why don’t you just not pay all that Brooklyn rent and come live with me?”
They agreed, and have decided to stay in the area, recently buying a house of their own in Hamden, just over the line from New Haven. “All the things that people are attracted to with big cities … diversity, culture, art museums, restaurants — New Haven has all that stuff.”
For Venter, “I liked growing up here, but I didn’t feel like I knew New Haven. I was just a kid going to school,” she said. There has been pleasure in rediscovering New Haven as a culturally and politically aware adult, “Love146 does an incredible job,” she said, “Amistad Academy is righteous.”
“And your dad loved this city,” Pariser said. “My dad did love New Haven,” Venter said.
Venter and Pariser began work on I’m the Only One shortly after their son Otis was born, two years ago. “Over the last year, it’s been nonstop,” Venter said. “It became a really cool creative outlet for Eben in particular. He’s been writing string parts, and playing crazy stuff, and exploring new sounds.” They recorded backup tracks in a studio in New York, and vocals and guitar parts at home. Venter discovered how much she enjoyed recording at home; it let her give more natural performances, take more chances.
The process reached its most complicated with Venter’s “Scientist,” which Venter described as a “sad song, about struggling with your demons.” It began life as a “folk duo version,” Pariser said. “So then we started to demo it up.” First they recorded two guitars, one in the basement. Pariser added effects. They added piano. In a studio in New York, they then added bass and drums. They redid the lead vocal and guitar. An organ was added. Then a string quartet and a trumpet, which then got manipulated with tape effects.
“It mirrored the process that was going on in our lives, which was doing the best with the time we have, and relinquishing a lot of control over things. The time came where after months of scheduling, it was time to go to New York and record the string quartet, so the night before, I was finishing the parts,” Pariser said. He wrote parts for “Scientist” and four other songs.
“There are some rules of thumb that you come to. Put 90 percent of your focus on the vocal performances. Don’t use a band take unless it’s a good band take. And then don’t eff around with your band take … understand that as a thing, it has a spirit,” he said. And then, “if you have a melody in your head, use it. Find a way to put it on the record. If you have an idea for something, do it. And then when you run out of ideas, be done with your ideas.”
But I’m the Only One also drew on the many musical connections that Venter and Pariser had made over the years, whether it was using Roosevelt Dime as a backup band on some tracks or using the same producers and engineers. “Something to aspire to,” Pariser said, “is to really treasure and support and be grateful for the people who are working with you…. I’m working with the same people I worked with when I got to New York in 2006, and I’m working with 10 times more other people, too. That knowledge that you’re lucky if you have one person who’s taken an interest in what you do — that can take you far.”
So Venter and Pariser figured it was time to throw a party. “The street date isn’t for a few months, but we’ve got some copies in hand to sell, we’re starting to celebrate the finishing of this record,” Venter said. “I think we’re allowed to give a little hometown celebration before things really kick off,” Pariser said.
Sonia Salazar of Barracuda is an official sponsor of the gig, held at the Ballroom at the Outer Space on Friday, Jan. 19. The show starts at 7 p.m. with the Let Loose. Goodnight Moonshine will take the stage, eventually joined by Roosevelt Dime, which will then proceed into a set of its own.
“There’s a lot of stuff about relationships with other people, our families,” Venter said. “Eben’s got one about his brother. I’ve got a song for my dad. I’ve got a song for Otis. I’ve got a song about missing my friends. There’s a protest song. But it starts and ends again with our nuclear relationship.”
“It’s a very adult song,” Pariser said, first with a straight face. Then they both laughed.
Goodnight Moonshine plays with the Let Loose and Roosevelt Dime at the Ballroom at the Outer Space, 295 Treadwell Ave., Hamden. Click here for tickets and more information.