A performance that many Midwest music fans are still aglow over, last summer’s starlit, guest-filled set by the National at Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival took place on an elaborate, atrium-like in-the-round stage built just for the event — a real one-night-only kind of affair.
It turned out, though, one special aspect of the show was actually a foreshadow of what was to come from the now internationally seeded rock band.
“After eight albums and 20 years, I think we were all sort of ready for a shift,” guitarist Bryce Dessner said. “Including Matt.”
Just as he did at that western Wisconsin gig, singer Matt Berninger often steps back from the mic to make room for a steady string of female guest vocalists on the band’s new record, “I Am Easy to Find,” which they’re promoting June 29 in Minneapolis with a headlining set at Rock the Garden outside Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. (Read more about other acts here.)
At Eaux Claires, the Cincinnati-rooted quintet brought up such singers as Phoebe Bridgers, Sharon Van Etten and Chastity Brown. On the new record, featured vocalists include Van Etten, longtime Bowie sidewoman Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan and Dessner’s wife, Pauline de Lassus, who is due to sing with them live at RTG (along with Zoë Randell of the Australian band Luluc).
In each case, the alternate singers brought a soft, melodic counterbalance to Berninger’s deep-bellowing, sometimes monotone voice — a voice that the National’s many die-hard fans love, of course, but that wasn’t entirely cutting it for the broader purpose behind this new album.
Talking by phone from the road last week, the National’s guitarist explained how the album was made as a companion piece to a new short film of the same name by Mike Mills, writer/director of the acclaimed 2016 Annette Bening movie “20th Century Women.” Mills’ movie shows the whole life of a woman played by one actress, Alicia Vikander.
“Because of the story, we felt like we needed to hear female voices in the music,” Dessner said. “And once we heard them, it sounded so good and so natural, that led to us having them all over the record. It really wasn’t anything we hyperconceptualized; it just sort of happened.”
A Yale-educated composer who has worked in the classical world with everyone from the Kronos Quartet and Los Angeles Philharmonic to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra — a gig that brought him to the Walker in 2015 — Dessner has scored such movies as “The Revenant” and an upcoming feature by “City of God” director Fernando Meirelles, “The Pope.” Much of that work was completed with help from his twin brother and bandmate, Aaron Dessner, who is the National’s primary composer.
“I Am Easy to Find” brought together the different worlds the Dessner brothers already toed. Here’s more of what Bryce had to say about the album and his ever evolving band, whose members now live as far apart as Los Angeles (Berninger) and Paris (where Bryce moved with his French wife five years ago).
On how this was supposed to be an off year for the National: “We usually take a few years between albums — and we probably needed a few years off — but the creative momentum sparked from working with Mike Mills really pushed us along. We were all excited at the thought of working outside the typical band narrative, and to be a part of something a little bit bigger. And we all thought the songs and the project really came together in a beautiful way, so that’s why we’re on the road now. We were excited to tour it.”
How the collaboration with Mills’ film played out: “We allowed Mike to really get inside the band and our process, which we’d done before with people like Justin Vernon or Sufjan Stevens, but him not being a musician made it really interesting. He’s vastly creative and has a lot of positive energy. He came from a different point of view and challenged our ways of working. And in terms of sound, I think he led to some pretty radical departures.”
How the National’s full-time singer felt about being downsized to part-time: “He was very gracious about it. In our past, we’ve been reluctant to have a lot of guest vocalists, and rightfully so. I mean, Matt is the sound of the National. But these songs felt right for having other voices in them. It wasn’t necessarily gender casting, but it was part of the overall thinking of the project and the film. All of us in the band really wondered, ‘Is this good? Does this still sound like the National?’ It’s a testimony to the strength of the singers we brought in that it worked so well.”
On the heavy input from his wife and Berninger’s, co-lyricist Carin Besser, in the new album: “They’ve each been involved for a long time now. They’re just a lot more out front this time. Pauline and Kate Stables — who also sings on the record and lives in Paris — were the first two to initiate the sessions experimenting with female voices. Pauline spent a lot of time working with several of the songs. Carin has been closely involved in Matt’s creative process since they first got together. She was a fiction editor at the New Yorker and is a brilliant writer and poet, so she’s sort of the other half of his process and is pretty much always in the room when he’s working.”
On the National’s members all living in different cities: “Even when we were all living in the same house together [in Brooklyn], we would still e-mail each other music. So it hasn’t changed that much. My brother and I still spend a lot of time together making music, and he built a beautiful recording studio before the last record. That really has been the biggest change for us. For the first time, we sort of have our own home where the music can live.”
On the sidelined Eaux Claires festival, which Aaron Dessner co-curated with Justin Vernon: “It was always done with the goal of creating different experiences from the everyday festival or gig. And we especially like it when we get to collaborate with different people, which was a big component of that festival. Justin and my brother really championed that idea there. They’ve done a lot with that site, so I suspect it will come back and evolve.”
On why the Twin Cities is cooler than Brooklyn now: “We’ve been lucky through Justin Vernon to connect with your music community. It’s just insane the number of really talented musicians there. Recently, I’ve been working a lot with Mike Lewis [saxophonist/bassist with Bon Iver, Happy Apple, Alpha Consumer]. He and [drummer] JT Bates are literally two of the best musicians I’ve ever worked with, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg to the community there. I can’t think of many towns in America that have that much music talent. Brooklyn used to be like that at one time, but most musicians have been priced out of Brooklyn now.”
Rock the Garden
When: 2:30-10 p.m. Saturday, June 29.
Where: Walker Art Center grounds, 725 Vineland Place, Mpls.
Tickets: $74, VIP $300, rockthegardenfestival.com.