For the second time in just the last two years, Dori Freeman has released a delightful vocal showcase in sophomore album Letters Never Read.
Freeman’s primary asset is her sweet, powerful voice. It’s one that cracks under perfect control in a way that’s reminiscent of a soft yodel. On Letters Never Read, Freeman’s vocals are timeless, a precious resource she wisely bolsters with a songwriting style woven deeply enough into the history of Appalachian music to be worthy of her efforts.
Letters Never Read sounds quite a bit different than Freeman’s debut. Whereas Freeman previously kept to simpler arrangements, lead track “Make You My Own” is an explosion of classic country warmth. By contrast, “Cold Waves” sounds almost crystalline in its use of a piano and backing vocals. Freeman still leans into minimal arrangements at other times; “Over There” uses only a banjo as backing, “Yonder Comes a Sucker” features just the drum, and “Ern and Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog is completely a cappella.
The ideas here have evolved too. Instead of dwelling on her pain, Freeman focuses here on feeling above the ridiculousness of the dating game. “Lovers On The Run” suggests that the chronically unsatisfied will end up alone while “That’s All Right” finds Freeman confident she’ll be better off without a former flame. “Just Say It Now” captures Freeman’s struggles with meaningless dates with men who don’t know what they want. These are all positions that are relatively easy for Freeman to take now that she’s married, but they’re empowering nonetheless.
At Rockwood Music Hall, Freeman had the crowd unusually attentive during her album release show Thursday night in New York. The audience, which featured an impressive number of local artists, producers, and promoters, was quiet enough during Freeman’s a cappella number that I could hear a text alert from a cell phone across the room. Two of the most successful performances were comprised of Freeman’s vocals, husband Nicholas Falk’s drumming, and absolutely nothing else.
Album producer Teddy Thompson later joined the pair on guitar. During the song “Turtle Dove,” Thompson somehow sang backup vocals while playing a toy xylophone with one hand and resonating notes on his guitar with the other. It was pretty fun to watch. The only blips came courtesy of poor sound mixing: the first couple of tracks featuring Thompson and a bass player held Freeman’s vocals at too low a level to compete with the new instruments. Fortunately, things were in perfect balance by the time Freeman debuted the searing new “That’s All Right” and delighted fans with first album favorite “You Say.”
On this new album you work with the same producer as on the last one, but you came out with something sounding a lot less minimalist and a lot more varied.
Thanks. Yeah, I think that naturally happens when you’ve worked with someone before. You can build on it. I think working with Teddy again was a great way to evolve the music as much as we could.
When you say Teddy, you’re referring to Teddy Thompson and you’ve got a Richard Thompson song on the CD.
I just thought it was cool to have a song written by Teddy’s family on the CD because we both grew up in musical families. It’s one of the things that we bonded over and have in common, so I thought it would be a nice, full circle thing to do. I also have a song that my grandfather wrote, so we have something from both of our families.
Which one is from your grandfather?
He wrote one called Ern and Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog.
That sounds like a song out of another era.
It’s totally true story he wrote about growing up in Kentucky. So it sounds like it’s from another era because it is.
And you took that one on a cappella and you almost did the same with “Yonder Comes A Sucker” with just a drum line going.
Yeah, well I don’t really consider myself much of a guitar player. I mean I do play guitar live and I played some on the record a bit, but my main instrument is my voice. So, I like to do a couple songs that really feature the voice.
Your track “Cold Wave” is a pretty brave song about a pretty tough topic.
I struggled with anxiety and depression all my life off and on. So I think it’s important to talk about it and try to sing about it so other people can relate to it. I like when I hear songs that are about that, it helps me through. I think it was important for me to write a song about what it feels like personally
Just in terms of helping people to understand the problem, because it certainly has affected me throughout my life, you put out two things that sort of resonated with me as something most people don’t understand. First off, you mentioned having someone who loves you and knows how to take care of you and that still not necessarily fixing the problem.
I don’t think he can really — or anyone else can really — fix it. It’s definitely something that you have to look within and do as much soul searching as you can to figure out the root of it and what kind of things help you to deal with it and manage it and get through it. But I do think it is really important and helpful if you do have someone in your life that you love and you know loves you and who you can depend on and who can be there in a way that you need them to be when you’re struggling with it. I think that is a very helpful thing.
Especially when that someone doesn’t feel as though it’s something personal if they can’t make it better.
Yeah I mean that’s I’ve found that to be one of the hardest things to explain throughout my life is that it’s not it’s not necessarily about what the people around me are saying or doing. It’s just something that you struggle with internally and it’s hard to explain to people who don’t know what that feels like. It’s not them, it’s just something that goes on inside.
And then you express an anxiety about having maybe possibly pass that on to your daughter.
I know several people in my family who struggled with it and I think it’s obviously hereditary. I mean there’s a lot of research just that says that, so I’m very much hoping she does not have that problem. But then again if she does, I can completely relate and understand what it’s like to go through that. If she does happen to struggle with that, I’ll hopefully help her through it as much as possible.
Next track I wanted to talk about it is “Just Say It Now,” where you react to a failed romance by wondering what men are ever looking for.
This wasn’t after anything major, just some failed dating. I was dating people and it was not working out, and it was not working out because the other person wasn’t as interested as I was. So I was writing it in frustration and feeling sort of like all the men that I had dated couldn’t really figure out what it was that they were in it for.
I like the word frustration because on your first album, your love songs, or at least the ones that had a negative tone to them, seem to come from a place of devastation. But on this album I’m hearing frustration and I’m also hearing confidence from you that you’re not shouldering the blame for what’s happening.
I’ve grown a lot since I recorded that first record, personally and emotionally. That first record — I hope it seems that way to other people — but for me it was such an honest portrait of how I felt at the time. I really wrote about every single thing I was feeling. I was going through a big, significant breakup with someone. I really dove into it writing about it and singing about it. And this second record, I was in a better place. I was with someone, I guess by the time I recorded it I was married, so that you know that’s a huge change from the place that I was in when I made the first record.
One last track I wanted to talk to you about is “That’s All Right.” It’s not a particularly intense track in terms of the hard vocal or production, but there is some real serious anger that just comes right through your soft vocals.
That was probably the current thinking. That might be the oldest song on the record, which makes sense because it’s f the last thing that I wrote around the time that I was dealing with a lot of the stuff that I wrote about on the first record and that was just my my final closing of the book. This is how I feel and I’m going to make it clear. It came from anger, but also just accepting that things were the way they were and trying to move on from that and be OK with it.
So you got married before this album. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Sure. Well, I met my husband in October, a year three months ago. We met at a gig and he plays in this band in Lexington, Virginia. And he’s a drummer and he was playing drums with a band called Walker’s Run and I was the opener that night. We just really hit it off. He came to visit me in Virginia and we kept up that momentum of seeing each other here and there for a few months. We just decided that we really wanted to make it work and not have to be a long distance thing. And so four months after knowing each other we got married.
Wow! I don’t know what to say. I guess the only way to explain it is I’m so cautious with that type of thing where I don’t think I could date someone after knowing them for four months.
Well, I wasn’t in a place where I was trying to date a lot of people or spend my time on people that didn’t really want to invest in me. I really wanted to find someone that cared about me and my daughter and wanted to be a family. When I found that and I knew, there wasn’t really any point in wasting time. My parents got married after four months of knowing each other and they’ve been together for 27 years. That’s a good omen, I think.