DC duo Teething Veils (vocalist/guitarist Greg Svitil, cellist Hester Doyle) describe their music as “chamber folk,” but I prefer to think of them as their own genre.
That’s because there’s nothing quite like Teething Veils. Sure, there are recognizable elements — most notably, the world-weariness and wistful melancholy of Leonard Cohen, the emotional grandeur of Nick Cave and the poetic beauty of Bob Dylan — but Teething Veils has a certain indefinable magic all its own — a magic borne out of finding beauty and meaning in life’s tender moments. To refer to Teething Veils as a band that revels in melancholy is to miss the point — their songs are about the transformative power of catharsis and release.
If you haven’t been paying attention to Teething Veils’ majestic output over the last 10 years, now’s the time. The band has just released a breathtaking new album, “Canopy of Crimson,” which, in my humble opinion, represents their finest work to date. Everything about the album reflects a commitment to artistry and an eye for detail that is truly rare. The album doesn’t just take you on an emotional journey – it transports you to its own sonic universe where sorrow, joy and transcendence all live in harmony.
With Teething Veils set to play the Friday, Oct. 2nd WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE Livestream show via Twitch, I wanted to reach out to Greg and Hester to learn more about their remarkable new album, the evolution of their line-up and the strange relationship between melancholy and joy.
1) It would be an understatement to say a lot has happened in the world of Teething Veils in 2020. You recorded and released a brilliant new album, Canopy of Crimson, that features the contributions of frequent collaborators Hannah Burris on viola, Kevin Buckholdt on drums, Craig Garrett on bass and Kelly Servick on violin. There was also a recent line-up change and now Teething Veils consists of you and Hester Doyle. Can you talk a little about your talented collaborators and the evolution of the Teething Veils line-up?
Greg: Thank you for your kind words on Canopy of Crimson. Teething Veils started as a name I gave myself to play shows when my bandmates in The Antiques weren’t available. I’d meditated on these Marisol wall pieces, and two in particular, “M.Marisol” and “Veil” looked the way that songwriting felt to me. In one, she gives herself fangs for teeth and a monstrous face. In the other, her expression is solemn and clumps of long hair veil much of her face. I felt strongly about writing and playing music as having a similar function as sharp teeth would in the wild, serving to both nourish and to protect. Likewise, a person steers whatever degree of themselves they reveal or conceal in a song, as with a veil.
For those first few years, “Teething Veils” was the name I went by when playing Antiques songs, alone. For the Velorio album, I needed people to play the arrangements, and that birthed “Teething Veils” as a band. Kevin, Craig, and I have played in bands together for twenty years, including The Antiques, Parlor Scouts, Kohoutek, and The Mares. Craig and I went to England to play some shows with Kohoutek last summer, and we stayed at a place called Littleton Mill near the festival where we played in a house where Virginia Woolf once had great parties, and that was where I saw what I describe in the song of that name. We’ve lived and traveled together, and after so much time, there’s an innate knowing of how the other person will play or approach a song, and what we want from one another.
Photo by Claire Packer
I met Hannah fifteen years ago as a fan of her band School, and we traveled around in similar circles for a few years before we started to play together in Teething Veils. It was really important to me to birth these songs with an intimate group of close friends, to manage the emotional nuance. I’ve known Kelly as a fan of Near Northeast, whose records we’ve released on Etxe and who have recorded at Empress of Sound. Her whole band collaborated with Teething Veils for a live version of “Constellations,” the 26-minute title song of our second LP, to close out the Etxe ten-year anniversary showcase at Capital Fringe in January of 2018. Kelly and I have played together here and there, and I don’t think that anyone else would have played those violin parts in quite that way.
We had just wrapped up the recording of Canopy of Crimson when I met Hester. I recorded the vocals on February 6, and I met Hester when their band The OSYX played at Comet on February 20. We’ve been playing music closely from day one, and Teething Veils organically worked its way into the equation. The four of us—Kevin, Craig, Hester, and me—recorded our first Teething Veils song together, “I’m Waiting for My Love to Sleep,” as a part of a companion album of response songs to the songs of Erin Frisby’s Ecdysis album, the proceeds of which go to Casa Ruby.
Hester: When my OSYX bandmate Erin Frisby put me in touch with Greg, who was looking for a collaborator, I immediately hopped online and listened to the Teething Veils music that was available at the time; I was completely enchanted with Sea and Sun. It immediately became one of my favorite albums, and I was eager to work with Greg. We performed our first show together as Teething Veils 10 days after we met. I feel like that sums up a lot of the dynamic; Greg is not just an incredibly gifted musician, but a remarkably kind person, and I’m very grateful to join this band, which feels like an entity unto itself, that we each get to be a limb of.
2) Let’s talk about Canopy of Crimson. Each Teething Veils album is special, but Canopy of Crimson feels even more so. I can’t help but see it as the culmination of your life’s work as an artist up until this point. Everything about it – the quality of the songwriting, the lyrics, the performances and the sheer beauty of the different sounds – just coalesces beautifully. I feel like this album is your masterpiece. How do you see this album in relation to your past work and how do you feel about the finished result?
Greg: Thank you. It may not be for me to judge how Canopy of Crimson relates with our past work, but it is one of the first bodies of music I’d play for a person who hasn’t heard any of it and asks to know what it’s like. The songs overtly relate with dire life states, and one aspect of the writing that was really different was how I wrote with the guidance of Erin Frisby, through our voice classes, in how she shone a flashlight along the path for me to walk, in a very light-handed and careful way. It would be hard to overstate the importance of this to the shape that this album took on. Her teaching reached into my lungs and extracted elements of those songs that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise found.
3) What was it like working with Don Godwin at Tonal Park on this record? Did you go into the recording with a specific vision in mind for how you wanted it to sound? I think it’s the best sounding Teething Veils record to date.
Greg: Thank you. I knew I wanted to record with Don as soon as I heard Anna Connolly’s After Thoughts LP. I’d heard those songs live on countless occasions, and the relationship between how Anna’s songs are live and how they sound on those recordings is comparable to how I wanted our songs to be on Canopy of Crimson. There wasn’t much of an aesthetic reference for Canopy of Crimson, not even Anna’s record, though I did want for the sonic landscape to have a similar sort of expansive desolation as Lucinda Williams’ Ghosts of Highway 20.
Teething Veils started out very much as something that I wanted to record at home, first to cassette eight-track, and later to the 16-track machine that I use at Empress of Sound. I generally don’t care at all about fidelity, but when we recorded Sea and Sun, I did want a fidelity that I couldn’t get at home, and I also wanted trusted people to be the ones turning the knobs, so we went into Inner Ear with Kevin Erickson and Hugh McElroy, and they really performed phenomenally on that album.
For Canopy of Crimson, Don also facilitated a great spirit and comfort in the room where we recorded, at Tonal Park. Between Don’s energy as a person and skills as an engineer, the band playing all together live, and Erin being in the studio to align my approach to the singing, I feel we carved out the appropriate space to birth these songs.
Album cover by Adam de Boer, photographed by Rafa Cruz
4) The album cover of Canopy of Crimson features remarkable artwork by Adam de Boer, another of your frequent collaborators. What can you tell us about your collaboration and what, if any, guidance did you give him to create his work for Canopy of Crimson?
Greg: Adam has painted every piece of Teething Veils artwork from day one. We’ve been friends since the time that he was still living in D.C., and on the day before he moved away, he mentioned being really interested in making album art. He made three paintings for Velorio, and one each for Constellations, Dinner Date, Sea and Sun, and Canopy of Crimson. There are parts of the process that are similar for each record, and there are parts that are different every time according to the needs of the music. For each record, I share sketches of the songs with Adam, before the band records the proper album; it’s mostly either a keyboard or a guitar, and singing, raw and skeletal. I avoid guiding his process, other than sharing the content of the music with him.
For Velorio, Adam visited the hotel in Madrid where parts of the narrative take place, and found relief etchings on the facade of the building, which I hadn’t noticed when I was there, and he used those as a jumping-off point. For Constellations, he was starting to practice batik-making, which he learned in Indonesia while studying the visual arts related with his Dutch-Indonesian heritage. Dinner Date was explicitly related with the Marisol sculpture of the same name. Sea and Sun I had written mainly for Marisol, and she was alive when we started recording, and she died before the album was released, and I feel that Adam’s cover art relates heavily with the moment that she transitioned into death. For Canopy of Crimson, I only shared with him a single image, though I feel that he embodied the heartspace of the songs and painted what he heard. Adam is as much of a part of this band as any of us are.
5) I wanted to ask you about the Teething Veils live show, which has gone through multiple iterations through the years. Personally, I have always found Teething Veils performances to have a “cleansing effect” on me – with your songs feeling like a form of emotional catharsis. Is that how it is for you as a performer? What do you hope audience members feel and experience when they see a Teething Veils show, either live or in a virtual context?
Greg: Thank you. For a band that was born in a bedroom, I do depend heavily on playing the music live to understand it. Playing music is a privilege, and I’m grateful for any one person who lends their ear to us for any length of time. My ideal scenario is that a person engages with a song as a living thing, responding however comes naturally. We’re fortunate to play in rooms where people are willing to respond.
Hester: When I listen to Teething Veils’ previous albums, I often keenly long to have been there when they were created, recorded, and performed, with their lush, questing instrumentation and earnest, quizzical vocals. I was blown away when I began playing with Greg and he was so open to me bringing my own interpretation and touches to these songs, especially considering how deeply personal this album is and how carefully and delicately all of Teething Veils’ songs are constructed.
But collaborating with Greg, I’ve come to understand how alive and always growing they are. The songs aren’t carvings set permanently in their shapes; they’re like cats with their own minds, who let you pick them up sometimes and other times wiggle out of your arms and show you where they want to go. Sometimes the feelings they create as I play, and the notes I play to express those feelings, surprise me. It’s a joyful, special treat to send these feelings toward other people’s hearts, and see reflected back the movements the song has made inside them. I miss those moments of live interaction.
Check out Teething Veils performance on the We Fought the Big One Livestream show on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020 from 10pm – midnight EST. It’s happening on the WFTBO channel on Twitch: www.twitch.tv/WFTBO