By Quinn Donnell
Shawn Rosenblatt, the one-man-band better known as Netherfriends, has become a familiar face over the past six years amongst fans of the Chicago music scene.
Whether they’ve caught him at a Logan Square bar, performing his one-of-a-kind solo set involving multiple loop pedals, a whole slew of instruments, and dance moves as cool as his paisley button-ups, or they’ve stumbled upon his bandcamp--loaded with everything from New Chi-T, a mixtape he recently made with various Chicago hip-hop artists, to Alap, his ambient improv album influenced by classical Indian music--Chicagoans have been able to recognize Netherfriends as one of the most creative and innovative musicians in the City.
With a basic knowledge of Netherfriends’ career comes the awareness of his 50 Songs 50 States project. From April 2010 – April 2011, Rosenblatt traveled the country, playing a show, writing a song, and recording that song in every state (plus Washington D.C.).
What’s most impressive about 50 Songs 50 States isn’t the fact that it’s an album of songs written and recorded with daunting deadlines, or its availability as an online interactive United States map, but the nearly 3 hours of fantastic music, excluding any filler tracks and giving listeners a reason to actually listen to its entirety.
Throughout the 51 songs, Netherfriends develops a dream-pop sound defined by reverb-driven guitar lines and vocal harmonies. Some songs deviate from this signature sound, however, drawing influence from different genres and time periods. “Lawrence, KS” creates an island-rock feel with slow guitar slides layered atop a second guitar’s quick, pitched-up 16th notes that Vampire Weekend seems to love so much, and a horn section in “Kalamazoo, MI” makes for a jazzy three minutes of Wolverine State recording. “Tallahassee, FL” stands out as an acoustic ballad fit for the Juno soundtrack and “Keene, NH” provides a folk styling with its banjo juxtaposed against drum machines and electric guitars so prevalent throughout the album.
I had the opportunity to talk to Shawn several days before 50 Songs 50 States was released, to discuss his latest projects, his experiences on the road, and the Chicago hip-hop scene.
WCR: You’ve been performing as Netherfriends since 2007. How have you seen the Chicago music scene change in the past six years?
SR: I don’t think it’s really changed that much. There’s always so much music to discover, and I’ve finally found a great group of talented people to collaborate with. Hip-hop seems to be the one thing that’s really blowing up right now.
50 Songs 50 States is due out on Thursday, New Chi-T came out last week, and you’ve said that you’re planning on releasing another album later this year. How do you handle having so many different projects on your plate all at once?
I don’t know; I just do it because I feel like it’s the only thing. It’s the only way for me to make money, and it keeps me working hard, it keeps me sane.
You seem to handle most of the managerial aspects of Netherfriends, and you’re self-releasing the 50 Songs 50 States project; how does being so independent affect your music?
The independence lets me be in complete control. There’s no one telling me what to do. It’s a nice way to stay motivated. I think this is probably the best and worst time in my life—I’m hopefully the most broke I’ll ever be, but it’s also the only time I’ll be able to do whatever I want to do.
Your music incorporates a variety of genres and you obviously listen to a wide range of artists. Who are some artists you’ve been listening to lately?
A lot of jazz, like Duke Ellington. And also some hip hop stuff. Chicago has a great hip-hop scene right now—up-and-coming guys like Chance the Rapper and Tree.
At your concerts, you put on a pretty elaborate performance. When you’re writing a song for an album, do you take into account how it will translate into a live show?
I didn’t think that way during 50 Songs 50 States project. P3ace is an album that I’m planning on releasing later this year. It’s my first studio album and I’m already playing a lot of the songs live, so I knew how they’d be played live when they were being recorded. The biggest thing is the vocals, trying to replicate the way my live vocals sound in the studio.
Your bandcamp has almost 70 tracks available for download with quite a few more from 50 Songs 50 States on the way. What is it about your writing/recording process that allows you to release material so consistently often?
I record everything myself, and I really just focus on music. All I do is tour and make music.
Best bar in Chicago?
I like the Whistler; the guys that run that place are great. Café Mustache puts on some great shows, and also Cole’s. All of the bars that are able to have free shows are awesome; they’re able to really promote the Chicago music scene.
You’ve done residencies in Chicago, Austin, and New Orleans; what is it like to play at the same venue for an extended period of time as opposed to touring from place to place?
Playing a residency is really nice because there’s a lot less pressure. When you’re on tour you only have one shot to make an impression on a crowd, but if you have multiple nights to play with different bands, they’re able to bring out their friends and introduce your music to a larger audience. That’s what touring is about—developing yourself with a group of people who aren’t familiar with you.
Not only have you played shows in all 50 states, but you’ve also played in Europe and made appearances at some pretty notable festivals, like South by Southwest and Pitchfork; with so much touring experience, what are some performances that stand out in your mind?
Pitchfork was a great experience, and all of Europe was amazing. I also remember playing a house show in Richmond, Virginia that was packed with people stoked to see us—this was when I was playing with a band. My solo set is as tight as it’s ever been right now, so these recent shows in Chicago have been great, too.
In a Windy City Rock interview from about 3 years ago when you were 34 states along in 50 Songs 50 States, you spoke about how fun the project was and you said “Maybe [I’ll] do it again next year if I want to.” Can we expect another 50 Songs 50 States?
No way. [laughs]
What can we expect from Netherfriends in the future?
I’ve already made P3ace. I don’t know when its coming out or who’s releasing it, but I’m really looking forward to sharing that.