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The National's Aaron and Bryce Dessner on collaborating in music and film

Aaron and Bryce Dessner at a Los Angeles screening of 'Mistaken for Strangers.'
Aaron and Bryce Dessner at a Los Angeles screening of 'Mistaken for Strangers.'Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
  Play Now [13:11]

by Lydia Moran

June 20, 2019

The opening drumbeat of "Rylan," a track off The National's ninth studio album, I Am Easy to Find, is the sound of multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Aaron Dessner beating on his Brooklyn garage wall over a decade ago. The remainder of that song, and the rest of the album itself, is an amalgam of new and old work collected from different phases of the band's 20-year-lifespan.

"A lot of times in the past a National album is a difficult thing to give birth to, and this time it was a little more free-wheeling than normal," Dessner told Jade, who sat down with Aaron and his brother/bandmate, Bryce, backstage at this year's sold-out Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tennessee.

The brothers described how, after the release of Sleep Well Beast in 2017, director Mike Mills approached the band wanting to collaborate. "Matt Berninger gave him a drop box of everything we'd been working on for many years, and Mike made this beautiful short film using all the fragments and stems and underlying audio," explained Aaron. The film, which shares the album's title, is a 24-minute-long meditation on one woman's life from birth to death, and Aaron explains how its narrative was then able to guide the album's non-preexisting lyrics and instrumentation. One song, "Where Is Hear Head," was a sort of "jigsaw puzzle" to arrange as Aaron puts it, and its leading lyrics were taken directly from the film's scene wherein a father reads a book to his young daughter.

"Watching this film and reflecting on this story that Mike made — it needed to be a community of voices," Aaron said. "All the stuff that we've done with the PEOPLE collective and these very collaborative projects in Eau Claire and Music Now in Cincinnati, all these community-wide collaborations have been feeding into our music for a long time, and I think this record is probably the best example of that."

Though the brothers note that most National records have indeed been "big family projects," for I Am Easy to Find in particular, those voices come more into the foreground. On songs like "Oblivions," Bryce's wife Pauline's voice is a contrasting anchor to lead singer Matt Berninger. After hearing the song, the band knew they needed to invite more female vocalists into the record. Ultimately that included Kate Stables of The Is The Kit; Lisa Hannigan; and Gail Ann Dorsey, who are joining the band on tour in a rotating fashion.

"For the first time it was just kind of powerful to let the songs live in other voices and beings and other musical souls, and to have that in a way that resonates deeper for us," Bryce said. "I think when we were inviting other singers into sing lead and to take that primary voicing of the lyrics, there was a question as to whether they would still feel like National songs and the answer was they really did, and that's why they are in that form."

The full interview audio is available above. The National are headlining this year's Rock the Garden.