[Cover photo credit to Vanessa Dingwell]
Eleanor Whitmore and Bonnie Whitmore have thus far been following separate musical paths, with Eleanor recording and performing solo work as well as contributing to The Mastersons, and Bonnie creating and performing solo work herself. The pandemic, however, created a situation that brought the sisters together for their first collaborative album, Ghost Stories, which arrived on January 21st from Red House Records. The album was Produced by Chris Masterson and recorded using a mix of home and professional studios in LA.
The Americana album really does operate with specific ideas in mind as the sisters decided to process their feelings through music about some of the people they’ve lost. But there’s also a broader sense in which past relationships, and all stories told that are based on our memories, become “ghost stories”, too, and the album encompasses the lot. Some songs deal with heavier themes, but always with a light musical touch, and some songs are amusingly honest and direct, but the songwriting and musicianship are alike in their high quality and clear intentions.
I spoke with Eleanor and Bonnie Whitmore about Ghost Stories and the many meanings that the title of their new album implies.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I’m really blown away by this album. I understand that it was kind of inevitable that you two would eventually do some work together, but the circumstances of the pandemic may have actually encouraged that. Is that true?
Bonnie Whitmore: Yes, I think having the opportunity and the time meant that we could finally make that happen. We also really have to give credit to Chris Masterson because my plan was just to come out to LA and get to hang out since I’d spent so much time cooped up in Austin, but Chris said, “Well you’re not just going to come out here to sit on the couch, are you? You guys need to make a record!” And we did it.
HMS: You make that sound relatively easy, but did you have the resources that you needed to put an album together during such a strange time?
Eleanor Whitmore: Yes, it was honestly a lot easier than I expected it to be. Chris Masterson and I have a pretty good recording set up at home. We were a little bit limited by Covid protocols, so we started the process a little backwards than normally, doing acoustic guitar and vocals first. But I think with a harmony record, like this one, where the voices are kind of the centerpiece it made sense to do it that way. We also have the magic of us singing a lot of those tracks live together. Then we took those basic guitar and vocal tracks to a studio to record the drums in LA and Bonnie tracked [bass] with the drummer.
We were able to capture some of that energy between players in that way also. We were fortunate to have equipment that’s pretty high quality so we were able to do a lot in our home studio. Zoom also made the writing process easier because Bonnie and I were able to get together on Zoom and finish writing material before she came out to LA.
HMS: I had wondered how you handled the writing process and how that worked. Did each of you already have some material that was partly developed to consider for the album, or was this very much starting from zero?
Bonnie: We’d written “Friends We Leave Behind”, which was kind of the template for the record, already. It started us talking about ghost stories and thinking of friends of ours who we’d lost over the years. We didn’t want it to be somber or sad, but we wanted to share the stories of loved ones. Some of the songs had some piecemeal elements already to get us started and we were able to finish them off together.
HMS: Something I find really relatable about the album is that it’s so real in talking about loss and memories. While I certainly appreciate albums that are happier, this felt like something audiences can really dig into.
Bonnie: For both of us, a lot of the songwriting that we do is a therapeutic way of dealing with things, too, so that was something that made sense with both of us working together. Not all the songs are about loss, but some also talk about other aspects of love rather than just the initial, happy moments of love. They talk about all the different shades of love. We do like to, also, include a lot of whimsy, even when we’re talking about things that are heavy. For instance, in the melody lines.
Eleanor: An example of another writer who does that would be Aimee Mann, who writes cutting, serious lyrics, but the melody kind of distracts you from the serious lyrics. There’s a little bit more of a balance that way so you don’t overwhelm the listener.
HMS: I can definitely hear that with Ghost Stories. I noticed also that even the phrasing of the lyrics often leaves more room for reflection rather than being as heavy as it possibly could be. It’s a little more contemplative.
Bonnie: It’s not so much in the moment, but it’s more reflective. It steps back and takes a broader look at things to help you understand what you’re going through. I think it helps to put to words what you feel. That’s the approach to songwriting for me, especially. I’ve wanted to step a little further into that, not just writing for my own therapy. I want to come at it with what I have learned from being in therapy and being able to pull the lens back a little further. Something that you go through that’s traumatic can also build you up and make you a better person.
HMS: That’s a wonderful way of thinking about it. I feel like I can see beautiful aspects or valuable memories in here. Is it a kind of transformation, too, bringing memories to that point?
Bonnie: When you look at “The Ballad of Sissy and Porter”, which is about Chris Porter, who we lost in an automobile accident a few years ago, he was such a bright light that when he left, there was almost a community of bonding for everybody who had been touched by him. We wanted to talk, not so much about the loss, but about the story of the love that we shared. He and I dated for a period of time and even afterward, we still maintained such a good relationship.
He was such a good storyteller and was so funny. He’d retell a story about a time where you had been there, but you wouldn’t even recognize it. He’d make you question your own perspective on it. Those are the things that I never want to lose. I always want to keep those memories close. You do have to get past the pain of the grief to be able to feel comfortable in that space, but if you can, it can be really soothing and helpful.
Eleanor: I also think it’s a way to celebrate the people who we’ve lost. Loss is something that’s universal and judging from feedback from fans over the years, I think it’s therapeutic for the listener too. They can relate that to experiences they’ve gone through.
HMS: How did you see the sound approach on this album, which has quite a range to it? Did each of you bring ideas to the table?
Eleanor: Chris Masterson, my husband, and bandmate with The Mastersons, Produced it, and he has pretty great taste. He’s pretty good at steering songs in a good direction. “Hurtin’ for a Letdown” is such a traditional Country shuffle that it was kind of important to think about it in a different way so it didn’t come off as something stock or throwback. We had a lot of fun making it a little more whimsical with the sound and Production. Other songs like “By Design” were more stripped back without so many layers. That left plenty of space for dynamics and for the vocals. I think it’s important to have a difference in songs on a record to give listeners a ride. There should be quiet moments and space.
Bonnie: We’re big fans of dynamics for sure. I think the classical upbringing that we both had informs that. Because had come from the same background, a lot of our touchstones were easily guided in that direction. We had a lot to pick from. Also, as a triad, we stabilize each other pretty well.
Eleanor: We all have something to bring to the table.
HMS: The song “Hurtin’ for a Letdown” has, on one level, a very open meaning that’s very relatable, but on another level, it’s a little mysterious, too.
Bonnie: I wrote that one and had that mostly complete coming to the table. I kind of have this addiction to heartache, or as I like to put it, “This is the ghost story of my love life”. This approaches it from the direction of: “I don’t think I have any trouble falling in love, but I also don’t need a relationship to do it.” [Laughs]
HMS: It reminds me of the conversation we were just having about therapy, because the song talks about cycles of behavior, which makes me think about breaking cycles, or asking if they can be broken.
Bonnie: I feel like the first record that I put out was basically about me dealing with a breakup. That’s a good example, because I really love that album and even though I went through so much to get it, I realize how much inspiration was behind that. I think there’s also something that I might be more willing to be more vulnerable and put myself in these situations because I’ll get some inspiration out of it. [Laughs] That’s where a lot of my muse comes from. I’m a bit of a masochist!
HMS: And this is another way that we have ghost stories in our lives, not just through the people we may lose, but through the experiences that stay with us and haunt us. Relationships are all part of that too.
Eleanor: We like to play on that. Even in calling it Ghost Stories, we think that people initially think of being around a campfire at camp and telling ghost stories. We wanted to give more meaning to it than the initial first response people might have.
HMS: One song that’s really compelling and is “Learn To Fly”, and you all have also released a video for it. I know that the background is about actually learning to fly for both of you, since your father is a pilot.
Eleanor: We did mean it literally!
HMS: I think you’d have to know flying to write those lyrics.
Eleanor: Yes, unless you’d done drugs, I suppose!
Bonnie: You see the world differently when you’ve grown up flying. It’s different, even, than using airlines. You’ve been able to sit in the front, be in control, and have that sense of liftoff from the wheels. You know when you’re going from the ground into the sky. It’s a feeling that we were trying to capture in the melody. We wanted the feeling of being bumped around and going for a loop. I was really trying to create that sense in the melody.
HMS: You all must have a positive feeling about flying, but when I think of being in control like that, I find that idea terrifying.
Bonnie: It is always that.
HMS: Do you get used to it?
Bonnie: There is a certain sense where you can educate yourself but never at any time are you not slightly terrified. You kind of have to have that sense of the daredevil in you in order to want to do it in the first place. It’s like riding rollercoasters or motorcycles, or other thrill-seeking. Flying definitely has that. But if you don’t have terror, you’ve lost respect for it. We’ve lost friends from that, too. We have a great amount of respect for it.
Eleanor: It definitely gets your adrenaline up.
Bonnie: Eleanor had actually dabbled in the inspiration from flying and the loss of friends from that on her debut album, but I hadn’t yet. So, yes, the song is literal about flying, but it’s also about wanting to share stories about our dad.
Eleanor: It’s a good autobiographical way to introduce ourselves. But I always like the listener to have the interpretation that they feel. People hear what they want to hear, and I don’t want to have control over that at all.
HMS: People do interpret songs totally differently, not only depending on the person, but where they are in their lives at a given point.
Bonnie: Even the meaning that you were inspired by at first can change later on.
Eleanor: It can mean different things to you, as a singer, at different points in your own life.
Bonnie: There are some things that I’ve written that I started, not really understanding what I was writing about, then I went through an experience, and then it made sense to me.
HM: I’ve heard people comment on this before, times when they were kind of spooked by their own music, like when they were writing a song with a certain feeling, mood, or situation that later came true.
Bonnie: It’s kind of like a premonition. Maybe it’s preparing you for what you are about to go through!
You can catch up with The Whitmore Sisters on tour with The Mastersons in February, March, and April 2022!