A Stolen Jars song is a delightful thing to swim in: an indie pop sound so thoroughly arranged it engulfs you, and then lyrics that engulf you as well. There is some peculiar magic taking place in their latest album A Reminder that keeps your feet firmly off the ground. And yet, at moments, the record is quite heavy. The band’s ringleader Cody Fitzgerald says, “I think the album is about trying to move forward from loss, trying to allow loss to exist and incorporate it into your life. It’s an album of lost people, in whatever form that may take.”
The album is not Cody’s alone, however. It’s an inherently collaborative project, and the Brooklyn-based Stolen Jars ensemble is one with many players. So, for the band’s album release and first full US tour, FRONTRUNNER unpacked some of the influences behind A Reminder. But first, I had the pleasure of asking a few questions of his bandmates, as well.
What excites each of you most about tour?
Graham Hazzard (drums): I’m really excited to see new places and meet new creative people that I wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to meet.
Grant Meyer (keyboards): New places, faces, spaces.
Sarah Coffey (vocals): Tour is like a productive vacation. Of course, it can be stressful to be away from home and loved ones. But it presents an opportunity to open yourself up and live in the moment every day. I’m excited to connect to new people, grow as an artist, and learn how to be patient with myself.
Which song from A Reminder are each of you most excited for fans to hear performed live?
Elias Spector-Zabusky (guitar): “All I Wanted.” It’s our live take on the recording. It’s a pretty different experience of the song, and I think people will really love [it].
Grant: “Down Here,” for sure.
Graham: Yeah, “Down Here” for me too. On top of it being a really beautiful melody, I think the live version creates a real atmosphere. I don’t even play on it, but it’s always my favorite part of the set. [laughs]
Cody Fitzgerald (vocals/guitar): To echo those two, we have made this really cool combination of the two songs “Right Here” and “Down Here” for the live shows. I sing lead on the first, and Sarah sings lead on the second. I’m really excited about how that has come together as a moment in the live set.
Sarah: I’m really proud of how we sound now. “All I Wanted,” “Down Here,” and “Bright Red” are my favorite songs to play live.
Sarah, your winding, broken melodies have become a staple of the Stolen Jars sound, particularly in “Ghost Towns.” Almost like a signature. How do you go about writing vocal melodies?
Sarah: I think I subconsciously take a lot of inspiration from vocalists and musicians that I’ve always loved and admired. I’m big into raspy vocals, yodeling, the feeling that someone’s voice could crumble away at any moment. I want a melody that can catch your attention but also fit perfectly with the music and the emotion of the song.
But the process of writing the ideal melody is never easy. There are probably twenty or thirty other melodies that we tried that didn’t make the final cut because they never felt just right. The best vocal parts emerge when I’m barely thinking at all—I’ll be sitting in Cody’s room singing for twenty minutes, coming up with melodies that don’t feel right, and then suddenly something will come out that just feels different. That’s exactly what happened with “Ghost Towns”—I remember struggling with that melody for so long, and then suddenly I sang something and Cody was like, “wait, I think that melody was the melody.” I have to get out of the headspace where I’m searching for what’s “right” and allow myself to feel out what my body actually wants to sing.
Cody, I read that you have a background in film scoring. Does that influence your songwriting at all? What does the songwriter have to learn from film scores, and vice versa?
Cody: I think my music has always been pretty heavily arranged, starting from one riff and then building an orchestra of guitars, drums, and synths around it, so the switch to a real orchestra felt pretty natural. That said, film scoring is a very different beast than songwriting. Songwriting feels incredibly personal, every note is yours, while film scoring is in service of something else. If the piece you write doesn’t fit the movie, or the director wants something different, it’s your job to find what’s right for the scene. There is less ego there, and that often feels freeing; you can do whatever genre you want, but the real challenge is finding a way to maintain your own voice. That said, maybe it would be worth allowing some more of that freedom in Stolen Jars, allowing all the different influences to seep in and worrying less about a defined sound.
Four of you (Cody, Sarah, Matt Marsico, and Magdalena Bermudez) have lyric-writing credits on this record. What’s that collaborative songwriting process like?
Cody: Stolen Jars has always been a collaboration, from the first album till now, and that is a big part of why it feels so consistently exciting to me. Working with new people forces the music to evolve in ways I never expect. The way we write is I’ll often build a piece of instrumental music fully, or a piece with a few vocal melody ideas, and then show it to Sarah and Magda and we will all generate melodies together from there.
In the past, you’ve described Stolen Jars as “a constellation of musicians in orbit.” How does the size and flux of this ensemble impact what started in your high-school bedroom?
Cody: Well, it was never really a solo-artist situation. There have always been other people heavily involved. On the first album, I made all of the music but Magda and my friend John Reitman wrote a lot of the vocal melodies and lyrics and sang lead often. The next record and EP, Molly Grund became a big collaborator. And this new album Sarah was a huge part of: she wrote a bunch of the vocal melodies with me, and [she] sings co-lead or lead on almost every song. Matt Marsico recorded and wrote a bunch of drum parts on the new record. Plus, all of the live band members have always added a huge amount to the songs. What we do live informs what gets recorded and entirely changes the songs and the direction of the band. On this tour, that’s been Grant Meyer on keys, Graham Hazzard on drums, and Elias Spector-Zabusky on guitar. And every time we play these new songs, they grow and change–I’m positive the next record will be entirely different because of it.
On your last three singles (“Ghost Towns”, “Winona,” and most recently “Younger Nights”) you seem to be reminiscing. You recall, grapple with, and long for youth— is that a theme continues through the rest of the album?
Cody: I think the album is a lot about trying to move forward from loss, trying to allow loss to exist and incorporate it into your life. It’s an album of lost people, in whatever form that may take. On “Winona” it’s a friend moving across the country, on “Ghost Towns” it’s reckoning with a parental relationship that will never be what you hoped it would be, on “Younger Nights” it’s trying to use music to fill the space that love once took up. In each song the narrator’s perspective slowly shifts, and by the end of the album all that loss feels less debilitating. It’s become part of the past, part of a personal narrative.
Speaking of “Younger Nights,” what do you think it is about our younger nights that stick with us?
Cody: I think when you’re young every experience feels so new. The first time you see your favorite band in the world in a tiny venue in the middle of your hometown, the first time you scream along with a singer at the top of your lungs, the first time you find yourself sitting on a beach with the person you just realized you love. It’s hard not to remember those firsts, or the more devastating firsts, and so they stick with us, core memories building our understandings of ourselves.
You’ve cited the Dirty Projectors as an influence on multiple occasions. One of your many “stolen jars.” Which songs or albums have most inspired you?
Cody: My big Dirty Projectors influences were Bitte Orca and Rise Above. Those two records really got to me. I remember hearing Bitte Orca for the first time and being amazed by the arrangements and the guitar playing. It’s an unreal album and was a huge inspiration when I started writing my own music.
Do you see your hometown playing a part in your music at all?
Cody: Absolutely! Montclair [NJ] had a huge music scene. Forth Wanderers, Pinegrove, and Topaz Jones all came out of the same high school as me, so there was a huge amount of influence there. Serendipity, a student run group that put on shows in church basements every month, was a way for everyone to constantly hear music and play shows. I doubt I would be making the same music without my hometown.
New Jersey sometimes gets a bad rep. What’s your favorite thing about your home state?
Cody: Bagels and pizza. Every time I go home I just want to go to Star Tavern, probably still my favorite pizza place in the US.
What do you have planned for 2020?
Cody: Hopefully a support tour, and definitely some new singles! There will be more music, more videos… there will be more!