Hannah Rose Dexter is an LA-based jazz bassist and singer-songwriter who’s received coverage from Obscure Sound and has played as a ‘sidewoman’ for acts such as Ember Knight, A Horse A Spoon A Bucket, and many others. Now recording as a solo artist for the first time, we asked her about her upcoming debut LP ‘The View From Normal’, her musical history, making bass-led music in a world of dwindling attention spans, and more. We’re also fortunate to be able to share her third and most recent single, “Between”.
COUNTERZINE: How are you today?
Hannah Rose Dexter: Somewhat frazzled while traveling through the Pacific Northwest for a family wedding, but so grateful to be nomadic in the rain again.
CZ: Tell us a little about yourself.
HRD: I am a bass player, almost exclusively. I’ve been studying upright bass for 13 years and electric bass for half of that. Originally from Portland, OR, but calling Los Angeles home since 2012. I play bass for a living, mostly jazz, blues, rock and roll, new music, whatever compels and challenges me. In my spare time, I sew, cook, bike, walk, read, climb roofs, and care for people.
CZ: Who would you consider some of your foremost influences, musical or otherwise?
HRD: In no particular order: Billie Holiday, Sesame Street, tall trees, Slam Stewart, old buildings, Marnie Stern, Parliament/Funkadelic, Sufjan Stevens, Jimmy Stewart, Alma Hightower… anyone elegant, storied, innovative, and hypnotizing.
CZ: If you had to list a signature quality or qualities that define the music of Hannah Rose Dexter, what would it/they be?
HRD: Uncompromising. I start writing a song with the right bass line. It doesn’t matter if the figure is in 13/8, or fluctuates between 9/4 and 6/4, or this lyrical line has two beats of rest but the following line has three beats of rest. I will not compromise what I’ve written to make it more palatable. Maybe one song on this album follows the traditionally marketable verse, chorus, verse, double chorus, but just barely. I am out to engage my musical brain and express my emotions, first and foremost.
CZ: You’ve recently embarked on your solo recording journey, but you mention traveling the world playing music, and we also know of your involvement with Ember Knight’s work (The Disappointment Cowboy). What can you tell us about your musical history up until this point?
HRD: I feel uniquely blessed to have made my career as a musical sideman (“sidewoman” is not in the dictionary). Other musicians know they can call me with minimal notice, and I will arrive at the gig with the songs prepared to perform. In the jazz tradition, it’s not unusual to play a gig with complete strangers, trusting that everyone can speak their musical language fluently and cooperatively. Most nights at “work,” I feel like a time traveler.
CZ: We’re fortunate to be able to share your newest single, “Between”. How would you describe this song: the thoughts and feelings that went it, as well as what you aimed to communicate?
HRD: “Between” describes a very specific night of shared rainfall, many years ago. For quite a while, I held remorse for not acknowledging what I felt in the moment. This song is a place to contain and honor those feelings. I wanted to explore how much of a chord the electric bass could spell out melodically, even as the rhythm was displaced and sporadic. Folk usually expect bass to only cover the root of the chord in a straight, repetitive line, but I’m also adding fifths, sevenths, tenths, thirteenths; all sorts of sonic information that people rarely delegate to the bass in rock music. There are three distinct sections seeking to illustrate the sound of rain pounding at the windows, eagerness and gratitude, and a joyful lift-off that was experienced, but never fully recognized in words. I make up for the lyrical ambiguity of the first half by being painfully specific throughout the ending.
CZ: “Between” is the third of your recent singles, following “Image” and “Leave”, which all come from your upcoming debut album The View From Normal. What can you tell us about the album, the process of its creation, and the differences that came with taking lead?
HRD: The hardest part of taking lead is baring the responsibility for absolutely every detail. If I didn’t like the way something sounded, I had no one to blame but myself. Over three years, I recorded, scrapped, and abandoned the album two times before reaching what you hear now. I was far too critical on myself and lacked the patience to see it through to completion. This final recording took about six months of varying intensity. There were still hard days with this iteration, but I had close friends who encouraged me. It started with four days of my best friend and I dismantling the apartment, soundproofing the window with a mattress, plugging up the door with dirty laundry, and then reassembling everything when we were done each evening. He engineered while I recorded the electric bass and voice parts simultaneously. Then I made four trips to the drummer’s garage, hanging microphones from rafter beams and using cinderblocks for stands. There were overdubs of electric and upright bass, and a few beautiful evenings spent feeding and recording the other musicians. I wasn’t sure I could emotionally or financially handle the stress of recording this in a studio, so I chose to go my own pace at home. I feel incredibly proud of what love, labor, and a surprisingly little amount of money accomplished.
CZ: When you sent us “Image” initially, you actually insisted upon patience when listening, as the for nearly two minutes, it’s just your soulful vocal and proficient bass playing. We found it engaging immediately, but is there still a nervousness involved with making bass-led music, considering how relatively uncommon it might be?
HRD: Despite how rare it is now, bass and a high-range voice makes a lot of historical sense. There are centuries worth of music from all corners of the globe that is only a low sound and a high sound in conversation. I’m sure people can accept a bass and voice driven album if they like the textures and the songwriting well enough, maybe they won’t even notice there’s no guitar. My concern is how short our musical attention span is becoming. I like to think that my songs reward patience with grandiose and surprising twists, but the listener can only claim that reward if they’re willing to listen long enough.
CZ: Any shows coming up?
HRD: You bet! I’m hosting the album release show and party at The Yard Theater in Hollywood on February 22nd. They’ll be ragtime, wine spo-dee-o-dee, and a big smile on my face.
CZ: What are some of your favorite acts you’ve played with?
HRD: Definitely my psych-rock band, A Horse A Spoon A Bucket, which is where I learned everything I know about home recording and musical honesty. That is the only band that has never tried to limit my bass intuition. I play with a 50s/60s surf rock band called Jetpack that I love for the opposite reason; my job is to hold down a groove. I get a thrill playing with jazz big bands for the power, responsibility, and feat of scheduling it takes to bring everyone together. Also, any time I get to play with the jazz drummer, Tina Raymond, is a total gift.
CZ: Any plans to tour in the near future?
HRD: Yeeeeeeessssssss. The dream of finally touring alone is what’s kept me pushing to finish this. No where is off limits to me, but I am planning an East Coast tour in the Spring and a trip up the West Coast in the Summer.
CZ: If there was just one thing you wanted everyone to know about Hannah Rose Dexter that hasn’t been covered, what would it be?
HRD: No amount of sexual harassment is gonna keep me from playing bass.