First there was deconstructed food, then deconstructed cocktails. Now Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters bring us the “deconstructed album” — a fancy phrase for a series of paired singles released each month through December in the buildup to their double album, The Devil/The Deep Blue Sea.
While musical artists have long dropped a single or two in advance of a full record release to build anticipation and drive sales, this purposeful, elongated approach is a more recent phenomenon, and one that the Asheville-based Americana band’s frontwoman sees as largely beneficial.
Platt compares studio sessions for past projects as being “almost like an assembly line,” where tracks would get laid down over the course of a week in a highly ordered manner. But for The Devil/The Deep Blue Sea, the songs are based more on guitar and vocal demos that Platt recorded and brought to the band, which changed the recording process itself, arguably for the better.
“I feel like each song gets more attention,” Platt says. “It’s just a different approach. We never sat down to do all of them at once, so it feels more like each song is kind of getting its own day in the sun.”
In lieu of touring, which hasn’t been possible during the COVID-19 pandemic, Platt and fellow local artists are reconsidering how they present their music and approach full-length albums. And while various challenges arise with deviating from the long-held industry standard of releasing a record and hitting the road to promote it, enough perks are evident that it could prove to be the new norm.
Like Platt, Heather Taylor is focusing on releasing singles, but without conscious thought toward putting out an album. The Asheville-based singer-songwriter is as surprised as anyone to be in this position — as this writer can attest, being Taylor’s partner and housemate for the past year as she’s embraced this new direction.
An Xpress advertising consultant from 2017-20, Taylor was figuring out how to expand her music career during that time, had recently invested in a new home studio setup and was steadily growing her performance footprint. Then the pandemic hit, and a week later, Taylor became one of seven Xpress employees who were laid off for budgetary reasons. Though the sudden unemployment gave her more opportunities to focus on music, all of the venues she’d lined up for gigs over the next few months temporarily closed.
Largely confined to her house in compliance with the statewide Stay at Home Order, Taylor did a few Facebook Live mini-sets, but otherwise turned her attention to recording. Having hands-on experience with the time, financial investment and pressures of studio albums, she sought the freedom (and reduced cash outlay) possible via self-producing, mixing and mastering, while also acknowledging the patience required to achieve even a baseline understanding of those skills.
“As a musician, you’re always making an investment of time, money and energy into yourself or someone else,” Taylor says. “Ideally, you’re investing in both so you can help grow the music community and yourself and hit that sweet spot. There’s a balance, but sometimes you have to invest in yourself first.”
While tinkering with the digital audio workstation Logic and researching solutions when issues arose, she stumbled upon an ad for Sync Songwriter’s “The Art of Song Pitch” online course and quickly enrolled. Prompted by course assignments, she soon began experimenting with different genres (for e.g., an organ-heavy funk jam) and songwriting traditions (such as a breakup song from a fictional character’s perspective). While those early attempts are still being workshopped, the risks she took with them and developed in subsequent songs have resulted in the most diverse and prolific year of her music career, plus steady improvement on the engineering side.
“That class triggered my long-held goal of having one of my songs used in a movie or TV show,” Taylor says. “Sometimes, the music industry can feel bleak — and it certainly did starting last year. This kind of saved my future relationship with music.”
Ahead of her time
Still, the enhanced focus on singles is in its infancy, and wrinkles continue to be ironed out. While testing out that approach, Platt’s Organic Records label mate Anya Hinkle is experiencing a fair amount of pushback from media outlets that, for various reasons, have long eschewed singles coverage in lieu of waiting until a full album is available. That attitude extends to radio stations, and though WNCW and others have come around to playing her singles, she says certain broadcasters are sticking to the old ways.
“I think a lot of radio stations are in that mode where they used to just cover albums. They don’t want to just do a single, but so many [stations] are doing that now, they’re going to miss the boat,” Hinkle says. “They’re going to be the last people playing that song. And the artists are counting on that radio play for charting purposes and royalties and all that other stuff, so it’s not helpful to not play the singles from the artist’s perspective.”
Radio spins also provide an important bridge between artist and listener as both sides anticipate the day that a physical copy of the eventual album may be experienced on a turntable or CD player. Hinkle and Platt point out that while a good amount of their fans are internet-savvy and use streaming services to access their digital singles, a fair number of Americana listeners remain analog and are potentially being left out.
“On the one hand, we have a label saying, ‘[Streaming] is the only way.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ But I’ve got these people that are my supporters that are like, ‘I don’t stream. What do I do?’ And I’m in the middle,” Hinkle says. “That’s something that we’re navigating. We’re figuring out ways to continue to engage people.”
Accentuate the positives
Over the past year, Hinkle has released six singles off her forthcoming 11-track July album, Eden and Her Borderlands, allowing her to “get some buzz through radio play and other media.” She also feels that the plan is helping make the transition from her former band Tellico to sharing music under her personal moniker much easier.
“If I just put an album out under my own name, nobody knows who I am, even if they were interested in Tellico,” Hinkle says. “That’s been really helpful to have a lot of opportunities to talk about what I’m doing and my new direction.”
The press releases for each single (or, in Platt’s case, paired singles) additionally allow the artists to contemplate the inspirations and intentions behind the songs. Platt notes that the extended timeline has often imbued her reflections with greater introspection than they otherwise might have had, and also gives the collection’s B-sides “a little extra push,” whereas usually such songs would receive less attention. For her and Hinkle, Platt additionally sees the potential for a “snowball effect,” where any one of the singles could catch someone’s attention and pull them into the overall projects.
Pulling in listeners with a standalone song instead of expecting them to sit with a full album is also proving true for Taylor. And the independence that’s come from not focusing on compiling sufficient material for a cohesive LP or EP has encouraged her to take some of her original tunes in directions far different from their initial acoustic renderings. Both “Love Will Keep Us Here” and “Goofy Life” morphed into soulful, full-band rock anthems, helped by collaborations with full bands she connected with through Sync Songwriter and an audio engineering course. And those tunes could eventually form the backbone for an album if complementary songs arise.
“I can decide month-to-month how I’m feeling and what kind of vibe I want to create for myself and my audience,” Taylor says. “It’s not as taxing to record and release this one thing. I’m not putting my everything into one album, then feeling drained for a year. They’re sprints instead of marathons.”