"It's really small; you can't buy groceries there, and there's only one restaurant," says singer/ songwriter Samara Lubelski about Degenfeld, the German village where she often records. "It's kind of lost in its own time and place, so you can get into your own head much more easily than you would in an urban environment."
Such intimacy comes across on Lubelski's latest album, Parallel Suns. Though richly orchestrated, her songs exude a private aura. As with her two previous solo records (2004's Fleeting Skies and 2005's Spectacular of Passages), Lubelski began Parallel Suns in the Degenfeld studio owned by the group Metabolismus, of which she was once a member.
"They have this farmhouse with a huge yard that goes back to a mountain. There are literally 20 cats living there," she says of their haven. She then returned to New York with the basic tracks, bringing musicians into Brooklyn's Rare Book Room studios to add parts. Contributors included P.G. Six and Helen Rush (her former bandmates in Tower Recordings) as well as Clean drummer Hamish Kilgour.
"I try to keep a pretty loose hand with them," Lubelski explains. "My basic philosophy is to bring in people who have a feel for what I do and just let them do what they think is best."
Lubelski has a lot of experience with unrestricted collaboration, after all: Her three previous groups—Metabolismus, Tower Recordings and Hall of Fame—often built open-ended jams. Songs had basic constructions, but Lubelski says they were always expanding and shifting. These groups applied improvisation—often associated with loud, busy moments, especially in rock—to subdued sounds. Hall of Fame's four albums—essentially, stolen snippets of jams with vocals on top—evoked the mellow prayers of the third Velvet Underground album, the lonely reclusion of Jandek and the tribal rattle of No-Neck Blues Band.
But when Lubelski began making solo music early this decade, she found improv less attractive. "On the last Hall of Fame record, some actual songs snuck in, and I started getting into the idea of arranging stuff," she says. "Fleeting Skies felt like a total release after all those years of improv that relied on the minutiae of vibe—what room we were playing in, just how stoned everyone was, and all that shit."
Lubelski's own music relies on subtle, carefully arranged melodies. At their center is her whispery voice, which gives even her most upbeat songs an ethereal tone. "Honestly, it's my weakest instrument," she says modestly. "But I've developed a style within that weakness, in a way, to bolster it as much as possible."
She's also been careful not to make solo music her only focus. Lubelski is a member of The Golden Road, which backs up her former Tower bandmates MV & EE, as well as Metal Mountains, alongside P.G. Six and Rush. She'll be recording and performing with Metal Mountains when she returns from tour, backing up Rush's songs. "I really loved Tower Recordings, and there was a real sadness when that started slowing down," she says. "Sometimes, playing with them, I get that Tower feeling back, this kind of deep intensity that they always maintained."
Such collaborations remind her of the other side of being in a band, too: "When a group is really on an equal footing, and everyone's fully present, it's pretty much as good as it gets."
Lubelski also works as an engineer at the Rare Book Room, where she's recorded fellow New Yorkers Mouthus, Double Leopards and Sightings. She isn't interested in becoming a professional engineer, but she does like to help bands she values shape their work. "I need to have a good feel for people I'm working with. And the thing that tends to tie them all together is this kind of four-track, home-recording vibe," she says. "In all three of those cases, it was a pivotal point for each band, and I felt like the studio really benefited them at that moment."
Lubelski's highest-profile project as a collaborator is her work with Thurston Moore. She played violin on the Sonic Youth guitarist's last solo album, Trees Outside the Academy, and is a member of his touring group, the New Wave Bandits. Violin was the first instrument Lubelski learned, and she admits it presents "the same issues I've always had. It's ultimately not a rock instrument. It's more subtle, so there's an ongoing challenge of how to make it fit in."
One solution emerged when Moore's group covered the recently unearthed Velvet Underground song "I'm Not a Young Man Anymore." "I figured, I'm going to really attack the violin and do what I thought John Cale would've," explains Lubelski. "I was surprised; I didn't expect it to go off so well and feel so right." Still, don't expect to hear a repeat of In the Valley, her 2003 solo violin album, anytime soon. "For free music, the violin is fantastic," she asserts. "But for actual writing, I need to get on a guitar and get into chords."
Samara Lubelski plays Nightlight Friday, March 21, at 9:30 p.m. with Lam Lam Band and Courtney Brown.