Just one listen to Adam Green & Binki Shapiro is enough to become enchanted. With deceptively pretty arrangements that echo filigreed late-sixties folk-pop and an easygoing rapport between singers, this duets collaboration may seem like the perfect accompaniment to a sunny summer’s day, Southern-California style. But it works even better as a comforting soundtrack at the end of a dark, lonely night in the big city. The atmosphere the pair conjures up with strummed guitars and discreet layers of synths indeed suggests romantic possibility, but the lyrics are more sweetly melancholic, gently but candidly addressing betrayal, incipient heartbreak, and conjugal discord. It’s an approach that makes for compelling repeated listening, as the intimate dramas reveal themselves, and it’s one that surprised even Green and Shapiro as their debut album together began to take shape.
On their own, Green and Shapiro have long been notable figures among indie-pop fans, cherished for their off-kilter sensibility (him) and elegantly quirky style (her). As part of New York City’s “anti-folk” scene at the end of the nineties, Adam Green first came to prominence as one-half of Moldy Peaches, his duo with Kimya Dawson that enjoyed belated mainstream success via the Grammy-winning soundtrack of the 2007 indie film Juno. By the time the world had discovered Moldy Peaches, however, Green had already embarked on a solo career as a singer-songwriter, visual artist and filmmaker, enjoying chart success in Europe with idiosyncratic tunes like “Jessica” (a straight-faced lament for Ms. Simpson) and “Emily.”
Shapiro was one-third of Little Joy, a, breezy Brazilian-accented Los Angeles trio formed with Fabrizio Moretti of the Strokes and Rodrigo Amarante of Brazilian combo Los Hermanos that enchanted both critics and listeners with its eponymous 2008 debut LP. Shapiro was already known among the cognoscenti through her video collaborations with Beck for his 2006 album The Information and on the lovely covers of Leonard Cohen songs Beck uploaded to his Record Club blog. Shapiro has also been spotlighted by fashion magazines for her charming retro-modern look as well as her vocal talent, and the Los Angeles Times recently named her one of “30 Under 30” artists to watch.
Green, who sang backup on Little Joy’s album, became better acquainted with Shapiro when he opened for the trio on a Brazilian tour. He knew then that he wanted to work with her, even though he had no concept of what form a collaboration might take: “I really, really liked Binki’s voice – it’s just amazing -- and she was the number-one person I wanted to collaborate with.”
Spotlighted on “Casanova,” Shapiro is alternately dreamy and torchy. She renders an acid-tinged love letter to a roué over a slow-dance tempo that will surely entice couples to sway extra-close together. In “Pity Love,” she and Green vocalize as affably as Nancy and Frank Sinatra on “Something Stupid,” while trading lyrics that are cheerily neurotic.
Though she is once again a Los Angeleno, Shapiro was living in New York when she and the Manhattan-based Green began to explore what they might create together. Their affinity was immediate. At Shapiro’s apartment, they would scribble lyric ideas on index cards and spread them out on the floor. As Green recalls, “We found we were able to agree on what was good and what was bad and we were good critics of each other’s sensibilities and taste. We were able to agree on how the songs should go.”
Shapiro concurs: “It was a very vulnerable thing, sitting there and showing someone your lyrics, your words and ideas and opening yourself up to being critiqued. But it turned out to be very natural and easy. We pulled out certain things from each other that wouldn’t have happened on our own.”
The experience proved to be even more cathartic than they’d imagined. They were each going through their individual romantic travails at the time and their songwriting became a channel for their real-life emotions. They didn’t so much decide simply to speak their minds but to read each other’s thoughts, intuitively finding words for what the other might be feeling. That brought freedom as well as empathy to their enterprise, allowing the material to be surprisingly heartfelt and honest, even when one was mouthing the other’s words.
“We were both going through transitional stuff, “Green admits, “romantic dysfunction type situations. There was something existential about it; two people who are singing together but who are very isolated. There is something kind of funny about me writing Binki’s breakup record and she writing mine. I would write something down and think,’this is the perfect thing for Binki to say’. And I felt like she would have the same thoughts about me.”
“It’s interesting when you write and think about somebody else singing the words,” Shapiro says. “You take all the vanity out of it. You say what you want to say. It created a freer space to write whatever we wanted.” Continues Green, “We’re both really romantic and we wanted to make this really romantic record, but it ends up being more reflective. I didn’t picture this before we made it and I can’t think of a reference point, another record that has this feeling.”
A duets album has perhaps never sounded quite so harmonious yet so bittersweet. Green and Shapiro come across as confidantes, kindred spirits, translating difficult personal circumstances into beautifully crafted tunes, from the layered angelic voices at the top of opening track “Here I Am” to the psychedelic-pop sound of “I Never Found Out” and the surf-guitar interlude of “What’s the Reward” to the elegant mournful closing waltz of “ The Nighttime Stopped Bleeding.” This intimacy can be explained by the writing process; the pair sequestered themselves whenever they got together, frequently flying between New York City and L.A to work on the songs. Once happy with their creations, Green and Shapiro cut tracks at a studio in Encino, California, along with musician-producer Noah Georgeson (Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newson, Little Joy), multi-instrumentalist Josiah Steinbrick, drummer Jason Boesel and Todd Dahlhoff.