Little Pine


oh sunlight is spreading

smoke creeping out of the cracks
and rachel is laughing as I
talk, talk, talk as I
act, act, act as a fool

where you going so quick
mom and dad keeping track of the water
why you running so fast
rachel’s got legs like her mother
and I can see little pine

I can see little pine as I run, run, run

music video: http://vimeo.com/81776009

track: http://moralcircus.bandcamp.com/track/little-pine

Reflections from Moral Circus (Phil Scott, Henry Stewart, Lauren Treiber)

“Little Pine” is named after a creek near a cabin that Henry’s family rented for summer vacations during his childhood. For most of our writing, lyrics stem from an original instrumental idea that one of us creates. We talk about what direction we see the song going lyrically, then work both independently and collaboratively on the lyrics. For “Little Pine,” we agreed that the initial guitar idea communicated warmth, nature, and nostalgia, and took it from there.

The lyrical scene created in “Little Pine,” however, was actually inspired by an earlier song we wrote called “State,” from our first EP, Aches. The words in this song tell of a family cabin--once rich with memories and images--now for sale for reasons unknown to the listener. The guitar for “Little Pine” has similar qualities as “State,” which inspired us to write it as if it were a prequel to the story.

The lyrics, therefore, are a collaboration of both our actual and invented memories, which create a snapshot of a childhood where family trips planned themselves, forests were endless and alive with mystery, and time didn’t exist.

Generally, Lauren and Phil write most of the lyrics and Henry contributes thematic ideas, edits, or finds that perfect word when we’re completely stuck. We wrote most of this song as a group, though the lyrics of other songs were written independently--it totally varies.

In a way, we see our lyrics as poetry, though there are also reasons why we would not. The words and music of our songs are written around each other so much so that the words would not have the same life on paper alone.

We like our songs to guide, not lead, the listener. We try to set up scenes or stories that suggest certain emotions or images but that leave enough space for the listener to interpret them in a way that is unique to their own life. It is a tricky middle ground to arrive at--specific enough to be significant to us, but with enough ambiguity to give the song a life of its own.

No one has covered our work (that we know of) but we are open to the idea. It’s a strange concept, though. At what point does a song’s identity surpass its writer? We’ve certainly enjoyed covering others’ songs, though. Our favorite band to cover is Radiohead, but we’ve also covered songwriters like The Microphones, The National, and David Bazan.

How did you get into song writing?

Phil: I wrote songs before I knew how to play any instruments. For some reason I just really wanted to be a songwriter. At first I wrote songs that were never sung. Later, in high school, I paired up with a good friend of mine who played the guitar and we wrote music together. During this time I was also teaching myself the guitar and eventually reached the point where I could play the songs I wrote.

Henry: I started my musical education with piano lessons when I was five. Over time, my interest grew to a love for music, and I began composing short pieces on the piano. I also began playing the saxophone, flute, double bass, and eventually, the accordion. In college, I studied music composition, and I wrote a lot of dark, expressionist music. With Moral Circus, I played mostly accordion and piano, and sung a little, but my contributions were nearly always musical rather than lyrical, and I really enjoyed being able to work with Lauren and Phil, who could write poetry to the music I was making.

Lauren: Though I’ve sung and toyed around with instruments for a long time, I didn’t really consider myself a “songwriter” until I worked with the UK nonprofit we heart arts. That validation encouraged me to play live shows (in local Michigan venues, kitchens, attics, parks) throughout high school. Since then, I’ve released a couple albums, a few EPs, and collaborated with other musicfolk.

Who are some of your biggest influences and sources of inspiration, musically and otherwise?

Phil: My favorite artist is Phil Elverum. His band is Mount Eerie (formerly known as The Microphones). His music is extremely creative and is the perfect balance between experimental and pleasant. He also makes hilarious comics (another hobby of mine).

Sun Kil Moon also released an album this year called “Benji” that I’ve been obsessing over. The songwriting is so refreshingly unique, non-pretentious, and introspective.

Henry: I listen to a lot of Kanye West, Dmitri Shostakovich, Krzysztof Penderecki, Samuel Barber, Danny Brown, Jonny Greenwood, James Blake, Richard Wagner, Arnold Schoenberg and a few others. I’ve also been affected by Georg Trakl’s poetry.

Lauren: I’m affected most by Hebrew & Christian Scriptures, performance art, and musicians like Radiohead, Breathe Owl Breathe, the tUnE-yArDs, the Microphones, Justin Vernon, Bikini Kill, Stray Kites, Van Morrison, Paul Baribeau, etc. I gravitate most towards boldly honest artists --- the loud, flawed, and unselfconscious.

What, if anything, from Mennonite heritage--broadly speaking--influences your work?

Phil: I was not raised Mennonite, though being around so many Mennonites during my time attending Goshen College certainly influenced my work. For one, I never had such exposure to harmony until reaching Goshen.

Additionally, our song “The Dogwood Tree” incorporates a hymn at the end of the song. Also, during live shows we also like to encourage audience participation. Being as many of our supporters are Mennonites that can carry a tune quite well, this is always a fun experience.

Henry: My home congregation (East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, PA) always sang hymns in four parts, and I always took that for granted when I was a kid, but I think what stuck with me from that was a love for harmony, for chords.

Lauren: I am foundationally and utterly non-Mennonite, though I was delighted by the resurfaced hymns I grew up with (in Methodist and Presbyterian congregations, namely) upon arriving at Goshen College in 2010. Also, singalongs and harmony are pretty standard in my experience as a musician, so I'm glad that’s held true through Moral Circus’ work. There’s something special about two groups of people hollering a tune back at each other.

If you collaborate with others, tell us a bit about that:

Phil: We collaborated with the Goshen theater company GoShakes in fall 2013 for the production of “A Sonnet Soundscape.” Our main job was to create music that was woven into the performance, but we also did a bit of acting too. This experience challenged us in new ways and we also met a lot of great people. This had been my first time acting since seventh grade, so it was really fun for me.

Also, this one time we performed a song with a trumpet section, drums and bass. That was a hoot! I would definitely do that again. There’s something nice about being in a small band, though. Decisions are easier and the songs don’t risk losing their intimacy as much.

Outside of the band I’ve also collaborated with other musicians. Henry and I along with our good friend John have made a handful of lighthearted rap songs together. I was also in a few bands in high school. The three of us in Moral Circus have been really lucky though. We have such similar visions when writing together and our chemistry works well as bandmates. A lot of it probably has to do with the fact that we are also good friends outside of the band.

Lauren: Yeah, the GoShakes experience was pretty astounding. It’s incredible how two arts can fuel one another. Outside of moral circus stuff I’ve played a bit with other GC folk--and, actually, worked some original/cover work into a second goshakes production this spring. And Phil’s right--our friendship, band aside, deepens our capacity to write together… practice is fun, shows are fun. My desire (and ability) to make good and meaningful art with Moral Circus runs largely on my desire to be the best “ensemble member” possible for these dudes I carry so close to my heart. They make all the difference.

If other arts, activities, passions influence your work, tell us what and how:

Phil: I read and draw a lot of comics. I’ve never consciously made any connection between the two, but I’m sure they influence each other whether I’m aware of it or not. I’m also constantly influenced by what art I have recently consumed, what conversations I’ve had, or what I’ve observed during daily life.

Henry: I spend all my creative artistic time writing music, but I pay a lot of attention to the intersection of visual arts and poetry with music, because each art form has the power to inform the other in terms of content and form, expression and emotion.

Lauren: performing certainly influences much of the art I make--any and all words I write are meant to be spoken or sung aloud. I’m really interested in audiovisual interpretations of simple human things (touch, memory, hunger).

How long have you been writing songs? How has your music changed over time?

Phil: I’ve been writing songs for about seven years now. The most obvious way it’s changed is simply in quality. But my style is always changing too. Songwriting for me is a way to process life. Some people keep diaries, I write songs. My songs used to be super vague though, like a secret language that only I could decode. I’m becoming better at opening up though and letting people in.

Henry: Maybe 10 or 12 years? I think it’s definitely gotten a lot darker, emotionally speaking. In some ways, I try to write music that is deeply unhappy and cathartic, music that speaks to the abyss of human emotion. I’m not sure what I’m exactly trying to achieve, but it probably has something to do with understanding that happiness can only be felt if there is unhappiness.

Lauren: Same as Phil--7 or 8 years. My style changed most radically as I feared flaws less (a warbly voice, a weird chording, playing “non-instruments”). The less I fear, the better I write. These days, songwriting comes in waves, in projects--most recently, I challenged myself to write and record a set of songs using only my body and an electric/acoustic ukelele. It turned out pretty well.

About the Author

Moral Circus

Moral Circus is an indie-folk band that formed at Goshen College in 2011. Its members, all 2014 Goshen College graduates, are Phil Scott, Lauren Treiber, and Henry Stewart. They all sing and perform on an eclectic collection of instruments, including accordion, melodica, and even a metal chain. In 2013, they released their first album, Set in Stem.