“We tried our best,” says Susanna Thomson. She’s referring to Sour Widow’s new EP Crossing Over, but she could be speaking about the San Francisco Bay Area trio’s collective efforts to stay creative and productive despite all of the disruptions and obstacles that the pandemic threw up in their way this past year.
“Susanna moved in with me and my parents when our tour fell apart,” says Maia Sinaiko, who’s with Susanna at the band’s practice space in West Oakland.
“I’ve been hiding out at my folk’s place during COVID,” adds Max Edelman from his separate square in our video conference. “In this little music cabin that I built.”
The three have long been friends – Maia and Max grew up in Marin County together and Susanna and Maia met at a Berkeley-based circus and performing arts summer camp – and their well-worn, almost familial, familiarity with each other comes through as affable warmth and reciprocal support.
“I went crazy outdoorsy this year,” says Max.
“Max went full mountain biker dad,” interjects Susanna, laughing.
“Mountain goat,” Max beams back to more laughter from us all.
“I started smoking again,” Maia says. “That was my hobby that I picked up. A bad hobby.”
“Beer,” Max adds. “One beer a day.”
Susanna excitedly pipes up, “I’ve been cutting Maia’s hair!”
“Oh, I thought you were going to say you’ve been sewing and making gift packages for friends,” says Maia.
“Oh, yeah, I have been sewing.”
“Susanna got really crafty.”
“Oh!” says Susanna, “Also, there is a hummingbird nest on top of Maia’s porch light and we got really into watching them grow up.”
“We were documenting their lifecycle,” says Maia. “It was really beautiful. Really precious.”
The three’s nimble rapport and well-timed banter will not surprise fans of the group’s tightly composed, collaborative rock songs. Beginning in 2017 as a duo, Sour Widows has grown from Maia and Susanna’s gentle intertwining guitar melodies and gorgeous vocal harmonies, adding Max on drum kit a year later. Timmy Stabler, who now lives in New York, also joins them on bass on the band’s last two EPs, as well as at some shows.
With Maia and Susanna living together early on in the pandemic, they were able to continue writing music and developing work-in-process. They also had time to take an online guitar intensive together with Buck Meek of Big Thief, another band that builds on the central chemistry of their two guitarists.
“I think, more than anything, we just had more time to, like, actually write some stuff together,” says Susanna. “It was nice, being at Maia's parents’ house, just messing around every day. (“Working on guitar stuff whenever we wanted,” interjects Maia.) We just had more time to, yeah, explore guitar stuff and just write. All of the stuff that we've written since the first EP just gets increasingly more complicated on guitar, and I think that's certainly because we had time to just, like, really, really dive in. (“Dig into the instrument,” says Maia.) Yeah. Become better players as well.”
“I think we each have our own skill sets that work well together,” adds Maia. “We both play a significant amount on our own but, getting together, there's always like a cool chemistry that happens, that clicks things into place.”
Crossing Over is Sour Widow’s third EP. Released by Exploding in Sound last month, it is their first with label support. While 2018’s home-recorded big girls bedroom showcased the intimate singer-songwriter origins of the project, 2020’s eponymous studio album highlighted the tempestuous dynamics, enabled by the addition of the rhythm section, that the band was already becoming known for during their moving live performances. Crossing Over finds the band reaching new levels of sonic and emotional complexity as they sought to address the challenges of recording an album during the pandemic.
“The recording process was really a big learning experience for us,” says Maia. “We recorded everything separately, so it was a lot of troubleshooting. And Cody Hamilton, our engineer, was instrumental in helping us out with some of that. We were expecting it to kind of be like, ‘Oh, this is the material, we can record ourselves, and let's not worry too much about the final product.’ We just wanted to produce something together. And then, of course, all of us being intense perfectionists, we're like, ‘No, we have to get it as close to perfect as we can.’ But it meant that we just demoed the songs very deep in a very detailed way. And we practiced a lot together intensively for one week in Mendocino. So it just meant that by the time we were recording, we were really locked in and had to think extra hard about how to make it feel close and intimate. And I think we succeeded at that.”
Max adds, “It was really interesting how we had to record it ourselves and how that changed it. Because I could sit at my drum set and just, like, really fine tune, you know. I was in my own environment; I had all this time on my hands. These new songs really made me have to take each emotional intent that much more seriously, like just acknowledging every song and what they have to say and how they work together. It was really nice to give all of these details a lot of attention.”
Susanna and Maia have never shied from mining the depths of their personal experiences to write their songs, but, as Max points out: “it was one of the most emotional records for me to track on.” This may be especially true for both the title track and the lead single “Bathroom Stall.”
“‘Crossing Over’ is definitely inspired by a long distance relationship I was in with someone who I met when we were on tour,” explains Susanna. “It was definitely something that really puts your life into perspective when you're in it, because it's, like, a constant choice and, you know, there's just so much to juggle. It just made me think a lot about what are the most important things to me in my life. Like, what am I putting before everything else? So that definitely informed that song, and also wanting to find a feeling of peace within all that, a bit of catharsis in just how things are.”
“‘Bathroom Stall’ was a song that I wrote in 2017, after my partner at the time had... very sadly... I mean it's odd to talk about in an interview, but, yeah, ODed and passed away," says Maia. "It was a time when I was writing a lot of music, most of which I wasn't intending on ever sharing. When we decided to pivot to this quieter, self-recorded EP, it was a song that I floated as something we could learn as a band. And then, when we started digging into it and really making it a full band experience, we took it to a place that I'd never pictured for the song. And, like, now it's hard to un-picture. It feels like a whole other thing now because of the dynamics and the nuance and the experimentation that we were able to create as a group. And I've just been really overwhelmed with gratitude about how it's been received, and how thoughtful and sweet everyone who's reached out has been.”
Maia, Susanna, and Max are nearly all fully vaccinated and have begun planning for a busy year even though so much is still so uncertain.
“I think it's pretty likely that we'll be able to get into the studio at some point this year, like in the fall,” says Susanna. “We definitely have a lot of new material. And, yeah, we really want to record our first full length.”
They may also learn Enema of the State and the “Blue Album” in their entirety.
“We got really into Blink 182,” says Susanna, as she starts the band off on a very long list of music that has kept them all going throughout the year-long public health crisis.
“Really into Blink 182,” agrees Maia. “And Weezer. Steely Dan and Pink Floyd were carrying me through the first quarter of the pandemic. I became a Fairfax father. Me and my dad really connected on that.”
“Max has been listening to a lot of crazy Icelandic shit I can't pronounce,” says Susanna with a laugh.
“Yeah,” Max smiles. “I listen to a lot of weird stuff.”
Of course, like every band, they have one hope for the near future.
“Playing shows,” Maia says bluntly.
“The idea of getting to play live music again,” Susanna wells. “If it ever comes back, I know I'm gonna cry, like, at all of the shows I go to.”
“I used to be so ugh going to the show, schlepping all my stuff,” says Maia. “And now I can't wait to get in the car and hurt my back loading my amp out. It's just... I miss it so much. Miss it so much.”