There are a lot of indie bands out there.
When I’m bored, I’ll go through a million layers of “related artists” on Spotify, hoping to find one that sticks out in a long, often unfruitful search.
I found Valley during one of these searches. Anytime I find a small indie act with a few hundred thousand streams on a song, I’ll give them a listen, expecting them to sound exactly like the other twenty I found during that hour of my life I won’t get back.
But when I found Valley, I was reminded why I go down those Spotify rabbit holes.
They instantly caught my ear when I clicked on their most-played song, “Swim.” The guitar tones and electronic elements were reminiscent of The 1975, while the vocals were intimate and clear, singing lyrics that flowed easily but had an emotional edge that made me pay attention to what I was hearing.
And then the drop came. And with it, a sitar.
Yeah, a sitar. Seriously.
I knew instantly that Valley was a stand-out in a crowd of (often underwhelming) indie-pop bands. I kept listening, and song after song hit me with a new wave of fresh, atmospheric sounds riddled with small production elements that suggest the band has been doing this for much longer than they actually have. Their short, nine-song album This Room Is White ranges from loud and driven to soft and intimate, from a fun jam session to an anthemic sing-this-with-us. Three of the tracks don’t even have lyrics, but are compelling enough as standalone soundscapes. Their balance of creativity, catchiness, and lyrical depth is consistently on display.
Now, don’t get me wrong, plenty of bands and artists have a melody or two that can easily catch my ear, or write a few lyrics that make me think, huh, that’s a pretty good line. But for whatever reason, Valley is different. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m convinced that there’s an X-factor the best bands have, and that Valley has it.
Maybe it’s the fact that they’re obviously having fun making their music, with songs like “Soldier.”
Maybe it’s how they’ve found out exactly how to get listeners to feel something, with songs like “Slacks.” (If you don’t believe me, just watch the music video.)
Whatever it is, I stand by my opinion, and I urge you to listen to them and see for yourself.
After you do that, I encourage you to read on. Just as their music is a combined effort, they answered our questions as a group as well. Find out what Karah, Rob, Mike, and Alex have to say about music, songwriting, and the story behind “Swim.”
How did you guys start making music together?
We were originally two separate bands and were double booked at a studio, and ended up really liking each other’s music but were both looking for something fresh, so we started Valley shortly after.
Your style is creatively different from the styles of other indie-pop bands. How did you arrive at that style?
We have a lot of different musical tastes within the band. Karah’s drumming style is based around a lot of focus on studying world beats and jazz, but also is heavily influenced by electronic pop music, whereas Mike comes from a mo-town background and focuses on production. Rob has a very diverse musical taste and enjoys music culture, so he has a unique perspective and is always on top of finding the next big band (hipster alert). Alex focuses a lot on alternative pop, and guitar based music. So with that said, the band just kind of turned into this melting pot of tastes, which sometimes makes it hard to agree on songwriting and production decisions, but in the end a song can come from a unique perspective. When deciding on things like sounds, melodies, chord progressions, etc., we like to either push boundaries or be classic. We pull a lot from nostalgic sounds of our childhood, so if we’re doing something that’s been heard before, we like to make sure it’s a throwback classic sound and do it with intent of an era or vibe.
Who are your influences?
Hardest question to answer! It’s also what inspires us, not just who. A lot of lyrics stem from movies, books, and other media. We grew up on such a diverse collection of music. Different elements of our music are influenced by different things. Some artists we love influence us on the production side, some artists influence us on a lyrical side, and others are melodic. Big influences are Coldplay, Jack Antonoff, Fleetwood Mac, Bon Iver, and John Mayer, to name a few.
Why do you write songs?
We write songs because we have to. Music making is a necessity of the soul; it’s like eating or sleeping. Music making is just a thing that we need to do in order to be sane. For us, music seems not to be an escape or way out, but a way through.
Do you guys co-write as a band, or is one of you the main songwriter of the group?
Yes, we co-write everything as a band, and sometimes we work with external people. We found collaboration is the best way for us to achieve the sound we want. Everyone in the band brings a different style and different story to the songs.
How does it work? Who writes which parts?
There is usually an initial idea that we have recorded in our voice notes and then we all build upon it as a band. It gets filtered and filtered until the song is crafted to be the best version that we could have made it into.
How do you write? Do you start with lyrics or melody, chorus or verse, riff, big idea or stream of consciousness, etc.?
We like to think that a song already exists in space and time and it is our job as artists to find it and carve it out and translate it to the public. When you write a song that you are really proud of, it feels like it is sort of an out-of-body experience. We wouldn’t necessarily remember writing it because it was such a spiritual process, not in a religious way, but in the sense that music is just so much bigger than the body.
To answer the question more literally, it starts all different ways. Sometimes it’s singing a melody in the shower, sometimes it’s a line or even a word that brings meaning to you and you craft a whole song around it. Sometimes it’s just a vibe or a beat that we hear and we make an instrumental in that vibe just to jam, and it turns into a song! For the new record we’ve been working on, a lot of the initial demos started from samples. We acquired this OP-1 sampler that we take with us everywhere. You can sample movement of people, street noise, basically anything you can imagine with it, and make beautiful arrangements.
What role does production play in the songwriting process?
For us it’s huge. We generally produce the song while we write it! After the initial short melody or line is written, we lay down a beat or chordal instrument and build an instrumental, then usually sing a scratch vocal on it (which often makes it to the final recording). The first time Rob sings the song, he’s usually in the moment of the lyrics and melody and sings it with the most soul. He also likes to just sing random lyrics and melodies over the top of the instrumental and write parts like that. We like to make the instrumental while writing because different sounds and beats inspire melodies and lyrics. We make sure afterwards that the songs sound great as just piano and vocal though, because a great melody and lyric should still be great with no production. All that stuff just helps with inspiration and writing!
You guys are very creative and purposeful with the sounds and instruments you pick for each song. Each song is different, but your last album was very cohesive despite that. Is it a challenge to balance creativity and cohesiveness in that way?
It’s very hard! Every week we’re into a new and different artist or style of music and sometimes it’s tempting to just make a fully R&B song or a folk song. I think the key we found is to come together with all the different influences we have and melt them together into one sound. You can hear elements of all the different styles we listen to put into the songs. We’re striving to make it more cohesive on this record too.
How do you write a melody?
It’s not a very methodical process, it usually just comes. Sometimes you really have to work for it and shape it, and that can take a while. There isn’t a rhyme or reason to it, for our music at least. A lot of melodies come at random times of the day, so each of us have our iPhone voice notes app full of title melodies lacking lyrics that we can just scroll through when we are looking to write music.
How do you write lyrics?
Similar to the melody writing process, where our iPhone notes app is full of words and phrases we will whip it out and scroll through if we are dry for lyrics. A lot of the time, lyrics will form naturally when you are singing a melody. We usually have to work a little harder for the second verse, as it doesn’t come as naturally as the initial idea and spark came.
Would you rather write on personal experiences or general themes, and which approach comes more easily?
I think this changes on the daily. It’s funny – we find whenever we try to write about a personal experience we end up writing about someone else’s perspective on it. And months later, you figure out what you were trying to really say. A lot of the lyrics come out so subconsciously for us that it’s hard to pin it down to one concept right away.
What makes a song good?
A song that makes you feel.
Do you put more emphasis on lyrics or sound?
Depends where you’re listening in the arrangement of the song. In some sections we will obviously push lyrics before the instrumental if it’s a lyrical hook or phrase we want to hit people hard with, and sometimes we like to highlight an instrumental if it’s just a feel good jam part, or there’s a really cool production element that we want to be the highlight.
Almost all of your songs have multiple distinct vocal parts; Swim has the “aaaahs” before and in the middle of the pre-chorus, Slacks has that intricate duet especially in the second verse, and Say and Soldier have whole sections sung with gang-vocals. Is there a specific reason for that?
Thank you for the kind the words and for noticing the little things we do that make the songs special to us! Vocal production really excites us. A lot of the music we listened to growing up wasn’t as much about how perfect the vocal was, but more so about how much soul, uniqueness, and character the vocal had, and how that made you feel. Using a crowd could make you feel like a part of the group singing it, whereas a tight intimate vocal saying a special lyric might sound like the singer is speaking to you directly. We use the different feelings of different vocal sounds to create imagery and feelings.
What emotions or thoughts do you want your music to inspire?
Every record will have different themes, and with those different themes, different emotions will hopefully occur. We can’t possibly know what emotions will come about when people listen to our music, but the most important goal is to make people feel something, good or bad.
People should feel more.
Be vulnerable, be happy and excited, hopeful, sad, whatever you need to feel in that moment. Hopefully our music can be a soundtrack to people’s lives.
What was the first part of Swim to be written? A lyric, a melody, a riff, etc.?
Swim as an idea has existed for quite a while. The initial vocal melody was written on this old Casio keyboard that Rob had since he was a kid. The guitar intro came shortly after. Then we built on the song for months and months, playing it in the room together working it out. It was an amazing process looking back on it now.
You guys have mastered the art of building up tension in songs and finding the perfect moment to release it, and Swim is a good example. Is that a specific goal of yours, and is there a method to making it happen?
The goal for almost every song of ours is to have a really definite beginning, middle, and end. We call this the “orchestral arrangement”. We also use a term often in the production process called “a parachute moment,” which is where we strive for the song to really lift / suck some air out and give you a sonic perspective. Almost like you’re falling on top of the song from a million miles up.
How did you decide on the instrumentation during the drop?
Karah has a love of world music, and also electronic music, so we blended those 2 styles with a Latin “Songo” drum beat and a sitar lead. Rob at the time was listening to a lot of sample-based music and getting into instrumentation that sonically felt fresh. Jack Steadman (Bombay Bicycle Club) was one of the big artists to really introduce us to beautiful pop songs wrapped up in a blanket of world sounds and production. It was inspiring to watch unfold.
Who did you write it for?
Swim isn’t about anyone specifically. It definitely stems from someone we’ve known and loved – how we’ve all felt before – but it is more about the character described in the lyrics. We all know people who we are bound to for whatever reason, and sometimes you watch them fail, and watch them struggle, and it hurts to see this, but the lyrics
Swim with me, get to some place better
I’ll be waiting on you forever
will put a light in the tunnel.
When did you know it was finished?
Simple answer: We knew it was finished when there was nothing else in the song we wanted to hear.
Less simple answer: It is always hard to let go of a song and send it to mixing, because there’s endless possibility of experimenting with a song, but you would drive yourself mad, so there comes a point when you just have to release it, and trust the art will do its job.
Any other details about Swim’s writing, production, or recording processes you’d like to share?
It’s definitely been a journey. The song taught us a lot about how we write and produce music, where it comes from, and how to capture it best. It really represents the path that we are on now with the new record. It’s an extension and anchor that means so much to us.
So, you guys are working on your next album right now. Do you have any details you’re able to share right now about album length, inspiration, release, etc.?
We are diving into our first full length album. We are working with an incredible producer who we are co-producing the record with in a studio called Villa Sound in Collingwood, ON, and in our home studio. The album is very conceptual, and without giving away a lot of the theme, we are basically writing about the way we see our generation, and zooming out on a lot of the common themes our cohorts experience.
Are there any touring plans in the works?
At the moment there are no plans, but the plan will be to tour as much as we can once we have some new music out!
And our last question, as always: what advice would you give to other songwriters?
Karah: “Knowledge simply gives a person an understanding, whereas vision is where power lies. Focus on your big picture, on your vision. You don’t need to know everything to do something truly great. It might actually be better to not know.”
Rob: “Write because you need to write, not because you want to. Don’t think about anything but saying what you need to say. If it comes from the heart or from an honest place, it will make a difference in a positive way.”
Mike: “There will always be a group of people that love your music, and a group of people that hate your music. So you may as well write music that you love. I think the biggest struggle for writers is trying to write for other people’s satisfaction – writing within a box and with guidelines and expectations. But if you look back on music that changed the world, it broke all those things. Push boundaries in small ways, and don’t think about other people while you’re writing. Write because it makes you feel, and if it makes you feel, it’ll make others feel too.”
Alex: “One of the most important things I’d say is to listen to everyone’s opinion and advice, but don’t take everything to heart. Staying true to your internal voice is key. You won’t be happy if you’re living and telling someone else’s dream.”