Interview: Granville Automatic Find ‘New World’ By Exploring History Through Music
Singer-songwriters Elizabeth Elkins and Vanessa Olivarez, together known as Granville Automatic, know that the history books have myriad stories to stories. In August of 2015, the two artists released their second studio album, An Army Without Music, inspired by lesser-known anecdotes from the Civil War, and, since then, the duo has continued to explore those historical moments and places.
Elkins and Olivarez first wrote together in 2009, often weaving together story songs and occasionally finding inspiration in history.
"I've always been a big fan -- well, not a fan of war, but fascinated with and a student of war," Elkins tells The Boot, "and Vanessa has always loved great stories."
Plans for an entire war-inspired album, however, did not come together until early 2012, when Elkins and Olivarez were accepted into the Escape to Create residency in Seaside, Fla., and spent their month in the program writing what would become An Army Without Music. Rather than focusing on the well-known Civil War moments -- Fort Sumter, Gettysburg, Bull Run, etc. -- Granville Automatic found inspiration in more personal fare: a doctor who tried to save soldiers following the Battle of Perryville, Ky.; a soldier who deserted on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg; a little girl whose horse was taken by the army; and many more.
Facts such as names, dates and places were, of course, important to Elkins and Olivarez, but the real goal was to find a voice for the subject(s) of each song -- to write "from a slightly sideways perspective," as Elkins puts it. Their other goal was to create historical songs that also contained more universal moments, so that a listener who doesn't know the stories can still related to An Army Without Music.
"When we write any subject on history, we want the chorus, in particular, to feel like it's something that people can relate to their own lives," Elkins notes. "We don't want it to feel like a recounting of an event or anything that feels like boring history. We really do want it to feel like it could apply not only to that situation but to others, and that it's something that's a little bit bigger than just the facts."
However, those who do know the stories -- or those who want to -- are in for a treat. Granville Automatic's website offers up all of the songs' lyrics, as well as their backstories, and while each one is worth discovering, some are extra special. "Salem Church," for example, is of special importance to Elkins, as it is about great-great-great-great-grandfather, George Monroe Fisher, a Salisbury, N.C., resident who enlisted in the Confederate Army, then went AWOL on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Elkins discovered the information while doing genealogy research, "[a]nd it just triggered this thought for me: Well, did this guy leave because he was afraid or -- he left the morning of the battle -- did he know a battle was about to happen, or did he leave simply because he missed his wife? Was it love that led him back, or was it fear?"
Elkins' favorite song on the album, however, is "Mollie Glass," about a young girl from Alabama whose horse, Di Vernon, was taken by the Jeff Davis Artillery (Confederate) for battle and was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Granville Automatic learned of the story thanks to a man who saw them in concert.
"Horses are a big part of my life. I grew up riding, [and] I had a horse most of my adult life, too," Elkins says. "... Trying to understand what that little girl had felt, and trying to understand what I would feel like myself if an army showed up when i was eight or nine and took my horse ... and then also, I loved trying to figure out what that horse must have felt ... I like the idea of having those two perspectives together."
Olivarez, meanwhile, had a ball writing "Chantilly Grace" from the point of view of a mahogany sideboard that sat in a mansion in Chantilly, Va. The house changed sides throughout the war, but the sideboard was too heavy to move.
"Just the way it came out is stunning ...," Olivarez explains. "That was a story [that], I was really excited when I found it, and I just knew it was perfect for what we do conceptually ... It was something deeper and more interesting, and a story that needed to be told. I felt like I had unlocked some sort of secret garden when I found that."
Elkins and Olivarez have been visiting the locations that inspired each of the songs on An Army Without Music -- which takes its title from a Robert E. Lee quote. Rather than being protected as historical sites, these places are now "ice cream shops, interstates, parking lots, graveyards and Targets," per Granville Automatic's website. They've also filmed a music video for "Goodnight House," the song about the doctor at the Battle of Perryville.
"The way the director saw this song ... he took it almost as a decay-of-modern-society song," Elkins points out. "... It's going to be so different from what you would think a Civil War video would be like."
Granville Automatic are currently working on two albums: The first is based on Olivarez's childhood and contains songs about Texas, but it's less historical than An Army Without Music; however, the second project features tunes inspired by stories of forgotten New York City.
"That's the good thing about writing these stories and historical stuff is, you kind of never run out of ideas ...," Elkins admits. "Sometimes you can feel limited in an idea, sometimes you get a little bit of writer's block ... and this history path has led us just to so many concepts. It's like a whole new world opening up as a songwriter, and it feels really exciting."
An Army Without Music is available for download on iTunes.
Watch Granville Automatic's "Goodnight House" Music Video