Ships in the Night is the one-woman band of Alethea Leventhal, based in New York. Her second full-length album, and first for Cleopatra Records, Latent Powers, was released in October. She is also a lyricist and vocalist for The Harrow.
Big Sonic Heaven contributor Rick Bourgoise recently spoke to Alethea about the new album and now being on a record label, the process of recording as a soloist, performing live and future plans with The Harrow.
The transcript of this conversation has been edited for length and readability.
Big Sonic Heaven (BSH): Congratulations on the new album. The reception appears pretty good so far.
Alethea Leventhal: It’s been feeling pretty good. It’s definitely a strange time to be putting out music, but so far, so good. It’s kind of a new situation, because this is my first album out on a label. So it’s a little different than what I would have been used to.
BSH: I was going to ask you about that. It’s your second album overall and your first for Cleopatra Records. How has this release been different than your first album?
Alethea: It’s interesting. I’ve been a solo act for quite a while and before that I was in some bands. There are really great things about being solo, but there are things about having another person or a group of people to bounce ideas. There is something about now being signed to a label that feels like there’s more of a community around it. I really like that. I think overall, I’m really enjoying it. It definitely does feel like there’s more support behind it than when you’re just throwing something out into the world wondering how it’ll land.
BSH: It sounds like the label is giving you much more visibility than you had previously.
Alethea: That’s a good way to say it. It’s definitely a little bit different. Cleopatra has been around for so long, and they have a history. That’s something that’s cool to be affiliated with. It’s all pretty new. It happened this summer, and then the album came out this fall, so it’s been plunging into it. Someone wrote to me and was like, “oh, this person told me to check out your music,” and it was a person from the label. So, things getting out that way and just little strings coming from different places. People end up coming back and finding new music, so that’s really cool.
BSH: How did the label relationship come about? Did they come to you?
Alethea: It was December 2019. I played this show in Pittsburgh. I originally wasn’t going to play it because there was a snowstorm, and I was a little bit worried. I usually travel by myself. and so traveling and touring is always a little tentative when there’s weather in the picture. I decided last minute it would be okay. I went up there, and it was a great show. I played with this band, NOIR. The singer of the band is this guy, Athan Maroulis. He has been in a lot of bands who’ve been kind of big in the goth scene for a while, going back pretty far into the 80s and 90s. This is his current project. We ended up chatting after the show. A few weeks later, he wrote me and said “I’m putting together a new compilation for Cleopatra. Would you like to be a part of it?” I was really excited because, when I was a teenager, I knew about Cleopatra. A lot of the bands I listened to were on Cleopatra, so that was pretty cool. I was like, yeah, I would. That led to being also put on a Project Records compilation, another label that I was excited about. In 2020 things were feeling really crazy around music. I was not sure if I should put out the album, wait to put out the album, try to put it out with a label, put it out independently. I was very lost. Something in me was like, I think I should write Athan and just ask, see what he would do because he’s been doing it for 40 years. I wrote him. It was a little bit unlike me to reach out in that way and say I’m a little bit confused. He wrote me back right away and said “I’ve been thinking it might be time for you to cast a wider net.” We ended up talking on the phone, and then it kind of went from there. He’s a real supporter, maybe like a kind of godfather to the genre a little bit. He manages bands and is also sort of like a mentor. He believed in the music and worked the rest of it out. It was a cool way for it to come about. Very organic.
BSH: Once you signed, was there a lot of pressure on you to turn an album out pretty quickly, or were they a little more laid back in terms of, you record and come to us when you’re ready?
Alethea: It was funny because I think I was feeling pressure from myself at that point. It ended up really kind of going down in the summer (signing to the label) but the contract was being put together in the spring. I was like, I really want to put this album out .The interesting thinking with with the label is this unspoken rule that you don’t really release after November, unless it’s a holiday album, which it definitely is not. The idea was that, if you want to put it out this year, you’ve got to put it out in October. They didn’t lay that down, but it was sort of the idea. I was like, I want to put it out this year. I don’t want to wait till next spring. It was the catalyst to making me wrap it up. The album had been really close to done, like every song was close but still a lot of work. Then I do all the mixing, and then I send it off to mastering, but it’s a lot of work even when it’s close to done. That was the real push, and then it got all wrapped up.
BSH: It sounds like you work alone. You don’t have any musicians working with you. Everything is done by you?
Alethea: I do it all pretty much. I was thinking about this the other day. I was writing little vignettes about each of the songs on the album and where they came from and the lyrics and what the songs mean to me. One thing I was mentioning is that I’ve never had a ton of really amazing old analog gear, but I do have lots of friends who have very cool things. Although I write everything myself, there are times where I’ve been able use a friend’s moog to lay a base down or really amazing mics. All of the music is written by me and all the arrangements, and I do the mixing as well. I’m not into mastering. I haven’t gotten into that yet. It’s not something I’m interested in pursuing right now. I like the fact that it’s pretty independent overall.
BSH: I was looking at some of your videos, you seem to have a lot of talent for playing many instruments. I saw a story where you talked about playing piano at a young age. How many different instruments do you play and what are you capable of playing? Obviously, piano and keyboards, but it looks like strings and some other stuff that I saw?
Alethea: How should I define playing the instrument? There are some instruments that I definitely can make some sounds on, but I’m not sure I would say that I play them. Guitar is my first instrument. I play a little bit of bass, but that’s one where I would say that I’m a beginner. Piano. Keyboard. I was a drummer for a punk band in high school, so drums. But I haven’t played them for a while. I have a harp right here. That’s an instrument that I’ve been working on the last few years. And then my most recent sprint over the pandemic has been experimenting with the pedal steel. I’m super into that. I want to use it. It’s an interesting thing and I think I need more pedals to work with it, but I love the sound.
BSH: When did you realize you had a talent for singing as well?
Alethea: I’ve been singing since I started speaking. I really have been. My mom always says that I was singing all the time when I was a little kid. She and my dad met in a band in the 70s in California, so they’re both musicians and just a lot of music going on in the house when I was young. Singing has just been this instinctual thing for me. Not that I was always good at it, but I always love to do it. Now, singing is the one thing that, no matter how bad I’m feeling, or how long of a day it’s been, I always want to do it. There aren’t a ton of things like that where it just feels, at any moment, nice to do. I really cherish it because it brings me a lot.
BSH: Did your parents teach you how to play instruments?
Alethea: A little bit. My mom plays piano. My dad plays guitar. The piano was a lot of just experimentation, and I would just sit at it. I’m definitely not like a trained pianist by any stretch. But guitar, I took formal lessons. I don’t use it a ton on Ships in the Night, but I have played guitar on a few songs. I love playing instruments. It’s very calming. I’m sure a lot of people say that, but it really does feel like it. It just takes you out of the present for a minute. The tactile sensations are able to get you out of your head.
BSH: Why did you decide to record as the name Ships in the Night versus your own name? Why go with a moniker?
Alethea: That’s a good question. I was mentioning I played drums in this punk band when I was in high school. When I was in college I was in this sort of dark folk thing with a couple of my friends. It was sort of casual, but we did that for a little bit. I started making music as Ships in the Night a while ago. It’s when I first started and first started playing with the the loop pedal to build the loops that would then become these songs a few years later. I knew that my life, like music, would keep transforming. I wanted to have a way to place this specific type of music I was doing at the time. For example, I also made music that would be me playing electric guitar and that was different from when I started doing the Ships in the Night. It helped to place it for me and to separate it. What’s interesting about that is now I feel pretty differently. I feel like I’ve made a lot of different types of music under Ships in the Night. I don’t feel like I need to change it. I’ve had those thoughts. I put out this ambient EP earlier this year, and I was like, does that need a different name? Should I put it under some other moniker? I thought, no, I think it’s okay. I think it can all fit under the umbrella.
BSH: Are you still a vocalist with The Harrow?
BSH: How did that all come together? How do you balance between the two?
Alethea: It was in May of 2019. I was playing a show in New York City. Frank, who is part of The Harrow, was doing a DJ set at the show. We ended up talking afterwards, and then a few months later, he was looking for vocals. We chatted and I said, I’m happy to help with anything. I meant it in more of an informal capacity. He took me up on it and was like, yes, let’s let’s do this. It’s been really fun. I think we’re looking at doing some more stuff this winter, which will be nice. I am living in New York City right now, so it’ll be cool to get together and actually work on some music because mostly we’ve been doing it from afar. It feels very different. Making music for Ships in the Night and then writing or collaborating with another band just feels very cool. I really enjoy it because the process is so different. I almost feel like there’s more freedom in it, in a weird way, because with Ships in the Night, I feel that it needs to be so authentic to me. It needs to be so personal. When I’m writing with another band, it’s like I can extrapolate more or I can expand more.
BSH: Create a different identity.
Alethea: Yeah, and I enjoy that. It’s not that I think it has to be one thing for Ships in the Night, but I kind of hold myself to the standards of it being real to me. I never write about something that isn’t something I’ve personally gone through.
BSH: Are you just doing vocals for them? Are you also contributing some music?
Alethea: So far, just lyrics, vocals and melody. I’m not sure how that will evolve. I think it’ll be fun to see this winter what we end up with.
BSH: Take me through the recording process of Ships in the Night because it’s so layered and deep and ethereal. Where do you even start to create those different sounds? And do you write lyrics first and then put the music on top or do you first create the music and then decide on lyrics? How does it all come together?
Alethea: I feel like the process is still sometimes kind of mysterious to me. There’s not a way I’ve set it up that’s a machine for turning out the music. The inspiration is what’s mysterious to me. Oftentimes, it’ll happen when I’m walking around in the world on the street. If I’m driving, a lot of times when I’m in motion, it really tends to be when I think of melodies and words and everything. I sometimes will hear noises in the outside world, some sound like a church bell or the hum of a train, that’ll bring a melody to mind. This is how it sometimes can start. Sometimes, I just get this melody stuck in my head and then when I get home, I’ll record it really quickly. I’ll record it into a phone or something just to get it down. And then, I will take that melody, and use guitar, piano, maybe harp, and I’ll lay down chords behind it. I’ll just experiment. What does that sound like? I’m starting to flesh it out and take these bones and make it more of a body. Once I have the chords behind it, that’s the skeleton of a song. You have the basis of it. That part’s fun, but what’s so fun is getting it into the studio and getting to add and layer. I love drums, so it’s really fun for me to program drums and to make beats. And then, just sounds. I love layering and just adding. “Elegy” was one of the first songs I wrote for Ships in the Night, and I was having so much fun that I ended up totally crashing my computer because I layered like 26 synth tracks. I don’t do it quite to that extent anymore, but I love that part of it where I am adding and layering.
BSH: I’m amazed how you’re able to take all of this work and translate it to a live setting. I saw some of your live performances. I don’t know how you do it, to be honest with you. It’s amazing you’re able to do this by yourself, live.
Alethea: It can be different for every song. Some songs translate way better. Sometimes you really have to work through some things or add things or take things away or do something live and have something not be live.That part is really hard. One of the harder parts is getting it translated into a live setting. I’m glad you think that.
BSH: It’s really amazing. It looks like you have to pre record most of it and maybe just keys that you’re doing live?
Alethea: Mostly keys. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with some live vocal looping, which is really fun. It’s interesting when you’re trying to put together a live show, and what do you want to highlight? Should I try to play all these parts live or do I focus on my singing and my performing and how I’m interacting with the audience? It’s a lot of balancing.
BSH: Are you doing live shows? Are you planning to go out and support the new album?
Alethea: I’m doing a little bit of touring. I have some exciting stuff coming up next spring. I’m doing some one offs and going to some new places I’ve never been, so I’m really excited about that. Hopefully everything goes okay. It’s a strange time. Strange time to be touring. Strange to be planning. But, I think everyone’s just kind of trying to take it as it goes right now and just realize that there’s a chance, at any point, that something’s gonna get cancelled and just roll with it.
BSH: There’s so many different types of music you could make. How did you arrive at this sound?
Alethea: It felt really, really natural to me. When I landed on it, I knew it was right. There was something that just sort of clicked. I played lots of different kinds of music, and I listened to all kinds of music. I’m a fan of the hook. I love things that get stuck in my ears, and I just want to listen to them again. So anything that has that quality, I really will listen to. I think it was just a lot of different influences over time. I grew up really loving stuff from the 80s. I love Depeche Mode. I love Kraftwerk. And then, some influences like Bjork and Kate Bush and these experimental female vocalists. I love David Lynch and Twin Peaks, and that’s been a big influence on my music. So there’s been a lot of influences, but it also feels completely organic. It’s never been with Ships in the Night that there was something I heard and I was like, oh, I want it to sound like this or try to fit into a genre, like I want it to be synth wave or something. I’ve been trying to stay true to myself and the music I want to make. It goes a really strange way sometimes. For example, there’s a song on the new album that is kind of an ambient song, a little bit slower. It’s called “Sun One.” I thought that song would just be blown over. Maybe a few people would appreciate it, but it was something I wrote for myself. It ended up being that a lot of people have really enjoyed that song. How cool that this song, which is really important to me because it’s about a friend of mine who died, has other people appreciate it. It’s good to be authentic to yourself, and then you’ll be surprised sometimes with what that does.
BSH: You’re working on some stuff with The Harrow now. When are you going to turn your attention back to some new music for Ships in the Night?
Alethea: Even talking about it just now, it makes me want to open some stuff up tonight and start working on it. I love composing. It’s so fun. It’s such a flow. It’s such a good feeling. I’m trying to take a little bit of time this winter to celebrate this new release and take some time. But, I find it really hard to stand still. I love to be creating, and so I have a feeling that I’m going to be getting back in the studio sooner rather than later, if not tonight.
BSH: Thank you so much for doing this. We love your music in Big Sonic Heaven, so thank you for making it.
Alethea: Thank you for having me. Thanks for supporting it, and I’m glad we could do this.
The new album by Ships in the Night, Latent Powers, is available now for purchase and streaming.
Big Sonic Heaven Radio Contributing Writer
Big Sonic Heaven is a 24/7 Internet radio station dedicated to the ethereal sounds of shoegaze, dream pop, post-punk, trip-hop, etc. Listen to the artists featured on the blog and discover more by downloading the app for iPhone and Android or listen at bigsonicheaven.com.
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