I first heard Graph Rabbit (Austin Donohue and Shy Kedmi) this past September, just as Fall was beginning. Their press release smartly citing the new, cool “snap in the air” I’d become keenly aware of — promised that Only Fields, from the duo’s debut, Snowblind, would have me hearing “wintery sleigh bells” and “whitewashed acoustic deliciousness.”

The press release rang true — and then some. The lilting, twinkling lullaby that is Only Fields instantly conjured visions of silver-furred bunnies hopping on snow-covered hills, while distant stars glimmered in a firefly-dappled, violet-hued sky. (Seriously, no shit. That’s exactly what I heard). I felt transported by its electronic melodies made thoughtfully warm with organic, acoustic touches. Despite the band’s album title, it was clear this was a band with great vision.

Graph Rabbit’s founder, Austin Donohue, recently agreed to discuss this carefully-nurtured sonic aesthetic with me, proving a most welcoming and gracious guide to the band’s unusual, very beautiful otherworld.

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Where does the name Graph Rabbit come from — and why was it the right name to represent what you do?
I don’t read music at all so when we were working out some of the more intricate finger-picked patterns for the record we created our own notation system using graph paper. So graph paper was kind of a thing, an image seen throughout much of the writing process. In a brainstorming session, we paired ‘graph’ with ‘rabbit’ and it just sounded good. Then it started to make sense, with ‘graph’ representing the electronic synth elements and ‘rabbit’ representing the organic acoustic guitar and vocal. We very consciously nurtured this balance and it became our aesthetic for the record.

What inspires you to make the music you’re making?
Part of the inspiration for this music is just me having the voice I have and the musical interests I have. But when Allen Farmelo, our producer, and I started working together, my songwriting had reached a point where I was trying to say everything all the time. I was having trouble being direct or cohesive so Allen and I stripped everything down, started writing together and decided to tell a very simple story that carries a single narrative throughout the album. I think the sound grows from this thing Allen calls a ‘guiding principle’. For Snowblind it was sincere otherworldliness, which led to to achieve that balance in my vocal and in the music.

This actually began as a solo project for you, correct?
That’s technically correct. I was originally going to make a 4-song EP and release it under my name, but as my collaboration with Allen grew, it became clear we wanted to make a larger more focused concept album that went way beyond just a singer-songwriter record. As the concept grew, and the writing got better and better, it was clear that this record was leading to something way beyond a solo project for me.

Why was Shy the right person to help you fully realize your vision for Graph Rabbit?
Shy immediately understood what we were trying to do musically and was excited to join our little cult. Shy and I shared a fascination with the work of Valgeir Sigurðsson in Iceland, who is friends with Allen, and he ended up mastering the record. Just knowing who that is was a sign that Shy was the right person. And he’s totally into deconstructing classical music and making noise, and just gets it.

 You both have composing backgrounds. How does this impact the music you create?
The thing about our composing backgrounds is that I think it lets us think about larger narratives. Shy knows the classical canon pretty well, and brings that perspective of the larger works, and my background is in film scoring so I’m all about storytelling and themes. Then there’s Allen, who is obsessed with the LP as an art form and who thinks in terms of writing albums rather than just songs. It’s all about the bigger work, and I think that’s part of what distinguishes composing from songwriting.

When I first heard Only Fields, I was immediately struck by its gorgeous, dreamlike, lullaby quality. What is the song about and what inspired it?
In a way every song on the album is a lullaby or a dream or a trip. Its funny, I had someone come up to me after a show recently and tell me that listening to Graph Rabbit “they didn’t need to take drugs!” I co-wrote that song with Allen, and it is actually a direct answer to Bob Dylan’s question, “How does it feel?” Allen was kind of fascinated with the idea of someone not answering that question and just staring down Bob Dylan instead. That’s kind of fucked up now that I say it. Like, if you met Bob Dylan, what the fuck would you say to that guy?

Your music, videos and artwork make it very clear you value minimalism. Tell me about that.
Once again, this was one of Allen’s big contributions. We talked a lot about Clifford Still and the way his pieces sort of bring you into a world with just two colors, or just one strong line. We were also heavily influenced by In the White Silence by John Luther Adams and ( ) by Sigur Rós. Both of those records have an aesthetic and narrative unity that pervades the album as a whole.  We were striving for this type of sensibility both in the writing and production of Snowblind.  We got really minimal, right down to using only one microphone for the entire record in order to create that sonic unity that binds it all together.

So what are the pervading themes on Snowblind?
At one point we considered calling the album, “A Boy Walks into the Woods and Nothing Happens.” For real, that was almost the name because we didn’t know what else to call it.  There’s a narrative to this record, but I don’t really want to explain that. Not to avoid your question, but I feel it’s something for listeners to discover and explore on its own terms.

Let’s talk song creation. What comes first: music or lyrics?
It’s really a blur. We’re constantly working on everything all the time to get it right, so anything might be up for revision at any point.

How did the record get written?
The writing of Snowblind was a complete collaboration between Allen and I. We spent over a year writing together and much of that time was spent getting to the center of the story. Once we were there, the songs unfolded more quickly. We had to throw out a lot of shit once we had our concept in place. But, sometimes a song would start as a musical idea I may have on guitar or a melody running itself through my head, others began with Allen getting obsessed with a lyrical phrase or imagining a new direction for the story to go. Some songs are the result of months of revisions. Others, like Only Fields, the lyrics were written in twenty minutes and basically remain unchanged. Co-writing is such a different process than writing alone.

What specific qualities did Allen bring to the record?
The truth is Allen’s a maniac of a producer and pushed me harder than I’d ever been pushed. His partner calls the process of making a record with him “the crucible,” and I’d have to agree. It’s not that common anymore for bands to have that kind of relationship with their producer, so our collaboration is kind of old-school in a way. I imagine it being like the way Brian Eno and  Daniel Lanois worked with U2; a really intense and close collaboration in the studio working from the ground up. Allen is a fantastic producer/engineer, but he is also a highly attuned conceptual artist with a strong aesthetic sensibility. He’s the minimalist, and he’s also got this intense way of just pushing shit until it takes on its own life. There is literally no aspect of the album that he didn’t have a hand in crafting and I feel really lucky to have him as a collaborator.

Your newest video for Make It Stop makes me squirm a little. Where did the concept come from?
The concept came from our director Christopher Vetur. He had seen our rehearsal process where Shy and I sit very close and play together without any amplification or gear. It’s our way of stripping away all the outside distractions and just getting connected by playing music together. We were excited by Christopher’s concept partially because we knew it would be unsettling for many people to see two guys locked in eye contact without it being romantic. It’s a challenging video in a lot of ways and its been rewarding to hear so many different interpretations that people bring to it.

Was it a difficult video to shoot?
Actually not at all. We hiked up to the location at about 6:00 A.M. and magically this amazing fog rolled in. What you see is actually the very first take. We got one more take with the fog and then it was gone. We were so lucky. It felt more like a live performance than a video shoot, and because Shy and I rehearse that way the eye contact thing wasn’t much of a challenge. We were literally done in less than an hour.

How does Graph Rabbit’s music translate live?
We perform the album live front to back and stay as close to the sound of the record as we possibly can. We also use the same instruments exactly, with no computers, so it sounds a lot like the record.

Do you write with live performance in mind?
We made the record knowing that we wanted to go out out and perform it faithfully. So often, I hear a cool recording and then when I see the live show its a complete disappointment watching two or three people trying to approximate a full band with orchestra or whatever. We just performed the album at the Kennedy Center as a three piece with vibraphone and I am really pleased at how close to the album our live show is.

Do you have any special considerations when sourcing out venues being that your music isn’t big and loud but instead minimal and quiet?
We don’t try to be big or small, loud or quiet. Our mission is for the music to create a beautiful world that washes over the audience and invites the listener in. We’ve played concert halls and dive bars and had great experiences in both. But the room has to sound good, and if we can’t get our sound to work in a room, we’re probably going to avoid playing there again. The room is everything for our music because it just has to kind of fill up the space in a certain way. It’s a little unexpected, but we sound good in really big halls because of the reverb.

Are you already planning another LP?
Funny you should ask, as we just had an eight-hour, drawn out sit down with Allen last night about that. By 4:00 A.M. we were all a mess, but we walked away with some pretty solid ideas about what we’re going to have to do to live up to Snowblind and go beyond. Allen keeps saying that the second record is a bitch, and he talks about his mentor Bob Power having recorded Low End Theory, and how Q-Tip went nuts making his second album. But he made Low End Theory. Fucking Low End Theory. So, yeah, we’re working on the concept already.

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Austin Donohue has just completed a collaboration with Mikael Jorgensen of Wilco covering the classic Spaceman 3 song, Ode to Street Hassle. Details of this release are expected soon.

Snowblind, produced by Allen Farmelo (The Cinematic Orchestra, Talk Normal, Mike Jorgensen of Wilco) and mastered by Valgeir Sigurðsson (Björk, Sigur Rós), is available now via Butterscotch Records.

pixel Graph Rabbit: A sonic invitation to a beautiful otherworld