Bent Knee is no ordinary musical collective. A masterful mashup of electronica, progressive pop and art rock (think Jeff Buckley meets Rush meets Edith Piaf), the band has received widespread acclaim for both their live shows and their new release, Say So, out now on the Cuneiform label (cuneiformrecords.com). And keyboardist, vocalist, and front-woman Courtney Swain has been there from the very beginning.
“Originally, our guitar player Ben Levin and I met in college at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts,” Swain tells me via phone after returning from a string of tour dates. “We started collaborating, at first with a more electronic, Portishead kind of vibe. Ben was introduced to our producer and sixth bandmember, Vince Welch, who was studying production and looking for a project to record in the studio. We tried out some of the songs and really felt like there was something there. So we formed the band in 2009 and we had our first show in 2010. Our first album came out in 2011, and we’ve basically had the same lineup since then. In fact, it’s been a little over five years with the same bandmembers.”
Swain sees the group’s diverse influences as one of the secrets to their success. “We all come from completely different backgrounds,” she says. “I studied classical piano for a really long time, our violin player is into classical music as well as film scoring, and our guitarist and producer comes from a guitar-heavy, shred kind of background. Our drummer comes from a heavy progressive and alternative background, and loves people like David Byrne and David Bowie. And our bass player comes from a more songwriting background and is into people like Sufjan Stevens. The thing is, we lead by consensus. We’ll keep trying things and no one can ever say ‘no’ to an idea. That’s the Golden Rule: You can’t shoot something down until you try it! And because everyone is contributing different influences, we’re just trying to make the music fit what the story of the song is. So we keep trying ideas until we come up with things that everybody is happy with. I think the six of us make really good decisions. And we’re really proud of our sound and what we do.
“Writing the second album was a real challenge for us, because we had to learn how to write as a group,” Swain continues. “But the third album, Say So, came together much quicker, because we started trusting what we were doing. We also got better at putting things away when we got too stuck on them. We learned how to walk away from them and come back to them the next day. Having that space made the choices we needed to make more apparent.”
For her live work, Swain has used a variety of keyboard gear. “I was using a 61-key Nord Electro 2 until recently,” she says, “along with a TC Electronic Flashback X3 delay pedal. But the Nord was over 10 years old, so I switched to a 73-key Korg SV-1, and I love it. The only thing I hate about it is how heavy it is! I started seeing a lot of players I admired using the SV-1, and when I heard it, I just thought to myself, ‘That’s the sound I want.’ I love the Wurlitzer sound on it, and the Rhodes sound has a great, bell-like timbre, especially on the top. It’s really pretty. I don’t even use any pedals with it. I just let it do its thing!”
Swain and Bent Knee are embarking on a two-week “writing camp,” followed by a European tour with shows in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and the Czech Republic. “We’re really excited because it’s our first time in Europe,” she explains. “And then we’re headed back on the road for a three-week run in the fall. We’re already playing two new songs on this tour, and we’ll be adding more soon. We’re planning on being back in the studio in the winter, and we’ll hopefully have a new album out in 2017.”