SCOUT NIBLETT RECORDED 100 different versions of "The Calcination of Scout Niblett," the title track of her new album on Drag City. Not because she was looking for the perfect take—very near the opposite, in fact. The Calcination of Scout Niblett and the "official" version of its title track were already finished, in the can. Niblett actually recorded these 100 versions with the intent that, for better or worse, they will be released on their own in some fashion. She's planning to sell each version as a unique single download, to be purchased by fans as a one-of-a-kind digital collector's item.
I ask her if there was a point during the recording of the 100 versions that she regretted undertaking it. "You mean, like, 'What the fuck did I get myself into?'" she laughs. "Yeah. Definitely, around [take] 40 I was like, I don't know if I'm gonna finish it. Then I had one day before we went on tour and I recorded 55 versions in about six hours, it just was like a marathon." Amazingly, she didn't grow sick of the song. "No. It was weird, because recording it that many times changed the way I sing it from the album. It mutated into something different just naturally."
The song's evolution, as well as that of the other new tunes on Calcination, will continue on this current tour, which she's undertaken with Dan Wilson (of the Joggers and Castanets) on drums. "The shows have gone a lot better than any others tours I've done, actually," Niblett says. "Drag City [has] been doing a really good job of getting local press and promoting the tour."
The new record comes after 2007's high-profile duet on "Kiss" with Will Oldham, a wonderful torch ballad that sweetened the more raw edges of Niblett's music. Calcination, meanwhile, returns her to what longtime listeners are familiar with: unvarnished, guitar-vocal (or drums-vocal) arrangements, unembellished and forlorn, with Niblett either murmuring gently or howling like a lone wolf. It's a chilling but fortifying listen.
"A lot more of the record is solo, really, than ones before," she says of the album, which she recorded with Steve Albini in Chicago with no overdubs. "I basically wrote the songs in sort of a self-sufficient little environment in Portland, and I wanted to make sure the songs stayed pretty much exactly how they were written, that they didn't get stuff put on them just because they could have stuff put on them. I was pretty adamant. I'd had that idea in mind anyway, that I wanted it to be a record where it was basically just electric guitar and vocals and not much else going on. I mean a lot of the songs just naturally sounded kind of complete without anything else."
Meanwhile, the album's cover shows Niblett brandishing a blowtorch as if she's held one all her life. "It was a stunt," she clarifies, laughing. The picture is a comic take on the process of calcination, which is "a technical term for heating," she explains. "The version I am referencing is the first stage in alchemy. There's the actual, physical making of gold, in a chemistry way, and then there's the psychological, which is what I was drawing from, really. It's just about heating something up in order to get rid of what's not needed."