Natalie Fideler has been bopping her head to the beat since before she could walk. Now, after studying jazz and classical, and spending years performing in bands, Natalie is stepping into her own spotlight. Last fall, she released her debut album, Steak & Eggs.
After struggling to find likeminded musicians to perform with, Natalie decided to take her music into her own hands — literally. She spent 2017 writing the songs that would become Steak & Eggs, and after finding two engineers to record the album, she recorded and sang each of the songs’ parts.
Her songwriting combines her background in jazz guitar and love for music history jokes, as well as her admiration for pop icons like Liz Phair. The songs on Steak & Eggs are autobiographical, but they are also sprinkled with Natalie’s tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.
I caught up with Natalie to hear about how she wrote Steak & Eggs, becoming her own backing band, and finding her voice as a solo musician.
I know you as kind of a musical jack of all trades — I’ve seen you teach keyboards, drums, a million things. So I wanted to rewind and hear how you got into music, and what your early days in music. What got you interested in it, and how did you get started?
I started music when I was super young. Both of my parents were musicians. I think that played into them wanting me and my sibling to start music young. So we both started on Suzuki violin. I think I was three, and my older sister was five. We did that for a while, and eventually switched to piano. And then took piano lessons for a long time.
My parents had noticed in me, when I was a baby, that I had what they called “congenital rhythm.” Apparently there was one day where they took me to the Lake Harriet Bandshell, or some outdoor place like that, and they were seeing a live band, and I was standing there as a toddler, bopping my head to the beat, right on, and they were like, “This kid needs to be a percussionist. She needs to play drums.” I eventually started playing percussion, I think I was eight, and I was taking drum lessons and started school band.
When I was 12, I went to Girls Rock n Roll Retreat for the first time. I had played a drum set at home, and I had started a band with my sister and our cousin. We were writing songs, and we wanted to play gigs and stuff, and then I went to GRRR, and I felt like I was finally empowered to be the rock star that I was hoping to be.
From there, it just kind of blew up and spiraled into this band that we had started, writing a lot more songs, gigging more, eventually adding another member. We played gigs and wrote songs — we eventually recorded a demo, and were together for around four years when I was in junior high and high school. That was a really good way for me to insert myself into the life of what it means to be a musician, while I was still going to school and doing homework.
We played a lot at the Garage in Burnsville, back when it was a nonprofit afterschool program kind of place. One of our members ended up getting married and moving out of state, and I was like, “I still want to play music. How do I do this?” So I tried being in another band with some coworkers from She Rock, after I started working there.
We were together for about a year and it didn’t quite work out. We were all living in different cities because of college and work. I was still writing songs on the side. I kept having the feeling of like, “I need people to do this with me, because I can’t do this alone.” No matter where I turned, it’s like I couldn’t find someone to vibe with. People would be interested in it, but maybe as a hobby, or they wanted to play covers. And those weren’t the things I wanted to do.
So I eventually was just like, “Screw it. I’m just going to do it by myself.” I started doing acoustic gigs by myself. I got asked to do student spotlight features in college a few times. I was like, “I like this. I like my music, I like what I’m doing. So I’m just going to full-speed ahead do it.”
That’s where the inspiration for Steak & Eggs came into play — I don’t want to hold myself back anymore by looking for people I want to vibe with, when I can just vibe with myself. I wrote all these songs, I found an engineer to help me record them — it ended up being two engineers — and we had the time of our life recording the album.
I played and sang everything on the album. I did, I guess you could call it the Paul McCartney thing or the Prince thing, your musician of choice. I played everything, wrote everything, sang everything, and then planned an album release party. From there, I’ve been gigging with background bands that I create on an as-needed basis, until I moved to Minneapolis in May. Now I’ve formed a permanent backing band. We have gigs on the books, and new music happening in my head. Now I’m just trying to play music, and have people hear it, and hopefully enjoy it at the same time.
I think there’s such a power in choosing to do that for yourself; saying, “I can’t find anyone who wants to do what I’m doing, but I’m going to do it anyway.” I can imagine that that is maybe a scary leap to take, but also that means that you have so much control over your voice and what you sound like. Playing all of the instruments and doing it all yourself — that’s your vision. Was that a scary leap to take, or do you feel like that gave you a sense of power over your own art?
It was definitely scary, in the sense of, I know I’m a good songwriter. I know I’m a good drummer. I know I’m a good guitarist. But what if I’m not good at bass? I think that’s the instrument that I have the least formal experience on. My experience on bass is teaching myself and goofing off until I find something that I like, and learning parts that other people have played. I played guitar in high school jazz band, and I have studied percussion for the bulk of my life.
So it was like, wondering — one, if I was technically skilled enough to do it — but also, if I have the technical skills, are the parts going to fit together? There’s that piece of having an ensemble that rehearses together all the time and gigs together; they have the ability to be tight as an ensemble, and know where hits are going to happen, know where things start and stop, being able to feel the groove and the pocket all at the same time, and yield to each other to make things good. I was pretty much just banking on my memory, being like, “This is how the drum beat goes. Can I play this to that? That makes sense.”
Also, when you’re in a group, you have more people to tackle all the different facets of being a musician: booking, and advertising, and sharing expenses. Everything for this album came out of my pocket, and I did all of the stuff on my terms. I found someone to book the show, I found the recording engineers, I had to provide all my own gear, I had to find the artist to make the album artwork. I was worried about not having someone to share the weight with. But I pulled it off, and I had a lot of fun.
I think coming out of it, I’ve had a few people, when I talk about the album, call it the “resumé album.” I have experience in all of these different parts of creating an album now, because I did it all myself. So I think my fears were warranted, but totally proved wrong by myself.
What was it like to transition to playing these songs live, and hiring other musicians to come in and recreate the parts that you had put down already?
I had to have a transferrable way of being like, “Here’s how you play my song,” without micromanaging it. Going forth with the “resumé album” concept, I had to chart out all the songs, because I didn’t chart any of them when going into the studio — they were all just in my head, because I was the only one playing it, and I knew how it went. I experimented with both chord symbol charts, and then also more of like a lead sheet, like what you would make for a jazz chart. Those were definitely very successful.
When I ask other people to play my music, because I’m the original person who played and wrote the part, and there’s no way that I’m ever going to be able to play everything at the same time unless it’s a recording, I really have to take it with a grain of salt. I’ve sort of been approaching it as: these people are, in a sense, covering my song. They didn’t track it, they didn’t write it with me. So I gave them a recording to listen to and a chart to follow, and they came to rehearsal and played that. So it’s very much how you would approach learning a cover song for a tribute band gig. So I definitely add other players to add their own flair to it.
When I play live, I play guitar, and sometimes keyboards. It’s letting players take their liberties with fills, licks, that kind of stuff. I think what’s good about that, is that every live show has a little bit of nuance to it.
Steak & Eggs is the first album that you’ve put out under your own name. How did that feel, writing something and knowing that this is going to be something coming out under your own name, and how did you approach writing those songs?
It was horrifying and euphoric at the same time, to say the least. There’s that meme of Bart Simpson, and on one side of the panel he’s banging pots and pans together and saying “I’m so great, I’m so great,” and the other one is him crying in bed — that’s what it’s like to be a solo artist. Or to be a writer or artist of any kind.
It was very liberating. Like I said before, the one thing really was holding me back from making music before was the fact that I was shying away from a solo career. But after leaning into it, it’s a really good thing for me. I personally am not a huge fan of co-writing music. I kind of turn into a control freak, to be honest. So being the sole creative control on an entire project is awesome.
I am crazy ridiculous with coming up with band names — I know one that I would like when I hear it. But none of them quite feel like me. I tossed around the idea of having a stage name, or a name for my solo project — here’s a tangent: there’s this website where you can look up how many people in the world have your name.
Apparently there are no other Natalie Fideler’s in the world with my spelling. There is no chance that someone else is going to release music under the same name, under the same spelling as me. This is my name; this is my brand, this is me. If someone ever decides that they want to marry me, I’m not going to take their last name.
It’s different to release stuff by yourself. But it’s good. I’m making a name for myself, and it’s not just like I have a job — I’m doing something that I’m passionate about. And I’m enjoying it and I’m proud of it. It’s very liberating and relieving and exciting and amazing.
I know you come from a background where you’ve done jazz band, you’ve studied classical, you’ve played pop, you’ve played in all sorts of bands. How did you find the sound that you wanted to have on this album? And do you think that your background in all these different styles changes the way that you approach writing pop songs?
I think it definitely changes and influences everything that I do. One thing that I like to say about my music is that there is something for everyone. There is so much, as I call it, “stylistic double dipping.”
When I ask people what they think about the album after their first listen, I’ve heard people say, “I hear some jazz influence in there, I hear funk, I hear punk, I hear pop.” Someone even told me that they heard Motown. But then, when I try to go back to find a term that describes my music, I’m like, “It’s music…?”
I think I could go back and be like, “This song sounds like this, and this song sounds more like this.” But talking about a genre that blanket-term describes everything that I do was really hard for me. For the longest time I decided not to think about it.
And then, when the album release show got announced, it was actually my sister who was the sister who was the booker for the show. She was writing little blurbs about each of the bands in the event page on Facebook, and she had written for me, “alternative pop.” It should have hit me a billion years ago; I was like, “Duh.”
I’ve always had an affinity for pop music. I take a lot of my inspiration from pop music, because it’s a guilty pleasure music for me. I think about my genre as, I’m writing songs that follow a pop form or have a pop influence, and then orchestrating it based on other genres.
Steak & Eggs is all of the songs that I wrote in 2017 that got finished and enjoyed by me. They’re also in chronological order of when I wrote them. The first one was written in March of 2017 and the last one was finished on New Year’s Eve. So that’s what 2017 sounded like for me. It sounded like Steak & Eggs.
It sounds like these songs are maybe autobiographical, but they also use humor, and are tongue-in-cheek. Would you say that these songs are more on the autobiographical side?
Definitely very autobiographical. One of my favorite songwriters is Liz Phair. When she writes lyrics, you listen to them and you’re like, “Oh, pretty tune!” And then you listen to them and you’re like, “What the fuck?” She is swearing and singing about nasty things, and it’s funny and awkward, and then suddenly you’re singing along at the top of your lungs and you’re like, “I feel so empowered right now.” Because you’re singing about this taboo topic.
I really wanted to adopt that into my songwriting. My songwriting always stems from a place of what I’m going through and what’s happening in my life. So it’s like, “Here’s this thing. I’m going to write about it. How do I include the most intimate details of it that I feel and experience, even if those are weird or funny or quirky or taboo to talk about?” Even if no one wants to hear it, that’s what I’m going to say, because that’s how it is.
One thing I pride myself on is my ability to be honest with my lyrics. One song in particular on the album, “Flirting with Death,” is my “sexy” song. I wrote the song about a month after I had an IUD put in, and I got my first period since putting it in. My hormones were just going crazy. But also, I’m demisexual. I don’t experience those kind of “sexual urges” a lot.
So when it happened all at one time and it was so concentrated and intense, I was like, “What the hell is happening? Who am I?” I was like, “I’m going to write a song about being turned on. This is weird for me. This isn’t going to be a normal song.”
It’s very coded, and there are music history jokes in it, and weird wordplay about masturbating and stuff like that. It’s not like, “Ooh yeah, I’m going to add this to my sexy makeout Spotify playlist.” It’s like, “Okay, this is just Natalie being Natalie.” And that’s what I want my music to be like.
Playing with these contrasting feelings, and having them exist all at the same time is really powerful. Writing a sexy song doesn’t have to just mean one thing, it doesn’t have to sound like all of these other pop songs, it can be weird and confusing and saying contradictory things, and that’s okay. Because that’s just reality.
Okay, here’s my music theory nerd coming out. One thing that I think in music that is the “sexiest” thing that you can do is have a chromatic melody or bass line. It’s just so sultry, especially if you harmonize it in a good way.
If you go through the bridge of that song, all the bass is doing is step-wise motion. The second half of the bridge is just a chromatic bass line going down by half-steps. That’s my favorite part of the song. The harmonies are kind of doing the same thing. There’s the vocal swells. In my brain I’m like, “This is so sexy.” But other people might not see it that way. Because that’s not necessarily the cookie-cutter version of your typical sultry, Barry White kind of stuff.
I also appreciated the music history joke — the “flirting with death” metaphor. It brought me back to my music history classes.
At Concordia [College], sophomores take music history. When I wrote this song, I had already finished my sophomore year, and I just kept going back to this piece by a composer named Arcadelt, called [“Il bianco e dolce cigno” (The Gentle White Swan)]. The opening line of the song is like, the white swan is doing something, and, “I, weeping, approach the end of my life.” That is so funny
I walked around for a year saying, “I, weeping, approach the end of my life,” because I just thought that was the funniest thing. There’s that song about “El Grillo,” the cricket, and it’s about crickets getting it on in the spring. It’s like, what is happening? We’re paying thousands of dollars to sit here in class, and I feel like I’m getting rick-rolled. It’s that goofiness, that I want to portray in my music — like, “This is a good song. Listen to it deeper, and you’re going to laugh your ass off.”
I love that. Because I feel like we study old Renaissance music through a very different lens, obviously, than how we look at pop music. But if you look at the lyrics, all of these Madrigals from the 1400s, they’re all just about sex. They’re all just euphemisms about dying —
Jason Derulo 400 years ago.
I wrote a paper on Schoenberg, because I was taking a contextual study [course] on Schoenberg. I wrote this whole paper about how people look at Schoenberg’s life and his progression through music as starting as a very vanilla, typical classical composer, and turned into the dude who invented 12-tone theory, and is now known for being an “atonal, ugly-sounding music” composer.
People see that progression through his life, and they’re like, “It’s like he was easing us into 12-tone.” And it’s like, you think that Arnold Schoenberg was like, “Hi. I’m going to pretend that I’m a normie, and then ease you into it.” No. His voice changed over time.
We can’t treat artists like gods. It’s not like they’re some omnipotent being that’s like, “I know exactly what I’m doing and I’m making art because I know exactly how to make art and I’m perfect.” They’re people. They’re changing, they’re growing, they’re going through life, they’re experiencing trauma, they’re getting married.
That’s how we should view artists always. You can aspire to be like someone, or feel inspired or encouraged by another person’s work. But they’re not perfect. They’re going to struggle just as much as you to make it in your industry. We shouldn’t just be putting people on pedestals because they sound good now; they put in the work so sound good.
Music is a skill that you practice. Of course there is an art component to it, and it’s more than just a technical skill, but like anything that if you want to get better at, you put in the hours. And that gives you the tools to be able to express your emotions and tell a story. But it’s just something you practice.
Right. When you go to music school, or piano lessons, the first thing you hear is “practice makes perfect.” It’s not “genes makes perfect” or “talent makes perfect.” It’s working on it; working on yourself; working on your craft. You don’t expect to play your first varsity football game and be perfect. You have to practice every night a week for months to get to that first game, and play well, and win. That’s how it is with music. No one is exempt from working at it.
I think it’s easy to look at an artist who just put out their “debut” album and think that they just woke up one day and said “I’m going to play music,” and you don’t see everything that’s led up to that moment. There’s so much more that’s behind that than just this “debut.”
Thinking about your favorite music artist just starting out, playing gigs, and imagine them being told, “You don’t have a big enough draw, you should look for a smaller room.” That probably happened to them. When you start, that’s going to happen to you. And it’s going to suck, and you’re going to feel discouraged.
But it’s almost like a right of passage. You need to go through that thing in order to know, “What will get me that big room? And then the bigger room?” And so on. It’s a learning experience. It’s hard, and it’s super competitive. But it’s all about being savvy about your work.
You have to learn how to build yourself up, too, and when these other people are telling me I can’t fill this room, or that my album isn’t good enough, “Well, okay.” And then keep moving on and stick behind what you’ve made.
Right. I can’t go back and un-release my album because someone said they didn’t like it.
Thank you so much, Natalie, for sitting down and chatting with me about Steak & Eggs. Do you have any shows or announcements you want to plug?
August 22, I’ll be at the Seward Café for the Minnesota Freedom Fund benefit show. They are an organization that raises money for posting bail for people who have been detained by ICE, or are needing money for posting bail for wrongful charges.
I also brought you a copy of Steak & Eggs. I really love the physical CD artwork — the disc itself. The album artwork is made by my mom, actually. The artwork is taken in the kitchen of the house that I grew up in from the age of 12, all the way to last year, when I was 21.
My mom moved in there after my parents got divorced. I wanted to keep the memory of the house alive in some way that we would have permanently — so that’s our kitchen. The walls of our kitchen were this bright orange color, and we had to paint over them when we moved. We had to mute all of the colors in order to sell the house.
When we had to paint over the orange, it was so sad. So that’s why most of the promotional stuff for the album was orange, the show posters were orange. It’s kind of my color, now for advertising, that bright orange shade.
It still lives on. Even though it’s been painted over.
When my mom sold the house, she bought a condo. All the walls there were gray too, because we just bought it. There was one day in the new kitchen when we opened one of the drawers, and you could see a little side of the wall that didn’t get reached by the paint, and it was the same color of orange. So it’s destiny. Orange kitchens. And my album.