Building on Buildings' Erin Fuller and Connie Ward have been making beautiful noise as a duo since 2012, but 2014 has been their most fruitful year yet. This fall they released their debut LP, a self-titled effort recorded at Justin Vernon's April Base Studios with engineer Jaime Hansen and three new bandmates: drummer Shawn Pierce, bassist Kris Hansen and guitar and keys player Eben Christensen.
While a significant part of the album was recorded last spring, the music emanates the sort of melancholy that accompanies winter's lack of sunshine. The record's no dirge, though. It bites like a cold wind, but it leaves you feeling warm.
The band create this haunting yet healing environment from the get-go, with opening track "Dress." Ward's alto is powerful and expressive, much like Neko Case's. It demands attention as it cuts through the atmospheric instrumental intro with "My dress is heavy... With each thread that I pull/It wears me out."
A different variety of gloom suffuses the second track, "The Fall," which features Fuller on lead vocals. This song feels less ominous and more personal. At times it's dreamlike, with yawning guitars, brushed drums and lush supporting vocals from Christensen and Count This Penny's Amanda Rigell.
Fuller says moodiness just has a way of creeping into the band's songs.
"I don't know how to write a happy song; I guess it feels insincere," she says with a laugh. "Plus I think sad songs can be very relatable. Maybe that's why I've been on an Elliott Smith binge lately."
She adds that writing the album's lyrics helped her deal with some painful events, including a divorce.
"Writing's therapeutic. We're working through a lot of things in the lyrics, which are about embellished autobiographical things."
Both Fuller and Ward say Building on Buildings is an album they probably couldn't have penned a decade earlier, in their 20s. It's rooted in experience rather than age, though. The songs look at the process of grieving many kinds of losses, from broken relationships to deaths, which can upend a life at any stage.
The musicians' catharsis can be felt on tracks like "I Suppose," when dissonant chords make way for sunnier ones in a stormy interlude. Fuller sets the mood by singing "I suppose it's time to go/One hand wrapped around this bottle" with just the right amount of wooziness. Within seconds, the instrumentalists show they can rock hard and heavy, and Fuller's post-punk roots poke through. After delivering her first "I suppose" with a Björk-like purr, she moves toward a more jagged approach, stabbing her vocals into the track at unexpected moments. She concludes this spree with an aching "Who am I kidding?" The song itself ends more quietly. You can practically see Fuller's character stumble around the room as she admits, "I should have left an hour ago/Now I've got this empty bottle."
Fuller is a dangerous siren on "Filled Lungs," dragging you into dark depths that feel impossibly weighty. The band's layered approach to songcraft, paired with Hansen's engineering and production skills, help create this effect.
"I really like the density of our sound on this record; I think you can get lost in it more easily," Fuller notes.
Fuller and Ward say that making their April Base sessions into a retreat was key. Getting away from Madison -- including Ward's job as a photographer and Fuller's job as a graphic designer -- helped them think as musicians rather than artistic multi-taskers.
"Getting the five of us in a room together is like herding cats," Fuller says. "We're all really busy, and we only see each other at practice, so it was really nice to be able to go up to Fall Creek, where April Base is, and get a little space from everything else we have going on."
Ward says having a bit of distance from their daily concerns encouraged them to zero in on the task at hand.
"Being at April Base helped us focus and get things done, plus everyone there is really talented," she explains. "I think this was my best recording experience, which is saying a lot."
Both Fuller and Ward were surprised when they heard the session's first recordings.
"When you're playing your part, you don't necessarily pay attention to the whole. So when Jaime played back the stuff we'd been working on, we were like, 'Awesome, we sound all right!'"
Ward says the various musicians' parts came together in a way that reminds her of a landscape full of interesting sights, sounds and textures, from hills and valleys to flowing streams and gusts of wind.
"The layering came about organically, and it kind of added a landscape, which was unexpected and cool," she says. "I was absolutely surprised by the first few songs when I heard the recordings. I was like, 'This is it.'"
The band will play songs from the new album at a concert with the Sea & Cake at the High Noon Saloon on Dec. 11. After that they'll begin a tour that includes shows in Louisville, Ky., and several cities in Ohio. The list includes Cincinnati, a place that's especially meaningful for Fuller and Ward.
"That's where we came up with the name Building on Buildings. We were in Cincinnati for a Beirut concert, looking at some architecture," she says. "It's crazy to think that was just a couple years ago."
[Editor's note: This article is corrected to note Erin Fuller sings on "Filled Lungs."]