In love with the instrument from the start, Stefanie Drootin has been unwaveringly focused on all things bass.
She was never a guitar player first. She didn’t take on the bass because no one else would. Drootin’s brother took her to see fIREHOSE when she was a lass of 15 and bassist Mike Watt simply blew her away.
Currently holding down the low end for Big Harp, a duo that includes her husband Chris Senseney on guitar and lead vocals, Drootin has toured and recorded with acts such as Bright Eyes, She & Him and Azure Ray and is a member of The Good Life. The pair is signed to Saddle Creek Records and released White Hat last year. Big Harp dishes out earnest, head-thumping alternative tracks with a bit of grit and a lot of heart.
I first became aware of Drootin when I randomly dropped in at the Saddle Creek Records showcase at SXSW and Big Harp was up. Wow! So much energy from such a small body, and technique up the wazoo! Drootin impressed with her movement, musicality and just a sense that she belonged right where she was.
I caught up with Drootin as she was heading up to Omaha with her husband and two kids in tow. Here’s what she had to say.
I understand you started playing at age 15. Did you take lessons? How did you develop that style? You have so much movement.
I did take a few lessons, not too many. But I feel like it definitely helped me learn how to hold the bass. And Mike Watt played with his fingers, so I never have played with a pick, only with my fingers. So I kind of learned how to hold my hands and stuff like that at lessons. And then I was in an all-girl band and just played by ear, you know? No one even knew chords or anything, we just listen to each other and played. I was in three different bands that were just like that.
And then, my friend Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes had me come play on tour with them about 10 years ago. I went to practice with them, and they started shouting out chords, and I was like, “Whoa, my god!” I knew what they were, but I really had to like look at the string and go up the fret board like, “E, F, F-sharp, G, okay, there’s the A.” And then I just kind of got used to that. I caught on by doing that. I started playing for hire, with bands like Bright Eyes and She & Him.
The bands I played in more by ear were a lot more similar style to how I’m playing now, more of like a play-by-feel kind of thing. And then I started playing with more folk and pop bands for hire and I played a lot more tame. If that makes sense … more by the book.
Yeah, you kind of have to lay back a little more in a situation where you are hired to play their music.
Yeah, I did lay back a little bit. And then even on our first album, I was a little more laid back than I’m playing now, I didn’t have the pedals. The pedals are a new thing. My whole set up is actually pretty new.
Now that you’re playing with your husband and doing your own music, I’m assuming that this is the way you really want to play. This is what you love.
Yeah, I felt like I was really playing like myself back when I was 15, 16, 17, you know? It feels pretty good to be carefree about it, I guess.
Do you and Chris write the music collaboratively?
Actually both records we did the same way. Chris comes in with the vocal melodies, the lyrics and the chords. And then, without a drummer, the two of us get together and kind of go through all the songs and completely write them and do tempos, and find the feeling of the song.
This album was particularly funny, more of a rock record – this one we’re working on now. So it was just the two of us with no drums, working with our pedals and everything. We were like, “Wow, what’s going to happen when the drums come in? What’s it going to sound like?” But, then when our drummer came in, we worked with him in our practice space for about four days and really made the songs with the three of us. So it’s kind of a 3-step process, I guess. It becomes so different. Once you start working with other people, it’s nearly impossible for that not to happen, right?
But a lot of the time that’s a good thing! So let’s talk about your rig, because I was impressed by your guitar, which is almost bigger than you!
I know, it’s huge. It’s actually so much lighter than my old bass, which is funny, because it’s so much wider. It’s a big, hollow body. It’s all really new. I played the same bass and amp for about 16 years, and I just finally became a gear person. I’m super geeky over gear, like really into it. It’s pretty fun, I got my whole set up figured out, which is pretty awesome. The bass is a Gretsch Electromatic.
And what amp do you use?
My head is an Orange Terror Bass, it’s a 500-Watt head. And I have a Gallien-Krueger 212 cabinet. And really the reason for the small cabinet is that we tour in a mini-van. We don’t have very much room, so I got the smallest cabinet that would sound good.
What attracted you to that guitar?
I had an Aria bass for 15 years. I walked by a pawnshop. It was in the window, and I saw it, and I just had to get it. And I was really attached to that bass, you know, it went around the world with me. And I just thought I would never get another bass. I actually bought two of them, because I was so attached to it.
And then we went into a Guitar Center for something else, I don’t even remember what we were there for, and my husband Chris was like. “Let’s go look at basses.” And I was like, “Ok, whatever. We’ll go look at them.” And then I saw the Gretsch hanging on the wall, and was like, “(gasps) I want that bass! I love that bass, and I’ve never even played it.” And then I pulled it down, and played around with it. I use flatwound strings, too, so it didn’t have flatwound strings on it. I liked how it sounded, but we left and thought about it for a while. Then, I just bought it, got some flatwound strings, brought it home, and I love it so much.
That’s a great story. It can be so inspiring to play a new instrument. It’s a whole different world! And what about the pedals that you mentioned? What are you using?
I have an Electro Harmonix POG – it’s an octave pedal, and a Bass Big Muff that I love.
So the album you have out right now, White Hat, was released last year. Have you been touring?
Not much actually. We did a couple of weeks with our friend Maria Taylor, which was really great. And then, this really short tour we’re on right now, with The Mynabirds, and that is it. We don’t have a booking agent, and we have the kids, we can’t really book ourselves, you know? If we didn’t have the kids, we wouldn’t care. We’d sleep on people’s floors, do whatever. But with the kids, it’s just not really feasible. So we’re working on getting a booking agent. Then we’d tour all the time, ‘cause the kids love it.
Yeah, I was thinking about that. I have kids; I can’t even imagine touring with kids!
I was terrified. On our way out, I panicked, I was like, “Wait, what are we doing? We’re bring our kids, how is this going to work?” My husband was like, “We’ll just see what happens, relax.” And they just love it. It’s crazy. It’s fun for them. And when we were home, Hank, our 3 year old, kept asking to go on tour!
You know, it’s probably going to be a very valuable life experience for them.
They’re learning to be really adaptable, you know? Which I think is a good thing.
Why don’t you tell me about the Omaha Girls Rock project that you’re involved with?
Sure, I’d love to. There’s a Girls Rock Camp Alliance and there are Girls Rock Camps all over the country and in other countries, other places, too. I thought it would be such a great thing for Omaha and was in touch with some people about it. People got excited right away, so we started it up last year and right now, we are in the thick of planning for year two and it’s really amazing. It was so inspiring. It was even more inspiring than I thought it could be first year. It was so cool.
What happens at the Camp?
The girls form a band, you know, they pick an instrument (in our camp, they pick it before camp starts), and then they come in and meet each other and form bands on the first day. They have instrument instruction for a couple of hours in the beginning, you know, for whatever their instrument it is. And then different kinds of workshops, like Self-Esteem and Art Work and stuff like that. And then they have band practice for a couple of hours with their band. It’s Monday through Friday. And then on the Saturday, at the big club in town, the Slowdown, we have a showcase where all the bands perform on a big stage and get lots of people to come. And then, this year, on the Sunday after, they’re going to get to go to the studio, actually where Big Harp is about to record our next record, we’re on our way to do that right now. And they’re going to get to record their song in ARC Studios. It should be pretty cool.
I was going to ask you if you have something new coming up, and I guess the answer’s yes.
We do, we’re on our way right now. We have 10 days booked for now. And we’re gonna record most of the songs that you probably heard were us trying out!
Cool! And what’s your timeline for that? Any thoughts on when that might be available?
I’m not sure yet. I wish I did. We’re on Saddle Creek Records, and it just depends on what releases they have when, and when it would make sense for them to put it out.
Check out some Big Harp tracks and videos, and keep up with what’s next for Drootin here.
VIDEO: Here's a peek at their SXSW show. I can’t say it shows what Drootin can really do. You’ll have to go see her live!
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents 65amps, Acoustic Bass Amps, Agile Partners, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the co-producer of the Women's Music Summit and the lead singer for the rock band, Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.