Big Harp released their sophomore album Chain Letters on January 22, 2013 via Saddle Creek. The album was recorded at Omaha's ARC studios with engineer Ben Brodin and partly at the band's Los Angeles home. Chain Letters was mixed by Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, M Ward, First Aid Kit). On Chain Letters, the duo of Chris Senseney and Stefanie Drootin-Senseney is joined by their friend John Voris on drums. The album moves away from the rustic, pastoral sound of their debut and towards a truer union of their backgrounds (Chris grew up in Valentine, NE, an isolated cow town of 2,800; Stefanie is a native Angeleno). Built on a foundation of crackling fuzz bass and angular electric guitars and keyboards, the songs on Chain Letters play like a series of character sketches centered around escape and surrender, and the blurred borders where the two become indistinguishable.
Chris and Stefanie (The Good Life, Bright Eyes, She & Him) formed Big Harp in December 2010, after a three-year whirlwind that saw the two meet, have a baby, move halfway across the country, get married, move halfway across the country again, and have another baby. As Chris tells it, "I was playing in a band opening for The Good Life. Stef and I started hanging out, binge-smoking and chain-drinking, and we never stopped. Never stopped hanging out I mean. Within a few months Stef had a gut full of baby, and the bender came to a quick and bloody end." When the dust settled, they holed up in Stefanie's parents' spare bedroom, practiced for a week, and recorded their debut album White Hat, a collection of intimate, low-key folk-rock laced with subtle irony and dark humor that earned them comparisons to songwriters like Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt.
Understandably for a band that had only existed for a week before recording their first album, and had never played a show, their sound began to change almost immediately. They packed up the kids and hit the road, earning high praise for their energetic live shows, where the intimate acoustic-based arrangements they'd recorded gave way to something increasingly complex, ragged and dirty. Guitar World highlighted Stefanie's bass playing in their Best of SXSW 2012 feature. That March, they began recording Chain Letters.
Stefanie says, "The writing process wasn't that different. We still worked out the songs after the kids went to bed on the same dirty old couch, and we still practiced in my parents' guest bedroom. The only difference was this time we went in feeling a lot freer. I run Omaha Girls Rock in the summers, and we were just coming off our first year. Seeing those girls, I was reminded of when I first started playing, and how free and fun it can be. I think we were both inspired to try to get some of that back."
From the pained apathy of "You Can't Save 'Em All" to the cracked parade march of "Call Out the Cavalry, Strike Up the Band," Chain Letters finds the band enveloping and exploding their literate songs with fuzzed-out, needle-sharp textures. "We really built the songs around Stef's fuzz bass. It was kind of funny -- we were sitting around in a bedroom playing really loud with no drums, just kind of trusting that it was going to make sense once we put it all together. Hopefully we landed closer to mid-'70's Iggy Pop than Leonard Cohen this time. Really I'd like it to sound like Leonard Cohen fronting The Pixies. It doesn't though. Maybe a little. You tell us."