Interview: Craft Spells

Craft Spells - Photo by Angel Ceballos

Craft Spells - Photo by Angel Ceballos

In winter of 2009, Justin Vallesteros wasn’t a name on anyone’s radar. Yet at that particular time, the Central California native was holed up in his parents’ house in Lathrop, a tiny town just off Interstate 5, working on a series of songs that would eventually lead to fame within indie music circles.

Fast forward a few short years and now Vallesteros’ life is drastically different. As the person behind the band Craft Spells, he has literally been propelled from an unknown to one of indie pop’s hottest new artists to watch out for.

It all began when Vallesteros posted a couple of his songs online. This, in turn, sparked the interest of Brooklyn, New York label, Captured Tracks.

“I had two demo songs on MySpace,” he said. “And then Mike Sniper just emailed me with a quick email saying, ‘Any more MP3s?’ And I was like, ‘Duh!'”

Vallesteros immediately sent more songs to Sniper, but didn’t hear back right away, which definitely did a number on his musical self-esteem. After a certain amount of time, he assumed that the label was too busy signing other artists and, as a result, had lost interest in Craft Spells.

But two months later, a reply did come, in the form of a request for Vallesteros to release a single.

“And that’s when ‘Party Talk’ came out, and I was just, like, freaking out,” he said. “Then it’s been surreal since. It’s been really fast.”

For example, the following year, 2011, saw the release of the first Craft Spells full-length, “Idle Labor.”

“I tried to make an ‘all killer, no filler’ type of deal,” Vallesteros said of the album.

Once it was available, “Idle Labor” naturally necessitated the formation of a band for touring. Through a series of mutual friends, Vallesteros compiled his foursome, which also consists of Jack Doyle Smith, Javier Suarez and Andy Lum.

In the year since, the four have toured the world, not only seeing new places, but learning every day about how to function as a unit.

“They’re all great musicians. The live part is just coming naturally and everyone is really good at it,” Vallesteros said last October, a few hours prior to the band’s first Berlin show. “The hard part is actually letting go of my creativity and trusting it with others. ‘Cause I’ve always been recording – since I was 15 – alone.”

More often than not, however, he admitted that the other members will make suggestions for songs, which end up turning them into something better live than on the record, something which he referred to as more energetic, unexpected, and akin to “a real rock show [with] a spectacle of guitar and bass and drum.” On the whole, these results make him less reluctant to relinquish his creative control.

Yet regardless of what the band members add to the sound, Vallesteros said for future releases, he plans to stick to his original formula, which consists of writing and recording on his own. The main issue with this, he said, is finding the time to write, and balancing it with all the other duties of being in a band. Whereas in the past, he could stay up until 4 a.m. working on a song, tour makes that less of a possibility.

But on the positive side, the reception the album has received inspired a new kind of confidence in Vallesteros’ songwriting, in that he feels like he now has a platform for what he wants to say.

“Now that I see this as an outlet, I can be more expressive,” he said. “I can write some real shit…and not just a pop song.”

Something else which has encouraged him to speak his mind is Vallesteros’ past as an admittedly shy kid. Once someone who thought of himself as a hermit, he said that music has allowed him to be real with himself and with others and to not be afraid of it. Additionally, he shared that his bandmates help encourage him, and that he is less nervous going on stage with that built in support system.

“They just prop me up,” he said, referencing their backing both on and off the stage.

Currently, the band is playing a handful of shows at SXSW, before heading out on a U.S. tour that will last through April and May. In the meantime, Vallesteros has been writing new songs, which he said – in addition to taking inspiration from some of his favourite authors, such as Haruki Murakami, Albert Camus and E.E. Cummings – draw heavily on an anthology of Chinese poetry he purchased last year in San Francisco.

“I have a couple of demos, where like, finally, I feel the balance coming,” he said, referencing how the combination of reading and nostalgia often help keep the lyrics deep and poetic in content, while the music is able to maintain a pop-influenced edge.

Reading also keeps Vallesteros grounded, something that isn’t always easy when your band is amid a whole lot of hype. But at the same time, if the band were to end tomorrow, he admitted that he’s still proud of the fact that a tangible representation of his work exists.

“That fucking gets me pretty stoked,” he said. “The music’s never gonna get lost.”

Furthermore, Vallesteros is able to see the forest from the trees, and realized just how much the entire experience has changed him. Particularly, the music stands in as just one way to keep track of the progress he’s made, both as a musician and as a human being.

“I’m always evolving. I feel like I was an entirely different person just six months ago. And six months before that,” he said. “[I’m] not reinventing myself. I’m just growing as a person.”

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