Window Flowers, the new album by the Nashville trio Liz Cooper & the Stampede, Cooper's guitar approach sets the mood. Taking an intricate fingerpicking style that's typically more suited to acoustic playing and delivering it with a blurred, dreamy tone, Cooper turns the songs into hazy, atmospheric soundscapes. Bassist Grant Prettyman provides the rhythmic pulse, while drummer Ryan Usher brings out creative embellishments with his kit rather than straightforward timekeeping.
It's an impressionistic sound that seems to affect Cooper's lyrical approach. Songs like "Kaleidoscope Eyes" and "The Night" connect images rather than providing a narrative, hanging lines like "Come lose yourself and dance," or "You have kaleidoscope eyes, reflecting shades of tangerine" over top of the band's evocative playing.
It's an arresting sound that's hard to classify, though Cooper has called it "dream-folk psychedelic rock." Their work has been praised by the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Billboard, and PopMatters, but everyone seems to have a different idea about what it is.
"I love that, because I don't know exactly what we do," Cooper says. "I like that people don't really know what we do. I think it's great."
And it's interesting that so much of what defines that sound emanates from her guitar playing, because Cooper only began playing electric a few years ago.
"It wasn't necessarily intentional for me to just pick up an electric guitar and start rippin' it," she says with a laugh, "but things turned out that way. All of the songs were actually written acoustically, so there was a lot of fingerpicking involved, but the tone ... I don't really know how I developed it."
In fact, Cooper still seems surprised that people have picked up on that sound so specifically in the band's music.
"People have just started coming up to me at shows now and saying, 'Your tone is so great,'" she says, "but I think it's just from playing a lot. And Grant's bass tone is so great, it works really well with what I'm doing on guitar."
There's a lot of space in Cooper's songs, and the band doesn't rush to fill it with solos or showy playing, an approach Cooper defines as "staying out of each other's way but interacting." A trio would seem to be the perfect way to do that kind of playing, but a three-piece wasn't really what she wanted when she formed the band in 2014. She was simply looking for a way to move out of solo acoustic performances.
"I never had any intention of it being a trio for very long," she says. "I've always heard my songs with a lot of instrumentation. It became a trio because I wanted to play, and I was booking shows without having a band, so I needed to find a band. I knew I could play guitar, so I needed a bass player and a drummer, and then that would be good enough to play a show. It was just the skin and bones of a band."
But as Cooper's experience and ability grew on the electric guitar, she also got the hang of the addition of Prettyman and original drummer Ky Baker (who has since been replaced by Usher) — she realized her playing had been shaped by the three-piece format.
"The way we played with each other was how I learned to play in a band," she says. "It's my comfort zone. It works."
Perhaps one of the things that makes Window Flowers such a unique album is that the band takes the basic foundation of playing as a trio and adds embellishments while recording. They'd spent so long touring the songs that they were comfortable enough to experiment with them in the studio.
"We had those songs for quite a while," Cooper says. "We were playing them live, finding out how people reacted to them, and you kind of adjust things as you learn. We had the song locked in really well, so we knew exactly what we wanted the base to be. Then when we went to record them, that's when what I'd heard in my head for the songs came into play, so we added that. We all worked together to create something we knew we wanted but had fun with different sounds that we didn't expect."
Cooper says that playing the new versions of these older songs live has been an interesting process, because they've had to rethink their approach.
"It's still fun and it's still a challenge," she says. "The fun is that it's never perfect, and you're always trying to make it perfect. Doing that live, trying to have the perfect show, it's never going to happen, but it's fun to try."