Eva Lawitts: Big Brain Music That Drags Knuck

The New York bass triple threat analyzes her writing process, digs deep into her bass playing, and discusses her long love of LEH basses

Eva Lawitts: Big Brain Music That Drags Knuck

The New York bass triple threat analyzes her writing process, digs deep into her bass playing, and discusses her long love of LEH basses

Photo by Faiz Ur Riaz

Photo by Juliette Boulay

It’s hard to directly classify the diverse music of Eva Lawitts. One minute she’s performing her own music with the outfit she fronts called Stimmerman, which blends heavy, technical rock with touches of progressive, alternative, and avante garde. The next, she’s onstage with the New York jazz outfit Lilith, where she commands her upright bass through the wild changes of saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and an elite ensemble of jazz musicians. You can find also her locking in with international songwriter Ali Sethi, navigating his unique microtonal Ghazal singing and distinct music; scoring the Nintendo Switch videogame Get-a-Grip-Chip; and playing with acclaimed artists and ensembles such as Carlos Truly, Princess Nokia, Sunny Jain, Nick Hakim & Roy Nathanson, Allegra Krieger, and others. 

Though Lawitts confesses she’s not a “gear” person, the bass triple threat—who is just as proficient riffing fearlessly on an electric bass, creating seismic waves on a synth bass, and bowing delicate arco passages on upright—is more than happy to get in depth about the one piece of gear she loves most: her LEH bass. Among the first artists to play one of Ellis Hahn’s early creations, Eva knew instantly she’d found the bass that would convey all of her sonic needs, with the thoughtful and eccentric touches that she desired. From world tours to the stages of Coachella, to the studio in preparation for a new Stimmerman album, Lawitts won’t be found without her LEH bass in tow. While pinpointing her stylistic identity might be a difficult task, identifying her favorite bass isn’t. 

What’s been keeping you busy recently?

I’m recording a Stimmerman album in August and it will be the first time making my own music where I want to try recording live with the whole band. I don’t know if it’s that I’m a logical person or a control freak, but usually I map everything out and have each part pre-recorded. I’ve been in a phase lately where I’ve been enjoying practicing again. I’ve been getting up at 5:30AM and shedding. I’ve gotta do it early because once the animals and people are awake you can’t find a moment to yourself. 

I love your latest release with Stimmerman [Undertaking], which covers a lot of ground stylistically. what was the writing process like?

The source material for the songs came in 2019, when a friend of mine who was diagnosed with cancer passed away. I didn’t intend to write an album about it, but I was taking a lot of solace in hanging out in my room and touching my instruments to take my mind off of things. The original parts came from little ideas I had. In 2020, during COVID, I wrote music for a video game for the first time. It’s called Get-a-Grip-Chip. It was a challenge, having never done scoring before. And it was very freeing because I was no longer concerned with the music being playable live. So the songs have a lot going on in them, with their speed and horn arrangements and MIDI programming. That process influenced my writing for Undertaking, as well.

You’re gearing up to record a new Stimmerman album in August. What can we expect from the music?

Basically, I reconnected with the intention of how I can carve out song forms, dynamic arcs, and lyrics that create tension and release that can bring people to the euphoric moment of live performances. Simultaneously, I went through the period of making Undertaking where I felt you could hear that I was trying to make big brain compositions. Now I’ve realized it’s okay to be cerebral. It doesn’t all have to be so orchestrated. I like to use the phrase “dragging knuck” with regard to what I joke is dumb rock music. I know it’s not true, but that’s become a phrase for me. I guess I would say my music could be big brain music that drags knuck [laughs]. 

Tell us about your jazz ensemble, Lilith. 

Lilith is saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock’s band, for which she composed the music. The written material is difficult in the most positive way, and it’s beautiful and melodic. There’s also a lot of improvisation, and much of it is free, for lack of a better term. There are no real parameters, which is very challenging because there are two chordal instruments capable of playing dense harmony with tons of overtones, plus two horns and a drummer, so navigating that as a bass player is a lot. I have to figure out how much I want to contribute to a rhythmic pulse or the melodic content, or am I going to play a note that’s going to shift what’s happening harmonically. All of that is wonderful to work on. 

What’s it like playing alongside Ali Sethi? 

Ali is an incredible singer, and the way that he and the band interact and improvise throughout the set is unique to any other kind of playing I’ve done. I feel very lucky to play with him not only because of his personal artistic breadth, but also because exploring the music he makes has given me a beginner’s mind with music again. Part of it is that my role in his band leans more towards being an accompanist rather than being part of a rhythm section—although that’s required, as well. The other part of it is that I have to abide by the idiomatic details of the music he’s drawing from, in which I’m completely unlearned. Playing live with that band has made me rethink everything I know about listening to and accompanying a singer, how I approach playing “by ear,” and how to improvise and create an arc over a long, single piece of music. Not only that, but everyone who has played in his band while I’ve been a part of it are a joy to play with and spend time with on the road. So, overall, I’d say it’s been a wonderful experience and it’s had an incalculable impact on me.

When did you first start playing bass? 

I started on upright when I was in third grade. When I first heard the bass I knew it was what I had to do. My mother is a classical musician, and I came home from school and told her I wanted to play the upright bass. She told me I’d have to lug around a huge upright and recommended French Horn, but after a lot of pleading they rented me a quarter-size bass. I had a teacher and I started bowing early on and working on Simandl and all that stuff. My older brother got a Dean electric bass for his Bar Mitzvah, so I would play it and I ended up using it until high school.

You sing lead vocals and play bass at the same time, which is a difficult feat to pull off. Has that always been natural for you, or does it take frequent practice? 

It definitely doesn’t come naturally to me. I say this with no false modesty, but very few things come naturally to me. I’ve had a lot of advantages coming from a musical family and getting music lesson early, but I’ve never been a natural at anything. I’m more of an obsessive. Singing on its own is very difficult and I was not confident about it when I started, and I’m still working on it. It’s very vulnerable. I worked with playing and singing for a while and it’s something I work on every time I write a new song. If you’re playing root notes, that’s one thing, but anything else requires coordination like how a drummer divides their limbs. I do a lot of very slow practice to get the rhythm of the vocal over the bass line and trying to get a feel for memorizing the pitch. It’s a challenge and sometimes it still goes haywire.

What is it like playing Coachella, now that you’ve done it multiple times? 

The first time I played it I was totally engaged with it on the level of being a career-marker. It’s a huge festival and it was the biggest show I’d ever done. But then I did it and I was backstage eating hummus afterwards. Then a few years later I did it again. These festivals are sort of…let me see if I can do a compliment sandwich: on one hand these festivals get huge acts and it’s inspiring to see what musicians and teams are capable of achieving with a budget. They’re essentially doing Broadway musicals up there with the stage shows, and that is very cool. On the other hand, there is a kind of existential crisis that I have at festivals, which is that they’re prohibitively expensive to attend and it’s unclear who gets that money. You can feel like a jester in the king’s court. Like who paid $30k to come here for the weekend? And now I have to go give them the show of their life? It’s amazing to make it to a milestone like that, but then you’re forced to confront all of the sides of it—the good and the bad and what it means to you. There’s a lot to love about it and I enjoy playing festivals. People ask if I get nervous at them, but I get more nervous playing a house party for 20 musicians whose work I really respect.

How did you first learn about LEH basses and when did you first play one? 

It was a beautiful summer day, and from the mist appeared…[laughs]. I actually met Ellis at Sadowsky when my high school friend Joe put in a good word for me, and I was able to borrow a Sadowsky bass for a tour I was doing at the time. Ellis and I hit it off and I kept finding myself at the shop after hours hanging out. We got to talking and Ellis showed me a couple of prototypes they were working on. I don’t think they were directly LEH basses, but they were Ellis’ handiwork. Ellis is so committed to making instruments that are amazing in their functionality—a bass that does absolutely everything a bass should do, perfectly. Simultaneously Ellis is interested in experimenting and making fun little weird innovative monstrosities that are so awesome. I’m not a “gear” person. I’m not that concerned with the minutia of what’s going on with the gear. I just want a bass that’s perfectly functional, but also has something that in my little tweaker brain is a crazy idea. That’s what Ellis’ basses are.

That blue LEH bass

What was your first impression of the bass when you got one? 

The first LEH bass I had was one of the prototypes. I’m sorry but I’m going to sound so dumb, but it was the blue one. You know, that blue one. This tells you how knowledgeable I am about gear. The first thing that I loved about it was the way it felt under my hands. At the time I had been playing an ESP 5-string, and the LEH neck is wider, the string spacing is wider, and I loved that that was the default. It felt so much better and easier to play. Easier to get a variety of attacks. Every element of what you would want from a bass had so much care put into it. It struck me as ergonomically perfect, and it just felt better than any other bass I’d played. Some basses hurt to play them, and these basses are made so beautifully and feel so natural.

The other thing I noticed about was the resonance I could get from the B string blew me away. On other basses the B string is almost an effect, in a way. Going low on the LEH bass had all of the same overtones and the same quality of sound and clarity and punch as the top. Bass guitars are often made with a lot of limitation by design. Like this particular bass does this thing. If you want another thing, then get another bass. Not being huge into gear, I get all the sounds that I get out of an electric bass from techniques. Having an LEH bass allows me to do whatever I want it to do. Even if you don’t touch any of the controls, the actual design of the instrument makes it sing. You can make it melodic; you can play hard and get a nice crack out of it, you can barely touch it and get a nice round sound. A lot of thought was put into getting the same richness of variety through the electronics of the bass. The pickup panning works well. The tone knob does something, and I know what it does. Everything on it does what it’s supposed to. I’m not trying to yuck anybody’s yum, but you can’t really tell a difference on most basses when you adjust the knobs most of the time. LEH electronics are so responsive. I’ve always loved the faders, and when I first got the bass, I thought they were an aesthetic choice. But over the years of playing it I’ve realized how valuable they are. When you’re onstage and the lights are in your eyes and the bass doesn’t sound the way you want it to, you can twist EQ knobs, but you have no idea where they are landing. Having a tactile element to the EQ is life changing. It’s like, wow, Ellis solved that entire problem.

Who are your main bass influences? 

Ron Carter, Jimmy Garrison, and Juan Alderete. Juan was a huge influence on me. He’s the first person I think of when I imagine how I’d ideally like to approach playing in a rock rhythm section. The way he addresses riffs and grooves is so locked in and precise, perfectly executing what the music calls for, and yet he delivers so much of his own unique voice in a subtle way. I also think of him as someone who plays with a combination of percussive power with a drummer, but also a lyrical melodicism and personality that shines through without stepping on the role of the other instruments. That’s incredibly difficult to cultivate. The way that he gets so many different timbres from the bass—especially playing fretless in loud, heavy rock music—changed the way I think about writing bass parts. And, of course, the way he explores timbre with effects pedals was a huge influence on me, as well. My main approach with pedals is to use fairly basic pedals, but to experiment with different combinations to try and achieve a somewhat unique sound, which is in no small part inspired by Juan.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given about bass?

I was a junior in high school when I started making some attempts at playing jazz. Through my school, I was able to take lessons with a bassist named Neal Miner, who took me through some beginning concepts of playing standards and walking bass lines and soloing over changes.. At the time—and still to this day- but I’m working on it—I had a very biting, mean sense of humor. Often, I would make sort of inappropriate or cruel jokes offhandedly. Anyway, at some point while I was taking lessons with Neal he told me, “Great bass players in New York City are a dime a dozen, so you’d better learn how to be nice.” That’s probably the single most useful piece of advice I was ever given.

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Jon D'Auria   By: Jon D'Auria