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Nora Jane Struthers Is Wide Awake On New Album

Nora Jane Struthers is a singer-songwriter who grew up in New Jersey and was teaching high-school English in Brooklyn before moving to Nashville to attempt a full-time career in music. With her band The Party Line, she's just released a new album called Wake. Fresh Air rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.



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Other segments from the episode on March 4, 2015

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 4, 2015: Interview with Kim Gordon; Review of Nora Jane Struthers and The Party Line's album "Wake"; Interview with Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair; Review of the…


March 4, 2015

Guests: Kim Gordon - Katja Blichfeld & Ben Sinclair

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When two members of a band are married, what happens if the marriage ends? The band Sonic Youth had to break up after the marriage of founding members, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, broke apart in 2011. The band and the couple had been together nearly 30 years. In the process of figuring out her new life, Kim Gordon has written a memoir called "Girl In A Band."

Sonic Youth never developed a mainstream following, but it was a powerful influence on many indie bands, with its emphasis on noise and distortion and its roots in punk and the avant-garde. Gordon played bass, wrote lyrics and sang. Gordon and Moore each now have their own bands. Hers is called Body/Head. Gordon's memoir opens with her description of Sonic Youth's final concert at a festival in Brazil, shortly after she'd learned that Moore was cheating on her with a younger woman. Sonic Youth opened their set with this song, "Brave Men Run." Here's their original recording of the song. Gordon wrote the lyrics and sings.


KIM GORDON: (Singing) Seven days and seven nights. I dreamt a sailor's dream at sea. Seven days and seven nights. I dreamt a sailor's dream of me. Seven days and seven nights. The world was made and lost again. Seven days and seven nights. Brave men run in my family. Brave men run into the setting sun. Brave men run into captivity. Brave men run in my family.

GROSS: Kim Gordon, welcome to FRESH AIR.

GORDON: Thank you.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're having to reinvent your life now that your marriage and Sonic Youth are over?

GORDON: I don't know. I don't really think about it that way. But I guess I feel like - yeah, I had to rediscover my identity or reclaim who I feel like I am. You know, my identity was so much wrapped up with the band and, of course, my husband and that relationship. So, yeah, once that fell apart, it was kind of like, who am I, and how'd I get here?

GROSS: Is that a hard question to be asking yourself at 61? And is there an upside to asking that to yourself at 61?

GORDON: It's a hard question. But I think that it's something that - I feel like I've always been in a certain process of discovery my whole life of who I am. And I feel like I was somewhat, you know, stuck in my marriage and my life. So in a way, I see it as kind of only a positive thing at this point.

GROSS: So let's talk about how you started to play music. Let me quote something from your memoir.

(Reading) Guys playing music. I love music. I wanted to push up close to whatever it was men felt when they were on stage together - to try to link to that invisible thing. It wasn't sexual. But it wasn't un-sexual either. I joined a band so I could be inside that male dynamic.

Did you feel that dynamic? Did you feel that power when you started to be on stage yourself in Sonic Youth?

GORDON: Yeah. I think, you know, there's a certain, actually, thrill of electricity itself and plugging a guitar into an amp. And playing electric guitar is a very visceral, physical thing. Like, your movements affect - can affect the sound of the guitar. And I relate it to that in a way that's - because I always liked to do dance, I kind of related to that on a certain level that I hadn't expected. And I did feel - there were times, yeah, when it felt really great to be just surrounded by the sound and music and kind of just in a thrilling way of not knowing what was going to happen.

GROSS: So in talking about that kind of male energy and male dynamic on stage when a band of men is on stage performing, do you feel like you changed that dynamic, being a woman, where the rest of the members of the band were men, and also being a couple 'cause you and Thurston Moore were a couple and then you were married? So that maybe changes that energy - that dynamic, too.

GORDON: Yeah. I think I always tried to maintain my individuality in the band. And I didn't actually want to be seen as a couple. In fact, it wasn't until I was writing this tour diary for the Village Voice that my editor said (laughter) you have to say that you're a couple. And, you know, I just wanted to be really seen on my own terms.

GROSS: So did people not know until that point?

GORDON: I don't think so. I mean, you know, some people did, but I think...

GROSS: What year are we talking that you wrote that tour diary?

GORDON: Maybe like '84, '85? I don't know - '85 maybe? Yeah, maybe '85.

GROSS: So, you know, just one more thing about the energy on stage. How did that energy change during the final tour when you were in South America, when you knew that your marriage was over, but you still had a commitment to do this final tour. And, you know, you don't want to act that out on stage - you know, the acrimonious separation. So what - can you talk a little bit about what that was like?

GORDON: Well, it was very surreal because I - you know, everybody - you're playing before these huge audiences. And obviously not everyone was there to see Sonic Youth. We were playing with huge rock bands. And we were probably the smallest act on the bill. But it was odd to know that everybody knew that we'd broken up and that this might be the last show. So it was hard to - it felt ridiculous, in a way, to pretend like everything was normal. It was - you know, it was hard.

GROSS: You've always loved music, but you didn't know how to play. And you write you've never considered yourself a musician. So what inspired you to actually start playing?

GORDON: It began with this artist friend of mine, Dan Graham, who had a performance piece. And he wanted to do the piece with an all-girl band. So he asked me if I wanted to participate. And that was kind of how it started. But, you know, the whole atmosphere of - this was like post-punk era, in a sense - 1981. But something about punk rock - I was just talking with someone about this - how it kind of set people off on this course, and you didn't know where it was going. And it wasn't about being a musician. It was just kind of this almost social phenomena that was happening. But it was happening through music, whereas everything had been fairly staid in mainstream music and also the culture. And so it kind of almost, like, set up this context where anyone could kind of participate. So it was this whole other avenue that was opened up. And it kind of pulled you along with it.

GROSS: Do you have a lot more technique now than you did then?

GORDON: (Laughter) I suppose I do, but it's hard to describe. Like, I have a vocabulary of sound and, you know, I have a pretty good sense of space (laughter) and rhythm. But, you know, again, now I play mostly improv music. And, you know, it's not really about playing conventional chords, and it never was in Sonic Youth. It was - the guitars were always tuned in different tunings. The base was tuned in regular - a regular tuning. So we didn't really talk in terms of chords so much and, you know, I almost felt like I had to work against learning how to play, because there was kind of a skill in that, really.

GROSS: So it was like noise and drone, not only aesthetically appealing to you, but, you know, easier to play for you?

GORDON: Sure. Well, it was more conducive to what I - to who I was, like, you know, coming out of the art world. And I wasn't - had no interest in learning how to play conventional music. That wasn't really - you know, when I moved to New York, I was really influenced by no wave bands, who were incredibly free, and bands like DNA and Mars and The Static and Rhys Chatham. You know, there was - it was different than conventional three-chord punk rock.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kim Gordon, who is a founder of the band Sonic Youth, which broke up when her marriage to Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth broke up a couple of years ago. She has a new memoir which is called "Girl In A Band." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Kim Gordon, who was a founding member of the band Sonic Youth. And she was married to Thurston Moore of the band. When their marriage ended, the band broke up. She has now written a memoir called "Girl In A Band."

Let me quote you again. You write for high-end music labels.(Reading) The music matters, but a lot comes down to how the girl looks. The girl anchors the stage, sucks in the male gaze.

So did you become aware of that in a new way when you signed with a major label? And did you feel like you had to dress not only in a more mainstream or fashionable way but in a more sexualized way?

GORDON: I mean, it wasn't anything that I was pressured into. I was just super aware of the platform being bigger. And that was - I was kind of into playing around with that idea and how clothes absolutely change the way people look at you. It was more like, you know, experimenting with it. It wasn't like they wanted me to do that. I was just pretty aware of it.

GROSS: So what are some of the looks you tried and how did you feel different with each of those when you were performing?

GORDON: Well, I sort of worked my way out of the giant, large T-shirt with choker and boots, which was actually - you know, T-shirts were such a big part of indie rock. And I finally discovered how to make it into a dress.


GORDON: And then, you know, I started wearing, like, shorts onstage or, you know, like, silver, leather hot pants or, you know, things that I could buy from Patricia Field's store, who dressed all the transvestites pretty much downtown. And, you know, I - somehow I got a lot of energy from having bare legs on stage.

GROSS: So just compare for me what it was like getting dressed for a concert, for a performance, comparing how much time you had to spend getting dressed and thinking about what you were going to wear and what your image was going to be compared to your husband, Thurston Moore's, time spent getting dressed and thinking about how he was going to look on stage.

GORDON: Well, you know, usually, I guess I'd figured out for a whole tour what I going to wear. And it was usually, like, would boil down to one thing or two things that you just, you know, become like part of your skin and you feel comfortable in. And then you just then don't have to think about it every night. And then you're always, like, having to change often in some, like, horrible bathroom or - I don't know (laughter) - someplace.

Basically, you know, the guys would just pretty much wear - you know, Lee would probably change his shirt or something. But, you know, it's kind of like they would sweat in their clothes (laughter. And I saw it as almost a practical thing, like I'm just wearing this every night, and I'm not going to, like, get my other clothes sweaty. And I had this one dress I wore on this tour we did in 1991, this striped dress that would get so sweaty, and it would shrink every show. So it kept getting shorter and shorter. But it was kind of - it's kind of cool actually if you do find one thing that you can just wear. You know, like always remember, like, seeing Keith Richards wearing, you know, the same, like, fur vest or, you know, something. That to me is like really rock, when you just wear one thing and then - I suppose that comes out of being a junkie (laughter), but I don't know. It kind of, like, establishes a certain rock look, you know, like you're...

GROSS: You're not referring to yourself here when...


GROSS: Yeah.

GORDON: I'm not referring to myself. I'm just saying that that whole aspect of, like, looking cool 'cause you're just wearing the same thing every day, you know?

GROSS: Yes, because you don't care (laughter).

GORDON: Yeah, or it's not like you're putting on a persona at night, you know. It's kind of like it's not showbizzy, which has kind of changed in music over the years.

GROSS: Oh, god, things are so showbizzy now.


GROSS: I'm just sometimes shocked at how showbizzy, like, not just the rock world but the pop world and the hip-hop world...

GORDON: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: You know? It's...

GORDON: It's like Las Vegas entertainment.

GROSS: It's like Vegas, exactly. And then there's all the kind of S&M fetish wear that so many women wear in performances. Does that - what do you think of that?

GORDON: I mean, I think it's a...

GROSS: It's a look (laughter).

GORDON: It's a look. There are a lot of ways to be sexy. Like I -you know, it's like wearing, you know, your sexuality on your sleeve for sure - or your sleeve if you had a sleeve.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GORDON: I mean, I find I'm more into more subtle sexuality. I remember when we played in Detroit once, this kind of noise experiment - noise band opened up called Universal Indians. And the girl - there was two guys and a girl. And she was wearing, you know, sort of baggy, like 517 Levi cords, which my friend and I used to wear all the time. And so she looked kind of Tom boy-ish, and then she was playing her guitar with the rock. And I just thought, wow, that's a cool move. You know, that's really sexy. So, you know, everyone has their own idea of what is sexy, I guess.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kim Gordon, a founding member of the band Sonic Youth and now the author of a memoir called "Girl In A Band." Sonic Youth broke up when she and her husband, Thurston Moore, who is also a founding member of the band, broke up. And, Kim, you write about this some in your book. You found out that he was cheating with a much younger woman. And he lied to you about it. And when you decided to leave him and end the marriage, you also I'm sure knew that that would break up the band. Did you have to weigh at all what it would mean to not only end your marriage but to also break up the band, which was not only like your art, it would your source of income? It was, you know, the father of your daughter's source of income, too.

GORDON: Well, I guess I didn't feel like I had any choice. I mean, I did everything I actually could to, you know, maybe much longer than I should have tried to hang in there and, you know, see what would happen. But it just - you know, it just didn't really - didn't work. And I really hated my - I hated my life at that point.

GROSS: How did the band react to the end?

GORDON: I don't (laughter) - I think everyone was just shocked basically by who the person was. And, you know, it was somebody we all knew, and - I mean, I talked to Lee and Steve individually. But we didn't really talk a lot about what it meant in terms of the band. Like, I think everyone was kind of processing it and still processing it, you know? It's something that takes a long time to get over like any relationship.

GROSS: Well, you have a new band now called Body/Head. And it's - there's a lot of noise and dissonance in it. And you write, noise and dissonance can be an incredibly cleansing thing. Is it as cleansing now in your 60s as it was in your 20s and 30s?

GORDON: (Laughter) I don't know. It's kind of - I mean, the music that Bill and I make in Body/Head, it's sometimes is kind of relaxing. I don't know. My friend who came to see us was like - she felt like it was a little trance-inducing. And it's really - I mean, when you're doing something that's so much fun to do and challenging, it gives you so much that - I don't know if cleansing is the word - but it just sort of - making new memories. I don't know (laughter).

GROSS: Kim Gordon, thank you so much for talking with us.

GORDON: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Kim Gordon co-founded the band Sonic Youth and is the author of the new memoir "Girl In A Band." After a break, we'll hear from the creators of the web TV series "High Maintenance" about a pot dealer and his clients. David Bianculli will review two short shows he considers part of the new TV revolution - an ABC series created by John Ridley, who wrote the screenplay for "12 Years A Slave," and a Netflix comedy co-created by Tina Fey. And Ken Tucker will review a new album by songwriter Nora Jane Struthers. That's after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Nora Jane Struthers is a singer-songwriter who grew up in New Jersey and was teaching high school English in Brooklyn before moving to Nashville to attempt a full-time career in music. With her band, The Party Line, she's just released a new album, called "Wake." Rock critic, Ken Tucker, has a review.


NORA JANE STRUTHERS: (Singing) I used to let this body carry me around. I saw my own reflection, the gazes I found. Now I feel my own skin breathing, swear I never felt so strong. It's like I finally started living in this body when you came along. And I ain't holding back. And I ain't holding back this time. I ain't holding back...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Nora Jane Struthers sings in a clear, unadorned manner. It suits the direct lyrics that fill up her new album, "Wake." Given the content of the songs, the title seems, in part, to refer to an awakening Struthers has had about who she is, what she wants to do and how she wants to sound.


STRUTHERS: (Singing) A road stretches behind you, and you know where it runs to - a knot in your mind. It's getting harder and harder to unwind. You feel it sure as the sun on your skin. This the same road you've always been traveling.

TUCKER: Struthers uses this album to tell some autobiographical stories. They tend to be terse and quietly witty. In this, Nora Jane lives up to being named after Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammett's "The Thin Man" and Jane Austen. In the song called "The South," Struthers traces her journey from New Jersey to Nashville, proclaiming the South as the place where she feels most at ease, all of this set to a spare, gentle melody.


STRUTHERS: (Singing) I was born in Virginia. I live in Tennessee. Grandma came from Carolina, but I was raised in New Jersey. It's just something about the air down here. It's much easier to breathe. And I damn sure ain't ashamed of where I come from, but I ain't ever going to leave.

TUCKER: A visit to YouTube brought earlier videos of Struthers singing straight folk music and bluegrass, influences that are consigned to the outer edges of this album. Although the instrumentation is country, there's a rock 'n' roll force and forthrightness on many of the songs here, such as an anthem of self-definition, called "Let Go."


STRUTHERS: (Singing) I wrote it down, when I was 14, not to slouch just to seem like I was shorter than the boys. And I started carving out the weak parts until I was a woman I became by choice. And now I'm looking at you picking out a record, trying to find one you think I'd like. And it don't come naturally, but you're giving me a reason to try. I'm learning to let go. I'm learning to let go. Despite my disposition, I've made my decision. I'm learning to let go.

TUCKER: That song, "Let Go," is about the roles women play throughout their lives to fulfill certain expectations. Struthers is pushing back against that. You wouldn't expect anything less from a rock 'n' roller. But Struthers is as prey as any of us are to the way that falling in love can make you dependent - happily, hungrily dependent on the person you're in love with, which is why another song here, "Lovin' You," is, in some ways, even more of a test of feminist principles than "Let Go." In an interview, she referred to this state of mind as strength through vulnerability, and "Lovin' You" expresses that with even more emphasis.


STRUTHERS: (Singing) I've got a lot of things inside of my heart. Before we were together, they were pushing me apart. Love is such a mystery. I just don't understand who I was before you were my man 'cause lovin' you is the best part of who I am. Yeah, lovin' you is the best part of who I am. If I was a forest...

TUCKER: Although she's based in Nashville, and her band, The Party Line, deploys banjo and fiddle and sometimes imports a pedal steel guitar, no one is going to hear the material on "Wake" as pure country music. It's singer-songwriter stuff in confessional mode. But it's rare for her to slip into mere self-absorption. Struthers always sounds alert to what's going on around her, who she's surrounded by, and she forms brisk opinions about all of this.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "Wake," the new album from Nora Jane Struthers. Coming up, the creators of the web series, "High Maintenance," about a pot dealer and his clients. This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. There are more and more ways for the creators of TV shows to bypass the TV networks, like creating web series. The web series "High Maintenance" was named best web series of 2014 by LA Weekly. "High Maintenance" was co-created by our guests, Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, in 2012. Sinclair stars as a pot dealer known only as the guy, who rides his bike around Brooklyn, delivering to an assortment of clients. But it's not a stoner comedy. Each episode, which ranges from around five to 20 minutes, is more like a funny and sometimes poignant character study of the clients and why they get high. Blichfeld and Sinclair, who are married, use their own money to create the series and shot on location in the apartments of friends as well as in their own apartment. The early episodes of "High Maintenance" are available free. But last year, the video-sharing website Vimeo made "High Maintenance" its first original series, which means they started funding the series and charging a small fee for the episodes.

Katja Blichfeld is an Emmy award-winning casting director who worked on the TV show "30 Rock." Ben Sinclair is an actor and editor. FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado spoke to Blichfeld and Sinclair. They started with a clip from an early episode of the series. The episode starts with a couple making dinner when they realize a mouse is caught in a glue trap in their kitchen. They freak out, order some pot from their guy, and when he arrives, they're still obsessing about the mouse.


BRENNA PALUGHI: (As Brenna) We're so [expletive] stressed out. There's a mouse.

BEN SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) Oh, well, just set a trap guys.

MOLLY KNEFEL: (As Molly) That's the problem. There is a trap. And it's a glue trap. And the mouse is stuck in it. And it's screaming. And it's very clearly suffering. And we don't know what to do.

SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) You just kill it.

PALUGHI: (As Brenna) No, it's inhumane.

SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) Well, it's not actually inhumane. I mean, we caught a mouse in a glue trap, and we didn't see it 'til a couple hours later. And then it chewed its [expletive] leg off like James Franco in that rock climbing movie. And it dragged itself off and it expired in the dog dish. So it's like - might be more humane to kill it.

PALUGHI: (As Brenna) No, this is not an apartment where things die. This is an apartment where things live. We do not torture in this apartment, and we do not kill.

KNEFEL: (As Molly) I mean, to be fair, we already gassed it, and it's, like, totally covered in Pam.

SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) That sounds like torture.

KNEFEL: (As Molly) Yeah, I mean, it's doused in Pam. So I think maybe we should just kill it.

PALUGHI: (As Brenna) OK, fine. Will you do it?

SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) Yes, I will do it.

ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: That's a scene from the series "High Maintenance." Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, welcome to FRESH AIR.

KATJA BLICHFELD: Yes, thank you for having us.

BALDONADO: Why were you interested in making the series about a pot dealer? What access did you feel like the pot dealer offered you into characters?

SINCLAIR: It's really just that the pot dealer can get inside of somebody's apartment and then kind of engage in this activity that's illegal that both him and the client are complicit in. There is kind of this - I don't know - slightly sexy thing, but it's also short enough - five minutes - that you can have like a whole deal in under, you know, five minutes' time.

BALDONADO: You're able to build so much character in this short amount of time. Do you focus on the small details or does the storytelling just kind of happen? I'm thinking about there are just such great details in a lot of the apartments, and I'm thinking particularly of the episode "Helen," which is about an adult son who lives in an apartment with his sick mother, a user of - see, the kind of artwork that they have in the house or the piles of stuff just feels very much like a New York apartment. And then he gets these packages coming into the house. And then you realize he's trying on different shirts because he has a crush on the dealer, and he just wants to look nice. And it's just - so many of the episodes are really funny; so many of them are sweet. And this is just one that's super bittersweet. Could you talk about those details that seem to just say so much about the characters?

BLICHFELD: That was one of those instances where we kind of cast the apartment and thought to ourselves, who - well, we have access to this place, and it's so uniquely tiny. How can we make it look even more claustrophobic and small? And who would live there? And I think really that's where the idea came from, was having the space first. And then, of course, we art directed it. I mean, we pulled everything out from the walls to make it look a little smaller. We dug out some things from some thrift shops, and we made some fake art, and, you know, stuff like that. I mean, we definitely made it look a lot worse than it usually does. But, yeah, that was an instance where the apartment came first.

BALDONADO: I want to ask a little bit about casting. Everyone in the series is so great. And mostly it's people I haven't seen before. There are a couple of people I recognize from other shows. For example, Greta Lee, comedic actress, is in one of the first episodes. She's been on the Amy Schumer show and the "New Girl" and other movies. But other than that I didn't recognize a lot of people. Can you talk about casting this series?

SINCLAIR: Well, Katja is a casting director, or that was her entree into the entertainment industry. And she had been meeting actors on - while casting "30 Rock" and other shows for about a decade. But our - we don't have a traditional audition process. But the thing that could be equated with that is just us hanging out with the person that we'd like to write for. I mean, that's what happened with Dan Stevens. We basically hung out with him a half-dozen times before we realized what character would fit best for him.

BALDONADO: Let's talk about that episode. Dan Stevens, the British actor, who - a lot of people would know from playing Matthew on "Downton Abbey." He's in one of the episodes. And it's actually the episode "Rachel," which you guys just won a Writers Guild of America award for, and congratulations on that.

BLICHFELD: Yes, thank you.

BALDONADO: Could you describe the episode for us a little bit?

BLICHFELD: Sure. It's about a man named Colin who is a stay-at-home dad. He's a writer. We allude to the - he's a screenwriter and we allude to the fact he's won an Emmy recently. And now he's in this place where he is stuck. He's got writer's block. He's procrastinating. His wife is working very hard every day. She is - she works for a clothing designer named Rachel Comey. And the wife is the breadwinner. And she is getting increasingly frustrated with her husband who she realizes is procrastinating. She doesn't know the extent of his procrastination. But the viewer learns that he is just basically sitting around smoking weed all day and trying on dresses and basically cross-dressing in the privacy of his home. And then he - go ahead.

SINCLAIR: Then he orders weed from the guy. And has a long talk with the guy while wearing a dress, which is kind of nerve-racking for him, but the guy doesn't seem to mind at all.

BALDONADO: Well, let's listen to part of that episode, "Rachel." In this scene, the client, played by Dan Stevens, has ordered some pot from the guy, and he's let him in, and he's wearing a dress.


SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) Yeah, man, this was a good little read. Thank you so much.

DAN STEVENS: (As Colin) Good, I'm glad you enjoyed it. It's good, isn't it? It's a lot of - some good stories in there. I'm glad you liked it.

SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) I mean, I was like why isn't this guy calling me? I have so many good stories about clients, man - crazy [expletive] people.

STEVENS: (As Colin) (Laughter) I bet you do.

SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) Yeah, OK, look, man - you're wearing a dress right now. I can't pretend that you're not wearing a dress. You don't usually wear dresses, but you look - you look good.

STEVENS: (As Colin) Oh, thanks, man. Thank you, man. I appreciate that.

SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) I have another customer who cross-dresses.

STEVENS: (As Colin) Oh, you do?

SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) Very frumpy.

STEVENS: (As Colin) Yeah, yeah, the - the taste in the community can be a bit patchy, you know?

SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) Yeah, his taste [expletive] sucks. Your taste is - it works man. I'm like where's my dress?

STEVENS: (As Colin) (Laughter) Yeah, it's Rachel Comey.

BALDONADO: That's a scene from the episode "Rachel." And that's also the episode that Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair won the Writers Guild of America award for. Now, Katja, you were in casting for a long time. You were a casting director for the show "30 Rock." And you even won an Emmy for that. "30 Rock" is such a great show and it had this great cast, and it also had guest stars over the seasons - you know, Elaine Stritch, Elizabeth Banks, Jon Hamm. So what does a casting director do, or what did you do as a casting director on that show? Did you have to sort of work on all of those levels?

BLICHFELD: Oh, for sure, and, I mean, we were - I was part of a team. It wasn't just me. But our day-to-day in the casting department was - and this is really what took the most work, I think - was filling all of those sort of lesser roles, those one-scene roles, or those under-fives as we call them in the business. And those were actually, in my experience, even harder to cast because it's so much easier to present a role that is several scenes - a juicy role - to an actor - and especially on a show like that - and get kind of your pick of whoever you want. But when it comes to sort of those smaller roles, there was this standard in place for really great acting and really great comedy. And you couldn't just sort of throw any old person in a scene with Alec Baldwin, even if it is just one line - even if there's no lines. So it really was challenging, I think, week after week to try to find people who would be humble enough to come and just say a line or two but also fit the role and could sort of hold their own against people like Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Jane Krakowski and sometimes one of those major guest stars.

BALDONADO: I want to play a quick clip from "30 Rock." And this episode was the 100th episode. Actually, Ben Sinclair, you're in this episode.

BLICHFELD: (Laughter) Yeah, you're a mess in that one.

BALDONADO: You're playing the role of Brooklyn hipster. And just to give a little background on this scene, for some reason Tracy Jordan - the character Tracy Jordan played by Tracy Morgan - is sort of freaking out or maybe won an Oscar. And he's trying to get back his dirty image. So he's in the street kind of freaking out. And your character, Ben, the Brooklyn hipster, reacts to it. Let's take a listen.


TRACY MORGAN: (As Tracy Jordan) I am a Jedi.

SINCLAIR: (As Brooklyn hipster) Hey, look. Tracy Jordan is ironically reappropriating his bad past behavior as a commentary on Fitzgerald's dictum that there are no second acts in American life. I want to take a picture of him with my old-fashioned camera.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) No, no.

BALDONADO: And then he falls in the river. Someone falls in the river. Ben, that's you in "30 Rock." I wanted to ask you - I would think that being an actor in New York City would be so difficult. I was looking at your IMDb profile and I saw that you were in an episode of "Law & Order: SVU." And I kind of feel like every actor in New York has to make an appearance in one of the "Law & Order" spinoffs.



BLICHFELD: It is a rite of passage, yes.

BALDONADO: So I just...

SINCLAIR: You know...

BALDONADO: Think it must be hard.

SINCLAIR: It was hard, and I didn't get any parts until I met Katja. And she was like why don't you just let your beard grow? Once, if...

BLICHFELD: And act like yourself.

SINCLAIR: And act like yourself. There is, like, a headshot of me where I'm wearing, like, a members only leather jacket. And I look, like, real serious and I'm shaven and my head is shaved. And I look like...

BLICHFELD: Like he's trying to be, like, a tough guy.


BLICHFELD: Leading guy.

SINCLAIR: Which is total - total crap because, like, I am, like, a guy who is, like, very not tough at all. I've never been in a physical altercation in my whole life. So it was interesting for me to stop caring about trying to be this person I wasn't and just letting that laid-back guy who likes to sit around and smoke pot, to be honest. And that chill guy was able to come out with the beard. But Katja was the one who noticed that I was much better at being this relaxed, open dude who could really talk to anyone. And that's what she says one of her reasons for making "High Maintenance" was, was to kind of show that other side of my acting ability.

BALDONADO: Well, Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, thank you so much for talking to us.

SINCLAIR: Thank you.

BLICHFELD: Yes, thank you for having us.

GROSS: Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair created the web series "High Maintenance," which Sinclair stars in. They spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews two new shows he considers part of the new TV revolution. This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. This week, ABC presents "American Crime," a new drama series from John Ridley who wrote the screenplay for the movie "12 Years A Slave." Also this week, Netflix presents the "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," a new comedy series from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock who collaborated on NBC's "30 Rock." According to our TV critic David Bianculli, they're both part of the new TV revolution, and they're both good.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: You can thank the heated competition between broadcast networks and TVs alternative delivery systems - cable, streaming sites, whatever - for the existence and the quality of two of this week's new TV shows. Netflix wants to keep grabbing headlines, so it asks Tina Fey, creator of "30 Rock" what she'd like to do next. ABC, meanwhile, wants to compete with the complexity of cable and streaming shows, widen its audience base and its on-air minority representation and also gain a little prestige, so it goes to John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "12 Years A Slave," and asks him what he'd like to do next. So presto - this week, viewers can enjoy a new, quirky comedy in the "30 Rock" mold and an emotionally raw and captivating new drama that breaks the mold.

Let's start with the comedy. The "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," which releases all of its first season Friday on Netflix comes from Tina Fey and her "30 Rock" cohort, Robert Carlock. It's a comedy about a wide-eyed young woman, one of several held underground for more than a decade by a crazy cult leader. She emerges from her underground bunker and decides to make it on her own in New York City. Ellie Kemper, who played Erin on NBC's "The Office," has the title role, and her costars include Carol Kane from "Taxi" and Jane Krakowski and Tituss Burgess from "30 Rock."

At first, things go charmingly for the perennially perky Kimmy in this strange new world, until they don't. In this scene, she returns to her new roommate, played by Burgess, and is anything but perky. But, like this new series, she is funny.


ELLIE KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) They stole my backpack.


KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) I can't do this. Reverend Richard was right.

BURGESS: (As Titus)Wait, who?

KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, senior prophet and CFO of Savior Rick’s Spooky Church of the Scary-Pocalypse.

BURGESS: (As Titus) Who?

KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) I am one of the Indiana mole women.

BURGESS: (As Titus) From the news? Why didn't you tell me?

KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) Because I just want to be a normal person, and I can't. I don't know anything. I can't tell phones from cameras. Even policemen have tattoos.

BIANCULLI: Thursday night on ABC, the new drama, "American Crime" premieres with a concept that paradoxically is simple and complex at the same time. It looks at one crime, the murder of a married man and the near murder of his wife, and follows and dramatizes all the connecting threads of that single case. We meet the grieving parents, the accused killer and many others tangled somehow into this story's cleverly constructed web. Along the way, we visit and examine several different class structures, ethnicities and problems. And the longer we watch, the more we're surprised. In TV terms, "American Crime" is closest to HBO's "The Wire" or the original miniseries version of "Traffic." But it's got a tone and structure all its own.

The acting in "American Crime" is as good as the writing. And I expect this series to muscle into several Emmy categories next year. Benito Martinez from Netflix's "House Of Cards" is commandingly sympathetic as the proud father of a baby-faced teen who may be less innocent than he appears. Caitlin Gerard and Carter Nix are street-level meth addicts who seem sweeter than their harsh environment, until they don't.

And at the core of the series, are the long-divorced parents of the murder victim who reconnect only after the husband identifies his child in the morgue. The parents are played by Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman. And as they reunite to discuss their dead son's case and what to do about their surviving son, the tensions are painfully palpable.


TIMOTHY HUTTON: (As Russ) I couldn't hardly recognize him. The detectives said that the gun must have been right in front of his face...

FELICITY HUFFMAN: (As Barb) What are the police doing?

HUTTON: (As Russ) Well, they have a description of a car.

HUFFMAN: (As Barb) When was Mike killed, Sunday? It's Tuesday. That - all they have is a description of a car?

HUTTON: (As Russ) And now they said that they think it might be an Hispanic kid.

HUFFMAN: (As Barb) Some illegal?

HUTTON: (As Russ) Just Hispanic.

HUFFMAN: (As Barb) Why did they call you?

HUTTON: (As Russ) And they said that they think that maybe Gwen was raped.

HUFFMAN: (As Barb) I don't understand why they called you.

HUTTON: (As Russ) I'm his father.

HUFFMAN: (As Barb) No, I don't understand why they called you first.

HUTTON: (As Russ) You know, they just - they found my number and they called me.

HUFFMAN: (As Barb) What about Mark?

HUTTON: (As Russ) Yeah, I wanted to, you know, talk to you first.

HUFFMAN: (As Barb) Oh, you haven't called Mark yet? Oh, my god, Russ.

HUTTON: (As Russ) No. I thought we should call him together.

HUFFMAN: (As Barb) I'll call him.

HUTTON: (As Russ) He's my son, too.

HUFFMAN: (As Barb) I'll call him.

HUTTON: (As Russ) We need to be a family now. For both our boys right now, we need to be a family.

BIANCULLI: Hutton does his best work in years here, and Huffman is magnificent. Hers is a fearless, flawless performance. And because of the way their scenes are written and photographed as well as performed, "American Crime" is an important, compelling new series. It's bound to spark a lot of discussion, and it deserves to.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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