The Madison band talks with us about “Imposter Syndrome,” released on June 4.
Photo: Norris Court’s members are, from left to right in top photo, Cam Scheller-Suitor, Adam Flottmeyer, Alejandra Perez, and Grace Olson.
“It’s a gift to be simple,” goes the first line of Imposter Syndrome, the debut album from Madison’s Norris Court. The 30-second opening track, “Simple Gifts,” captures five-year-old Grace Olson exuding a playful vibrato as she belts out the old Shaker folk song of the same title. Now an adult songwriter and guitarist with a more subdued vocal style, Olson has crafted a patchwork of intricate, dreamy indie-rock with drummer Cam Scheller-Suitor (Bob Loblaw, Dear Mr. Watterson, bassist Alejandra Perez (previously of Miyha and Tarpaulin), and guitarist Adam Flottmeyer (Like A Manatee, Clean Room).
It’s an experienced group of local players, but the album’s title highlights the anxious realities of the creative process. The term “impostor syndrome” refers to a 1978 study, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” which identified the tendency of women with “outstanding academic and professional accomplishments” to believe that they are frauds. ”I came up with the idea a while ago,” Olson says in reference to the title, “because it was something I experienced often.”
Norris Court balances such weighty subject matter with playfulness, punctuating the album’s arrangements with sharp and lively execution. The standout moments here include Perez’s buzzing, gritty bass powering through the 6/8 groove on “Honey,” Flottmeyer’s punchy leads cutting through the delicacy of “My Case,” the the descending twinkle of Olson and Flottmeyer’s guitars on on the opening of “Tool,” and Scheller-Suitor’s sharp, accented staccato on “Tool” erupting into a short, disruptive punk groove. The playing here is precise but never strained, capturing the band’s attention to detail but also its members’ ability to relax and laugh.
Olson’s lyrics are as catchy as they are cutting. The songs on Imposter Syndrome dial in on vivid moments in time and burn with self-reflection. On “My Case,” Olson places herself, well, out of place: “on a balcony downtown with some strangers and I’m talking way / too loud I don’t know who lives here and all my friends are going / home.” On “Cataloochee,” Olson reflects upon the comfort of friends: “the windows are open wide / and the sun hits my face just right, I am soaking in all its light / and I am not afraid of this.” I have played “Cataloochee” on repeat lately because it melds memory, bright melodies, and pensive observation at a time when we’re all missing the profound but simple joys of being in the same physical space with people we care about. There only exists a recollection of time and place, and a desire to be unafraid of the present. (I also put “Cataloochee” on a benefit compilation I co-organized, and Olson and Perez are both involved at Communication, where I am a board member. Communication is Tone Madison’s partner organization.)
While Olson’s songwriting acumen drives the band, Norris Court also has a strong grasp of visual aesthetics. Olson is a mixed-media artist whose use of collage presents a peculiar particular jumble of scenes and memories, showcased in a short clip for “Honey” as well as the album art, a refracted image from the vestibule of the band’s namesake east-side apartment complex. Perez is an experienced painter as well. Seeing the world through an interdisciplinary lens allows for broad strokes of self-reflection and meditation, which are found in abundance on Norris Court’s debut release.
Imposter Syndrome is also filled with dichotomies, contradictions, the push-and-pull of human nature. On “My Case,” Olson laments that she is “so clumsy/ I can’t be trusted to hold your heart.” But on “Honey,” she sings of being “sticky and sweet for you,” a passionate moment, sung with a hazy drawl.” “Honey” also begins with the band chanting the “aye aye, captain” bit from the SpongeBob SquarePants intro. The album’s nine-track sequence grapples poignantly and sometimes even comically with the mishmash of emotions, memories, and expressions that make up our lives. Musicianship that can bring you up then down doesn’t have to be a one-two punch from a one-trick pony. Norris Court writes love songs, sad songs, happy songs, because people are filled to the brim with these feelings, and they pour out.
All four band members took the time to speak with me via email after the album’s June 4 release.
Tone Madison: Can you talk about the process that went into writing this album?
Alejandra Perez: I personally had never played a bass before. I felt pretty versed in songwriting, but it was a new challenge to listen to someone else’s songs and figure out interesting parts that complement and harmonize. I was most excited to learn I was quite good at playing by ear. I also enjoyed how collaborative we all were during the development of the bass, drum, and lead guitar parts.
Cam Scheller-Suitor: I feel like Grace came to us with songs that were either fully or near-fully written on guitar and vocals, and the rest of the band built our parts around the initial arrangement until we felt good playing the songs as a band and as our own musical selves. From my own experience writing parts for Norris Court songs, I generally just tried to not do anything too over the top, and more importantly to match the mood (rhythm, volume, etc.) of what everyone else in the band was playing.
Grace Olson: I start almost all my songs by sitting on my bed playing pretty chords until I find some that sound nice together. I play around with them for a while until I have a rhythm in mind, and at that point, the lyrics start to come. That moment is really special because it clues me into what experiences or memories I am processing at that moment. After a little of that, I move to a more methodical part of the process where I’m organizing the words to sound just right. Rhymezone.com is my best friend. Once a song feels finished I take a voice recording of it on my phone to send to the band group chat. Then I take it to practice and we jam on it until we have an idea of what our parts should sound like and how they fit together.
Tone Madison: Have you felt the sting of impostor syndrome?
Alejandra Perez: I certainly have and probably more often than I would like to admit.
Adam Flottmeyer: I definitely have. It can be really harmful to my process. It’s much more productive to be inspired by the great work others do but honestly more often I think “I could never do that” or something along those lines. Practicing mindfulness and trying new things helps me get out of that.
Grace Olson: It’s been a part of my life for a long time. I also recognize that what I’ve felt is only a fraction of what others in the scene have felt. I try to take note when it comes up for me and think critically about why it’s there. What experiences have conditioned me to feel out of place?
What experiences have afforded me a sense of belonging that others don’t get to have? How can I use that insight to empathize with and support artists who are more systematically marginalized? There’s a lot of work to be done there.
Tone Madison: There are multiple points on the album where audio clips or rough cuts were left on tracks—like the entirety of “Simple Gifts,” and the end of “Tool,” and the beginning of “Honey.” Can you talk about how these moments made their way onto the album?
Alejandra Perez: That’s me yelling “it’s perfect!” because we did “Tool” in one take and I always felt nervous about how well I could hook my bass up to Grace’s guitar as it leads into the outro. Those moments are all very organic, and there are many more wonderful moments beyond those, but these are the ones we captured and kept.
Grace Olson: “Simple gifts” is a recording of me as a five-year-old singing an old folk song. I had a computer microphone that I would use to record myself. The “aye aye captain” SpongeBob chant before “Honey” was just a classic zany moment.
Adam Flottmeyer: We goof.
Tone Madison: Can you talk about the music video/ montage for the song “Honey”? What went into this blended mess of monster trucks, dance moves, and party clips?
Grace Olson: I made that in the early days of quarantine when I was missing my friends a little extra. The song itself is about the experience of falling in love as a teenager, that really chaotic and all-encompassing combination of new freedom and new feelings. Being with my oldest, closest friends always brings me back there a little, which is why I chose videos I’d taken while hanging out with them.
Adam Flottmeyer: Chicken tenders make good slides. They provide a much “meatier” tone.
Tone Madison: Everyone in the band has a variety of music and art backgrounds in the Madison landscape. How does this influence your songwriting?
Alejandra Perez: Grace is really the songwriter for Norris Court. I’ve had that same position in previous projects and it’s a lot of fun, it feels very personal, and it’s even better when your bandmates understand what you’re aiming for. I had bandmates in the past who did fantastic work bringing my songs to life, so those I wanted to give my best efforts to Grace when adding bass to her songs.
Cam Scheller-Suitor: I can only speak for the drum parts that I wrote, but there are moments when the punk/emo drumming I’ve played over the years informed my drumming in Norris Court. Mostly on the choruses and outros when things get a bit loud. Although, I think the music I listen to has always influenced what I write more than the other music I play or have played. But I guess every musical project is a learning experience for the next musical project or even the current ones.
Grace Olson: Visual art and poetry have been practices of mine since I was a kid and have definitely influenced how I go about writing music. My first band experience was Like A Manatee, which was/is Adam’s project. I joined in 2017 after jamming with him a few times and becoming friends. That band is so close to my heart. I’m deeply grateful for the sweet moments I’ve shared with all of the members and learned a lot about myself by playing, hanging out, and traveling with them. I feel the same way about Cam and Alejandra—they both inspire me in different ways and have written music that I love.
Norris Court came together in a way that felt really organic and I was so psyched to have these three crazy talented people express interest in playing my songs. Making music with people you care about is a profound kind of energy exchange that’s hard to find elsewhere. I have always left practices feeling happy and affirmed. I also want to mention the local venue Communication, because it has served as a creative home base for me since it was opened. I’ve played a lot of shows there, taught art to kids there, and sold my work there. I am continually inspired by the work they do.
Adam Flottmeyer: This is the first time I’ve specifically filled a “lead guitar” role but I’ve done a lot of lead-type stuff in Like A Manatee. I love the challenge of being in that role. I think in some ways I play guitar like a bass player since that was the instrument I started on. The chorus part in “My Case” especially has that walking-bass kind of vibe.
Tone Madison: Adam’s spacey guitar parts bring a lot of depth to songs like “Those Things” and “Cataloochee.” How were those parts created?
Cam Scheller-Suitor: Adam has actually traveled to space on multiple occasions. I accompanied him on a trip to Saturn two summers ago and it was life-changing. The roads sucked but it was surprisingly walkable. I think space travel has informed Adam’s guitar playing more than he’ll let on.
Adam Flottmeyer: Firstly, don’t be fooled by that malarkey Cam peddles around. I’m solely of this earth and have not nor would I ever leave it even for a short “trip.” Next, I’d say 80 percent of what I play on all of the songs came out in the first couple of times we played them. I’d then spend time at home fooling around making minor tweaks. One of my favorite “tricks” is to include an octave within a chord or part. It helps to get that ringing/droning quality. In the bridge/breakdown section of “Those Things,” Grace told me she wanted something more spacious than what I was originally doing which was a really great note because I think the space of the parts in that section is what gives it its great open quality. One of the hardest ideas for me musically is that less is often more. It’s been one of the most prevalent ideas in my approach to my parts.
Grace Olson: I have no idea how he does it. His parts rule. Adam is a gem and I’m glad we’ve gotten to grow as musicians together throughout these past few years.
Tone Madison: Staying on the “Cataloochee” train, is there an inspiration behind the triplet stutter that happens in the verses? It’s a subtle yet really fine crafted moment.
Alejandra Perez: Something that is beautiful about Grace’s songwriting is there are these moments of pauses, specific hits, punches, and as you mention this triplet stutter. I can’t speak to Grace writing it, but it adds something special to learning the song. Almost a challenge. When everyone gets the part it feels very rewarding, very communal. I personally deeply enjoy those steps out of line, especially when they transition smoothly into the next part of the song.
Adam Flottmeyer: I think that’s something that was there in Grace’s demo but I think Cam emphasized it and then we all clicked into it. I think we do a really good job of listening to each other. I can’t really think of any moments on these songs where someone is stepping on another’s toes, so to speak.
Grace Olson: That song is about big feelings and I wanted to play it in a way that carried big impact. I felt like my fellow band members picked up on it immediately when we were learning the song, which was so awesome. I get a rush of dopamine straight to the dome when we get to those parts and hit them in unison.
Tone Madison: On “Henry,” there’s a fun play on words in the chorus—”first you were too much, now you are three much / soon you’ll be four much for me”—but the song itself has a somber waltz to it. Can you talk about that moment and what is behind those lyrics?
Grace Olson: I work in childcare. One of the hardest parts of that job is bonding with kids and then having to let go of them when the job is over. The name Henry is a pseudonym for a kid I cared for a few years ago. Age three is a really incredible time developmentally—you’re learning about the world, where you belong in it, and how to interact with it at such a fast pace. There was a day when he was being extra silly and I said, “you’re too much.” His response was “No, I’m three much.”
Adam Flottmeyer: Alejandra’s bass part on that song really makes it.
Tone Madison: How has the pandemic affected the band’s trajectory?
Alejandra Perez: I have remained committed to the project, but know that other members may like to branch out and try new things. A pandemic sure put pause and reflection on this. Playing bass has been wonderful and especially so with such talented musicians. It is important right now that we distance, keep our roommates/families/co-workers safe, but I know there will be an opportunity for some amount of normalcy in the future. What that looks like right now, I am not sure, but I know it will be great to get together when and if we can.
Grace Olson: We haven’t gotten to practice at all, because we are all social distancing at much as we can. I don’t know yet when we will be able to again. Cam will no longer be playing with us then—he stepped away in the winter to make time for other projects but agreed to record the album because he is a sweet angel. I’m not sure yet about whether Adam will be in Madison. A good friend of ours who I will not name has expressed interest in drumming, which will be amazing if it works out. As of now, I am sure that Alejandra and I will play music together as Norris Court for as long as we’re both in Madison.
Adam Flottmeyer: It’s kept us from practicing which really sucks ass. I’m also considering a move to Minneapolis which could force the band to go on without me or dissolve. It’s really hard to step away from this band, though. I love the music and the friendships so much.
Tone Madison: Anything else you would like to add that I missed?
Grace Olson: I am answering these questions a few days after everyone else—in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the resurgence of direct action led by the Black Lives Matter movement. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we have each been moved to reconsider our priorities. As allies, we are putting energy into educating ourselves. We made a donation to Freedom Inc. as a band when releasing the album. We encourage others to join us in supporting Black organizations, individuals and businesses during and after all of this.
Tone Madison: What’s next?
Alejandra Perez: I’m not sure, but I am very happy about everything we’ve done and look forward to doing more in the future.
Grace Olson: I am slowly but surely getting back to writing songs after feeling uninspired through the beginning of the pandemic. I’m really excited to share them.