Did you know that there’s a lion in the 1964 movie, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” named King Moonracer? Autumn Ehinger, front-person of her solo project, Moon Racer, talks about how her band name came to be based on the Christmas classic.
Ehinger also shares the inspiration behind her songwriting and the instruments that she uses to create her unique and dreamy songs. Growing up with music and playing in bands with others, like The Love Language, Moon Racer has been a personal project that has allowed Ehinger to explore her own authentic sound. Her songs share that it’s okay to express feelings in a soft and vulnerable way to a world where things sometimes feel a little too loud.
While having a conversation over the phone and lounging in my Honda Civic, Autumn Ehinger, who is from Durham NC, takes a break from preparing for tour to chat with me about life, music, and mentions places she’d like to travel to. Ehinger said that she would also like to tour in D.C. sometime soon, potentially during the Fall.
*The phone rings and Autumn Ehinger picks up. Laughter and excitement ensue*
T: So I actually saw on your instagram you’re a teacher most of the time when you’re not writing songs? What grade do you teach?
A: Yes, that is true! I teach elementary school, English as a second language so I work with K-5.
T: Aww, that’s so sweet! I thought I wanted to be an elementary school teacher at first but I ended up in journalism school.
A: Well, you might still become an elementary school teacher someday, you never know!
T: Exactly, you never know and it’s funny because I work at this place called Education Week and it’s a media platform for like education and people site our stats and stuff all the time and I’m like that’s funny, I’m still in education but it’s just in a media way now. But no that’s so cool that you’re an elementary school teacher - so awesome. What is it like for you being both a teacher and balancing your music?
A: Hm, that’s a really good question and I’m like asking myself the same question. Lets see, well it’s nice because teachers get some time off so I can do a little bit of touring...but it is really hard, like I definitely have to...like I’m always kind of busy after school or busy on the weekends like trying to record or practicing for shows and then sometimes I’ll lament not having any free time.
T: I assume you get your summers off though because you’re a teacher so that might help a little!
A: Yeah! So like for this tour, I actually did like...the last day for kids was Tuesday (June 11, 2019), and my last day was yesterday, and then I booked this tour leaving tomorrow (June 14, 2019). I started feeling it like...do you watch 30 Rock? There’s this episode called “Winter Madness” and I felt like I had winter madness, like over the winter you’re working all the time and you think I gotta do something, I’ve gotta get outta here. So I thought I'd book a tour! And now that it’s here I could’ve just given myself a couple days off between these two things cause they’re like two completely different worlds but I also feel like they balance me out. So it’s nice working with kids every day...but also that can be really stressful, so it’s nice to have music. And then when music is stressful, I can retreat back to the other things.
T: Yeah, no that’s a good way to look at it too. One of the questions I was going to ask was, you know art-forms like songwriting and stuff can sometimes help you when you’re stressed out or you’re facing trials and issues but at the same time, people sometimes think, “oh that’s a great way to self-help” but sometimes it can be really stressful writing songs. I don’t know, I know that I have trouble sometimes.
A: Yeah! For sure. Sometimes when both things are stressful with school and writing, I’m like what am I doing? But I’m trying to mitigate that a little bit better.
T: So what inspired you to get into music making? Is there anyone in your life in particular that inspires your music? What’s the inspiration behind wanting to create and make stuff and write songs?
A: Hm, I don’t know, I guess I played in a band starting in college and then ummm I don’t know, there’s been times when I’ve had to start it and when I don’t do it I feel bad. I play in another band called The Love Language, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it.
T: I haven’t heard but I’ll have to listen!
A: It’s mostly a project of this guy, the main person Stuart McLamb, and they’re on Merge records, so I’ve toured a lot with The Love Language, and then that was kind of winding down and I was like “I’m going to do my own quiet music.”
T: So The Love Language, was it louder? Because I haven’t listened to it because I didn’t do my research in that regard but—
A: That’s okay! That’s totally okay. Yeah, the music is so loud. Off the record, if you listen to the songs it sounds like a normal volume like on a phone but live it’s really loud to me because there’s like guitar and drums and stuff and somehow the amp is always pointed at me even though I’m like trying to pivot away from it. But those guys, like I love them so much, they’re some of my best friends. Our new Love Language album came out last summer and I opened the tour, Moon Racer did. Tom who plays drums in The Love Language played drums with me and that was really sweet, but this tour is going to just be me by myself.
T: And that’s still really cool, would you prefer going on tour with other people or are you more interested in exploring touring as your own solo band?
A: I want to say candid stuff but at the same time I’m like “I guess it could sound better with drums than playing by myself... secretly, don’t tell anybody!
T: Cool, it’s our secret!
A: But I feel like me playing by myself is more practical I guess and also I feel like my songs or like the music that I’m trying to play is really vulnerable and I feel like part of leaning into that vulnerability is to just not be afraid to be completely by myself in front of other people.
T: Wow, I love that. And that makes a lot of sense now that I’m thinking about it because if there were more people, not that it would be bad or anything but it would just be different because I do think there’s a different sense of being up on stage by yourself and creating something because the focus is on what you, yourself are creating and not all the other counterparts of people that would be in the band. How did you actually come up with the band name, Moon Racer, was there a cool little story behind it or anything like that?
A: Oh yeah, do you know the movie, the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1960s stop motion one?
T: Wait yes! That one was my favorite!
A: Yeah oh my gosh I love it so much! So you know when they go to the island of misfit toys? The king of the island of misfit toys, the lion is king Moon Racer.
T: Oh! That’s so cool. I love that.
A: So it’s just me, you know... on my deserted island of misfits, my misfit self.
T: Now whenever I watch that movie I’m going to think of your band.
A: It’s so interesting though, of all those toys, you would think the king of all those toys would be like be a toy but instead it’s a lion with wings. He’s a minor character, minor character! But the music in that movie is so good.
T: It’s also a movie that makes me cry every time —
A: Me too!
T: But I also cry at every movie Autumn like I’m an emotional mess.
A: Me too!!
T: It’s okay to be vulnerable! Also I know you released your first album I guess back in 2018, “Is It Really A Secret.” I actually remember hearing your songs like “New Crush” and “Last Kiss” on Spotify, that's how I discovered your stuff. Yeah I guess I just listen to a lot of very soft, vulnerable things and that’s how it came across. Listening to your tunes, they have a very warm and fuzzy feeling... like it feels like... I don't know, sometimes I feel like I know people that would be like this is too soft for me but I am a very gentle sensitive person and I don’t know that music just like gives me a hug.
A: Oh nice! That’s what I want the music, that’s like the best case scenario, that’s what I’d like the music to be like, for the music to give someone who’s listening a hug.
T: Hug-genre music!
A: A consensual hug!
T: What inspired that specific album and its cover art because I know there’s a cactus on it which I thought was probably representative of a place but I don’t know if that place inspired the whole album or what’s the story?
A: So the album art, I was briefly in Arizona a while back and it’s one of my favorite places and the cover art, I wanted a little desert scene because it’s sort of like desert solitude like being by yourself in the wilderness reflecting and so, me releasing that, those songs were kind of like a solitary diary and recording it by myself and then deciding to let other people hear it was kind of like I said, like leaning into that vulnerability and just kind of embracing the alone-ness of it. And so that kind of symbolized it, the stereotypical desert. And if you want to get real deep into some symbolism...the songs from “Is It Really A Secret,” all those songs are about like one experience. They go in chronological order about this one person that I was involved with and how you think something great is about to happen and then it doesn’t.
T: Oh gee that’s so relatable.
A: And so the...I feel like I need to go look at it…so we’re really deep diving into the cover art, like on the cactuses, there’s like one, the big saguaro cactus, and it has three flowers and those three flowers are the three love songs where it’s like optimistic, and then on the prickly pear...this is like really deep...I don’t know this...I’ve never told anybody this before! And so if you also look at the prickly pear cactus, there are four flowers and those four flowers are the...what’s the opposite of love songs? It’s like when you realize you’re getting played out.
T: Hmm, what is the word for that. Like...upset songs?
A: Yeah sorta, hmm I can’t think of words...the opposite of love songs, it’s not angry, it’s like...I see...I see you. And then the very last song, “New Crush” is the little scorpion. Because that’s like the new person I met and then it was great with the next person.
T: Wow I love how in-depth the cover art explains and pairs with the songs. I love that it’s almost...well, it is your secret! “Is it really a secret?” Yes!
A: The secret’s out!
T: Oh no! But I love all the elements of the story there and how they were able to be told on the cover. I know a lot of people obviously go through very similar things. And I think that's also why your album, at least for me is very easy to listen to because I feel like I could feel a lot of those things also in my life. It's like a little bit of a melancholy feeling but I also feel good listening to it.
A: Melancholy! That’s a good word for the prickly pear flower songs -- the four melancholy songs. Oh and it was important, like I said, that tape was about one experience and the first seven songs are about one person but the last song, “New Crush,” you meet someone else and move on and it was really important for me to end with like the next beginning.
T: It’s also not like a sad ending either, instead it instills power and hope and that is something I think everyone needs, especially me. I need my new crush...where are they Autumn? I don’t know.
A: Yeah, well actually after that new crush I was like I’m ready for my new, new crush!
T: I also appreciate all of the synths in your songs, actually I recently got a Casio keyboard and the Casio I have just reminds me a lot of the sounds you have in your songs, so do you play on a specific keyboard? What are the tools you use to achieve your unique dreamy sounds?
A: Um I have most of it...well there’s two, the Casio keyboard that I got for Christmas when I was in third grade, a long time ago, and I still use it, so the exact one that Santa brought me like has a key that doesn’t work anymore so I got one just like it but it’s the same thing and it’s pretty good suggesting at how many years old it is. So a lot of the dreamy sounds come from that. I have it through reverb pedals and delay and sometimes overdrive. And then I have another keyboard that was on the second half of “Is It Really a Secret?” that my friend Stu from The Love Language, he was moving and he was...I met him in a parking lot of a Goodwill because we were going to dinner and he was making a quick drop-off at the Goodwill before we went to dinner and he was getting rid of his Casiotone and I was like what are you doing? I could just fix it. And it’s from like 1980 and that’s the one I use on “New Crush” and “Last Kiss” and everything on it sounds...so great. But it’s so old, I’m so scared it’s going to...I actually ordered another one off of eBay just like it when I realized how special it was and since then, the one that Stu gave me has disintegrated. And then the one I replaced it with is now also starting to disintegrate. I had it on tour with me last August and every time I turned it on for sound check, and it worked I was like “thank goodness, it’s got at least one more day.” I have tried to sample some of the tones because I have a Nord that I also play live and I put those Casio sounds on it and it’s close, but it’s not quite the same thing. But I’m going to do what I can with what I’ve got.
T: No that’s so true, what’s the number or version of your Casio keyboards?
A: The one that Stu gave me is a Casiotone MT210 I think and I think it might be from 1981. It’s one of the ones that has really small keys. I feel like when I play it, it’s so easy to play because the keys are so small. It makes me feel like a really good piano player. The other one I have is a Casio CA110 and I know that because I’m looking at it right now. This is my little set up for practice.
T: Do you also put reverb on your voice too? Or how does that work?
A: Yes I do! Also the last show I played, the reverb at the place did not work and I had a real dry mic situation and I was like, “Well, I guess this is how it’s going to be.” But ideally, I like using reverb on my voice.
T: Yeah, I think it definitely adds to the dreaminess of the sound that you’re trying to make because when I listen to other people’s stuff, some people like having more of a clear vocal, but I just like how everything in your music meshes together. It’s uniquely you Autumn!
A: Aw thanks! I definitely applaud everyone going in on the dry mic these days and it’s gotten popular and god bless everybody who can do that. That’s like the new level of leaning into the vulnerability I think. I think that I’m not quite there. I’m like, this is as vulnerable as I can be right now.
T: And I think it’s okay if your vulnerability remains in the sound that it is right now, and you know every artist has the ability to change their sound at some points. If you do feel like you want to change that and make it the more clear version, you can do that too. You can do whatever makes you feel good.
A: That’s true! You know, every day is a new day.
T: I was also going to ask you a question about your new song that you released. Well I know it’s a cover, and I listened to the original, “You Can Feel Bad” by Patty Loveless and I found that the original didn’t speak to me as much, it lacked softness that I feel like yours includes. You really molded it into your own, I never would’ve thought it was someone else’s song but also you included a gentleness which hit close to my heart. I mean sometimes I have a hard time feeling good but that cover… it felt soft and what was needed in that moment. And it’s interesting because in that interview you had with Post Trash, you said your cover was a “less certain” version of the original, which I appreciate. I think there can be a lot more emotional complexity to a situation like that. So like what was your inspiration behind making that cover?
A: When I was little I really listened to a lot of country music when I was in elementary school and I like how you’ll hear old favorite songs like even if you haven’t heard them in twenty years, somehow it just lives somewhere deep in your brain and if it comes on, somehow you still know all the words or sometimes you’ll remember the lyrics to a song that you haven’t heard in so many years. It’s kind of magical like how you’re like, “I didn’t know that I did remember that” but it’s still in me.
T: I actually think that gives a great reason to make a cover, especially because it’s a song that not a lot of people know. I think that also gives you a chance to make it uniquely yours because it doesn’t have to be popular for you to cover something. Also what was your inspiration behind the cover art with the lady’s hair being cut for the song? Did you draw it?
A: Yep, I did! I feel like it kind of matches the song in a way where like after a break up, or an event, like a break up, you get your haircut and I feel like that person might feel sorry for you in their la la land but you’re out there living your life! And it might be hard, but maybe you get a new haircut, maybe you be feelin’ yourself, whatever. So it’s kind of like, getting rid of that relationship.
T: What kinds of things are you looking forward to producing music-wise in the future? Like will they be similar to this cover you just released or are you planning to have a new take on things. Do you have any set dates to release more music sometime soon in the future?
A: Well, those are all great questions that I’m wondering. I have an album of work and for me, I want to make another release that’s similar to “Is It Really A Secret?” in that it’s also based on one cohesive event, like all the songs. And so the event has been completed and I have the songs harvested from that event but it’s been a little bit slow. Recently I was having things recorded now but then I was like, I’m just going to record this one cover because it was hard but I want to release that whole collection. But I have learned over the Spring with working and recording that one cover, and then booking these shows that maybe I’m hustling too hard and I might not give myself a deadline.
T: That’s good and I think also it’s your personal project so you don’t need to have something set in stone either. You also have to know what’s best for yourself in the moment, and you know how busy you are and what breaks you need to take for yourself. So it’s very important to be attentive to that.
A: I also feel like I may have reached the point in recording alone where I’m ready to not record alone anymore because I feel like it would really speed things up if I just asked for help. But something else that’s also been a lesson was recording that cover this Spring which made me think I should’ve just gone to my friends house to get some help and then knock this out in one day instead of laboring for several days.
T: I also was curious to know if there was a particular city you were going to on tour that you have never been to or were particularly excited about visiting.
A: You know, I am going to cities that I’ve never played at all in before like Cincinnati, some real wild cards! So I’m kind of looking forward to that. I haven’t played a Moon Racer show in Chicago before and I’m really excited about that because...are you familiar with Advanced Base at all?
T: I don’t think so.
A: He used to perform under the name Casiotone for The Painfully Alone, it’s Owen Ashworth who’s under the Ordindal Records label. He’s like my favorite musician, but we’re playing in Chicago together with Claire Cronin and her album comes out tomorrow (June 14), so that will be super fun! And that’s who I’m also playing with in Brooklyn. Like we’re meeting up in Chicago and then we’re diverging and then playing in Michigan a few days later together and then playing the Brooklyn show. I also toured with Owen in November as well, we did a little Texas tour together.
T: Well, that’ll be a lot of fun and you’ll get to see your friends on tour! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: All of the questions you asked were all good questions, there were even some questions I always ask myself.
I know that I’ll definitely be on the lookout for new music from Moon Racer. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, listen to “Is It Really A Secret?” and “You Can Feel Bad” on bandcamp.
Also be sure to catch Moon Racer on tour that’s happening now! For remaining tour dates, feel free to check out this show poster: