Friday morning, fifteen miles from where I sat at Joe’s bar, picking out bits and pieces of Andrew’s records at the piano, the unfathomable unfolded.
A text from Tiffany told me to turn on the news and I expected amusement, forgetting mass media’s other stock in trade, tragedy.
I stopped my studies.
I stood and stared.
From Cavell I’ve learned the most extraordinary to be the ordinary, and from him I’ve heard the name for the sound I always sought- the hum of the world. In people and the beauty we are capable of creating, I find it every day.
Friday, I felt that hum, the center, the core of what it means and what it’s worth and what responsibility it entails to be alive on earth, compromised. Static for a second, sickness since. There is a town full of people who will feel this forever, but it hurts just to be human at a time like this.
Now I sit across from my grandfather and he asks me, “Why?” and I can’t think a thing but to say that we’re all too intent on watching and being watched. I close my eyes and I feel each part of my body simply as one tiny piece of one tiny piece and I know that the only thing that keeps the whole thing together is that each part is as important as the next. The whole is greater, more miraculous, more extraordinary, because the parts are each fulfilled by how ordinary and integral they are. There is no desire to be more, to be seen in hopes that celebrity will cease the search for a solution.
So today I resolve not to seek.
Today I will sing songs that sound to me like the best way I could describe the sun breaking through the clouds for just a second. Today I will be thinking about twenty-seven former futures. I have no interest in investigating- there is no information that will answer the question that’s on so many minds.
“The first thing you do is you gasp for breath,” my grandfather says as I listen as best as I can to two dialogues, his and my own running internal commentary. “You wake up and find out what’s happening.” He’s talking about when you feel as though something’s not right inside your body, but he could just as well be talking about birth, and he could be talking about death. In the end he’s just talking about being aware of being alive- inhaling deeply and knowing that as long as we are open and mindful, it will be alright, no matter what, because we all just happen to be here.
I’ve got a new batch of songs that didn’t seem to fully fall together until I stared at them this weekend, but as I squint and try the only thing that I usually find helps me understand what’s happening, I realize they’re all really about how short this experience is, and how simple. Made, spent. Semi-permanent. Between your beginning and your end, instead of thinking of how best to be seen in the midst of all of this sadness, there is solace in sitting back, calmly, and simply seeing that there is no beginning or end. Calm and quiet as I accept how Dan described it, “Joy at the start, fear in the journey, joy in the coming home.”
But then Caroline’s new record’s in the back of my mind, creeping through my headphones singin, “Take what all you want from me, I will not be afraid,” and I think of how much help we all need, some far more than others, just to remember every day that it’s not so bad. I think of a society that says to sit still, shut up and do as your told and wait for an explosion before even starting any type of conversation, and I think of the hum. I think, “so long as I got that spirit in me I will not be afraid.”
My heart is with everyone today and I hope that we can finally talk about what’s really at hand here. For now I will do all I know how to do- think of the soul and the spirit of this whole strange experiment inside this little angel that really did sit there on the dashboard of the van that summer, captured by Jeff Fry’s camera, and sing.
Tickets are here for the Mercury Lounge show tonight - I’ll be on at 6:30 sharp and would love to sing with you.
“One must believe in magic if he wants to make it through the night; awaken from a dream to wonder what it means and hope that it turns out right.” – The Reverend John DeLore
“Do I believe in Heaven and Hell? Friend, I left my beliefs in the hourly hotel- in a book, in a drawer, in a bedside table, made in a line, in a factory somewhere. I think somewhere beyond this life you’ll find a soul.” – Caroline Rose
It’s nearing 11 am on a grey day somewhere in Illinois and any minute now it’ll be time to roll along to Wisconsin for the third show of this run with Chamberlin. Seems only fitting given general geography that I mention my favorite Wisconsin export, Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter The Reverend John DeLore, whose new record, Sweet Talk for Pretty Daughters, is out this week and just made its way to me care of the Reverend himself, just a few short months after recording it at the Bunker in Brooklyn with longtime friend and collaborator Jason Finkel at the helm. For a few days in June, I got to hang with John, his cat Motown, and one of the calmest, coolest groups of players I’ve ever worked with- not to mention Finkel, who I’ve known since the first day I rehearsed with the Queen Killing Kings at a little house on the river in Connecticut probably close to exactly four years ago, the week of CMJ 2008.
For the bulk of 72 hours, John, Motown and I (plus numerous neighbors within earshot of John’s turntable, presumably) subsisted solely on Jackson Browne’s Late For the Sky and John Prine’s Bruised Orange when we weren’t tracking these songs live in the studio*, and I did my best, as I scribbled down in a haze late one night during the sessions, just to “let the piano be itself.” To be honest with you, I’m only partially writing about this because I sing and play on the record- a huge part of me just wants you to hear this great group of people- Jay Frederick on drums, John “Betty” Bettencourt on bass, Rich Hinman on pedal steel, lap steel & electric guitar, and Steve Lewis on electric guitar- shedding their egos and congregating in a room to bring these great songs to life. In being a part of this record, I learned a lot about songwriting, leading a band, and simply not speaking until you really have something to say, whether that conversation is the performance itself or the chatter between takes. In listening back, I hear a group of talented souls confident enough to simply let go and work for the songs from their respective angles- youthful enough to burst with energy and individuality, but wise enough to understand that you don’t have to shout to be heard- just sit back and support the spirit in each song. DeLore himself is one of my favorite writers now in large part because he’s not writing for his own recognition, he’s writing to provide a lens, to record the world as he sees it, hears it and experiences it.
I’ve spent a lot of time with Late for the Sky since those days in Prospect Park, and it’s easy to hear that sense of calm confidence in the community assembled to produce that piece. In the same way that I can hardly tell you which Sweet Talk songs I ended up singing on, it’s often hard to tell which Late for the Sky background vocal is Fogelberg and which is Henley, which might just be five of JB, stacked on top of one another, and which must be all three- but I believe it’s that kind of simple support for the soul of a song and lack of attachment to the self that truly embeds your presence in its pressing to a disc. The personalities, the relationships, the interactions within a recording, it’s a lack of those that I believe accounts for the emptiness we feel when we hear the same singles spin lifelessly on repeat on station after station - we are meant to be recording life as we know it, not recording life as the machine and its perfectionists, its advocates for constant technological and economic progress, would have us think we’re supposed to portray it.
While I was recording with the Reverend and working on the final pieces of Young Volcanoes, some other longtime friends and co-conspirators, Jer Coons and Caroline Rose, could pretty much always be found in the same spot- Jer’s new studio space, Park Hill Studios in Burlington, VT, working on their own vessel for their vision of the world. I’ve known both of them for years, Jer since he made the perhaps questionable decision to ask an 18-year-old me to play piano on an early record of his, and Caroline since I heard her first collaborations with Jer and all but begged to be in her band. I’ve seen their search for authenticity, their fierce attachment to true expression, for as long as I’ve known the two of them, but the sounds that have started to emerge into the crisp air of Vermont autumn from the door of Park Hill surpass anything they’ve yet created on that quest. The songs are a glimpse into the way these two people communicate, a pure portrayal of two personalities, cooperating, disagreeing, pushing, pulling, breathing, co-existing. The collection is what a record should be, a private moment of personal discovery offered publicly to all.
They made the whole album by themselves to preserve this process, to place their imperfections on display, and now they’re asking for support in releasing the finished product, an experience I believe puts the listeners’ imprint in, on and around a record as much as a background vocal or guitar overdub would. It expands the community and embraces the collective consciousness almost entirely because it both celebrates its own uniqueness and lets it go. Not only do Jer and Caroline and their vision deserve your support, but everyone deserves the chance to benefit from the presence of their fiercely independent spirits in their lives. These are two of the most talented, driven, and fascinating human beings that I’ve had the pleasure of coming across, and a pledge of support for them is a pledge for the type of honest, unique creativity that the music world, and the world at large, so desperately needs to continue to cultivate these days, lest we all find ourselves swept away in a sea of panderers.
I stopped in Connecticut before heading out with Chamberlin last week and did a quick Young Volcanoes session with Joe at our new friend Eric Lichter’s studio, Dirt Floor Recording. Our conversation eventually circled around the idea that the music is only a small part of this whole thing- your art will outlive you, parallel the passage of time in the infinite expanse of expression, only if you continue to be yourself and cultivate that community around you. The Reverend John DeLore, Caroline Rose, Jer Coons and others are out there speaking their minds calmly for those who wish to stumble upon a truth and stay awhile to share their own. It would oversimplify these statements of self to scream them above the din of the same that surrounds and threatens to submerge us, so it’s your support that can raise the recognition from radio static to a rumble to a roar.
Do you believe in magic? I do- it’s the soul that surrounds us, the spirit we all share, and all we have to do is look beyond life as we know it to the worlds being opened up by our neighbors near and far.
Grab the Reverend John DeLore’s Sweet Talk for Pretty Daughters here, help Caroline Rose and Jer Coons release America Religious here, and if you haven’t already, pre-order Young Volcanoes here – your generosity helps put gas in our tanks and food on our tables** and we all hope to respond in kind by offering the sounds of our selves to you somewhere along the road.
*Though I do recall Motown making several attempts to gobble up my fingers, which certainly would have thwarted my recording efforts, not to mention my typing abilities at present.
**Laps (current austerity measures don’t always afford us the frivolity of furniture when it so happens that we find food.)
Upcoming Young Volcanoes dates:
November 3rd – Larimer Lounge – Denver, CO Tickets RSVP
November 6th – Cicero’s – St. Louis, MO Tickets RSVP
November 14th – Middle East – Cambridge, MA Tickets RSVP
“After more than a hundred years of technological innovation, the digitization of music has inadvertently had the effect of emphasizing its social function. Not only do we still give friends copies of music that excites us, but increasingly we have come to value the social aspect of a live performance more than we used to. Music technology in some ways appears to have been on a trajectory in which the end result is that it will destroy and devalue itself. It will succeed completely when it self-destructs. The technology is useful and convenient, but it has, in the end, reduced its own value and increased the value of the things it has never been able to capture or reproduce.” – David Byrne
“Fun times in Babylon, mama they’ve just begun.” - Father John Misty
David Byrne has been following me around for a bit longer than Father John Misty, but not by much- it seems that both are everywhere I turn lately. Perhaps, though, it’s just more of the usual, further evidence of of long-running obsession with sound- my obsession with hearing it, good or bad, my obsession with discussing what “good” or “bad” even means when it comes to something so personal both in input and output, with discussing why we are drawn to create and receive sounds at all, in the first place.
First evidence of Byrne approaching, hot on my trail, was his ridiculous new single with St. Vincent, “Who”- as in, “who” could possibly resist this terrifyingly catchy Peter-Gabriel-produces-and-duets-with-Mariah-Carey-on-a-spaceship-in-the-future stunner of a song and its charmingly crazy accompanying video? We blasted it in the van for the past couple of weeks as I rambled around playing keys and singing a bit with my friends and fellow Vermonters, Chamberlin, and it was then that Byrne showed up again, first in an interview with Paul Zollo and then with the release of his new book, How Music Works.
This is a man who has done it all in terms of the usual accepted idea of musical success- his band is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was named by Rolling Stone as one of the “100 Greatest Bands of All Time,” and it’s doubtful that you’ll have to ask the name of that group. But instead of reveling in his record, Byrne is dying to get to the bottom of all of these aspects that keep me up at all hours, some nights- one of which being the question of whether we’ve perhaps exhausted the record as a product and recorded music as a phenomenon.
The concept I should be simply and outrightly celebrating right now, the release of a recorded version of my last few years, contains a question that kept it from appearing for a while- what is the point of making a record, and is it the ideal venue, anymore, for preserving one’s personality? It’s become so ubiquitous as to approach irrelevance- and the sheer overdose of sound as a mere layer of aural wallpaper as we wander around the world, from coffee shops to shoe stores, your barber to your bank, is stunning when you stop and think about it. I love music with all of my heart but I must admit, I’m really enjoying having my headphones on, just as a noise reduction tactic, at the cafe while I write this- I crave silence sometimes, and I suspect that’s a symptom of membership in a society surreptitiously steeped in sound.
That’s not at all to say that I think records are or should be automatically counted out- otherwise you can rest assured that I would not be releasing Young Volcanoes on any physical medium, or perhaps at all. But I think artists, and their output, need to offer more, and this fall my friends, and fans from all over the world, helped me confirm that the community, the connection, the conversation, this primal need to share and empathize with other people, is the most important aspect of any art. David Byrne refers to the “technological” aspects of music performing a sort of “how-could-we-not-have-planned-or-at-least-predicted-this-outcome” kind of self-immolation. But this word “technology” tends to confuse- he’s not even necessarily talking specifically about the decidedly new-fangled portability of iPods and iPhones, the streaming of Spotify, all of this recent increasing speed of the consumption of art.
He’s talking about the whole mechanism of putting music out there on a widespread, top-down scale, instead of operating true to its original impetus as a social connector, something that brought people together, since you had to be physically in the room with someone to hear their voice, their guitar playing, their unique takes on their own songs and those of others, before the invention of recorded sound. The sound of someone else’s mind, amplified, transmitted to you, perhaps only through their set, their single song, a conversation, a knowing nod, a combination of all of the above- don’t we need that, now more than ever in recent cultural memory?
Byrne opens his book by asserting that the context, more than anything, guides the music. The almost boundless echo chamber of a cathedral begets a certain type of music and performance, and a tiny, acoustically dead club space begets entirely another (for a back-to-back comparison, try listening to Handel’s Messiah and follow it up with a Television record.) Basically, the idea is that a sound, a product, or performance has to be right for the venue. So what now, if the world is open enough that I’m shipping vinyl to England and t-shirts to Germany? The contemporary venue is a huge one, with a lot of reverb. What does this space need, sonically? What does it need in terms of a product and its delivery?
The simplest answer I can offer is this: in a landscape where the name of the game has long been, sadly, “follow the formula and you can’t fail,” we should celebrate the real people that pop up, personalities bursting forth to beat the band- whether they’re in the band or not. You’re always going to “sound like someone” or “remind people of something”- that’s the point. We are each a constellation of influences- friends and mentors swirl and make us up, and we are part of a shared consciousness, part of the hum of the world, as one of my other recent accidental mentors, Stanley Cavell, calls it. But it’s your unique web of connections that makes your frequency, your part of the hum, so perfect and unmatched, and worth at least a listen- as long as you don’t water it down to fit in so well that it doesn’t stand out at all. And at this point in the evolution of our world, use the venues, the products and the methods that feel best to you- if you want to play punk rock that originated in small clubs in churches best suited for chamber music, and sell it on cassette via mail-order, do it, as long as your output is you.
Enter Father John Misty, or J. Tillman, or Josh, whatever you’d like to call him. Somewhere along the way, he and his record Fear Fun emerged in my consciousness as if from a haze, a total stranger who’s let himself (and all of his friends) in without warning. Not at all unwelcome and thoroughly entertaining, this personality has been infiltrating my van rides on tour, and my work since I’ve been home. I’m enthralled by his encapsulation of himself on tape- you can hear how much fun this dude is having, and he’s great to have around.. though with four bandmates in the van and with my keyboard rig and roughly half of my worldly possessions in my Volkswagen Rabbit, there is only room for his spirit in digital form, these days.
I don’t know John- or Josh, or J.- personally, but his record is a cross-section of a world uniquely his own. One listen to his songs and you can instantly tell he is willing to open up the universe within himself for anyone who cares to listen. In an interview and performance with KEXP in Seattle, he describes his previous projects as the result of a young man trying as hard as possible to be taken seriously, and provides the revelation that such a posture is, in effect, “more or less make-believe,” even though it’s more so “this [Father John Misty] thing” that “kind of smacks of make-believe,” since it’s so much more fun, freaky and fantastical than his previous output. But he clearly wants to be himself (some have asked upon viewing this video from Letterman, “Is he joking or serious?” and I’d like to throw out there that if it’s in your nature, it should damn well be both)- to freak out a little bit, to dance, to enjoy, to outwardly portray the joy that hits him internally while creating music. I really think that it’s people like him and David Byrne that will stand the oft-coveted “test of time”- not because they are voted or confirmed “better” or “more popular” than anyone else but because they are so obviously, so purely, themselves, on display in mid-evolution (is there any other human state, really?).
Another release that’s hit me in the same way in the past few months is the bold undertaking of my friends (all Young Volcanoes co-conspirators, from time to time) Erin Sidney, Pat Cupples and Lisa Piccirillo, collectively known as Hotels and Highways when their bicoastal and relatively separate existences convene on a physical plane. The three committed themselves to making a new record this summer in their rare breaks from a packed monthlong east coast tour, in a basement somewhere in Western Mass. And they didn’t just commit by announcing that they’d be recording it, they promised that they’d release it, to their entire community, for free, on a pre-determined date. A deadline, not to confine or constrict, but to clarify. To commit, to themselves and to their best friends and supporters, the best of them that they could possibly offer in the allotted time.
I haven’t necessarily seen Hotels and Highways on any Jumbotrons yet, but I see a community drawn to and from the group and their various endeavors, be it a 4-star-Rolling-Stone-reviewed whopper of a record by our friend Mia Dyson, their musical Co-op of talented and generous kindred spirits, or their live shows filled with good friends, good conversation and heartfelt collaboration. They’re another group of folks that truly embody their own lyrical wheelings and dealings like “if you keep your heart open, I’ll share mine” just by being themselves, refusing to “become a mirror” in favor of advocating that we all choose to “become the light.”*
Anyway, after a few false starts and lack of a centralized “home” on the web for quite a while, I am excited for you guys all to hear my story, my new record and the wild thoughts that I’ll be attempting to pass your way as often as possible. You’ll find that everything I do- from my studio recordings, to my amateur iPhone road photography, to live videos and random recordings- will be here. Music is a weird world within a very very weird world, right now. I’m not sure exactly how to make a legitimate, clear-cut “business” out of this instinct, this need, but I’m certain that I love the continuation of the conversation- so let’s hang out. I hope you will all accept my invitation to ride this whole “what the hell is the point of music” thing out with me.
I’m about to release a record that I made with roughly twenty-plus friends and acquaintances over a few years, and I know that “the point,” or at least my favorite part of it, is honoring and working with the community, that constellation of connections that makes you who you are. After I spent almost every cent I could between gigs to chip away at these songs over the past few years, the final recording, manufacturing and release costs of Young Volcanoes were raised by nearly 200 people, to benefit a community that I feel I owe a lot to and find myself constantly curious about, the Cancer Patient Support program. CPSP will get 20% of each sale on top of an initial donation of over $2000 as part of the release budget in hopes that we can keep that conversation open, too, in honor of my mom and countless others lost to the disease. It takes a community. It takes a world. It takes a willingness to do a bunch of the work yourself, but it takes a connection to hundreds of other people to do anything that could, or should, affect the greater whole. I couldn’t imagine putting a record out in an attempt to be anything other than a better part of the community at large, and I have no interest in putting something up for sale unless it benefits a cause that I believe in whose importance transcends the sounds I’m making.
Billy Corgan recently said in a Billboard interview that he and the Smashing Pumpkins were part of a musical era which found new artists emerging and working hard for what they loved because they intended to bring some sort of change to the world, whereas the fresh crop to which I decidedly either belong or am not even ripe enough to be considered part of, has “grown up thinking that being famous is the goal- not to be respected, not to be dangerous.” It’s Corgan, who in a video interview at SXSW this year, who first really pushed me to consider that a record, a musical product, has to be a world in itself in order to make any difference these days. So in that case, please accept my record as me and my world- if a “self” constitutes a collection of spirits soaked up along the way, filtered and made your own as closely as possible to how living it felt to you, then this is mine. In 37 some-odd minutes and some homespun packaging and artwork, this is all of my friends and lovers, my whole family, and everyone I’ve ever walked by on the street all rolled into one picture of me, in mid-evolution.
For those of you who missed out on all of the PledgeMusic madness, you can stream two songs from Young Volcanoes over to the right and get them as an instant download with any purchase. For $10 or any other “alternate” price you choose, you can grab the full album as a digital download in any format you could imagine while helping contribute 20% of whatever you decide to pay directly to cancer patients and their families in Burlington, VT through CPSP. And if you’re up for it, you can pre-order a deluxe edition of the record, with a 40-page full-color booklet, CD, sticker and more in a hand-stamped gift box, for $15, and the deluxe, 180-gram multi-colored vinyl LP for $25 – you’ll get your digital download of the first two tracks immediately too, and CPSP will get even more support for their cause. Since I like to think of myself as an advocate for music also coming along with other more practical physical objects instead of just being pressed onto plastic discs, if you buy a poster or a hand screenprinted shirt, you’ll get the full digital record on November 20th too.
If you want to get the record directly from me, come see me on tour with Chamberlin this fall- I’m happy to announce that I’ll be playing keys with them for the rest of their fall headlining dates and will be opening some of the shows, the first of which you can see, RSVP to, buy tickets for and spread the word about, over to the right. Denver, St. Louis and Boston- I’m coming for you.
Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for sticking with this- I hope you’ll join me in making music mean something a little bit more- removing the barrier of the stage and standing together to change things for the better. The fun times in this strange world have just begun.
Yours in rambling, longwinded introductory blog posts,
* (Full disclosure: I played B3 on this song and insisted upon some of the dreamy middle-of-the-night Beach Boys background vocals, but that’s not why you should listen to it…)