Category Archives: FEATURES

Wesley Stace: The Player Retires

WesleyStace

Wesley Stace has loved and lost both women and his stage name

It’s difficult to imagine anyone left on the face of the planet (already familiar with the man’s work, that is) who isn’t aware that singer/songwriter John Wesley Harding and critically acclaimed novelist Wesley Stace are one and the same. Henceforth, he has announced that he will record under the name Wesley Stace, and hopefully never again be asked why he assumed the name of a 1967 Bob Dylan album, misspelling and all. “It’s like what happens at the end of a Spider-Man or a Batman movie,” says Stace. “When the superhero reveals his true identity to his girlfriend.”

“Girlfriend” may be the operative word on Stace’s new album, Self-Titled (Yep Roc), in which a 47-year-old man, now comfortably married and living in Philadelphia, reflects back over the loves of his younger life. The first LP to appear under his birth name is a quiet, reflective session, produced by old San Francisco pal Chris Von Sneidern, cut mostly with a string quartet, piano, guitar, bass and drums.

“Although some of my songs had autobiographical moments, I’ve never really done anything like this before,” says Stace. “I wanted the feeling of intimacy, with me whispering secrets, something like those old Colin Blunstone records I’ve always loved. I wanted to sing without having to strain, and these songs are very easy to sing, very few chords.”

Stace has been asked, at various gatherings, to play some of his new material. “I’ve never been very comfortable doing that, just grabbing my guitar and digging in,” he says. “I really don’t think my songs go down in that kind of atmosphere.” He might change his mind if anyone ever requests a rendition of “We Will Always Have New York,” a rousing tale of a different girl in a different time. “We were both falling in love with each other and with New York at the same time,” says Stace. Add a familiar skim-coat of piano and Hammond organ, and it’s something Gary Brooker might have turned into a smash with Procol Harum.

“A Canterbury Kiss” reveals a tender moment with Stace and a young girl sitting in a park in England’s majestic cathedral city. “All I wanted to do was give her a kiss, and all she wanted to do was talk about Jimi Hendrix,” he laughs. A pair of songs from a recent collaboration with Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger (”When I Knew” and “Stare At The Sun”) are distilled by Stace into real break-up downers. “Eleanor’s versions of those two, from her new album, are much more upbeat,” he says.

More dramatic than any of the encounters detailed on the new LP was one that Stace remembers as “a complete disaster,” something that was not memorialized in song. He was standing in the queue outside a Hastings cinema, he recalls, when a girl in a striking, aquamarine mohawk asked him for a cigarette. “I leaned over to give her a light,” he says. “And her entire mohawk caught on fire, and it spread like wildfire. Fortunately, she just laughed it off.”

—Jud Cost

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Tim Easton: Through Being Cool

TimEaston

Roots-rocker Tim Easton finds himself right at home in the fertile Nashville scene

“This town is full of hardworking, talented people,” Tim Easton says of his new hometown of Nashville. “I just got back from buying my morning coffee, and the guy behind the counter was a singer/songwriter. Everyone sitting in the café was jotting down lyrics or singing a melody into their iPhone. There’s something in the air that’s inspiring. When your neighbors are all artists, writers and musicians, that energy keeps you at the top of your game.”

Easton has been singing and writing songs since he was 14 years old. He never considered another career. “I used to write a lot of poetry,” he says. “One day, my older brother told me I could turn them into songs if I knew how to play guitar. I started playing music later that day, and I’ve never stopped.”

After finishing college, Easton hit the road with his guitar and spent seven years singing and playing on European street corners. “I rambled around without having to pay attention to anybody’s needs but my own,” he says. “It sharpened my performing and improvisational skills and helped me roll with the punches, no matter what the situation was. I was spoiled a bit by the absolute freedom, but I compiled journals full of experiences that I can draw on for my songs.”

When he got back to Ohio, Easton joined the Haynes Boys, a roots-rock outfit that made one album before breaking up. Free again, Easton picked up his guitar and returned to the road, touching down long enough to make nine albums that earned him a loyal following with their blend of gritty roots-rock and heartfelt songwriting. Every LP took a slightly different approach and his latest, Not Cool, shows off his love of rockabilly and early R&B. “I want to make a record as fast as possible,” he says, “in the studio with a live band, sticking to the primal qualities of rock ‘n’ roll.”

Easton found the musicians who helped out on the album at Robert’s Western World, the venue that gave BR549 its start. “I saw these guys—J.D. Simo on guitar and drummer Jon Radford—playing there and hired them and their pals,” he says. “When you give them a three-chord R&B song, they tear into it.” Easton encouraged the band to add its own ideas to the arrangements, and the result roars out of the speakers like a souped-up hot-rod Lincoln. “We made the album in five days,” says Easton. “There’s no fat on it, just 10 songs clocking in at about 30 minutes.”

The LP includes “Crazy Motherfucker From Shelby, Ohio” (a jaunty rockabilly rave-up), “Lickety Split” (a sly greasy rocker) and the title track (a ballad of loss and regret, featuring one of Easton’s most poignant vocals). Not Cool is out on Easton’s own imprint, Campfire Propaganda. “Having your own label is another exciting and terrifying part of making a living as a musician,” he says. “But I’m not complaining. At this point, I feel like I have it made.”

—j. poet

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Rick Moody: How To Listen To Music

RickMoody

Artistic anachronism and writer’s cramp,  Rick Moody wants his work to save lives

Writer, singer, composer and poet Rick Moody first gained widespread acclaim with his 1994 novel, The Ice Storm, a portrait of dysfunctional suburban life that plays out over the course of a long Thanksgiving weekend. Director Ang Lee filmed it with Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Elijah Wood and Christina Ricci. In 1999, The New Yorker named Moody one of America’s most talented new writers, with a voice that constantly pushes the stylistic boundaries of modern literature. He has published five novels, including Purple America and The Four Fingers Of Death, three collections of short fiction and two nonfiction works, The Black Veil: A Memoir With Digressions and last year’s On Celestial Music: And Other Adventures In Listening. He also performs with the Wingdale Community Singers, an acoustic band that blends the sounds of old-time folk, gospel and bluegrass, with hints of rock and baroque chamber music to augment their arch, literary lyrics. Their most recent album is Night, Sleep, Death, released only on LP by Drag City. Moody will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.

Some writers still use pencil and paper and typewriter. How do you approach the task of writing?
I am, as we speak, teaching at a college upstate (Skidmore), and in the room next to me, a distinguished writer of the generation ahead of me is holed up typing, and I can hear the keys in the morning. There’s something old world about that sound that I really love. However, I no longer have a typewriter. I do tend to print out a lot of hard copies of things I’m writing and work them over with a pen. It’s not all digital. I feel like I can tell when a writer has never printed out his pages in the finished book.

One of my writing teachers in college said that every writer has rituals they perform before they sit to write. Do you agree, and if you do, what are yours?
I almost always do the dishes and take out the trash, and sometimes I even vacuum first. I need to feel like things are more or less in order. This doesn’t seem ritualistic to me, but it might be neurotic.

Do you think books will go the way of LPs and CDs? What will that mean for the future of literature?
Books might very precisely go the way of LPs, if you mean that they will linger on for another generation as high-class collectibles for people who really give a shit about culture and appreciate objects. For example, me. Books truly will have to be pried from my cold dead hands. (And that’s a good metaphor, because books are far more dangerous than guns.) I’m not too worried about books totally disappearing, though I am often irritated by people who make elaborate claims for e-books. E-books represent a totally inferior reading experience in my opinion.

In the music business, the death of the majors created opportunities for young bands. What do you think the future holds for online literature?
Small presses, university presses, print-on-demand boutique presses, etc. There are many opportunities for people who care about literary stuff. I can’t really read online all that well. It bores the shit out of me. I don’t read most general-interest magazines either (just music magazines, actually, and the National Enquirer). I read books. A press like Archipelago, which is relatively young and which does mainly literature in translation, is right in my sweet spot. They make dazzlingly, beautiful paperbacks. I’ve loved every book that I’ve read from them, and will continue to do so. Small presses can take up this slack from the big five American publishers.

Your book of essays, On Celestial Music, covers a lot of ground, from the Velvet Underground to the Who and Arvo Pärt. Is there any particular genre of music you favor?
Not exactly. It’s easier to say what I don’t favor. I am not as interested in tropicalia as I should be (and I consider this a failing). I dislike contemporary country music though I love old time, and bluegrass, and classic country. I sort of revile anything torchy, such as you might find on American Idol or The Voice. I don’t really care about the R&B of the moment, although I love old-time soul music, and gospel, and jazz. I have a tendency to think that “dubstep,” a term that no longer means much of anything, is somewhat tedious. Everything else has something to teach me: Indian classical music, West African music, Irish folk music, Arabic pop, Bollywood, old rock ‘n’ roll, punk, no wave, downtown jazz, minimalism, experimental classical music, John Cage, early polyphony, and madrigals. Even some black metal.

Have you ever been a freelance music journalist? Where were the essays originally published?
Not in the sense that I tried to make a living at it. But I have published essays on music here and there over the years, and I have a regular column on music at The Rumpus. My pieces there are meant to start at 5,000 words. So I go long in that format. I have written a fair amount about music since the late ’90s. I had a piece on Salon about music recently. And I got paid for it. So I guess, in some senses, I am a freelance music journalist.

I like your exploration of the word cool, a word I also have trouble with, in its modern usage. Can you say a few words about its evolution for people who haven’t read the book?
Well, “cool” started in the jazz community and it meant to suppress feeling in an expressive way, perhaps as a way to avoid tipping off the cops, but later it came to mean just about anything that excited interest, at least until it became the ultimate word for marketing specialists. Now it is a totally dead word. It needs to be replaced. I suggest the word “fraught.”

You also sing and write songs. How does music influence your writing and vice versa?
Music, especially when played with other people, causes me to use my ears, and thus I listen better when I play music, and listening better causes me to write better sentences. So I think the influence of music on writing is in this way: Music makes the prose more literary. Literature influences the music, in that I can turn a decent line on occasion. I have no interest in songs that I write being lyrically weak, because the songwriters I most admire (Leonard Cohen, let’s say, or Joni Mitchell, or Townes Van Zandt, or Van Morrison, or Richard Thompson, or David Thomas, or Elvis Costello) aspire to a literary echelon with their words. I want to be part of that crowd, even if I am unable to do so, and the aspiration is good for me.

What kind of music does your group the Wingdale Community Singers perform?
Woebegone acoustic music with a slightly experimental edge, which could have been written 50 years ago.

How long have you been singing? What instruments do you play? Do you have the desire to continue to make albums as well as books?
I have already made any number of albums. Two solo albums, and three albums by the Wingdale Community Singers, almost all of these available through the usual channels. The most recent Wingdales album, Night, Sleep, Death, is, in truth, the cause of this interview. I have been in the studio. I have gotten better at being in the studio. I have played piano since I was 10 or 11, and I am self-taught on the guitar. I have sung since earliest childhood. Not that you can tell! But I do my best.

A recent article about your work was headlined with the quote: “I want my work to save lives.” Can you expand on that thought?
That’s a quotation from 12 years ago, I believe, although someone else may have dug it up recently. In any event, when I was a kid, songs saved me, many times over. Pete Townshend saved me on occasion. Todd Rundgren saved me on occasion. Neil Young saved me on occasion. Elvis Costello saved me on occasion. Patti Smith saved me on occasion. My engagement with literature has also sometimes had this intensity to it. To The Lighthouse or Moby Dick or, more recently, Don Quixote or The Divine Comedy. They have all made life more palatable. I just want to make work that is that generous and that comprehensive, whether in song or between covers. Occasionally, you have to ask yourself, “Why do this?” And that is the answer for me. To try to save lives.

Do you write all the time? What are you working on now?
I try to write all the time. Right now, I’m working on this interview. And a novel and a whole bunch of essays and some stories and some poems about the American presidents, and I have an idea about a play. And there are a couple of songs in states of undress, too.

—j.poet

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Van Dyke Parks: The Rediscovered American

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Call him prolific, call him profound—just don’t call Van Dyke Parks complex

With Van Dyke Parks’ new Songs Cycled (Bella Union), the renowned composer, arranger and vocalist (in that order), not only releases his first album of originals since 1995’s Orange Crate Art (with Brian Wilson singing), but lends his usually complex creations a renewed sense of simplicity. The thoughts may be determinedly complicated and touched by the soul of social protest, but Parks’ music is deliciously direct, while remaining as elegant as anything he’s done for himself (à la 1968’s chamber-pop initiator Song Cycle) or others (the Beach Boys and Rufus Wainwright amongst them).

Yet, no matter what good you say about his genius, Parks has a self-deprecating remark at the ready. Tell him you’ve spoken previously, and he’s quick to respond with, “And you’re back for more? What lie did I tell you?” When we discuss the vocals that playfully haunt several standards (“what I did to ‘Sassafras,’ I should be hung; it’s Spike Jones on a bad day”) or his own songs, Parks takes himself down. “I wish I had better chops, the voice I had before I started smoking,” he says. “I’m nostalgic about the time in my life when I had that falsetto break.”

Parks knows that critics hear an old-timey longing for the past in his music, but he disavows the accusation. Listening to Songs Cycled’s lyrics and the subjects tackled—9/11, Wall Street’s fall, Hurricane Katrina—there’s an immediacy of tone, a sound as bold as fresh ink on paper.

“You got that right,” he says with confident pride. “In every case, they were written within days of when, say, the Twin Towers fell or when Orleans Parish’s levee broke. It was spasmodic.

“Yet, I didn’t want to capitalize in any way on tragedy,” he continues, alluding to Neil Young’s instant call for retaliation in the wake of 9/11. “That was stupid. Ever hear of the idea of writing a letter when you first get angry, then putting it away for a minute? My parents taught me that.”

The intricacy of language and the complexity of thought are honed to a sharp point. As for the melodies and arrangements on Songs Cycled, there’s an accessibility that’s rarely witnessed in his catalog.

“It’s funny you say that,” says Parks. “It has to do with economy, certainly. And yet, there is a standard prejudice amongst pop critics that my work has always been too complex. Now I say, ‘In comparison to what?’ If you compare it what I listen to and adore, my stuff is pretty direct and simple. I’m far less complicated than early Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman or even Arnold Schoenberg, whose works I sang when I was 12. Then again, yes, compared to Arlo Guthrie, I’m complex.”

When I tell him that could be his epitaph—“less complex than Arnold Schoenberg, more complex than Arlo Guthrie”—Parks lets out a hearty laugh. He’s also quick to talk about the difficulties in releasing music at 70.

“You know, I went for 10 years hoping I’d get a call, someone begging to hear another record from me, which didn’t happen.” (He credits Bella Union with “validating” him by releasing Songs Cycled). “So many of my peers have been shunted aside at the peak of their powers. Like them, I have lots of songs in me. All I do, morning noon and night, is be engaged in music. It would be a kick to do this again.”

—A.D. Amorosi

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Soko: Method Of Mayhem

Soko

Be it her films or her music, Soko struggles to keep her manic energy in check

It was an unusually demanding film script, physically. The first half called for its female lead to keep her right eye closed steadily, a feat that could only be accomplished by gluing her eyelashes together. The second half required her to open both eyes, but clench her left hand into a twisted claw, then writhe through paralytic spasms on the floor of a Belle Époque Parisian psychiatric hospital, while rarely speaking any lines of dialogue. So, what on Earth about Alice Winocour’s new docudrama Augustine proved alluring to French actress/chanteuse Soko, who auditioned with more than 800 other contenders for the role of the titular maid who becomes a patient of famed neurologist Dr. Charcot (Vincent Lindon)?

“All of it!” she giddily exclaims. “And everything that is going to make me not look like me, to where I can’t even recognize myself when I look in the mirror? That’s what I wanted! For me, it was the most exciting thing.”

Soko—née one Bordeaux-born Stéphanie Sokolinski, who also just issued her lo-fi, Leonard-Cohen-cryptic, English-language debut, I Thought I Was An Alien (Community Music)—delighted in the method-acting process. As Augustine—first diagnosed with the then-popular women’s condition of “hysteria”—is gradually cured of her seizures through Charcot’s Victorian-era hypnosis, her portrayer felt equally transformed.

“Every day I had an hour of makeup, just to glue my eyelashes, and it was definitely super-weird,” she says. “And it gave me a whole new perspective through the character, because suddenly you have to look at the world a different way. You can’t see half of it, so I thought, ‘This is how she must have felt.’ But after the film?” She sighs. “You’re totally fucked, and you go into therapy and start taking pills just to feel better.”

Soko isn’t kidding. Even though she’s a silver-screen vet overseas, with more than a dozen movies to her credit (such as Didier Bourdon’s Madame Irma and Xavier Giannoli’s À l’origine, which earned her a 2010 César nomination for most promising actress), she doesn’t consider herself much of a thespian.

“But I can’t do anything halfway—I’m always 1,000 percent into things, fully involved in everything I choose to do,” says Soko. So, when Augustine repeatedly slapped or punched herself during filming, Soko came home bruised, as well, then fell into the rhythm of the abusive behavior. “I would punch myself in the face, like really hard,” she says. “And that kind of stayed with me afterwards—I was on tour at the time, and I would, out of the blue, just hit myself a lot. Augustine carried with me, and I just felt super-suicidal.”

On tour at the time, Soko began cancelling show after show. Eventually, she couldn’t leave her house, and just waking up each morning proved to be a Herculean task. Her brother finally insisted that she see a therapist and be prescribed some sort of medication.

“So, they gave me mild anti-anxiety pills, and after 10 days I felt better,” she says. “And I wouldn’t hit my face on the wall anymore and do other crazy things I’d been doing. But I’m already very hyperactive—I have crazy ADD, and I’m always touching something with my hands. I just have weird gestures, I guess; I have issues. I’m in the studio right now, and I’m totally stressed out. I just don’t want to deal with real life.”

That same irrepressible, kinetic energy—which, granted, makes her appear rather daffy at times—is also Soko’s greatest strength. She’s temporarily residing in Los Angeles, where she’s not only in the studio, but ready to leave it, with a completed sophomore album titled My Dreams Dictate My Reality.

“Because to me, reality is terrifying,” she says. “All I want to do during my day is write music and create things. And making music is more what I do now, and I’m very happy doing it, and I feel independent, and it brings me a lot of satisfaction to be able to it on my own. But everything that’s real life? Like booking plane tickets or booking shows, or making sure that your band is available? I’m just like, ‘No! I don’t want to know about it! I just want to write!’”

In actuality, Alien is more than a year old; it came out in 2012 overseas. And it’s difficult to gauge what lyrical part(s) Soko will be playing on the upcoming Dreams. But her first official release is a whimsical, often funereal wonder. You can almost picture it being sung by a spasmodic, straitjacketed Augustine in some places, like carpe-diem dirge “We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow,” gentle acoustic-plucked threat “Don’t You Touch Me” and beatbox-metallic processional “Destruction Of The Disgusting Ugly Hate,” with its eerie observation “Scars on my heart can’t you see/What have you done to me/Scars on my arms can’t you see/Where I am sinking.” The album closes with “Why Don’t You Eat Me Now You Can,” on which her charming, peace-and-love rasp chirps to some wayward lover, “Take a picture of me in your head when I’m dead/’Cause you won’t forget about me/I will scream in your dreams.” Nice way to end a relationship. But that’s part of Soko’s attraction, too; she’s Addams Family-creepy, and quite happily so.

It started a long time ago, the 27-year-old reckons. Her father died when she was only five, and family life just went downhill from there. “I was going through so much darkness throughout my childhood,” she says. “First, I was having crazy nightmares when I was a kid. You know the whole thing about indigo children? It’s the wave of kids that were born in the ’80s that were really connected with higher powers somehow and had dreams come true and visions. When I was young, each time I was having nightmares, someone would die, so I thought that I was a witch and I was killing people. That made me go through a lot of therapy—I really thought that I was evil.”

The aspiring actress left home at 16 to study her craft in exotic Paris. “And I was learning life from then on, until I felt like everything that happened before I was 16 never happened—it felt like another life, like I was born at 16,” she says. She began composing, exorcising her demons in song, until she logged her first hit single in 2007, in Denmark, of all places, a little ditty dubbed “I’ll Kill Her.” By 2009, she’d announced via MySpace that her musical career was finished and that she herself was “dead.” A few months later, she resurrected herself with a new single, “I’m So Ready To Be A Good Man.” “I’d just moved to L.A. then, and I’d wanted to change my life,” she says. “But I was just overwhelmed, and I don’t think I had the right people around me—they weren’t very supportive.”

Now, Soko finds catharsis, even some self-help, through songwriting. “Death is probably the main thing that I write about—fearing it, or wanting to live my life as fast as I can because I’m petrified,” she says. “Every time I go to bed, I wonder if I’m ever going to wake up, because my dad actually died in bed. So, music has helped a lot. I want to do alchemy with music. I want to turn every dark thing that happened in my life into something creative.”
And the bubbly brunette understands one ADD irony—if she had been alive back in Augustine’s time, she would have been instantly misdiagnosed with hysteria and locked up, as well. “And I find that pretty funny,” she says. “I would have been right there in the asylum with her!”

—Tom Lanham

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Father John Misty: Misty Mountain Hop

FatherJohnMisty

If Father John Misty’s life was a Hollywood movie, it would be a metaphysical jail-break thriller about a wrongly convicted man escaping the prison of belief thanks to the liberating power of rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelic drugs. MAGNET goes to the mountain to help write the script. By Jonathan Valania 

Father John Misty lives in a red-clay adobe pueblo on top of a low mountain in Echo Park. Good luck trying to find it without GPS and a helicopter. Down below the cloud line, the hazy glittering grid of Greater Los Angeles recedes into the infinite. From the vantage point of this fairly Olympian perch, the City of Angels looks like flecks of diamond embedded in a filthy sidewalk. Like most wise men atop mountains, Father John Misty’s possessions are few: his beard, his acoustic guitar, his vinyl copy of On The Beach and a mason jar filled to the brim with psyilocybin mushroom caps. There’s no internet access, cellular service is intermittent at best, and in Father John Misty’s world there is no such thing as TV—just Richard Brautigan novels. There is a black 1972 Cadillac Hearse parked out front that he literally bought for a song. His sole companion, besides his thoughts and psychoactive fungi, is Emma, his gorgeous twentysomething gal pal, currently a grad student at UCLA film school, and last seen in the “Nancy From Now On” video in a black bustier and garter belt, slapping Tillman around and forcibly shaving off his beard, Delilah-like, in a room at the Chateau Marmont. She makes a helluva kale smoothie.

Father John Misty is the nom de soft rock of one Joshua Tillman, a.k.a. J. Tillman, ex-drummer for Fleet Foxes and author of eight largely ignored and invariably joyless solo albums of pious folk rectitude. These were the songs of innocence, the whispery bedroom folk he made on the sly between globe-trotting tours wherein the Fleet Foxes charmed the pants off the world, but could barely stand the sight of each other. Those albums remain a well-kept secret.

And then one day in 2010, he blew up his life. Killed off J. Tillman, quit the Fleet Foxes, let his raging id off the short leash it had been kept on since his tormented childhood trapped in a fundamentalist Christian house of pain. Instead of muting his wicked sense of humor and bottomless appetite for the absurd, he turned it up to 11. He changed his stage name to Father John Misty. Threw his guitar and a family-size sack of magic mushrooms into the van, and set the controls for the heart of Babylon.

Look out Hollywood, here I come.

Fear Fun (Sub Pop), Father John Misty’s debut, came out a year ago, and after 12 months of trippin’-balls touring, four cinematic high-concept videos (in his latest, he dances to “Funtimes In Babylon” amid the ruins of a 747 crashed into a suburban subdivision, a set piece left over from Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds), inclusion on innumerable year-end best-of lists and a lot of swooning word of mouth on social media, the album has become the sleeper hit of the year. This despite a very public gloves-off Twitter war with Pitchfork. But more than any of those things, the reason Fear Fun has legs is because it’s front-loaded with earworms dressed up in stoned-in-the-Canyon harmonies, scuffed-denim twang and acid-witted Nilsson-ian soft-rock pastiches. And, most importantly, The Voice. Dude sings like an angel wrapped in velvet and smothered in honey. His voice is characterized by something extremely rare in modern music: the unstrained quality of mercy. To quote the Bard, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. Or, as Tillman  puts it, he can sing like a motherfucker.

It is shortly after 10 a.m. on yet another glorious, sun-kissed day in Babylon when I show up at Tillman’s compound high atop Misty Mountain. His publicist assured me via text when I deplaned that he was awake and eagerly awaiting my arrival, but he seems surprised and unprepared when I get to his front door. For one thing, he is completely naked. “Sorry,” he says sheepishly after pulling on some pants. “I’m sure you’ve seen worse.” I tell him it will make for a colorful opening scene for the story. Shirtless and shoeless, wild-haired and sporting one of those Old Testament beards, he escorts me back down the stairs to a small room adjoining the pueblo. Ordinarily, this serves as the studio where he works on his paintings, but for the next couple days it will serve as my guest quarters and locus of more than eight hours of intensive on-the-record conversation.

The room is rustic and airy. A gentle breeze climbs up the green mountain and funnels through the windows and open door like a peaceful, easy feeling. There is a small choir of crickets sounding off in the corner, and the occasional lizard scampers past my feet. They are adorable, just like pocket-size dinosaurs. There are a half-dozen canvasses leaning against the walls, all brightly colored, lurid and childlike in their primitivism. None has a title except the one he calls Mona Lisa 2. Tillman excuses himself and returns with two steaming mugs of java and a peace pipe. Time to wake and bake, it would seem.

Well, when in Rome …

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Mandolin Orange: New Traditionalists

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Mandolin Orange both honors and revises Southern traditions on This Side Of Jordan

Hours after Barack Obama took his oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009, Carrboro, N.C., burrito joint Armadillo Grill hosted an old-time music jam. These sorts of events aren’t uncommon in artist-friendly Carrboro, a close neighbor to the more expensive Chapel Hill. For all the left-leaning bumper stickers, it’s still North Carolina.

That night, Andrew Marlin, a self-taught guitarist, found a complement and foil in Emily Frantz, a well-studied fiddler. The collaboration that started then quickly adopted the name Mandolin Orange, and the duo’s debut, Quiet Little Room, arrived in 2010

“We’ve always been inspired by the old stuff,” says Marlin. “Learning these old tunes and playing these old tunes, they’ve been around for so long because the songs themselves are very strong. Lyrically, melodically, structurally speaking, they’re just strong tunes.”

That attention to craft was apparent early on in Mandolin Orange’s fusion of gospel, bluegrass, folk and country into elegant heartbreak ballads. In 2011, the band added a plugged-in rhythm section to half of its sophomore double album, Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger. Released together, but unquestionably distinct, Haste Make’s full-band approach is rife with energy, while Hard Hearted Stranger’s spare duo arrangements retain the first effort’s folksy intimacy.

But on its third album, the magnificent This Side Of Jordan (Yep Roc), Mandolin Orange offers both. It surges with a full band’s depth without sacrificing any of the front-porch closeness or weary sincerity. It’s no coincidence that it’s also Mandolin Orange’s most pointed album, lyrically.

“The subject matter will always be inspired by the times you happen to be a part of,” says Marlin. “You can’t write a tune just like you would write it a hundred years ago.”

To wit, This Side Of Jordan is littered with temporal signifiers, both personal and political. The acceptance of mortality on “Turtle Dove And The Crow” was inspired by Marlin’s brush with death after falling off a dam. With a line lifted from Lightnin’ Hopkins, Marlin accepts the inevitable, singing, “Life’s an old woodpecker/And I’m an old chunk of wood.” On “Hey Adam,” the duo—an offstage couple, as well—advocates for marriage equality through a Biblical lens. “Our Father loves you all ways,” Marlin and Frantz sing together.

In their progressive reinterpretations of the South’s traditions, Mandolin Orange is in good company. Mount Moriah and Hiss Golden Messenger have used their folk-rock variations as a vehicle for spiritual interrogation, while North Carolina’s biggest stars, the Avett Brothers, have espoused an inclusive take on down-home sentimentality.

“I don’t know that we’re consciously trying to be part of a movement, but I’d love to hear that other people are doing that,” says Marlin. “These are modern times … I’d like to think that people are taking these old themes and making them work for this time.”

As America suffers a cultural identity crisis after electing its first minority president, as the South—North Carolina included—reels from radical, reactionary, conservative state government, it’s nice to hear that our artists are actively searching for ways to honor the past and reshape the future.

—Bryan C. Reed

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Mree: Winter’s Bane

Mree

Folktronica upstart Mree embraces melancholia, infinite sadness

Mree’s second self-produced album, Winterwell, is a passionate blend of heartfelt acoustic folk and plush electronic textures, brought to life by her rich, multi-layered vocals. Mree’s lush harmonies float in and out of the mix like perfumed clouds, drawing you into a dizzying swirl of muted colors and ambiguous emotions.

“The songs are about being in two places the same time, that weird feeling you get when you’re not certain about your emotions,” says Mree. “I started writing the songs for this album last winter and tried to capture a bleak, empty feel by using a lot of reverb. By releasing it in summer, I hope to give you that same feeling of being slightly dislocated.”

Armed with a guitar and an effects pedal that allows her to loop her vocals into an ever-shifting collage of sound, Mree is able to reproduce most of the album when she plays live, but it took her a while to overcome her early stage fright. In fact, it was coming to terms with her stage fright that led to her commanding internet presence.

“I started out doing covers of songs and posting them on YouTube,” she says. “Looking at the camera was easier than facing an audience. The positive feedback I got helped me overcome my stage fright. I didn’t like performing live when I was in high school, but now that I’m a bit older and more experienced, I love it.”

The clips Mree put on the internet have gotten more than 7.3 million views in the last couple of years; 40,000 fans subscribe to her YouTube channel. Her debut album, Grow, rose to number 18 on iTunes’ singer/songwriter chart in 2011.

Grow was more acoustic,” she says. “This time I wanted to experiment with an ambient post-rock approach to see where it took me. I use Pro Tools and my computer to record. I usually start with a melody or chord progression. Once I lay that down, I start adding layers. Sometimes what comes out is exactly what I heard in my head; others times it goes in a completely different direction. That’s the great thing about the creative process. You don’t know where you’re going when you start, but then you come up with something beautiful.”

Winterwell plays like the seamless soundtrack to a long, melancholy day. Muted acoustic guitar, spacey keyboards, subtle touches of percussion and the almost subliminal sounds of banjo, xylophone and electric guitar provide the foundation for restrained vocals that play with the lyrics, often drawing out syllables until they lose meaning and become another element in the overall sonic landscape.

“I was inspired by the way Jónsi and Sigur Rós write lyrics in Hopelandic,” she says. “They use the sound of words like an instrument. I don’t want my vocals to be the focus of a song. I like to keep the lyrics ambiguous, so they can mean different things to every listener. There’s a freedom in that way of writing. I don’t think my lyrics should be any more constrained than my music.”

—j. poet

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Rainbow Chan: Rainbow Bright

RainbowChan

Eclectic, daring popster Rainbow Chan hurls the kitchen sink from her closet

Taking a break from tracking her debut album, Rainbow Chan traveled to Iceland, where she played her first overseas shows, sampled field recordings, befriended Björk’s personal harp-maker and tested a delicacy called hákarl (rotten shark). Returning to Sydney after a stopover in Hong Kong, where she’d lived as a girl, she scrapped the 15 songs she’d already recorded and wrote a new one, “Skinny Dipping” about the wildest thing she’d ever done.

“I was getting a bit sick of myself, so I went back to my roots in pop music,” says Chan, who’d released 120 copies of a handmade, four-song EP the previous year. “‘Skinny Dipping’ completely changed the game for me, because it sounded so far removed from everything else I’d written. I wanted to not be so singer/songwriter-ish, so experimental. To write something different, something about youth and life, something upbeat. I wanted to use the sounds of my childhood, when I had this really old-school, imitation Casio keyboard and preset beats. I wanted to recreate that sound using samples to create my own loops, following that vein of classic pop songwriting, but doing it in a twisted, left-field kind of way.”

The chirpy little keyboard that launches “Skinny Dipping” sounds like moonlight, with a sky full of stars twinkling on Cronulla Beach, then builds into a delicately multilayered, spritely poptronic party, as Chan celebrates a friend’s 21st birthday, dancing in the water and wondering “where those boys and girls have gone/fading with the waves on the shore.” It’s as sweet as summer gets, the centerpiece of Long Vacation (Silo Arts), a six-song EP filled with the sounds that have been bouncing around her head for years: glockenspiels and music boxes, Frédéric Chopin and Steve Reich, girl groups and electronics, Hong Kong pop, Shanghai jazz, American rhythm ‘n’ blues and Japanese television theme songs.

Once the new direction arrived, the rest of Long Vacation was easy, recorded solo inside Chan’s closet over a six-month period that began in fall 2012. “It’s very DIY, very genuine, very intimate, literally done in a cupboard among the clothes and shoes,” says Chan, who performs solo with a handful of instruments and a Roland sampler. “Whenever I felt I was ready, or whenever I got the inspiration, I just did it then. I was so fresh, the songs came together really quickly, and I spent most of that time deconstructing them afterwards, taking away layers, refining, revising and reshaping the sounds the way I wanted them.”

Classically trained in piano, saxophone and voice, Chan moved to Sydney at six years old, growing up in the suburbs, studying Mandarin on the weekends and listening to mix tapes compiled by her grandmother in Hong Kong. Those tapes, segueing from Del Shannon to Chinese folk songs to Skeeter Davis, are still the sounds that drive her, and after years of composing pieces about heartbreak, she’s tickled to write about the everyday epiphanies of getting a new haircut listening to pillow talk or swimming after midnight.

“I love the immediacy of pop,” says Chan, who next plans to start a pop band with her sister, focusing on ’60s Japanese rock ‘n’ roll. “I’m a sucker for really nice melodies and harmonies, and I’ve gotten to the stage where I have to be honest and true, to go back into myself and write pieces from within. At first, I was a bit unsure, asking myself, ‘Is that a little too cheesy, too corny?’ But I decided that’s OK if it’s too cheesy, too corny. Because that’s me.”

—Kenny Berkowitz

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Sam Phillips: Choose Your Own Adventure

SamPhillips-2013

Sam Phillips is still dancing with danger, trying to conquer an unstable new pop terrain

Over the last 30 years, Sam Phillips has had one of the more unusual and varied careers in what can broadly be called pop music. Her first success came in the early ’80s via contemporary Christian music, under the name Leslie Phillips; she was, regrettably, marketed as “the Christian Cyndi Lauper.” For her fourth Christian album, 1987’s The Turning, she partnered with producer T Bone Burnett, whom she would later marry. Frustrated with her record label and the constraints of the genre, Phillips left Christian music and started recording as Sam Phillips, reverting to her childhood nickname. Four albums of exuberant, baroque pop matched to barbed and witty lyrics followed, all on Virgin Records, all done with Burnett. These records flirted with ’60s-era ideas—girl-group sounds for 1988’s The Indescribable Wow (which included string arrangements from Van Dyke Parks); Beatlesque orchestration for 1994’s Martinis & Bikinis; lounge pop and neo-psychedelic eccentricities for 1996’s Omnipop (It’s Only A Flesh Wound Lambchop).

Then she tore up the playbook again. Starting with 2001’s Fan Dance, Phillips moved to the prestigious Nonesuch label, sharpened her focus, stripped back the production and turned to a concentrated-yet-artful songwriting style that had a bit in common with the cabaret and torch ballads of Tom Waits (not the least because guitarist Marc Ribot played a prominent role in the arrangements). Her marriage to Burnett dissolved during the creating of 2004’s A Boot And A Shoe; 2006’s Don’t Do Anything was her first self-produced album, and her last for Nonesuch. This era coincided with her work composing the score for Amy Sherman-Palladino’s TV series Gilmore Girls; her writing played a prominent role in the much-loved show, which ran from 2000 until 2007, and Phillips is now working with Sherman-Palladino on new series Bunheads (as of this writing, in limbo for renewal for a second season).

In 2009, Phillips again tried something new: She launched the Long Play, a digital series that promised exclusive music—as well as an assortment of multimedia content, written musings and snippets of insight into the creative process—to paid subscribers. Part-blog, part-crowd-source funding and overall an experiment in a direct artist-to-listener experience, the Long Play ended up running for two years, during which Phillips was extremely prolific; she posted five EPs and an album, totaling 44 songs. In 2011, she released to the general public a 13-song CD sampler, Solid State: Songs From The Long Play.

The Long Play was a successful experiment, but also an insular and demanding one, and Phillips eventually felt it was time to move on. “I didn’t want it to overstay its welcome,” she says. “It was only supposed to stay for a year and a half, but then a lot of people found it later, so we kept it open. It was a lot of music; for those who were interested, they liked all that music. But for me, it was a lot. What I wanted to do for the next project was something very abbreviated, something that was a little more friendly, and that the price point was lower—just smaller in general. I was very proud that we clocked in at, I think, 29 minutes for the whole album.”

That LP is the self-released Push Any Button, her first physical release of new material in seven years. It’s not a radical change in style, but it’s livelier and more fun than anything she’s done since her Virgin era. Many of the 10 songs contain hints of that intersection of rockabilly and country that the other Sam Phillips made his name with, and some include almost countrypolitan string arrangements.

“I love that hybrid, somewhere in between rockabilly and country,” says Phillips. “The first record I remember hearing—I’m sure there must have been others—but I was about three years old, and my brother had a single of the Beatles’ ‘I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party’ and ‘Eight Days A Week.’ My parents loved jazz, so for a long time that was my idea of country music; I didn’t hear a lot of classic country music when I was growing up.”

“When I’m Alone” starts with an acoustic riff that recalls Elvis’ Sun Records period; drummer Jay Bellerose adds a dry, clip-clop rhythm, and the Section Quartet provides the stripped-down but sweeping strings. The lyrics, however, belie the perky arrangements, as Phillips sings, “When I’m alone, I’m not lonely,” ultimately sounding like she’s trying to convince herself of that fact. There’s some Johnny Cash on “You Know I Won’t” and some Skeeter Davis on “No Time Like Now,” although none of the songs sounds like an homage or pastiche. Phillips says that “push any button” is meant to suggest that the album is “like a jukebox connected to the 20th century.” It doesn’t settle in one place for long, while still sounding like a coherent, emotionally complex Sam Phillips album.

“I think it’s important to present what I feel good about, my point of view,” she says. “I think at the end of the day, probably everything’s been done—it’s more important how you put things together. Whether it’s country or rockabilly or blues or jazz, it’s just one’s version of those different genres and different points of view, and your thoughts. You know, I think that because of the freedom of the Long Play, I just felt free to make the kind of pop music that I really like. And already, after having made this record, I feel myself wanting to go in the other direction and write something longer, more obscure, a little less friendly.”

Most listeners would point to Phillips’ Virgin Records era as her most “pop” period—her “omnipop” period, perhaps—so it’s intriguing to hear her designate Push Any Button as “the kind of pop music I really like.” Her albums on Virgin coincided with the early-’90s heyday of alternative radio, so they fit a “pop” genre, but it’s unlikely that any of her new music would find a place in a broad commercial format today outside of the adult-alternative one that has always embraced her. Not that she expects a pop hit: Phillips knows that times have changed, radically, since the ’90s.

“I was more aware of top-40 radio—because there was a top-40 radio format, even though it was starting to disintegrate and diversify—at that time,” says Phillips. “But since then, I’ve been more and more in my own corner and doing my own thing. The fun part of it is, I have no idea how people will hear the new album. I don’t know, really, how much people have been exposed to that era. Another thing that I’m trying to investigate and unravel is about being over 30, over 40, making music in our culture, because we’re very different from our parents’ generation. I think Lucinda Williams is going strong and beautiful, and in some ways her songs are better and better. Even my dear old friend T Bone Burnett, he’s having the run of his life doing all sorts of interesting things. It’s a very interesting thing about age and culture and what it all means. I think it’s being redefined in a very interesting way.”

That relationship between age and culture was also something that Gilmore Girls explored in the bond between Lorelai and her daughter Rory, both of whom were music fans, and Phillips finds herself in a similar position, sharing music with her 15-year-old daughter.

When Phillips was doing the Long Play, she knew who her audience was: paid subscribers predisposed to being interested in her work. But Phillips has mixed feelings about her responsibilities to her audience now. On one hand, she’s eager to give them value for their investment, and she’s talking about making additional songs available as bonus tracks to supplement the 10 on Push Any Button in order to offset shipping costs that turned out higher than she expected (“Doing this all DIY, I’m learning about all the ins and outs of manufacturing,” she says). On the other, she isn’t thinking about her audience when she is creating the music itself.

“I think that part of our jobs as artists is that we have to have a vision and know what to do,” she says. “We’re not Coca-Cola; we’re not Kleenex; we’re not trying to get notes on what consumers want, exactly. I think that’s the tendency today. There were times when I thought, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t put these out,’ because I wasn’t sure that there was a place for them. But some little scientist part of me wants to know if people will like this sort of music, will they still like songs? I’m just going to present them to the world, and if they catch on beyond my listenership, that’s great. And if not, I’ll just go on to the next thing.”

—Steve Klinge

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