Listening to music by singer/multi-instrumentalist Joao Gonzalez, who records as Soft Glas, conjures images of lazy, hazy summer days spent hanging out with good friends and moonlit nights dancing by the seaside. MAGNET spoke with Gonzalez about his latest single, his influences and plans for the new year.
Your latest song, “Just Bright,” features nice, arpeggiated guitar playing. I know you played or programmed almost all the instruments on the track. I believe your first instrument was the drums, which don’t necessarily lend themselves to songwriting. When you compose your songs, do you use guitar or keyboard? What’s your approach? I’m definitely a fan of arpeggiated guitar lines. I heard Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” when I was 17 on the way to auditioning for the jazz drumming program at Florida State University’s school of music. I botched the audition an got denied. But I’ll never forget the feeling of hearing that song and thinking, “That’s it. That’s exactly what I like.” It wasn’t until recently—2017—that I picked up the guitar, and I naturally found myself using arpeggios almost exclusively. I’m also a very poor strummer. I usually start songs one of two ways: on the guitar or with the drums. Once the identity of the song is established with one of those two instruments, I can let the song tell me where it wants to go.
The accompanying video is an impressively minimalist affair with your face reflected in a hand-held mirror for the duration of the tune. What’s the concept behind the imagery and is that a California mountain we see in the background? Yes, that’s L.A.! I was staying at my friends’ apartment. Alex Szotak shot the video. The song is unashamedly introspective, but more specifically, it’s about trying to replicate the juvenile feeling of “home” as an adult. The idea of “faking it till I make it” was something I wanted to explore with the video. So I just wanted it to be a single shot of me staring at my own reflection, trying to convince myself of something.
I hear hints of jazz chording in your guitar work. Your father (Grammy-winning artist Gonzalo Rubalcaba) has had an extensive jazz-piano career. Growing up, I’m sure you were influenced by your father’s playing, true? I believe you worked with him on your last album (2017’s Orange Earth). Yeah, I think that’s inevitable. My father is not only an inspiration but also a strong influence. His approach to composing is fascinating to me, and even though I don’t consciously try to make jazz music, it will spill out of me without warning. Yes, I finally got to work with him on “Woodside”/”Riverside,” which was a dream come true.
Orange Earth, drew on your Florida upbringing for lyrics and mood. Now that you live in Brooklyn, has your new environment seeped into your work? The funny thing is that I don’t think I could’ve made Orange Earth without moving to Brooklyn. I made the album after living in New York for five years, and it was only after being away from my hometown that I could see its magic. The album is very much a romanticized view of south Florida through the eyes of a bone-chilled New York resident! I’ve recently moved away from New York, and I’m sure I’ll eventually dedicate a project to the city.
It’s hard to slot your music into one particular style, which as an artist might be refreshing to hear. It’s bedroom pop but with hints of jazz and chill-out music. How would you describe it? I’ve always described my music as awkward. Anytime I set out to make something blatantly and obviously settled in one specific genre, it always feels off. I like to think I make music for people who share a bit of that awkwardness with me. Hints of everything!
What are your plans for 2020? Might we see a new album? Definitely a lot of music. I have a new EP called Stunned that will be released in February and a full-length album shortly after that.
Rock ’n’ roll is no longer a make-or-break proposition for Jason Hill—not even close. That urgency effectively came to an end about 10 years ago, when his second band, dicey glam-trash outfit Louis XIV, disbanded after two full-length releases and a pair of EPs on Atlantic. Less has been said about Hill’s first group, Convoy, which poked its head out the San Diego hills just before the start of the millennium with a fully formed self-produced debut that sweetened its Stonesy swagger with a hazy Laurel Canyon aesthetic and occasional Beach Boys harmonies.
These days, Hill has found a lucrative niche for himself in the studio, most recently overseeing the soundtracks for two seasons of the well-received crime series Mindhunter and the chilling new docu-series The Confession Killer, both on Netflix. Now that Hill has the luxury of rocking out purely for the fun of it, he’s bringing back Louis XIV, with new music and tour plans for early next year. And he’s just released his first solo single, the fitfully cinematic “They Like Me, They Love Me,” which you can listen to below. We lured Hill out of the studio for a colorful chat about all the above.
It looks like you’re keeping busy these days. I’ve got, like, two massive white boards in my studio with columns and columns of projects. It’s a mess, but it’s cool. I can’t complain at all. I’ve been scoring films and TV series for the last five or six years. I’ve sort of gotten bored with the normality of regular songs.
Well, the new single has the feel of a regular song. “They Like Me, They Love Me” is actually in The Confession Killer. It was written loosely from the perspective of Henry Lee Lucas, who’s the focus of the docu-series. It was the first song I’d written for me to sing in years. I wrote it really quickly. I walked into the studio and picked up an acoustic guitar, the words came, and I wrote them down. I hadn’t sung much in years, and I was also a little sick. I was never happy with the vocal, so I did all of these crazy things with it. At the end of the day, it turned out really cool.
You really have to go back to the Convoy days to hear you singing in the classic sense. With Louis XIV, you were role-playing more than anything else. Some people didn’t get what we were doing. At first, for our self-titled album, Louis XIV was a character that was purposefully put together. It derived from this concept of a kid who’s 18 or 19, who had a drug-addict mom growing up. When she went out, she would lock him in the closet, and that became his grand apartment. I always envisioned it as this movie where you’d film him in present day and then, at a certain point, it would just click and he’d see himself back in the days of Louis XIV. We’d put on this ridiculous English accent, really just for fucking fun. But for some people, there was this reaction like, “What are they doing? This is a fraud.” But after that first record, it all became something more than just a concept. I developed this heavily articulated and drawn-out style of singing, and it became Louis XIV.
What prompted the abrupt shift in style from the smoother Americana vibe of Convoy to the jagged edges of Louis XIV? The Louis XIV stuff was really a reaction to overproduction. Convoy’s first album, Pineapple Recording Sessions, wasn’t smooth at all. It was self-produced and raw, all done on eigh-track reel-to-reel. The smoother style of (2002’s) Black Licorice wasn’t what the band was ever after. The production was getting bigger and bigger, but the core of the songwriting wasn’t getting better. I could blame [producer David Bianco] for that, but it’s a lot of what broke up the band, as well. When something’s missing, you add more stuff. Most of Black Licorice was smoothly produced versions of what’s on Pineapple Recording Sessions, which we thought we’d done just fine the first time. But we were young and cowered to the record label.
Was it worth it? The record company (Hybrid) owed us $75,000 for another record. We had an album pretty much finished, but our hearts had already moved on—although two of those songs (“Air Traffic Control” and “Hopesick”) actually made it onto (Louis XIV’s) Sick Dogs And Ponies. Looking back, I could’ve given them that record, and we would’ve had $75,000 to live on. But morally, I didn’t want to do that. At the time, I was dead broke and living in this office space over my friend’s recording studio. I’d go out on out the back porch that overlooked the Shell station and the San Diego Bay and shower with a hose connected to the faucet. There wasn’t any hot water, because I couldn’t pay for it. My grandfather had given my dad a car. My dad had a stroke and couldn’t use it, so I got the car. I basically sold it to the bank for $18,000 and bought a bunch of recording gear—the core of what I still use today. Some of the guys in the band were sick of being broke and wanted real jobs, so the rest of us split off to make Louis XIV. After the first Louis album, I began making a solo record; things like “Pledge Of Allegiance” and “Paper Doll” were initially supposed to be on that. But it just became Louis XIV as (longtime collaborator) Brian (Karscig) and I started writing more tunes. For (2005’s) The Best Little Secrets Are Kept, it was incredibly creative. A whole song would be done in the matter of an evening. We had complete artistic control. I produced it; I engineered it; I mixed it. It was 100 percent us. To Atlantic’s credit, they were cool with it.
Were you surprised that Louis XIV took off the way it did? Not really. We’d honed our craft through all the Convoy stuff and all the touring. We were actually at the point where everything was colliding in a perfect way. This is not to be egotistical, but I really thought we were one of the best bands on the planet at the time. You have to believe in what you’re doing, and I believed in it. I remember after some shows, I’d be like, “Fuck, this is exactly what I wanted. I always wanted to be my own favorite band.”
How did you get involved with director David Fincher? His wife was a fan of my music, I think. He heard something and thought I’d be great to do the trailer teaser for (2014’s) Gone Girl, which was a cover of “She” by Charles Aznavour. I produced it and brought in Richard Butler to sing it. On the outside, it’s a love song, but it’s really about codependency and kind of dark. A girlfriend and I had broken up after three years on the Friday before, and three days later I got the call to do it. My father was dying at the time, as well. I was an emotional mess deep down. I’d decided to go sober from everything for a year—no booze or pot, which was hard at first. I was literally doing the Dudley Moore thing in Arthur, where he got sober when his butler was sick and dying. It sounds ridiculous, but I wanted to do the same for my father. I wanted to get a handle on how I was feeling and not just numb myself. So “She” was the perfect project to dive headfirst into—I just poured it all into that production, and it changed my life. I worked on it in Studio 3 at the old United Recorders, Phil Spector and Brian Wilson’s main room—so that was a treat. I locked it out for a month. Fincher just saw the work I put into it and hired me for his next few projects, leading to Mindhunter.
How is making music different for you now than it was, say, 15 years ago? Now I can hack on pretty much every instrument. For this Korean film I’m scoring, it’s cello. I used to walk into the studio and reach for a guitar or maybe a piano. Now, I have a million instruments around me that I don’t know, that I’m not as confident with—and I can challenge myself. You can’t make a living as an artist these days unless you work your ass off and tour, because nobody pays for music. But it’s never been about making money—I’d do this no matter what. I’ve always wanted to learn how to use the studio as an instrument, and now that’s pretty much my approach. It’s what propelled me to this place.
—Hobart Rowland; photo by @victoriasmithphoto
To listen to the soundtrack for Mindhunter Season 2, click here.
Louis XVI Tour Dates 3/11 — Sacramento, Holy Diver 3/12 — San Francisco, The Great Northern 3/17 — Los Angeles, Moroccan Lounge 3/19 — San Diego, The Music Box
Whether you call them rock, pop or (that much-maligned label) power pop, Shoes have made some of the most crunchy-yet-melodic music over the last few decades. Present Tense, their 1979 major-label debut, is one of rock’s greatest woulda/coulda/shoulda been stories. Although it didn’t make Shoes a household name, the album continues to inspire other musicians and satisfy connoisseurs of fine pop/rock with its hook-filled songwriting. On Present Tense‘s 40th anniversary, MAGNET spoke with singer/guitarist Jeff Murphy about the LP, changing production techniques and what’s next for Shoes.
It’s been four decades since the release of Present Tense, and it sounds as fresh today as it did then. Looking back, are you happy with how it turned out? When did you last give it a listen? Glad to hear that you feel that it still sounds fresh. We’d like to think that the quality of the sounds shines through, regardless of the production techniques of the era. Often times using the “newest, latest” instrument or gadget—remember Syndrums, Ensoniq Mirage, Vocorders and the Yamaha DX7 sounds?—can date a recording and taint the perception of an otherwise good song. Present Tense was pretty straightforward and organic in our production approach, and that helps it feel more timeless. Although I haven’t heard it straight through, in its entirety, in a long time, I often hear individual songs on Pandora. There are always things that we wish we could have done better or differently, but overall, we’re pretty happy with how it turned out.
I know the working relationship with producer Mike Stone had some tense moments, as he didn’t necessarily want to follow the demos you brought along to the studio. As a band that had such a strong DIY history of recording, that must have been frustrating. He doesn’t seem to have worked with any other groups like Shoes; he engineered the first six Queen albums, and his credits after Present Tense are bands like Asia, Journey and Whitesnake. We got on with Mike very well on a personal level, but we did have differing opinions on how things should be done in the studio. He was brought up in a regimented caste system at Trident Studios, and there was a particular pecking order—tea boy, second engineer, first engineer, production assistant, producer, etc.—which he also applied to musicians: Producers are in charge, bass players don’t play guitar, stay in your lane, etc. We were very different because we were very DIY in our approach, and we were as much arrangers and producers as we were songwriters and musicians. The demos were our road map and were essential to remembering what we were aiming for. He saw them as crude and insignificant. That being said, I think you’ll find that more times than not, the final version of a song comes fairly close to the original demo.
The album opens with the one-two punch of fan favorites “Tomorrow Night” and “Too Late.” Was the group in charge of sequencing the songs? Yes, we did the sequencing ourselves. In my book about the recording of Present Tense, there is an image of my sequencing notes that I wrote while mixing at Trident. So, you can see how we approached it and the changes we made. But if Elektra had a suggestion, we’d consider it.
In Mary Donnelly’s book about the band, Boys Don’t Lie, you recount how the song “I Don’t Miss You” was difficult to record, as it relied on a tape echo unit you’d left at home since you didn’t consider it a “professional” enough piece of gear to bring to a major recording studio. It seems ironic now, as guitarists are hacking Walkman’s into home-built echo players; you can even buy one: the T-Rex Replicator. The finished track is fine, yet the demo version has a funky vibe that’s pretty cool. Do you wish you’d been able to bring more of your “home brew” gear to the studio? Yes, when we recorded Present Tense, we left our personal amps and most effects back home, figuring we could easily rent the English-made amps we used, Marshall and Hiwatt), and the studio would have much better effects units than we owned. That’s when we learned that every individual piece of gear has its own, unique and very specific tonal quality. From that point on, we always took all of our personal gear to every studio we worked at. That Roland RE-201 Space Echo helped define the sound of our early recordings. That’s a drawback to having more realized demos; you end up chasing something that you instinctively created on the demo and sometimes it’s very difficult to recapture it.
The band has done a fantastic job curating its recorded history and making it available for fans, yet Present Tense isn’t available to stream on outlets like Spotify. Why? Our original deal with Elektra allowed for us to gain the rights to relicense those albums if they went out of print, which they did in 1982. In 1987, we asked for and regained those rights, and we began releasing those albums on CD (for the first time) and made them available on Black Vinyl Records for the next 30 years in digital formats, including downloads, sub-licensing to other labels and streaming. Then in 2017, Elektra contacted us and said they wanted the rights back. To the best of our knowledge, they have not made them available since they reacquired the rights, until Cherry Red Records decided to put together the upcoming boxed set that will include all three of the original Elektra albums, along with an additional 54 tracks of demos, outtakes and live tracks that we recorded ourselves, in our home eight-track studio during that era. It’s due out in early 2020.
At the time of Present Tense, you were labelmates of the Cars and Queen. Do you think the record company’s expectations were too high in terms of sales for a major-label debut? It doesn’t feel like they gave you a real chance to develop an audience. In the first meeting with the Elektra execs, when we returned from England with the finished Present Tense tapes, the chairman said, “We expect this album to sell between three and four million copies!” We were floored. We were hoping for 50,000 to 100,000 copies. They were spoiled by the runaway success of those other releases and assumed every release would be a home run. It really set an unattainable bar that, when it didn’t get mega sales, they were disappointed and lost interest.
Maybe I’m imagining things, but I believe I’ve seen footage of Shoes On Ice, the live show you released as a bonus with the Boomerang CD. Was the show videotaped, and if so would you ever release the full concert? Yes, it was videotaped by the local park district and played on the local cable-access channel, back at that time. We recorded the show on our eight-track machine—due to a technical glitch, only the last six songs were properly recorded—and released them as the Shoes On Ice EP. We’d love to find the original footage and sync the audio we have to the video; their audio was very poor. Those six live tracks will be included in the Cherry Red box set.
Since you’ve been involved in many facets of the business from home recording to being on a major label to running a studio, I’d love to hear your perspective on the younger performers of today who record and release their own material. In some ways, with a laptop and cheap DAWs, it’s never been easier to make music but never harder to get anyone to listen to it. A big part of the fun and character from recording is in the minute differences that each performer and producer employs when recording each instrument. A lot of those variables that give each recording a unique character have been eliminated and replaced by great-sounding samples, keyboard patches and plug-ins. Yes, everything now sounds “professional and polished,” but it’s like the airbrushed photos in Playboy smoothing over the individual beauty and character for the sake of perfection, creating an unrealistic and boring ideal. It’s tempting to use these new tools, but it really removes the charm of the artist’s quirks and distinctness. The Beatles were masters at allowing serendipity to occur and recognizing when to leave it and when to scrub it out. Some artists, like Tame Impalas, Black Keys and Jack White, have defined their own individual sound that is almost instantly identifiable, whether you like their songs or not. That is a hard thing to accomplish.
What’s next for Shoes? Despite the long gaps between albums, we still see each other and talk daily. We have every intention to record and release new songs in the future. But life gets busy, and we only write and record things that we feel strongly about. We don’t need to crank out material to meet any deadline or to satisfy any particular commitment. We just record when we feel we have material that’s strong enough to release. With the convenience of digital home recording, we have returned to our DIY roots, where we started recording in the first place: our home studios. So, it’s difficult to know when we’ll be happy enough to release something new. But we will. In the meantime, we want to continue to make our previous recordings available and find new music fans that can enjoy our music.
The main man behind the Schramms, Dave Schramm has a career spanning 40 years. His band’s latest (and seventh overall) album, Omnidirectional (Bar/None), is a musical work of art. MAGNET got to catch up with Schramm (an original member of Yo La Tengo who has worked with the likes of the Replacements, Richard Buckner and Syd Straw), and we talked about his career (five sentences turned into a rather a wonderful history), Omnidirectional, his work with other musicians and much more.
There are not many artists who can claim to have such a great legacy as you: a four-decade career and so many amazing achievements under your belt. So try and sum up your entire career in no more than five sentences. Really? Well, we had a band in high school that only played original songs, somewhat Stones-influenced, while everyone else was playing Zeppelin covers, which alas, did not endear us to the local youth, but we soldiered on through to college in Ohio, where I eventually fell in with a crowd of musical misfits including the Human Switchboard, with whom I played bass alongside the esteemed Ron Metz, drummer, and moved first to Kent, Ohio, and then back to the New York metropolitan area, where I quit the band so they fired me. I was lucky to land in Hoboken, N.J. (sharing a pad with first the esteemed Fred Brockman and then the aforementioned Metz), where I fell in with the local musicos, playing softball every Sunday with Individuals, Bongos, Hubleys and Kaplans, yadda yadda, and eventually joined up with Georgia and Ira for some records and a tour, after which I left Yo La Tengo (amicably) and formed the Schramms with Metz and initially Mike Lewis (ex-YLT), et al, which made six albums for various labels through the ’90s, supposedly in the style of alt-country or Americana or something or other, but I never paid that much mind, especially as time went on. Also in Hoboken were Chris Stamey, Freedy Johnston, Kate Jacobs and others of this ilk, who all asked me to play along on some of their records, which I happily did, and through these good people, by extension, I recorded and toured with the esteemed Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, and through Chris and Scott Litt, I played on (the Replacements’) All Shook Down, which I think is a wonderful record, and was lucky enough to play and record a little with the estimable Will Rigby and the valiant Laura Cantrell, not to mention Richard Buckner, where I made the acquaintance of the estimable and creative JD Foster, who became a longtime collaborator, and also came to know the esteemed Peter Blegvad and the abfab Syd Straw, and through Syd, many other happy and fab musicos. Along the way Georgia and Ira asked me and Al Greller (who then and now played bass in the Schramms) to join them for a (Yo La Tengo) album called Fakebook, which was a joy to make and seems to be well regarded, after which we got back to making Schramms records and touring mostly in Europe, though soon after the turn of the century, those activities slowed down a bit, but did not completely cease, since the energies normally expended thereon were channelled into something wonderful called the Radio Free Song Club, which Kate Jacobs, Nicholas Hill and myself began with Victoria Williams, Laura Cantrell, Freedy Johnston, Jody Harris, Peters Holsapple and Blegvad, David Mansfield, Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric and, later, Amy Allison, Howe Gelb, Don Piper and Robin Holcomb, and still in spite of all this, eventually the Schramms finished another record, which of course we have just released, and I temporarily re-joined Yo La Tengo for a record called Stuff Like That There and a tour, and I’m sure I’ve left out something worthy of mention and paid only cursory attention to proper chronology, but there it is.
Wow! I must admit it was an absolute pleasure to hear Omnidirectional. To me, there is just so much in there with so many elements. Can you talk about the writing and recording process for it? Thanks. Glad that you enjoyed the record. You’re right, there is a lot going on. Hopefully, it’s not overwrought. The writing, for the most part, happened between 2002 and 2004. In fact I played the opener, “Honestly Now,” with Yo La Tengo most every night on the “Rock The Vote” tour we did in 2004. Once I had an album’s worth of tunes, I did some demos for most of them, on my own, just to give them some form and see what they were all about. That’s a different approach than we usually take as a band. Normally I just start playing the song for everyone and we hash it out. We did that for a few of these. “Hearts And Diamonds” is one. But for most of the tunes, we had this template to work from. In the studio, all of our sessions were stretched over a period of years, not by design but by necessity. Sometimes there was six months between. That’s why the album took as long as it did. I think we did two or three basic tracking sessions. At first, I thought we would try and record as much on the basics as possible—gather other musicians so that we could make it as live as possible, but we abandoned that soon into the process. The basics were Ron, Al and myself, and then it became JD, Andy Taub and myself doing overdubs and vocals. Even though I had done demos that were useful guides, there was still a lot of experimentation that went on. We had one amazing day where Ted Reichman, Marika Hughes, Jessica Troy and Doug Wieselman came and laid down Ted’s string and wind arrangement for “Not Calling,” and James McNew was there as well and did a bunch of singing.
Hearing “Spent” from Omnidirectional, I just kinda kicked back and was really able to enjoy it—one of many wonderful tracks on the album. In many ways, however, my PC just didn’t feel right to listen to your music on. If you were to recommend musical hardware no matter of age to play to your music on, what would it be? Well, there is something different about vinyl, and I love it, but it has shortcomings. Omnidirectional is a long record, around 48 minutes. Anything more than 22 minutes a side means having to make compromises. Less favorable signal-to-noise ratio, low-end, etc. So in our case, while I love the sound of it on vinyl, there is a little more background noise to deal with. But I don’t mind it—it comes with the territory. No noise on the CD, of course. And as long as you are listening with at least CD-quality (mp3 at 320k), that’s a happy place. But a 128k mp3 through ear buds? Feh.
You have been a very much in-demand studio musician. How does that feel, and who sticks out in your mind as a band or artist that you have really enjoyed working with? I do love playing with other folks. Mostly stress free and a joy to find my way in other people’s music. What sticks out? Working on This Perfect World with Freedy and Butch Vig and John Siket, Since with Richard Buckner, the Yo La Tengo records and shows, making records with Kate Jacobs, Mavericks with Peter and Chris. Being an Unmentionable for a short time. And all the shows with Radio Free Song Club were non-stop great.
There is an instrument called a Marxophone used on Omnidirectional. Just what is a Marxophone, and why did it fit so well on the album? The Marxophone is like a zither, or a keyboard-operated hammered dulcimer, from the early- to mid- 20th century. If you hit a key briefly, you get a single note. If you press and hold, the spring steel arm of the hammer bounces up and down on the spring, giving you a repeated note like a mandolin tremolo. Sounds like the intro to (the Kinks’) “Death Of A Clown,” although I’ve read that was Nicky Hopkins playing the strings of a piano with fingerpicks.
And what about the guitar instrumental on “Two A.M. Slant”? Why did you decide to record this one at home in Hoboken? That one was very off the cuff. Written and recorded all in a moment. Recorded in my living room because that’s where I was at the time. Intended as a demo, I decided I didn’t want to change anything and that everything was as it should be.
Your Facebook page is full of pictures of doors. Why? Doors fascinate me. I have always taken pictures of them everywhere I travel. They can provoke, identify place or time, nurture mystery or beckon. You might have noticed they are part of the visual language of the album art.
A lot of people might characterize your music as folk rock, but Omnidirectional is far from that. Why did you decide to create such an ambitiously different album encompassing so much in the music? I never paid much mind to being labeled “alt-country” or “Americana” or what have you. Although the folk-rock thing can be discerned, there are plenty of songs on our earlier records that don’t quite slot in to that. And with the last studio album, (2003’s) One Hundred Questions, I think those labels are totally inappropriate. The new album is just a reflection of our actual musical interests. That’s where the title comes from.
How do you feel Omnidirectional would’ve sounded if you had to finish the album within a certain amount of time? It might have sounded the same. I don’t know. When we were in the studio, we worked quickly. We just were not in the studio very often.
You describe some of your songs lyrically as Frankensteins. Why is this? Only in that some were pieced together after much trial and tribulation, not organically and easily. Occasionally, this results in something I find to be completely cohesive and satisfactory, but sometimes not. “New England” is one I struggled with. “Honestly Now” came all in a rush.
Thanks for your time. Is there anything you would like to add? Thanks. Happy that the album has been well received so far. Time to get started on the next one.
Once you write a memoir, all bets are off when it comes interviews. Allison Moorer is finding that out right now as she negotiates the media juggernaut prompted by the dual release of Blood: A Memoir (Da Capo Press) and equally stunning song-cycle companion piece Blood (Autotelic). “I’m just focused on staying centered and calm about it,” says Moorer.
Dealing head-on with the murder-suicide that claimed her parents when Moorer was just 14, the book enhances its narrative passages with vivid flashes of memory—much like the album punctuates its artful acoustic intimacy with fitful electric bursts. Both pieces of work benefit from an unflinching honesty and a tactile attention to detail that is spare yet elegant, with not a word wasted. Vocally, Blood is the Grammy-nominated singer’s most powerful—and vulnerable—performance, which is saying a lot when you consider the quality of her 20-year catalog.
It took some juggling of schedules, but MAGNET finally caught up with Moorer to find out more about Blood and how she’s weathering the media storm.
I’d argue that Blood is the best thing you’ve done since 2004’s The Duel, which was also a concept album. Interesting comparison, but I do feel like Blood is a very different record. The person who made The Duel was questioning whether there is a God … Should I believe in God? The person I am now doesn’t have any questions about that. I choose to have faith simply because it’s a comfort. I see evidence of God all around me. Maybe that’s maturity. I don’t know.
A few of the songs were written earlier, correct? The title track was on 2015’s Down To Believing. I had some songs I was writing that I thought might be a project with my sister (Shelby Lynne). But we decided to table that for now. I had “Nightlight” and “Bad Weather.” “Cold Cold Earth” already existed, as did “Blood.” “I’m The One To Blame” is a song that has a lyric found in my father’s briefcase after he died. Those are his words, and my sister put music to it when she found it.
Two early passages in the memoir were about the briefcase and your love of magazines. It’s nice to know people still appreciate our dying industry. [Laughs] I come by the magazine habit honestly—I really do. We pick them up because we find them beautiful and we want our lives to look like what’s inside them—totally aspirational, totally unattainable. It’s about dreams.
As far as the album and the memoir being companion pieces, what was the creative process like for both? I didn’t even decide to do an album until earlier this year. I finished the manuscript in June 2017. It wasn’t until that was edited, turned in and finished that it was suggested to me that it might be a good idea to make an EP to go with it. I took some of the songs I had and started to add to them. Clearly, it ended up being longer than an EP, but the songs kept coming and I couldn’t ignore them. The last one I wrote was “Heal,” which I did with Mary Gauthier.
The album has a bit of an edge, but it’s also quite intimate. I had in mind that it would be completely acoustic, but some of the songs deserved a bigger treatment. (Producer) Kenny (Greenberg) and I started from scratch. There are only three additional musicians on the record besides the two of us. We just made it up as we went along and did what felt right.
How about creative process for the memoir? Writing is really hard work. I’d take myself into what I call active memories … We think we remember everything, but we don’t really. I had a stack of index cards with things I wanted to cover. I had a lot of photographs and artifacts I would sit with to recall certain things. There were moments when I’d be stunned, holding onto the edge of my desk wondering how to put what had just come to me into words. Easy? Hell no. Worth it? Absolutely. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
It’s interesting that you begin the book with your parents’ death. I didn’t feel like it was fair to make the reader wait on that—you’ve got to get that detail out of the way. In the past, people would ask me about it, and I really didn’t think it was an appropriate topic for an interview that’s supposed to be about music. I didn’t see the point in introducing something that’s very painful for me into a conversation about something that’s supposed to be positive for me. I realize that a lot of journalists want to know about it and think it’s their right to know about it. But it really isn’t. I used to work as a journalist, so I understand the need for a good lede. But I can promise you that if somebody asked me about it and I answered them, nine time out of 10 it would be the lede. So that became the focus of the story—not the music I was trying to promote.
When did it become OK for you to talk about this stuff? It took me writing a frigging book. Sometimes it takes me back into it, and that’s not necessarily a place I want to be at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday. I’ve been struggling with this issue my entire life—not just their deaths but also things that happened before that. I was feeling a lot of deep shame about it, and don’t think that’s something people realize. But I realize I’ve written this book and put these things out there, so I’m going to talk about it and do the absolute best I can with it, minute by minute.