on putting out a record and also on having anxiety

On June 4th, our EP Troublesongs came out online. It has been a year in the making, and I'm very excited about it. Working with Danny at Hot Dad Labs has been the most creatively exciting experience I've had in a studio so far. I haven't been proud of a record in the way I'm proud of this one.

We're going to go on a short tour with this record too, something I've never done before. I'll be in a bunch of cities I've never been to this summer, play in rooms and breweries and coffeehouses and theaters and meet people who have already been such a help to us before ever meeting in person. I'll probably end up traveling and playing shows more this summer than the past three years combined.  

And I still had an anxiety attack this morning. Turns out doing the cool things you've always wanted to do (making a record, touring, etc.) doesn't actually make you happy. I wasn't particularly expecting it to, I guess. But here we are. 

Don't expect making art or pursuing whatever it is you think is compelling to be fulfilling, because it won't be. Not always, and not for very long. But it is absolutely still worth doing. When I feel awful and like everything is just about to fall apart, even in moments like this where I should just be elated about having created something, I remember conversations I've had with people who have connected with the music we've made so far. People who made eye contact and spoke emotionally (sometimes slightly drunkenly) about what the music has meant to them. Those conversations make me get up in the morning to write when I don't feel like writing. 

So thanks to those people, for saying kind things to me about what the music means to you (Zach, Justine, Mark, Andrew, and others I won't name here for the sake of brevity). 

songs we're into: anything by Ner-D

Some things you outta know about Ner-D:

  • He's the four-time round one champ of the Shut Up and Rap competition (four times in a row).
  • He is going to destro-I mean he performs at the finals for Shut Up and Rap on Thursday this week, 7pm at Modist Brewing. 
  • He's performing at Soundset this year (other acts include Tyler the Creator, Migos, Logic, Atmosphere). 
  • He launched his Facebook page and started performing publicly in January. 

Matt Allen is the reason I (Hunter) am making music, we played in a band together that shut down so that he could focus on this hip-project, and he's freaking. crushing. it. 

Fans of Chance the Rapper, Tyler the Creator, and anything remotely nerdy will be in love with his lyricism, his flow as a rapper, his tongue-in-cheek silliness, and the surprising depth and thoughtfulness that most artists spend two or three records trying to reach for (Ner-D has one mixtape out that was made mostly with Youtube beats and podcast microphones used to record on a laptop in the front seat of a car--and it is incredible [we covered it in January]). 

His live performance is staggering. Matt is a powerhouse vocalist in his own right, rather than a rapper who can make a pass at singing every once in a while. Go see him on Thursday. 

Go see him on Thursday. 

song stories--what it takes

Another song rooted in that train trip from St. Paul to Boston, what it takes came out of seeing some dock workers at one of the stops on the way to Chicago, I think it was Red Wing.

One of the big things I’ve been trying to understand since the chaos of 2016 is the experience of the rural working class in America. I grew up around it, but my immediate family is mostly clergy (not entirely: my stepdad works for the government and my father was in the army, then was a police officer, and now works security at a stadium in California) so there were always at least a few steps of difference between myself and the farmers and factory workers who raised many of my friends. 

He says “Pay is pay
no matter what it takes from you.”
the game that we play, we try
to trade our bodies away
to keep what’s left warm
oh, engine
keep me warm.

This notion of doing something that one knows will have long-term negative effects on your body (working in a mine with poor breathing conditions, shingling, etc.) but doing so anyway because the money is good is really striking to me as someone who can afford to take a few hours away from work if my hands get too strained from typing or playing. 

 Springsteen made this record about a lot of similar ideas in 1982. If you've never listened to this record, please stop reading and go do it. This blog will be here tomorrow. By far my favorite of his work. 

Springsteen made this record about a lot of similar ideas in 1982. If you've never listened to this record, please stop reading and go do it. This blog will be here tomorrow. By far my favorite of his work. 

There are so many people in this country (not to mention the world) who make that sort of exchange their entire lives. For them, feeding their families and ensuring that they can access a better life is worth a strained back, a sore body, fading eyesight. 

That notion reminds me of the best things about love, when you truly love someone you’ll bear all kinds of weight for them, you’ll do things you never thought you could and suffer all kinds of pain. That’s the sort of exchange we make in the world we live in.

She keeps on telling me there’s a door,

and I can walk right through, if I want to

but with every little look, with each rainy kiss

we're digging in trenches, and I’m fighting soon

We're playing this song live for the first time at the Turf Club in February.

Get your tickets here. 

fun fact: this song was originally called "keep me warm" but some people just couldn't stop making references to Macklemore's song Same Love (which is a song I like well enough, but it got annoying when my bass player and drummer wouldn't let it go) which has a line like that. 

MACKLEMORE DOESN'T HAVE A MONOPOLY ON THINGS BEING KEPT WARM. 

Charley Pride, and a bunch of other black country/americana artists you should know about but don't

Black people created country music. Full stop. 

"In the antebellum South, banjos, fiddles, and harmonicas were the dominant instruments played in black culture. Unfortunately, history has distorted these facts to make people believe jazz, blues and spirituals were the staples of black culture at that time when, in fact, it was country." - Pamela Foster

Now there are a hundred reasons why people think country music is a white thing, some have to do with what people my age grew up seeing in country music on TV at the Grand Ole Opry or similar places (the CMAs are white as an event can possibly be), some have to do with an intentional shift away from country music many in the black community felt was necessary in the Jim Crow era because of the appropriation of banjos and country music by Jim Crow, and some have to do with intentional discrimination on the part of country music industry executives. In spite of that, here are a bunch of black country/americana artists who are absolutely worth your time:

Charley Pride

 photo from  Rolling Stone

photo from Rolling Stone

Born into a family of eleven, Charley Pride's father was a sharecropper. He started as a baseball player in the NAL (that's the Negro American League, back before black people were allowed to play baseball in the Major Leagues) but stopped in Nashville on a trip, and everything changed. 

Pride is the first African-American to perform at the Grand Ole Opry and has written hit song after hit song after hit song (after hit song after hit song after hit song). Here's a bit of his performance at the Opry: 

Rhiannon Giddens 

Originally of the band Carolina Chocolate Drops (don't worry, they're next), Rhiannon Giddens is one of my personal favorites. She writes music that taps so deep into the history of black people in America, and her solo record Freedom Highway haunted me the whole ride on a trip out to Boston last year after I first came across her work on The New Basement Tapes. 

That record, a collaborative album of songs written based off of newly discovered unused lyrics from Bob Dylan, had famed producer T. Bone Burnett calling on a group of incredible band leaders & songwriters to play on and write this album. Rhiannon Giddens was brought in along with Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons), Taylor Goldsmith (of Dawes), Elvis Costello, and Jim James (of My Morning Jacket). All that to say, she is an incredible writer and performer. 

Carolina Chocolate Drops

Almost every member of this band has a solo project, they're all worth checking out. This band has an instrumental range that blows minds, utilizing beatboxing, every variation of banjo there is (and there are a lot of them), cello, acoustic & electric guitar, three and four-part harmony, fiddle, rapping, you name it they've probably done it. 

This all comes together to make an incredibly diverse (and yet cohesive) discography of killer records. 

Elizabeth Cotten

When I studied guitar in college and mentioned that I'd like to master fingerstyle guitar, my teacher smiled and immediately pulled out a chart of Freight Train. I'm not sure that anyone has had a bigger influence on fingerstyle acoustic guitar in folk music than Elizabeth Cotten. She certainly has had a huge influence on my playing. 

The phrase "cotten-picking" as a style of guitar (where the player makes an alternating bass line) comes from her, you know that style of playing that bounces back and forth on each chord? That's Elizabeth.

That's only a few of the incredible black country/Americana artists who deserve far more recognition than they've gotten. Here's a bunch of other black country/Americana/folk artists you should pay attention to:

  • Leadbelly
  • Amedee Ardoin
  • Kamara Thomas
  • JS Ondara
  • Amythyst Kiah
  • Fantastic Negrito
  • Ebony Hillbillies
  • Kaia Kater
  • Dom Flemons
  • Ray Charles (sure you know him, but he has a bunch of country music that slays)
  • Richie Havens
  • Blind Boys of Alabama
  • Harry Belafonte
  • The Woes
  • Yola Carter
  • Linda Martel
  • Ruby Falls

Some great write-ups from Paste magazine and others on black country & Americana:

 

 

 

 

song stories--Doomed to Crawl

Some of the songs I write are personal, very few of them are slightly autobiographical, and some, like this song, are almost entirely fictional. I rode a train alone from St. Paul to Boston this year to visit some family and attend a bachelor party and spent much of that time jotting down observations, images, feelings, etc., to be turned into music or poetry later. This song started out as a few lines from there: 

here the fog clings to the ditches. for now, 
we ride along the line. But the tracks dip low, 
and who knows what is waiting down there in the shadows?

It might be that I had recently watched Stranger Things again, it might be my slight obsession with Sci-Fi & suspense, but when I woke up to a foggy morning in New York state my mind immediately jumped to some kind of monster hiding in the fog. The train tracks were built on a small hill, so we weren’t in the fog for the first twenty minutes or so after I woke up. But then there was a moment when the train groaned like some great beast pulling a plow and then the train darkened as we plunged into the thick fog. 

Then later these lyrics were combined with some lines about a choir teacher I had in high school who (unknowingly) helped me through one of the darkest times of my life, her willingness to listen to and critique my earliest efforts at music kept me interested in it when a lot of other things might have had me abandoning it. 

And o the fear that cradles my soul
O the agony that drove me to the wall
I might have jumped off but you’d break my fall
I might have been lost but you heard my song

From there I decided it would function really well as a song about an old country music trope, a man who is in love but knows somehow that he’s dangerous. Feeling the tension between wanting intimacy and affection but worrying about whether or not things will work out can feel a little like madness, and so the song feels a little that way. The verses have this Johnny-B-Goode vibe, and the choruses drop down from that intensity to a quiet, almost Django Reinhardt-meets-mariachi-music sound before leaping back up into the breakneck blues again. 

David, our violinist, talks a lot about how good Americana music flirts with cheesiness or stereotypical expressions of a genre of music, but never quite gets there. This song gets as close as I’m comfortable with. 

We're playing this tune live at the Turf Club on February 28th.
 

records we're into: Tangerine Sunrise - Daniel Montoya

This record is proof that the Discover function on Bandcamp's website is worth doing regularly. 
 

 fans of David Ramirez, Jason Isbell, classic country meets 2018 at its best--look no further

fans of David Ramirez, Jason Isbell, classic country meets 2018 at its best--look no further

I stumbled on this record eight or nine pages in on the "new folk" tab in Bandcamp's discover section, a testament to just how often fantastic music sits waiting in the bowels of the internet, and like every other record I was tabbing through to get a preview of, I clicked on the art for Montoya's sophomore effort and moved my cursor to the next one, waiting to bail as soon as I heard enough to make a judgement. It took two seconds of the record's closing track Come On In for me to know I'd listen to the whole thing. 

I love this record because it does the ambient thing that is so hip right now, but he doesn't make us hear the ambient stuff for 7:59 seconds before he starts singing. The ambiance on this record is like a damn good set on a mid-level theatre stage, it serves its purpose and gets out of the way to let the real thing happen. For Daniel Montoya, for Tangerine Sunrise, that's the songwriting. 

this house is warm, won't you come on in? / this house is warm, welcome home again

The pedal steel work on this record, provided by Alex McMahon, really ties together what might otherwise be a vaguely Americana-ish sounding rhythm section and places it squarely in the alt-country world. Montoya & Co. wisely utilize the classic sound and expression of the pedal steel to offset the guitar that dives into the sort of reverb-wet-mix-hotter-than-dry guitar that isn't too common in the country world. 

Anyway I'm talking too much now. Just go listen to the record. 

records we're into: Insert Catchphrase Here by Ner-D

Surprise, hip-hop! In spite of our being an Americana-rock band, we listen to more than Springsteen, Earl Scruggs, and Chris Stapleton (I mean, not much more, but still). 

Ner-D is the rap-alter ego of Matt Allen, who is the lead singer of Black Genesis. But we're not here to talk about them, we're here to talk about how. freaking. great. this. mixtape. is. 

    original photo, Justine Kopischke. 

 

original photo, Justine Kopischke. 

If you're a fan of Chance the Rapper, or anybody in the acid rap genre really, Ner-D is exactly what you're looking for. He sings all the hooks, he slips back and forth between rapping & singing, and ends up blurrin the line between the two. Three part harmony, nerdy references that start from track 1 and carry through the whole record, this mixtape is a lot of fun. 

Like almost every other mixtape that's been made since the dawn of time, some tracks are weaker than the rest. Guy's getting his feet, and when it's only pretty good it is still pretty damn good. 

Standout tracks on this record are 2XL, 42, and Sweatpants & Lingerie. These three tunes exemplify what works in this record.

2XL is joyful, silly, and full of references to nerd culture, and 42 is thoughtful and self-aware of the fact that this is just one of the thousands of mixtapes put out on the internet every week.

Sweatpants & Lingerie is as complex of a love song as one could ask for. Being friends with someone you've always sort of been in love with is hard enough without both of them being in happy, committed relationships.

As he says in the track, neither party has interest in breaking off what they have in order to jump into a different relationship out of passion/desperation, but he can't help but wonder what it might have been like had they fallen in love. 

In a time where the dysfunction of masculinity is more present than ever, this sort of nuanced, honest and agency-respecting track is refreshing. 

listen here

song stories--Doomed to Crawl

I rode a train alone from St. Paul to Boston this year to visit some family and attend a bachelor party and I spent much of that time jotting down observations, images, feelings, etc., to be turned into music or poetry later. It was a twenty-one-hour train ride altogether (with a six-hour layover in Chicago).

This song started out as a few lines from there: 

here the fog clings to the ditches. for now, 
we ride along the line. But the tracks dip low, 
and who knows what is waiting down there in the shadows?

It might be that I had recently watched Stranger Things again, it might be my slight obsession with Sci-Fi & suspense, but when I woke up to a foggy morning in New York state my mind immediately jumped to some kind of monster hiding in the fog. The train tracks had been laid on a small hill, so we weren’t in the fog for the first twenty minutes or so after I woke up. But then there was a moment when the train groaned like some great beast pulling a plow and then the train darkened as we plunged into the thick fog. 

Then later these lyrics were combined with some lines about a choir teacher I had in high school who (unknowingly) helped me through one of the darkest times of my life, her willingness to listen to and critique my earliest efforts at music kept me interested in it when a lot of other things might have had me abandoning it. 

And o the fear that cradles my soul
O the agony that drove me to the wall
I might have jumped off but you’d break my fall
I might have been lost but you heard my song

From there I decided it would function really well as a song about an old country music trope, a man who is in love but knows somehow that he’s dangerous. Maybe he's a bank robber, maybe he frequently steps on the heel of people's shoe by accident. Who knows. 

Feeling the tension between wanting intimacy and affection but worrying about whether or not things will work out can feel a little like madness, and so the song feels a little that way. The verses have this Johnny-B-Goode vibe, and the choruses drop down from that intensity to a quiet, almost Django Reinhardt-meets-mariachi-music sound before leaping back up into the breakneck blues again. 

As I've written elsewhere, it doesn't particularly matter how a song begins. Most of the art is found in the editing. 

David, our violinist, talks a lot about how good Americana music flirts with cheesiness or stereotypical expressions of a genre of music, but never quite gets there. This song gets as close as I’m comfortable with. 

Help us make this record happen

song stories--sixteen

I grew up in the midwest. I remember walking between grain silos and looking up at the stars, the ice-cold water of a creek that ran through my hometown, driving home Sunday afternoons after church to eat lunch with my family and watch whatever game was on (well, they did. I’d play video games or read at first, and then eventually play the piano in the living room). 

I didn’t know that the world I grew up in could be called conservative or religious or white, it was just home. And I certainly didn’t know that there are countless people in America who grew up in an entirely different world. 

Years later, Donald Trump wins the Presidency. I lived in Minneapolis (at the time, St. Paul now), an urban center that exemplifies many of the things rural folk might imagine a city to be: diverse, busy, liberal. 

One of my best friends, a Mexican-American man near my age, sent me a text message just as I was getting to bed for the first time in the era of a Trump Presidency. The evangelical world had elected Trump, who said some horrible things about his people. He wondered about his place in Christianity--if this, what felt like such a strong rejection of his culture and heritage, was the calling card of too much of American Christianity for him to be a part of it.

A student told one of my other best friends, a white man like me, that some of his family went to bed that night expecting vans to come the next day to take their families away and deport them. That’s how regime change happens in much of the world, and they were afraid it was going to begin happening in America too. 

I also know that for some rural white Americans who have been left without access to clean water or adequate support from their elected officials, the Trump moment felt like a triumph. For others who I grew up with who felt belittled, talked down to, ignored, by the increasingly elite politicians and increasingly elite media, the Trump moment felt like a victory, like recognition. 

I also know that for white supremacists all across America, famous ones like David Duke who openly tout their hate, and closeted ones who walk the same streets I do and behave because they know they must, Trump felt like a moment where they could step out of the shadows. 

I know that for countless black people, the shock, grief, and surprise felt by most of the white liberals they knew was just another reminder that even they can’t truly understand what it means to be a person of color in America. 

I know that I am confused and angry and sad and somehow a little bit hopeful. Things cannot remain how they are, they must change. This song is about that. 

I don’t know, I don’t know what to do
I wish the man in the white house could say that too
I don’t know, I don’t know where I’m from
my mother’s home was built on land bought with blood

maybe we need more than eye contact and talk
maybe we’re missing the point of it all

 

Help us make this record happen. 

 

song stories--like Henry Hudson

One of my dearest friends Joseph got married last year and his bachelor party consisted of a trip to Portland, Maine to stay in a house his future in-laws owned. Myself, many of my best friends, and a few people who Joseph grew up with that I didn’t know particularly well filled this beautiful house just a few blocks from the Atlantic and we wandered the city with half a plan and a vague idea of what one is meant to do during a bachelor party.

I took this occasion to spend a bit more of my vacation time at my old job, so I went up a week early and hung out with my family in Boston. I took a train up and lugged my guitar along with in case I had some time to write.

I mostly didn’t--we spent our time taking Lyfts to what might be the mildest (read: the worst) Thai restaurant I have ever eaten at, or to lobster-eating places where I paid too much for grilled cheese so I could watch everyone there pretend that lobster was worth it.

After one such excursion, we wandered the rainy hills of downtown Portland and I found myself in a bookstore. I’d just finished the book I bought in Chicago during the layover between trains, and I had some budget left over after that day’s grilled cheese. I found a book about the history of American whaling called Leviathan, which I spent the next few days reading if we had any downtime.

 what a cover, right? I've added a bonus story about the  hatchet men  of early sperm whaling crews and how they must have been the most incredible, level-headed/insane people. That's at the end of this post.

what a cover, right? I've added a bonus story about the hatchet men of early sperm whaling crews and how they must have been the most incredible, level-headed/insane people. That's at the end of this post.

Then, on the last day, almost everyone else left in the morning. It was $30 less to buy a ticket that flew out at 6pm, so myself and one friend found ourselves in this big, suddenly-empty house for an extra seven hours. I sat up in the sunroom, and out came two songs about whales.One, far slower and more existential, has yet to be played live more than once or twice. But the second song sprung out of an idea about a man who works on a whaling ship to buy a ring to marry his beloved with, but dies and becomes a ghost. Initially, the idea would be that the whole song would follow that thread, and our ghostly hero would be dismayed that his lover cannot see him when he finally returns to her. The end result was much different.

Rather than the main character of the song dying, he survives and returns to Paris to find his love after years of writing her letters on his voyage only to find that she perished almost immediately after he left because he forgot his keys and she fell down his front steps trying to catch up to him to return them. The song plays off as a comedic tragedy, though the description devoid of the music mostly just feels macabre. All the same, that’s my sense of humor In general, it is wise not to cling too tightly to the reasons one has in the beginning of anything, a song, a relationship, a job.

We tend to think that our reason for starting something needs to carry over through completion or we lose our integrity, but really we just need a reason to start. And then that reason can (and often should) very well change. The end result is usually better than what we set out for initially anyway. Unless you set out to buy a ring for your beloved by joining a whaling crew, then things may not turn out very well. 

Help us get this song recorded

---
on hatchet men: 

Most early American off-shore whaling consisted of small boats (not dissimilar in size to the lifeboat seen in Life of Pi or one of the boats in Titanic that there were not enough of) with a crowd of men working in tandem and shifting positions mid-fight if they score a whale. Here's how a successful hunt would go: 

1. Spear a whale, attach sed spear to a drogue (a large piece of wood or other debris which slowed the whale down, made it difficult to dive, and helped to tire the creature out). 

2. Throw a second spear, attaching that spear to the boat itself causing it to serve as a drogue

3. Once the creature is sufficiently exhausted, bring the boat close enough that one of the sailors can plunge a great harpoon deep enough into its body to pierce the lungs, thus ending the fight. 

This brutal, dangerous trade shaped early interest in European settlement in America, and for years before that First Nation tribes living on the Eastern coasts lived off of whales and the many uses that could be made of their bodies. The sort of people who undertook these tasks had to have strong stomachs, cool heads, and something between bravery and foolishness. 

After step two, one of the whaling crew would stand by with a hatchet raised so that if the whale dove the line could be cut so that the ship wouldn't be yanked into the water. 

Holy crap. Here's the book if you're as fascinated as I am by this stuff. 

song stories-weight

I wrote the guitar line to Weight in the living room of a house I was renting with some friends last year. Sometimes I’m in a mood to sit down and write songs, sometimes I’m crabby as hell, and sometimes I’m a bit of both. Sed angst turned into the opening lines of the song:

time shakes the coins from you; upside down and the blood pools

you know what it takes, love is torture it’s a dark game.

I remember I had some friends in the house, but they were playing a complicated board game that I wasn’t interested in (Dungeons & Dragons has ruined me for board games, why play anything else?) and so I sat in the living room while they played and wrote those first few lines and then the melody to the chorus, though I had no words for it yet.

I tend to write the first chunk of a song, voice memo it, and then leave it alone for a week or two. It is easier to come to a song later on fresh and excited to add to it since you didn’t exhaust every idea trying to finish it all in one sitting (this is adapted from a piece of advice found in A Moveable Feast by Heminway: always leave your story with a sentence half finished).

--

Essentially the song is about how difficult and overbearing a relationship can be, and the feeling of determination (sometimes just foolhardiness) that can keep one pushing through. Initially, there wasn’t any hope planned for the lyrics, and yet the final product ended up being far more optimistic.

This was one of those songs where as soon as the band tried it out in rehearsal, we started playing it live. That meant it was shaped a lot by how it was received in live settings, rather than carefully arranged ahead of time as most of the tunes are. The song in its current form is far slower than when I started it, but this lazy, Pinegrove-eqsque rock vibe feels right. There's a recording of an earlier take on this song that is nearly twice as fast and uffda it is hard to listen to. 

Here’s a brief clip from the acoustic demo I sent to our producer: