(This album isn’t quite finished yet, but it’s close, and I’m impatient. I felt like it was about time all the instances of the album title that are sprinkled throughout blog posts linked to something instead of just sitting there doing nothing.)
This is the first solo album I’ve made since 2011’s GIFT FOR A SPIDER. It’s also the least solitary album I’ve ever released with my name on the spine.
I didn’t plan it that way.
My goal in the aftermath of GIFT FOR A SPIDER was to finish a massive, eons-in-the-making album called THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. I got off to a good start, but after a while the sheer size of the thing started to overwhelm me and I found myself losing confidence in my ability to pull all the disparate threads together. I was also trying to wrap my head around turning thirty. I told myself it was only a number, but all the disconcerting questions I thought I found answers to when I was a teenager came screaming back at me, and they had some mean new friends backing them up. What was worse, this time around they’d neglected to brush their teeth. It wasn’t pretty.
The most disturbing thing was the way the unease spilled over into my music. Making music has often been my way of coping with dark and uncertain times. It’s given me a place to go when I don’t feel comfortable anywhere else. No matter what’s going on in my life, I’ve always found a way to spin it into something constructive and make music out of it.
Even that felt pointless now. After banging my head against the wall for a while, I pushed THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE to the side, left piles of unrelated songs I was writing unrecorded, and struggled to find the motivation or sense of purpose to do anything. The unexpected work I started getting recording other people around that time was the only thing that kept some of my musical muscles from starting to atrophy.
A thought struck me in early 2014. As much of a lone wolf as I was, some good friends had come into my orbit through music. Maybe collaborating with some of those friends in a new way would shock me out of the funk I was in. I didn’t feel great about the idea of being an energy vampire, but by that point I was pretty desperate to get something going. Too much time spent not making music has never been good for me.
I posted a message on Facebook, asking if anyone was interested in being part of a large-scale creative experiment that hadn’t yet come into focus. The response I got was overwhelming.
When I tried following up on a more personal level, not one of the people who expressed an interest in doing something would talk to me. It was all hot air. But now I had an idea, and I was determined to follow it all the way down the rabbit hole.
A large part of my musical identity is wrapped up in the way I work. I produce and record myself in my home, and most of the time I end up playing all the instruments and doing everything short of printing the booklets/inserts and fabricating the plastic used to make the CD jewel cases. Not having to pay someone else for studio time is one of the reasons I’ve been able to make so much music without stopping to take a breath very often.
What if I kept that identity intact but…messed with it a little? What if I invited other wolves into the cave and allowed them to add their own accents and impressions?
I decided there would be three stipulations. Anyone I invited to be a part of the project had to be based in Windsor. If they were a musician, they had to play an instrument I either couldn’t play myself or didn’t have access to. And if they were a singer, they had to have a voice I found unique and emotionally compelling.
You’d think that would have thinned out the pool quite a bit, but I still ended up reaching out to more than a hundred different singers and musicians. Some I knew. Some I’d never spoken to before. And there were a number of false starts and near-misses on the way to finding the people who would become part of this thing called YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.
There were a lot of firsts for me along the way. I wrote string and horn parts — a fun challenge when your music theory knowledge is almost nonexistent — and found real string and horn players to bring them to life. I wrote songs with specific singers in mind and then “pitched” those songs to the people I wanted to sing them. I wrote musical dialogues meant for more than one lead vocalist. And I somehow convinced a group of people to stand around a microphone while shouting about horses galloping and trotting.
It was exciting, frustrating, unpredictable, a profound test of patience, and inspiring beyond measure. Well, that’s not quite true. There’s one way to measure the inspiration all of this stirred up in me: I wrote more than two hundred songs for this specific album.
(You can imagine the fun I had when it came time to try and shave all of that down to some sort of coherent musical statement.)
The visual art came into the picture when I started thinking about album packaging. I knew I would never be able to make an album quite like this again, and I thought it might be worthwhile to try doing something more involving and ambitious with the lyric booklet.
I reached out to a number of local artists and asked if they would be interested in each creating a single piece of art inspired by the music. I couldn’t share the whole album with them (it wasn’t finished yet), but I could at least offer them a pretty healthy handful of music. What they created would be up to them. It could be a direct response to a specific song, or it could be something that had nothing to do with any of the imagery in my lyrics, just as long as the music catalyzed the image in some way.
This was one of the most thrilling parts of making the album, because it was out of my hands. I had no idea what I was going to get from any of the dozen visual artists who got involved. Every image they sent my way was a beautiful surprise.
The hope is that the end result is an album that forces you to sit down and really explore all the sounds, words, and images it has to offer.
I don’t know if the sum total of all of this work is the best album I’ve ever made. I’m not sure I’m the sort of artist who has a “best” album in them. I’ve been making music almost as long as I’ve been alive, and I’ve always viewed my albums as little more than snapshots of who and where I am at any given point in time. No snapshot on its own is going to tell you the whole story, but line them all up next to one another and you’ve got an audio photo album that spans decades.
I do know this is one of the more panoramic snapshots in that proverbial photo album, and one of my proudest achievements. I think the songs are some of the best I’ve written. I’m gobsmacked by the performances I was able to capture from a myriad of talented singers and musicians. I think the artwork has allowed me to give the music a rich, varied visual life. And I’ve made some more great new friends along the way.
Here’s the most remarkable thing: I was upfront with everyone about the way I work. I don’t sell or monetize my music in any way. I don’t expect anyone else to do what I do, giving away something they put money into making. I also don’t expect anyone who contributes to my music to work for free or for “exposure dollars”. I offered to pay everyone a session fee to compensate them for their time.
I had to pay Kelly Hoppe, because he’s Kelly Hoppe. Two other musicians asked for what amounted to gas money. Everyone else said, in one way or another, “You’re not paying me anything. I’m happy just to be a part of this.”
If I ever start to feel like I’m losing my faith in people, I think about that for a minute and start to feel like my heart might explode. In a good way.
There’s also a video component to the album, which is something I’ll be posting here as soon as it’s finished and edited.
As fastidious as I’ve been about making audio recordings over the years, it’s a great regret of mine that so little of my musical life has been documented in any visual form. There was some great candid footage shot by one band member or another in my teenage days, but most of that’s lost now. I got my hands on a MiniDV Camcorder of my own in 2003, but every time I thought I was going to dig in and document myself creating an album or working through a change in musical direction I would talk myself out of it, convinced whatever I filmed would be boring beyond belief.
The moment this album started picking up some momentum, I decided I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. I started setting up a video camera or two (with the explicit permission of each performer) at the beginning of some of the recording sessions, and I filmed myself talking to the camera to fill in some of the blanks. It was important to me that I document not only the musical gifts of everyone onscreen, but some sense of their personalities and how we interacted as well.
I’m not a professional filmmaker, so I hesitate to call the film a true documentary, or even a “film”. It’s more of a very long, rambling, quirky video essay. My video equipment is nothing special, but when it comes to music I’ve always been a firm believer in working with whatever tools you have available. I thought it was about time I carried that attitude over to the camera, making do with what I had instead of putting pressure on myself to film something brilliant.
While the end result won’t play at any film festivals and I’ll likely lose my mind a time or two during the final editing process, I’ve captured some moments that might never have been documented had there been a professional videographer in the room calling attention to themselves. And in a way, I think the roughness of some of the footage suits the way I work. I’ve never been interested in chasing perfection. I’ve always believed mistakes and accidents are where some of the best stuff lives. Those are the moments in which we’re the truest versions of ourselves.
All of this could have been finished a lot sooner if I hadn’t taken so much time away from my own music to record other Windsor songwriters over the last few years, but I believe it’s taken exactly as long as it was supposed to. While it’s been an immense amount of work between writing, arranging, producing, and recording the songs, curating the supporting cast, writing parts for other musicians and setting up structured frameworks for them to improvise inside of, playing many instruments myself, and finding a way to fit some pretty textured arrangements onto the sixteen tracks available on my mixer, and while there’s grey in my hair and my beard that didn’t exist when I began, I wouldn’t change a minute of it.
Don’t Let the Preamble Ramble
Embedded Ignitable/So Happy
Later Than Soon
Lullaby for Unborn Child
Archaic Units of Measurement
Do Not Don’t Do That
Cathedral in Ruins
Come on If You’re Coming
A Constellation of Conditions
The Inverse Is Also True
Nothing to See, Nothing to Say
When the Bottom Drops out
Buying Time at the End of the World
Sweet Hot Hell
Wake Me When It’s over
Freedom as a Child (Five Cellos)
Oxygen Damage Due to Lack of Brain
Your Dishrag Soul
A Will to Love
I Don’t Want to Get over Getting over You
The Thing You Sing When You Think You’re Alone
Maybe Everything That Mattered Didn’t Matter at All
We Came Back as the Things We Were Before
Embedded Ignitable (Shadow Aspect Mix)
The Possibilities Are Quite Possibly Possible
Your Mother and I
Sweet Exposure Dance
Wherever the Lord May Be
The Stillness of Us
This Is an Overwrought Love Song
A Star Is Stillborn
Cure for the Uncommon Cold
We Were Wolves