Fellow Travelers wasn't supposed to be a full-length record, so I'm a little surprised to admit that it's my favorite Shearwater album so far. Somehow it slipped under the door.
It was meant to be a small thing, maybe a home-recorded EP, to release between Animal Joy and the next full-length (for which we're in the studio right now). But it took on a life of its own. Re-imagining and renovating songs by the bands we've toured with was like leafing through a scrapbook, and brought back the highs and lows of a decade of touring, from dives in Oklahoma and squats in Slovenia to the Fillmore West, the Bataclan, and the MGM Grand (ask me about that one sometime).
Audiences never see most of touring life, and it's the hidden moments that came to mind while we were recording. I thought of Chris Martin, pacing nervously in the bowels of the LA Forum, before the first show of a tour for an album on which EMI had staked its existence; of Brian Campbell, Clinic's indomitable bassist, muttering "I hate these f_____ things" before donning a grimy surgical mask for the thousandth time; of David Thomas Broughton wandering into an audience in Brussels mid-song, knocking things over and falling down, then slipping us a half-smile offstage; of Xiu Xiu hiding stuffed animals and candy in the stacks of a university library for their devoted fans to find; of Sharon Van Etten playing us the rough demos for the album that would put her on the map while she drove our van through the snowy Idaho mountains.
Touring is an expression of faith – in yourself, in your friends, in the hope that the world has a place for you. In that spirit, I invited all the bands we covered to play on Fellow Travelers, with the caveat that you couldn't play on your own song. Almost everyone rose to the bait: Chris from the Baptist Generals turned Clinic's "Tomorrow" into a bewildered, stomping incantation, while Clinic, in turn, infected the Generals' "Fucked Up Life" with drum machines, radio signals, and their trademark combo organ. I added recordings I made of birds and waves in the Falklands to David Thomas Broughton's "Ambiguity," and he sent us a tape he made of sparrows, bulbuls, and the clanking shovels of highway workers in Pyongyang, North Korea (long story), which we spliced into our rock-anthem version of Xiu Xiu's "I Luv the Valley OH!!" And Jenn from Wye Oak, who, like us, had also toured with Lou B, added vocals to "Natural One," our most straight-up reading of the bunch, since I couldn't think of a better way to honor a perfectly-constructed song.
Leon Trotsky, who gave the words "fellow travelers" their political aura, once wrote that "a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work." Maybe that's why these songs seem like they belong together, to me. Listening back, I get a feeling of common effort, of common purpose, among all of our different musical paths; we've all tried to defy or transform reality in small ways with our music, and to prove it with our performing lives. Playing these songs felt like riding a wave.
— JM, NYC, March 2013
George Orwell said that writing should be transparent – like a clear window pane," says Husky Gawenda, frontman of four-piece band Husky from Melbourne, Australia. Gawenda feels the same way about music. "You shouldn't notice the music or the art of it; you're just transported to another place." Husky the band includes folk-inspired Husky Gawenda on vocals and guitar, Gideon Preiss on vocals and keys, Evan Tweedie on vocals and bass, and Luke Collins on drums and percussion. Even though they have varied musical backgrounds, a love for classic pop (Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, The Doors and The Beach Boys), rich harmonies, and artful songwriting is the common thread that draws them together.
After winning Triple J Unearthed, the band continues to reach new heights, winning hearts with every sold-out show around the country. Recent performance highlights include supporting Devandra Banhart, Noah and the Whale, Kimbra, Jinja Safari and Gotye. On 21 October, the band's anticipated debut album Forever So will be released.
To bring Forever So to life, Gawenda and Preiss pulled together all the old recording gear they could get their hands on and set up in a bungalow at the back of Gawenda's house. "The backyard was overgrown with weeds and wild mint and the bungalow was full of junk," Preiss says. "We spent all night watching videos online about how to sound-treat rooms. We partitioned off parts of the house where we recorded the vocals and instruments."
After months of crafting songs, they headed to LA to bunker down with Noah Georgeson (Devandra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and The Strokes) at House of Blues Studios to mix the album. "Mixing in LA with Noah was an amazing experience," Preiss says. "The recording had been such a labour of love, and we had grown so attached to the songs, it was difficult to imagine handing them over to someone else to mix them. But Noah's sensibility and musicality really complimented the songs."
The result is a lush collection of songs that echo the classics they grew up with, full of haunting lyrics, rolling rhythms and delicate layers of sound. For Gawenda, when it comes to writing, a song can appear from anywhere. "Generally something comes to me out of the blue – a line, a melody, a chord progression." he says. In terms of lyrics, a kind of ghostliness imbues the poetry of the songs. "Forever So recalls times gone by, dreams, and people who are no longer in your life but still exist in your memory."
"Nothing gold can stay." Even as he tried to capture it in verse, Robert Frost appreciated the ephemeral nature of beauty. And so does Grant Olsen. Yet a nod to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet is only one of the reasons the Seattle-based songwriter—best known as half of the duo Arthur & Yu—christened his new project Gold Leaves. An autumnal character imbues these nine originals. Just as foliage buds, changes color, and eventually falls from the branches every season, so too do themes of birth, death, and regeneration permeate The Ornament.
Like most creative types, Olsen's muse is always in transition. The album went through myriad permutations between inception and completion. Although he began work on it nearly four years ago, he scrapped the bulk of those early efforts after a bag containing his laptop and notebooks was stolen. The theft seemed a sign. Perhaps he was writing a second Arthur & Yu album? No. In the space of composing and refining The Ornament, Olsen had married, traveled through Central and South America, seen the birth of new family members, and watched a dear one pass. This transitional period was coupled with observations of his nation in flux, all of which informs the universe of this record. While he hoped to open these subjects up in a manner that would permit a broad range of listeners to relate to the sentiments, he recognized that their inciting intimacy precluded turning these songs into Arthur & Yu tunes.
Getting that damn muse to stand still long enough to even decide what The Ornament was, and how it would take shape, was a Herculean task. At one point, Olsen thought it might be a country album. Or maybe an homage to his love of classic R&B. Learning to let go of the creative process, to get out of his own way, was a crucial step in the album's execution. "I kept scrapping music because I wanted to make some kind of grand statement," he admits—a theme he addresses on the song "Hanging Window." "When I opened myself up to just trying to make a record that still had meaning, but was less grandiose in the overall scheme of things, I started being a lot more productive."
Once that path was clear, Olsen ended up making an album that sounds as vibrant and carefully orchestrated—and idiosyncratically unique—as the best work of many artists prominent in his own record collection: Scott Walker, Skip Spence, Fred Neil. His love of doo-wop subtly informs the harmonies and backing vocals that waft through the songs. With its roller rink organ and rumbling timpani, the title tune is propelled forward by the sort of ambitious yet calculated D.I.Y. production associated with legendary '60s British pop producer Joe Meek. From opener "The Silver Lining," with its sense of a life teeming with possibility (and a deft lyrical borrow from Steinbeck and some 11th century poetry), to the rising strings and keyboards of the dramatic finale "Futures," The Ornament sounds full but never overstuffed. This is a record full of judicious choices. Why squander the recording budget on a full string section, when the warbling, imperfect sound of the Mellotron boasts sufficient charms all its own?
Although he wrote all the songs, calling Gold Leaves a solo project is a misnomer. Olsen had a great deal of help making The Ornament. Jason Quever of Papercuts was by his side through most of the recording process, serving as co-producer, engineer, and multi-instrumentalist. Quever helped guide editorial choices, keeping scratch vocals when Olsen wanted to go back into the vocal booth and try again, and laid down the four-in-the-morning cello part that haunts "Hanging Window." With a résumé that encompasses tutelage under Motown veterans and credits with Beach House and Brightblack Morning Light, Ben McConnell was an ideal percussionist to anchor Olsen's amorphous musical ideas. Thao Ngyuen (Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Thao & Mirah), Amy Blaschke, and members of the Moondoggies all contributed backing vocals.
"Nothing gold can stay." Memories fade, emotions change… and songs take on new meaning. For Grant Olsen, The Ornament assembles curios and souvenirs from a specific period in his life, yet these tokens will carry a different currency for each listener. Only time will tell if the music of Gold Leaves endures for generations to come, but at the moment, The Ornament certainly sounds like an old favorite in the making.