I first started playing music when I was a teenager, inspired by some of the same albums that have caused thousands of kids to pick up acoustic guitars through the years: early records by Bob Dylan, Donovan, The Beatles, and especially, Simon & Garfunkel. In fact, I may have been sent scurrying for a half-remembered nylon-string in a closet of our house by the iconic cover photograph to the right.
If that’s what Paul Simon was using to make songs like “Bleecker Street” and “Kathy’s Song” sound so great, then that’s what I needed to acquire and put to work (I somehow avoided the influence of the duo’s dapper 1964 dress code.) And so I spent several years of high school cutting my musical teeth finger-picking folk/pop tunes. I eventually developed a taste for playing harder, faster, and louder, but by 2002, with my band Crystal Radio reaching its apparent terminus and the opportunity to explore something new approaching, I found myself returning to the foundation.
There were some newer artists around at this point who, while in some ways sounded familiar, also suggested exciting new possibilities. Records by Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, Mark Kozelek, and Kelly Joe Phelps all began getting a lot of spins in our house, and for the first time in years, acoustic singer/songwriter music of the sort that I had started out playing seemed to be a viable path forward, rather than a nostalgic dead end.
I distinctly recall a life-changing concert by Mr. Phelps around this time feeling like a gauntlet thrown down. Years later I was fortunate enough to open up for him a few times, which was a true pleasure.
I was already pretty well ensconced in Shawn Simmons‘ studio, The Phantom Center, at the time, having spent many months there assembling Some Low Beauty, Crystal Radio‘s parting opus. While that record’s marathon schedule had left us all burned out in some ways, strides we had made caused Shawn and me to both feel inspired and eager to keep working, especially with a musical change of pace. It was autumn in Seattle, crisp and bracing and always my personal time of peak artistic motivation. I spent long days swilling coffee, hammering on the piano, guitars, and typewriter, culling my inventory of songs for material suitable for what was going to be a softer, more bucolic record, and an opportunity to tip the cap to those early influences. Several of my newer songs were strong candidates, but other long-forgotten tunes from my past suddenly seemed find their calling.
Eventually a pretty definite list emerged. Newer songs like “She Was a Bruise”, “Building a Road”, and “The Great Space Race” and older numbers like “Falling is Faster”, “Stardust Motel”, and “Promise” all seemed like they could fit together if the sound was right, despite years of difference in age. I found that if the musical tone and presentation was similar, the individual voices in the songs became better defined and complementary in a group. I had wanted to do something with a conceptual feel to it for a long time, and I began viewing each song as a character in a non-narrative work touching on themes of minor American experiences, voiceless social stations, and unusual perspectives. Not the broad-stroke, big life storytelling and hero-making of old folk songs, but quiet reports from contemporary emotional interiors that might tell a more abstract, subtle story. I realize this all smacks of Springsteen-level pretension, and I certainly don’t know how much of this ambition I realized on the record, but it’s what was going through my head at the time.
“Falling” was the oldest, written when I was around eighteen, and a staple of Constant Malachi shows in Texas back in 1995. It received a 2002 retrofit; slowed down, lowered in key, and with a re-written bridge, it was given a second life.
“Promise” and “Stardust Motel”, which became probably my most well known and liked tune thanks to eventual play on Pandora, were both written in 1998 when I was new to Seattle. At the time the, the former was almost a jokey folk parody, and the latter was so quiet and delicate that I don’t think I even performed it more than a couple of times. I really didn’t know what to do with either of them when they first showed up, and anyway- I had a new rock band to write for. They just sort of sat in a pile of notebooks for years, waiting for the right time to be heard. I pulled them out, snipped out a superfluous third verse from “Stardust” and dropped the key of “Promise”, and added them to the list of possiblities. I didn’t assign any particular significance to that decision at that time, but they ended up being tracks with longer, more interesting lives than others.
I met Shawn at the studio one evening and demoed all the tunes so we could discuss our strategy. We agreed the songs would be best served with production that was relatively simple and plain, emphasizing the natural beauty of acoustic instruments and clean, uncluttered arrangements. This would be an album not just accented by, but about acoustic guitar, piano, and other warm-sounding stuff. Many of the demos we recorded that night reveal a strident performance style still lingering from my work with the band. We would need to suppress this to get the desired effect.
I replaced guitar picks with fingers, Josh swapped sticks for brushes, Shawn took the first steps on a lifelong journey of mastering the art of playing shaker tracks, and songs started creeping down in key and tempo until the vocals occasionally fell into the whisper zone.
Fortunately for me, my bandmates were totally supportive of this direction I was taking; Josh Williams happily signed on to play drums and Patrick Porter would play pedal steel. On Gabe Nelson‘s recommendation, we asked Keith Lowe, Seattle’s premier session bassist, to play upright on about half the songs. As she had on several of our band efforts, Nancy Wharton played cello.
Unlike much of what I’d recorded with the band, every song on Stateside began with an acoustic guitar (or piano)/vocal performance. Often we would track the drums first, with Josh playing with me to get the feel right, and then go back and replace my performance with an overdub, making everything sound as good as possible.
A magnificent old AKG C-24 microphone, rented from our friend Ed Brooks (of Studio Litho and RFI Mastering) was so perfectly suited to the sound we were shooting for that we used it on everything we could. When I listen back, I hear that microphone as being a huge part of the core sound of Stateside. That, and the fact that we largely eschewed artificial reverb (much to Patrick’s distaste, it should be noted) in favor of an upfront, dry vocal sound.
These songs, along with those on its studio contemporary Seatback Graffiti, formed the core of my live sets for years. It might not have entered the canon of all-time singer/songwriter classics, but for me, Stateside appears to remain my most widely heard and appreciated work.