On his latest release, Jaye Bartell combines intelligent sanguine reflection with sophisticated, poignant musical arrangements.
Your 2016 release, Light Enough, was mainly inspired by a move from Asheville, NC to Brooklyn in 2013. Was your new record, In a Time of Trouble a Wild Exultation the product of becoming more familiar and comfortable in NYC? Is that even a possibility there?
Light Enough is a story -- it takes place within and describes a discrete period. With the exception of the "The Worm" and "When I Arise," all of the songs on that record were written over a year or so. Light Enough was not about moving but it was itself a movement, if that doesn’t sound totally meaningless and/or gastrointestinal. It doesn't happen all the time, but sometimes the process of writing can catalyze a revelation, not in some debilitating mystical way, but a way that makes it easier to go to the grocery store or not yell at traffic.
My experience has been, when you move away from a place, it’s a free fall, and you lose everything that isn’t fastened to your body. What you don’t lose to the chaos of gravity, you lose to time and change, to distance. It’s lonely, dull, anonymous, and all you want is to see your old ashtray or a sketch of Charlie Brown your friend made that was tacked to your wall with colored pushpins. The first two songs I wrote after moving used imagery about flight and falling, and although those two songs have yet to be recorded, they constituted the thematic germ of the album, which is the desire to come into one’s own life, “to find a home on earth,” as Robert Creeley writes in his poem “Later.” In some ways, I was led to make new work because the person, the mechanisms, the means of continuing from where I had been were no longer operable.
As has happened other times when I’ve moved over the years, I didn’t bring any instruments with me, or anything really. It’s not that I was decisively quitting music or anything, but I had nowhere to live, no job, and not much money, and carrying a guitar around just makes those conditions worse. Up to then, I mostly played electric guitar, especially when I played with a band. When at last I found a small room in a Greenpoint apartment, any form of music seemed too loud for my circumstances.
Despite all the years I’ve made music, up to that point I’d never had a guitar I truly enjoyed playing. I wanted a simple, light, nylon string guitar, so I could write simple songs with focused melodies and stories, like Sibylle Baier, or, as Damian Weber would say, for once in my life, to just write one decent song. I found a mysteriously inexpensive old Guild at Pentatonic in Greenpoint which I’ll hold dear until someone steals it or I drop it on the subway tracks by accident some day.
I moved to New York at the end of fall, which is also the beginning of winter. I lived in Asheville for 12 years, with departures here and there for as much as three years to Buffalo. I’m not saying that the woman at the DMV invited me to her wedding, but I know everyone in Asheville, just from shared duration. Comparatively, I had two or three friends who knew I was coming when I moved here to NYC. They were all helpful but no one was around. It takes time to be busy somewhere, to have errands. If I showed up at my own door right now, I’d tell myself to reconsider, but good thing I found better people than me. Now that I’ve been here for a few years, it will take me all afternoon to buy a can of coffee grounds at the store a block away. When you move though, it’s like waiting for the sunrise or the mail -- nothing takes any time because there’s nothing to do, and when the mail comes, there's nothing for you. All of this is to say that I had time, and for once in my life, I worked on songs. after about a year I had the story mostly wrapped up except for the ending, and once I wrote the song Light Enough, that period was finished. Not long after, I signed with Sinderlyn, met the woman I love, and bought a can of coffee grounds.
In a Time of Trouble is a collection of songs written over a longer period of time, before and after Light Enough. "Out of Doors, for example, is one of the first songs I wrote, in Buffalo, circa 2007 or so. The last song, "If I Am Only for Myself …”, I finished in the studio. So there is a range of contexts there. The so-called “old songs" are just a few of many many more that I have yet to record, specifically with many of the musicians I’ve always worked with.
As far as the sense of being familiar and settled in NYC, I moved here because I’ve always felt comfortable and settled here, in terms of a landscape. Asheville will always be a home of a kind to me -- all of my people are there, and the person I am now developed and grew out of my life there, certainly more so than my childhood in Massachusetts. But you live where you can, and I can live here. For some reason my roots never took to the soil down there, to use an Asheville-appropriate gardening metaphor. Of course I’m not comfortable or contented all the time, but at least I don’t feel like a fish stuck in a tree. And that’s not because anyone or anything is insufficient. I haven’t felt this grounded since I lived in Buffalo. Excelsior, I guess. But who knows. Everything could fall apart by the time this is published, and I could be living on the street in Key West working on my next album, Surf Enough.
The new record has an electric component that we didn't hear on Light Enough. Was the writing for the music on In a Time of Trouble exploratory for you?
The sound of Light Enough is as much a result of circumstance as the songs themselves are. Creeley writes of the sculptor John Chamberlain, known for using frames of old cars and other discarded metals as his material, that he used those things because they were in his backyard. It’s not that it’s lazy, but that it’s local, as Creeley would say, to the concerns and the place. Before New York, I played electric guitar with a band of friends, because we were all there, and there was space to do so.
I recorded Loyalty in Asheville in 2013 with the group of people I’d been playing with for the year or so prior -- Shane Parish, J Seger, and Emily Easterly. That LP was released a week before I arrived here in New York. For my inevitable and equally frequent solo performances in Asheville, I used a succession of inadequate steel-string guitars that were like a rut of unfulfilling relationships. It was both of our faults, really -- I was too cheap to spend more than $200, and they were only born with the warped necks and split bridges that Silvertone or Finkelstein’s Pawn Shop in Asheville gave them. That’s not to say that the writing wasn’t exploratory once I started working on the material with the band and with Adam McDaniel, who runs Drop of Sun.
The recording process for Light Enough was constrained. It was done in an apartment, after work, on the weekends, when no one was hammering or drilling or beeping or playing their car stereo. I’m not disparaging the work that Ezra Tennenbaum (of EZTV) did with that record. Limits can produce strong interesting work as much as all of your endless studio time and celebrity mastering engineers. But much of what characterizes the sound and tone of Light Enough was dictated by the situation of the recording, not by intended, aesthetic choices. We did make choices within the constraints, but it wasn’t the full possibility.
The record was recorded in a three-week period in Asheville after touring with Kevin Morby and then a solo stint through Europe. What made Asheville the place you decided to record? Was it coincidental that many of the players on the album were in Asheville during that time?
Where Light Enough was improvised and ad hoc, In a Time of Trouble was so planned out it was planned out twice, thanks mostly to the direction of Adam McDaniel at Drop of Sun. When I got back from the fantastic month I spent with playing shows with Kevin, I felt that particular inertia anxiety and withdrawal depression after such a tour, and it was July in NYC. I tend to experience inverted seasonal-affective disorder, meaning, summer depresses me and kind of breaks me down like the Ted Berrigan line, “the world’s furious song flows through my costume.” I like the beach, but more like Cape Cod in January. I had no more bookings for the summer, and plenty of material to work through, so I wanted to get started with it. I’d met Adam in Asheville at the last show of the tour, and we decided based on some inkling that we wanted to work together.
But, understandably, Sinderlyn wanted me to tour some more and allow some berth between records. In the absence of bookings, I just had to wait. But I did write the title song and a few others, without which the record would be god knows what.
The musicians on the album dictated the location, and to some extent, the timing. After I got back from a month in Italy and Berlin, I got the OK to start on the next record. Adam and I were talking long distance from the tour, planning the sessions. I didn’t want to make another record without Shane, J, Emily or the other musicians on the album, such as Michael Libramento, a stellar multi-instrumentalist, and Ryan Oslance, a marvelous and innovative percussionist, and Noel Thrasher, a great singer. These people are the Beatles to me, or like Moe Tucker, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison, and I’m Ringo Starr -- songwriter version -- or a way more polite, way less brilliant Lou Reed. I so love the music these people make, and hope anyone who listens to my stuff listens to theirs. Everyone being in town and available was like a spring miracle. The great Angel Olsen moved to Asheville as I was leaving, and we’ve kept up as friends, and she’s friends with my friends, which is always a joy, when your friends become friends. Her contributions are a great honor, and her support and encouragement was significant to me.
All of these people live in the same city, so it was easy for me to relocate for a few weeks and work with their schedules.
You recorded the record at Drop of Sun Studios. What's unique about the studio and what were some interesting recording concepts you experimented with on the new record?
Adam McDaniel works with this dual sensibility of expertise and receptivity that I admire and respond to. I thought about this zen adage: in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. I don’t know if that proposal is meant in an idealized, one-or-the-other way, but there’s a time when each is useful in its own right. When it came to microphone choices, or baffle positions, or amp settings, Adam used his range of expertise, but without any kind of strict limitation. He’s expert enough to understand there are many possibilities, and he approached a song and the details of it without assumptions or rules, as a beginner would.
Adam’s contribution is the most thorough, concentrated partnership I’ve had so far in making a record. From the start of the process, he was as involved as I was, and did more with planning, organization, and structure than I could ever hope to do. I was touched and a little incredulous at first, but eventually his commitment and seriousness bolstered my own commitment, and I had the confidence that someone else thought that the songs mattered enough to bring into form. I could write a pamphlet about his generous spirit and the foundation it provided for these songs.
Working at Drop of Sun was in some ways my first formal studio experience, at least in such an extensive way. Before Light Enough, my old friend Patrick Kukucka recorded everything I didn’t do myself in my apartment: Loyalty, a long-gone EP called The Dog’s Dinner, even as far back as 2003 with a collection of readings and some Skip James covers. His studio, Hi Z lo z, moved to different spaces around Asheville, including the back room of a record store, where we did Loyalty. Those experiences were great and I value them.
At Drop of Sun we had time. After my tour in Europe I went straight to Asheville for almost a month, working every day with Adam and the musicians. It was the first time I didn’t have to contort and strain available time between work or roommates or sidewalk construction in order to record. We’d start in the late morning and work until the early night. In between takes or songs we’d sit in chairs on the grass out back and tell jokes and smoke. Adam’s wife Emily who’s a gardener and great person made meals every day, and we’d eat together. Adam and Emily treated us like guests and friends, and this sense of “breaking bread” was important to them, and it went a long way to help sustain everyone and maintain a productive, giving environment.
In terms of experimentation and procedures, there’s one situation that epitomizes the open condition of the session. When I recorded my first music in 2009 in Asheville, I lived in an apartment with my friend Ursula Gullow, whose painting is on the cover of In a Time of Trouble. My room was her former art studio, which she’d recently moved across town. The room opened out to a small deck, which looked on to a street corner, and felt like a proscenium. I moved in and started working on the songs in early spring, so there were copious songbirds in the trees and shrubs around the building. When I recorded the first, solo version of "Out of Doors," I placed a microphone on the deck, to pick up the birds, wind chimes, and, less tranquil but equally present, cars and mopeds. When we recorded "Out of Doors" as a band, which we did altogether and live, Adam placed Michael Libramento’s bass amp outside of the studio door, by an open window, with the mic on the sill. Adam didn’t know about this other version of the song (a lost classic!), or that I’d done the same field recording approach. Sure, Brian Eno and the rest of the Turtlenecks have done more innovative things, and plenty of people use field recordings, but these instances and correlations place the work in time, in place, and show that there is more at play than what the participants directly intend or will.
How have your bountiful musical friendships helped you grow as a songwriter and performer?
Musical friendships are human friendships and each one makes its own light. Nobody is obligated to like me, and there are probably many reasons not to, so as anyone would, when someone tells me I’m OK by them, it buoys and lifts me up. I have the great fortune of having friends whose work I genuinely love and that I enjoy and study, which, I think, I would do even if I never met them. Shane, J, Emily, Ryan, and Michael have invested so much time and grace to contributing to my songs, while concurrently producing work that makes me feel lucky to know them. Damian Weber continues to make great work like Arthur Russell with a computer, and he pushes me to continue building. The same goes for Angel, Kevin Morby, Meg Duffy (Hand Habits), Cyrus Gengras, Justin Sullivan (Night Shop), and others who’ve taken me along on tours and who continue to be friends. My work isn’t well known and doesn’t get reviewed, but to have the respect and audience of these people is immeasurably valuable. I got to do two solo tours with Justin Sullivan. Anyone who knows him will tell you that’s a privilege. I feel I can’t say enough, so maybe I say too much, but it’s better than saying too little. I love these people, I love their music, and if they’re on my side, I have and am enough.
Your songwriting is heavily influenced by poetry and visual art. Were there any particular pieces or experiences that were particularly influential for In a Time of Trouble?
The title of the record and the cover art prove this point pretty well! The title comes from a poem by Robert Creeley called For W.C.W: "To the hands come / many things. In time of trouble // a wild exultation." I added the "a" between "In" and "time" and made it the album title. The cover art is by Ursula Gullow. Throughout the nearly 15 years I’ve known Ursula, she has represented what I understand an artist to be, and has guided and formed that definition in a primary, ever-expanding way. Her work has been on the walls of any place I’ve ever lived. I love Alice Neel and Edvard Munch and Charlotte Salomon because their work reminds me of Ursula’s, so her work was my point of entry. I didn’t grow up in an “artistic” environment, or a literary environment. It wasn’t until 18 or 19 that I started reading and looking at images that weren’t on television, a cereal box, or an album cover. Ursula’s cover painting was the first work of art that breathed and moved me toward not only reverence or admiration, but to work and to a life where dreams and grace and mystery had value. As it happens, she painted the original of the cover art in a different room I’d moved into years before I lived with her. It was 60" x 144", and took up the whole wall. She later cut the piece up unto smaller squares and sold or gave them away piecemeal. I have two sections of who knows how many (someone who knows how to do math would know). I wish I was a painter, or a writer -- something quiet and laborious and dignified. Like the Frank O’Hara poem says, “I think I would rather be / a painter, but I am not.” And then later in the poem (Why I am Not a Painter):
One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
It’s not that I can’t do it, but that I don’t do it, and I do and have worked on music, so this is what I can do. But I follow the examples of artists and writers and filmmakers because I learned most from them, and their lives and work habits and predisposition to talking all day and night is more natural to me. It’s not that a person has to do or be one thing, and many people do many things. But when I’m making a record or writing a song, I think about Jonas Mekas making a film or a diary video, or I read “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol,” or watch Letters From Home by Chantal Akerman, or call Ursula on the video phone and see what she’s working on, or look through one of Nathanael Roney’s many brilliant books of text and images. When I made Light Enough, Spalding Gray was an initial guide, and the image of a film about him inspired the cover image for the record. The work of Eileen Myles was a strong influence too, and continues to be. And none of this directly relates to chord changes or melodies -- that process remains mysterious and almost like a summoning by rote. A person makes this music, so whatever affects this person, affects the music.
I recently listened to an interview with David Lynch, and when he was asked about what films he watches and why, he said he rarely seeks out finished work because “it’s so far from the source,” and that made sense to me. A song, or a painting, what have you, as much as it aims to depict or pronounce an experience or a concept, the genesis is varied and diverse, and while the constituent elements are present in the final form, they’re implicit, granular, and transformed. The work is a gathering place -- not a collage so much as a composite, a system with no center and no edge.
Less dramatically, it’s also just a thing you do, because you want to, because you know how to, because it’s how you function in the world and how you speak, or listen, or find yourself doing when the day is done or just beginning.
We've spent tons of time in Asheville and think it's one of the most special places around. What are your favorite places in Asheville for leisure and artistic motivation?
I moved to Asheville in January of 2002, so my context is somewhat interdimensional. I still think of reading a book and smoking with a cup of coffee at Vincent’s Ear, or going to plays at ARC, or to talks and parties at ACRC. More recently, you have equal bastions like Harvest Records, The Mothlight, PUSH Skateshop and Gallery. The center of music life for us when I was there, until 2012/13, was a place called Bobo. That’s where I started playing with Shane, Ryan, Michael, Patrick, Noel, et al. Ursula even bartended there for a while. We’d play together or watch each other’s sets, several times a week for at least a few years. Sometimes projection- and video-artists like Megan McKissack would cast work on a screen behind the stage. Experimental violinist Meg Mulhearn and her groups would play there, and Tashi Dorji, and so many people still working. After that was a great spot called Apothecary, established by Frank Meadows and other musicians from UNCA. Now it’s somewhere else and someone else and life goes on.
Less directly, I used to walk everywhere in Asheville because I didn’t drive, and the bus service was insubstantial, and because I like to. So that was an activity that was always generative as much as practical. I’d also go to Lexington Park Antiques mall on Lexington whenever I was blue or wanted to hide out, which was a few times a week, and just walk around and time travel by way of the sundry possessions of so many worlds. I grew up in Downtown Books and News, and grew a little old at Broadway’s. Over the last decade, the town as I know it moved to West Asheville. So now I go to DeSoto, Mothlight, Tiger Bay. When I’m in town I like to visit Nathanael's and Ursula’s studios to see what they’re working on and to gossip and tell jokes and talk about “how terrible orange is and life.”