We spoke with Austin Crane of Valley Maker about his upcoming record Rhododendron, the study of human geography, and working with friend and Toro y Moi frontman Chaz Bear.
Your new record Rhododendron is out October 12th. How does the title represent the record's sound and vision?
I think the word “rhododendron” was initially planted in my brain from Magnolia Electric Co.’s song “Whip-poor-will.” Jason Molina has been a huge influence on my songwriting; I discovered Didn’t It Rain when I was 17, and his music has meant the world to me ever since. I was visiting Asheville last year, driving around in the mountains listening to Josephine, and made a visceral connection between that song (“now count every rhododendron in this cool mountain light // I’ve made more mistakes than that just tonight”) and the fact that I’d spent most of my life between the Southeast and Northwest surrounded by this plant, though not exactly conscious of its presence. Rhododendron plants are everywhere in Seattle, and from that point on I feel like they began to form a kind of elemental backdrop for the writing and recording of this new record. The word, as the new record’s title, is drawn from the song “Seven Signs,” which sort of plays with notions of ‘end times’ in the political present. In that song, for me, rhododendron represent a kind of continuity between past and present, across different places I’ve called home over time.
Your friend Chaz Bear of Toro y Moi recorded on several tracks. How did you meet Chaz and how does his musical offering lend itself to your songwriting?
Chaz and I went to college together at the University of South Carolina. We had met each other before at shows, but we ended up taking the same film class and became friends through that. From that point on we’d share new songs we were working on and we played a few shows together throughout college. I remember when he shared a burned CD with the first Toro demos on it, I was blown away at how good they were. We’ve stayed in touch over the years and have always talked about working together on a recording project, but it wasn’t until this record, with both of us in the Northwest for a season (him in Portland, me in Seattle), that we were finally able to make it happen.
It was inspiring to work with Chaz in his studio. I came in with some demos as a starting point, but from there it was a collaborative unfolding of grooves, textures, and dynamics, where Chaz accessed a potentiality for the songs that pretty quickly felt well outside the world of purely “folk/songwriter” sensibilities – that was really exciting for me. It was fall when we were tracking in Portland and the weather was really nice, so we would record for a few hours and then go for a walk to listen to it outside and talk about what was next. It was a nice flow. Specifically, I think how Chaz approached the rhythm section and auxiliary/synth textures in relation to my guitar and vocal parts really brought the songs into different sonic territories and created an atmosphere around them. I feel proud of what we did, really grateful to him, and excited to play the new songs live in this respect.
New Commute is based partly in Charlotte, NC, not far from your college town of Columbia, SC where USC is located. What was your time like as a Gamecock and what was the music culture like there? Did your college life influence your trajectory as a songwriter in any certain way?
Yeah, I love that you’re partly based in the Southeast – I miss living there, and still come back often. I’d say it was always a challenging place to be a musician, but also deeply rewarding. Challenging in the sense that there is minimal infrastructure and cultural appetite for a music scene, rewarding in the sense that you can play a key role in building and sustaining the existing infrastructure and community. I really felt like I was part of a scene, almost a subculture, when I lived there – and I’m still connected with a lot of those people seven years later.
So I think living there influenced my trajectory in many ways, but it certainly taught me to see music as being primarily about creative expression and about community. When you start a musical project in a town like Columbia, you don’t begin from a profit motive or from careerism; the idea that you could ever do music for a living seems pretty far-fetched. We played music because we needed to play it, and we shared our music with each other because that gave us life and a sense of belonging. I never want to stray too far from that way of being.
I also had inspirational professors at USC who encouraged me to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Faulkner, etc. – spending time with that literature was certainly formative for my songwriting. My senior/honors thesis project at USC was actually a collection of songs, which was the initial step I took with Valley Maker as a songwriting project.
Besides making music, you're also pursuing a PhD in Human Geography in Seattle. How do your two passions intersect? What's your motivation to study Human Geography?
It’s a great question, but it’s hard to know how to answer exactly. They usually feel like compatible, but also somewhat distinct parts of my life. Both involve writing, communication, and collaboration, but in fairly unique ways. I do really like being able to engage with both in the course of any given day.
I started studying Human Geography because I was interested in how inequalities are produced and sustained between different people and places. I pretty quickly focused that question on the politics of migration and borders in today’s world: what happens when people, who by the lottery of birth are no longer able to remain in their homes, try to move across space, across borders, into places like the European Union and United States? What kind of responses and reactions does their movement elicit (resentment, fear, care, etc.)? I think we can learn a lot from migration about how people regard difference and value one another’s lives and life possibilities.
I’m currently writing my dissertation on the role of humanitarianism in how Europe is managing the recent migration ‘crisis’. I will say I’m finding that some of the problematics that inform my research overlap, albeit indirectly, with some of the questions that have always motivated my songwriting. It’s been fairly surreal to study this topic over the last few years as the current administration has risen to power on such an exclusionary, disturbingly anti-immigrant platform – and to see that supported by a majority of the evangelical world I grew up around in the Southeast. It hasn’t exactly been surprising, but it’s been jarring and fairly dislocating. So these kinds of questions about how we exist in relation to one another; how we make sense of our histories; how we move from one form of belief or understanding to another; what possibilities we find for goodness and light in the seemingly ever-expanding darkness…I think there’s value in pursuing those questions from both artistic and academic standpoints. So we’ll see where the balance goes from here, but it’s been meaningful to keep these parts of my brain and life in conversation.
You worked on the record half in Portland and half in Seattle. In what ways were the two working segments unique?
Well there is the immediate distinction of the Portland sessions being produced/engineered by Chaz, and the Seattle ones being produced/engineered by Trevor Spencer. Amy Fitchette’s involvement was a constant across both segments – she’s an incredible singer, and I’m always so grateful to collaborate with her. But other than that, the two segments looked fairly different from one another. Chaz and I tracked four songs in four days in his home studio, recording all of the music between ourselves. The Seattle sessions were more uniquely broken out. We started in Seattle with a few days at Hall of Justice, where Eli Thomson (bass) and James Barone (drums) laid down the rhythm section parts. Then from there Trevor and I worked collaboratively, along with Amy and a few others in Seattle, to finish the record over a few weeks’ time. Trevor partly produced the last Valley Maker record, and I loved being able to work together again on this one. He has a great ear for production, and we had a good bit of time to collaboratively experiment with different sounds/textures/instruments, exploring what each of the remaining songs needed compositionally to make Rhododendron a record.
How has Valley Maker grown in sound, writing style, or creative motivation since 2015's When I Was A Child?
I really wanted to evolve with this record, from a songwriting perspective and from recording and compositional standpoints. When I Was A Child was a collection of songs I wrote in a time of my life when music was not an outward/public-facing activity for me. With this record, when I wasn’t away touring or traveling for my research, I spent the better part of two years demo-ing out various songs in my apartment – so that when it came time to record I could choose the ten or so that I liked the best, that most cohered as a record, and that would be fun to play live.
So my goal in approaching the Rhododendron sessions was to keep the songwriting core of the project intact, but then to venture into some new terrain, in collaboration with Trevor, Chaz, and others involved, with regards to rhythm section treatments and new instrumental/textural elements like Juno, Mellotron, saxophone, and trumpet. The songs on Rhododendron are really important to me. Most of them have a fairly personal interior dimension from my own thoughts and experiences alongside an outward dimension that sits with bigger questions concerning the world we inhabit. So I wanted the recordings to feel focused and honest, and yet also fairly expansive and enveloping, even environmental. That was the productive tension, I would say, that informed a lot of the choices we made throughout the recording process.
You're hitting the road for a North American and European tour soon. How do you balance workload from the PhD program while you travel? The tour has a stop in Columbia, SC. What's your pre-show plan for a half-day of free time in your old college town?
Every tour is a little bit different, but every tour I’ve done has involved a lot of sitting and waiting – so it’s partly a challenge to use some of that down time productively towards writing. There have been seasons where achieving balance is more difficult than others, like when I’m teaching. But now while I’m writing my dissertation, whether I’m in Seattle or on tour, it’s just about being consistent to carve out time most days to make some progress in writing.
Yeah, the tour does go through Columbia and Charleston – both are always really fun and meaningful places to play. I’ve been playing shows at New Brookland Tavern since I was 18 years old! In Columbia, I’d like to make it over to the Whig at some point before or after the show, and we’ll hopefully end up gathering friends on someone’s porch – that kind of hang always feels like home.