Earlier this month Charles Carman talked Josh Garrels about his new album Home, his vocation as a musician, and how he is eager to see a shift of the typical artist/father paradigm. The interview can be heard on the SoundCloud link below. We’ve also transcribed it (below) for those of you whom are headphoneless at the office.
Charles Carman: Could you situate this album among your other albums?
Josh Garrels: I don’t premeditate how one album’s going to build upon another. I’ve seen what I would consider an artistic pattern. I’m a lot like my sister Gala. She just starts playing around with patterns and textures, and slowly I think a picture emerges. Not that she doesn’t have anything in mind. It’s more like she’s figuring it out as she goes, like “Oh, I’m really into this theme right now.” It might be a family thing.That’s how I approach music.
My brother-in-law and my wife, who are both visual artists, will approach art with an idea or concept in mind and it’s all about “I’m trying to get there, oh that wasn’t good enough, get rid of that one.” And then they’ll work their way towards this idea they have that they want to see fleshed out. I’ve sensed that most artists approach work seemingly in one of those two directions, and both are valid.
So this [album] isn’t necessarily building directly upon past albums. A good ways into this album are sounds about home, and being homeward bound, and homecoming, and homesteading. Intimacy was the theme.
If there was a theme I had in mind on the front end, it was some sense of joy, because I know I was searching for my own joy again, in life and faith, from the chaos of parenting and running my own business and touring. Those things which are good, but the responsibilities of the world. I’m kind of an old skate board kid. Sometimes I’m like “How did I end up with all this responsibility?” Finances and relationships. So I set out to find joy and homecoming.
CC: On this album, there’s this theme of being pierced or struck. “Heaven’s Knife” is such a fun song, but then if you read the lyrics, you see, “Oh, he’s hit, he’s struck, he’s down!” What are you doing with the theme of the piercing?
JG: In “Heaven’s Knife” I’m hearkening back to Adam and Eve, when Adam had a rib taken out. This is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, she is of me. But even that has a sort of piercing, a sort of violence. A bone is taken out of him. Even in the most intimate relationship of my life, which is with my wife, there’s a piercing that comes with every good thing. There’s a piercing in every relationship, my relationship with God, with my wife, even with work and success. It’s not all joy. There has to be an acceptance of the suffering or the humility that comes along with those things.
CC: The Walkmen wrote a song called “Heaven” about their families, and they’ve said they “keep fighting and keep writing for our family.” I don’t know of many musicians inspired by or whom incorporate their wives and kids into their lyric and song style. Do you know of others?
JG: I’m now comfortable saying that I’m a vocational musician. I’m around enough vocational musicians to know some that are embarrassed by that set-up, like their family is something to hide. The crowd wants to see a guy on stage who’s bigger than life. But this is what provides for my family. It’s a joy that I get to do this with my life. Incorporating them into my practice has been pretty seamless. I value transparency. Call it a risk, but I hope that if I involve the things that are most intimate to me–my faith in God, my family, the lifelines of my being–hopefully it makes a better song on the front end.
With “Heaven’s Knife”, I wondered if I was going to say that the punch line of the song is “she’s my wife.” And I nixed it at first, but I had enough close friends who said not to. They said, “no one writes songs about covenant love.” I would have changed it, but it’s not too sentimental. And it’s actually for my wife. That’s the power of the song: crying and remembering my wife.
CC: What have you found in that balance of autobiography and art? What sort of encouragement would you give to those who have a family, or want to have a family, and want to make art?
JG: One: I think it’s something that needs to be fought for. Two: it goes against the grain of what we’ve been shown.
I know different types of people: the artist who has a wife and children and wonders how they’re going to make this work, the single artist who’s finding success and can’t reconcile how they’d have a family and preserve what they’ve made. I hope our story has given people hope that it’s possible.
When you think of the “music industry,” you think of the established ways of doing things. There’s a track: make good art, and if the art catches on, hit that mug, get on the road for nine-months a year, because it’s working, don’t lose inertia, play as many shows as you can, write as many songs as you can. Take care of your family at the ebb of your success.
I’ve had to fight to make it work, fighting expectations or imposed expectations, things I think I should be doing. I feel passionately about the work, but in the end, I feel like I’m constantly in the battle to prioritize what is most important. I feel like I have ample time to create the work and be a present father and present husband, and know people locally where I live.
Often touring artists, they may live in a city, but they are MIA in that city. When they come home, they just don’t want to see anyone because they’ve been gone. So they may live locally in Nashville, Portland, or New York, but if they’re a touring artists, they’re not rooted locally. But to be living here in Portland and to be local and to have a presence locally is something I have to fight for. Sometimes that means saying no to touring. That’s why I generally do one tour a month. I leave for three or four days. I do three or four shows. I come home the other three weeks of the month. And that might sound absurd to some people. But that’s another way I make it work.
I had a fruitful conversation with Linnea Spransy at the Wedgwood Circle last year. In the portraits we’ve been given of the great artists–Picasso or Melville–there’s a wake of destroyed relationships. I think society gives them a pass because of their legacy of great work. But is the legacy worth the carnage of relationships?
To me, true success is if you can have people look at your life and want to emulate you.
CC: I hear less spoken-word/rap poetry than I did in Zion & Babylon on this album. Could you speak about how the form of your music has changed?
JG: I wanted this album be less beat-influenced. If anything, soul music took the place of what traditionally has been a heavier hip-hop beat sound to my music. I still love that stuff. It’s like Beck with Morning Phase and Strange Apparitions. He’ll have albums that are straight up beats and hip-hop, and then he’ll put out a folk album.
Without knowing exactly what they were, I knew I wanted to work within certain parameters, so it had a certain mood to it. I still love spoken word and longer Woody Guthrie-type lines, but here I wanted to explore soul music and falsetto.
I always start with the sound and write lyrics after. The lyrics attach themselves to the songs.
CC: Could you give an example of this, a time when the words came quickly from the sound?
JG: A song like “Heaven’s Knife” is in 6/8 time signature, so it has this fifty’s ballad feel to it. This is like my first my dance with my wife. Or a song-like benediction. It’s this simple folk song, but this song feels like I’m on my knees blessing the next generation, blessing my children.
With “A Long Way Home”, I was creating a song about a father and son who are estranged, maybe imbued with the hope of finding some resolution before the father passes. It was asking: What does it mean to get home? I started with that story when I began playing with the sounds. I knew it could be a soundtrack to this specific story, of needing to make it home, making amends before your father passes away.
CC: Is this the album you’ve been trying to write, the album that finally meets the artist’s life?
JG: No. To liken it to a story, when an author writes a book, each one has a different focus, a different set of characters, it takes you on a different journey. It’s another piece of this catalogue that I’ve created.
Personally, I’m at a weird place. It was one of the hardest albums I’ve ever written. Don’t ask me why, but it was a weird, hard, long journey, and I don’t know why. Because in some ways the subject matter was so simple, even the final structure is not that complicated, but emotionally and everything else, it was complicated.
I don’t know what the album’s going to do. I know there are elements of things I’ve done before that aren’t present in this one that might be a let down to some. There are new influences that might be exciting to others. I’m proud of it, but in a healthy way. It took so long and was hard enough that I learned a lot from the process, but I’m already already song-writing this week. I’ve got a whole another set in mind. My mind and my heart are invested in writing new songs. Coming out of the process of this album, strangely enough, rather than being down in the process of making albums and writing songs, I feel rather galvanized. Almost like my mandate at this point is boiled down to two things: to draw near to God and to write songs. But I want to learn how to do that. I want to be prolific and good. I want to make a plethora of music. I have a lot of sounds I want to explore, a lot of stories, for lack of a better term, colors that I still want to explore.
That’s a long answer to your question. Is its focus different from all my other albums? Yes. I think it goes to a little different place. Maybe it’s the most intimate album I’ve ever made, for what that’s worth.
CC: How was collaborating with Mason Jar and others?
JG: It’s wonderful as a solo-artist to find other artists that you come closer and closer to and trust. Giving them a song, “here’s my song, can you help this thing?” Can you compliment? I’ll shop it out to friends and acquaintances. I’ll let them add stand up bass and violin, and then I’ll get these wave-files, then I’ll plug them into my session, and I’ll start mixing and messing around in the session, and in the end if something’s not working, I’ll axe it. I’ve had friends who don’t agree with the decision. But I do hold that veto power, to have sounds feel closer to how I want them to sound. In the end I’m the final curator of the sounds.
There are times when Mason Jar blew my mind with their ingenuity, and I wanted them to run with it, and there are other times when they don’t like what I’ve done to the song, and I’m like, “I’m sorry, that’s the way it is.” So that’s part of it, trusting one another, and also in the end understanding that this is their project or this is my project and there’s a certain level of responsibility. There’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but I’m deciding what spices are working.
In the future, I would love to work with a producer that I could trust so that I could go and play my music, and have them make significant creative decisions. I think that would be really fun at some point, to run more efficiently, effectively. You go in, you play your songs, and the producer sculpts the sound of the album. Up to this point, it’s been me on every album, which is a joy, but it’s taxing. It’s not just writing and recording, but you’re also spending months of post-production.
C:C With Small Voice Records, do you envision also being producer for others?
JG: Maybe, if I hone my skill. It takes me a long time. I’m not a fast producer, because a lot of it I’m learning on the job. I didn’t go to school for engineering or producing. So I know what I want to hear, but sometimes the path to get there is long and awkward. I don’t want to take as long to even produce my own music. To produce others sounds almost frightening.
Maybe when I’m older. Maybe that’s the shift of focus, but I don’t sense that it is the time yet for me. I feel like I’ve got songs in me that can’t wait to work their way out.