Thursday, July 26, 2012

Jerry DeCicca of The Black Swans Discusses "Occasion For Song"

The Black Swans’ new album, Occasion for Song, which drops on July 31st via Misra Records, is their fifth full-length, and the follow up to their critically acclaimed Don't Blame The Stars. The new album deals with the death of founding member and violinist Noel Sayre, and the aftermath of memory, shock, and loss it created. This is an album about loss, death, and trying to get to the acceptance at the end of grief.

Last year I was thrilled to interview Jerry DeCicca regarding Don't Blame The Stars, as well as take the opportunity to dig into the band's musical trajectory for new listeners. Months following the publication of the interview, the good people at Misra shared the rough cuts of what would ultimately become Occasion For Song with me.

I was blown away by the emotion depth, honesty, and transparency with the subject matter. Filling in the spaces between receiving the news of a friend's passing and the final acceptance of such a devastating loss, this song cycle digs deep into the many difficult, personal, and probing layers throughout the arc of a dearly loved friend's absence. Not only is Occasion For Song a worthy follow up to the band's superb Don't Blame The Stars, it is a brave, unflinching, and brilliant work that is destined to become a pillar in the band's already deeply-admired discography.

Now that Occasion For Song is set for release next week, I can now officially call it one of my favorite albums of 2012. I hope that you enjoy my discussion with Jerry regarding the making of Occasion For Song.

Hi Jerry. Thanks for taking the time to discuss your new record. Before we dig into the making of Occasion For Song, can you discuss your personal friendship and musical relationship with Noel Sayre?

Jerry DeCicca: Noel and I met when I was 22. He was my first band mate and the first person I ever played music with. Before then, I was a dude standing alone with a guitar. And it was through playing music together that we became friends. I feel pretty lucky that my first band mate was the person I was able to make records with that have found their way into the world. 

Can you discuss his contributions to The Black Swans?

Jerry: In the beginning, he was the other voice. It was always about my singing/songs and his violin. I provided the text and he made it music. Noel combined his classical background with a folk and Appalachian style very naturally. His playing was very emotional, a lot of strange notes, far more engaging and genuine to me than most violin players that try to bridge those two worlds. Unmannered, unsettling, and then pretty and lyrical.

By the time our first record was released, 8 years after we met, his playing had already long influenced the songwriting- chord progressions, tempos, spaces between notes. Noel was also my touring mate, so to most people that saw us in those years it was that trio of Noel, Canaan on bass, and myself. 

Your last record was Don't Blame The Stars. Was there any overlap between that record and Occasion For Song? What are the connections between the albums?

Jerry: The basic tracks for Don't Blame the Stars were completed 3 months before he died, so no overlap really.

As far as commonalities, there does seem to be some continued conversation I'm having with myself in the songs about the role of a higher power, looking for meaning in a world that seems so random and extreme.

The great thing about songwriting and making albums, when it is personal and artistic and live, is that the record becomes a document of who you are and who your band is at the moment the engineer hits record. Both Don't Blame the Stars and Occasion for Song share that in a strong way that means a lot to me.

Those two records, along with Words Are Stupid, best document the group as a band with Canaan Faulkner, Chris Forbes, Keith Hanlon, Jon Beard, with Noel, and then Tyler Evans. They were all records written knowing who was involved. All the guys have such strong personalities as players and the band developed those records as opposed to just playing the songs together like on our first few releases. 

Can you describe how the material began?

Jerry: Not to make this all sound even more grim, but I began writing one of the songs while sitting in a church pew during Noel's service. I was already angry, and I became more angry by how the preacher and others characterized Noel. All of his friends were far too wrecked to speak so none of us contributed any opposing point of view to the speakers who were making Noel sound like some cherub.

This sort of thing happens at funerals all the time, I know, but it really messed with me so I  started writing quatrains to occupy my thoughts, trying not to explode, and singing them in my head. It wasn't conscious; it just started happening as I tried to zone out what seemed like noise and bullshit all around me. I suppose it was a way to control something that I'll never be able to wrap my mind around.

But that said, I don't see the record as being "about" or "for" Noel, so much as it is about the experience of dealing with his loss. If it is a eulogy, it is a very self-absorbed one (as depression often is). It's a record about loss and depression and memory and friendship and that empty space. "Basket of Light" is about all that. Now, two years after writing it, I see the record as a response to living in a world absent of that person that defined so much of it for you.

In a lot of the songs, Noel is in the periphery, like "Work Song" and "Daily Affirmation". A song like "Work Song" is about what you can learn from death-- how you spend your life, what you do with your time. And "Daily Affirmation" is about getting out of bed, like a pep talk. I kept thinking of Stuart Smalley while I wrote it. 

Was there a particular song that set the direction for the album early on?

Jerry: Well, that song I just mentioned is the one, "Bad Day", the last song on the album. And though I began it at the funeral, it was the last song I finished two years later. I had to keep going back to it since the whole experience was so raw. I wanted the album to remain true to the trip, but also crafted so it was somewhat digestible. That song ends with a coda and it's in the coda that the album's title comes from. As for the rest of the album, that was the junk inside me that came out when I'd pick up a guitar when I was alone.

Can you discuss the recording of the record? How did the recording process connect thematically and/ or develop the material?

Jerry: We recorded at Mus-i-col Studios in Columbus, Ohio, a studio we all wanted to cut in because it was where so much great Ohio soul went to tape (like the Capsoul and Prix labels that the Numero Group reissued). We wanted a personal experience connected to an amazing musical history in our community and to be a small part of that history. I believe in those things, rooms and history and gear and lineage. Like Muscle Shoals. What made Muscle Shoals great wasn't the Stones or Dylan or Cher or Seeger or whomever, it was all the independent R&B that made those other stars want to cut there.

So we went in and cut the whole record mostly live in 18 hours over 3 days. There were some overdubs with the quieter songs, but otherwise it was all live: vocals, harmonica, drums, acoustic and electric guitar, bass, banjo. All in one room. We were friends in a room playing songs about our friend's absence. How heavy is that, right? It was intense.

On the quieter songs, there were overdubs and everyone added their part in response to what was already there, so the band- I don't want to say improvised- but responded emotionally to what was already laid down. A lot of these songs weren't something anyone wanted to play over and over and I certainly didn't want to rehearse them. 

Reflecting on the writing, recording, and finished album now, is there a song that encapsulates your sentiment of the record?

Jerry: I don't think so and I'm pretty pleased about that. Some of our other records, like Change! and Who Will Walk in the Darkness with You? and Don't Blame the Stars, the title track works as almost a thesis statement, even if it isn't the first song. For me at least, there's no one song that encapsulates all of it, but I do enjoy listening to "Basket of Light" the most. It seems the most hopeful. I hear the friendship of my band mates in that performance.

Please describe your writing process for Occasion For Song, both lyrically and musically.

Jerry: It was pretty much the same as it has always been: I pace in a room alone with my guitar and some beers and wine until I have a batch of songs. The only difference is that this time I knew there wasn't going to be any violin on them. I also tried to keep most of the songs in a major key because I wanted them to sound pretty, not sad, musically.

I wanted the lyrics and the band to be the meat. And songs like "Fickle and Faded" and "Where Are You Tonight?" I tried to do something different with enjambment and memory and humor and how that affects the mood and rhythm. These songs were what was on my mind at that point in time and they spilled out as images more than ideas.

Was there a specifically challenging song to write, develop, finish?

Jerry: "Portsmouth, Ohio". It's in the third person, like a journalist or a voice-over in a film. It's graphic and accurate and not something I enjoy listening to, but it is also the song I'm most proud of.

Which tune came together in the most surprising and/ or unexpected way?

Jerry: "Mask from Memory", where the narrator imagines making a paper mache mask of the person he lost and wearing it so he can see the world through their eyes. Everyone in the band approached the song with the same sense of strangeness the lyrics deserve. It's like the how-to-speech in a drugged out dream. 

Can you discuss your writing of the third-person perspective of "Portsmouth, Ohio"?

Jerry: I wanted a removed voice. I chose to do that because those things needed to be said without them coming from me. And that's really what those 3 days felt like. You're stripped of your own experience and put into a news reel; you're surrounded by strangers reporting and asking questions about details that don't matter.

I think everyone that's lost someone close to them in a shocking way can relate to some of that. You want to scream, "Who cares? They're gone!" but all anyone wants to talk about is the process, the narrative that led to death, what could have been done differently, blame, what they heard from so-and-so, the cliches of a life lived that validates the sense of loss, something to talk about.

I get that people want to make chaos orderly so life isn't so scary, they need the small talk and trivia to occupy their brain so they don't dwell on their emotions so much, but I'm not exactly a "push-it-back-down" kind of guy, for better or worse. The use of third person was my way of making things tidy as a writer and becoming one of these other people which, of course, makes it seem all the more wild and tragic when put in song because it shows how raw and absurd death is.

When I listened to Occasion For Song, I was reminded of Lou Reed's Magic and Loss, and even played that record after my first full listen of your album. What were you listening to that influenced you musically and lyrically?

Jerry: Um, that's a pretty intense two hours of music.

I love Lou's solo records, almost all of them, the way he uses rhythm and that tragic-comic voice and guitar tones to add layers to the lyrics. I bought Magic and Loss the day it came out my senior year in high school, so I know the record well and I did go back to it once I realized what I was writing. That record gave me a lot of courage to keep writing what was on my mind. I also went back to records by Current 93 and Loudon Wainwright III's Last Man on Earth and History that dealt with the death of parents. Those albums are all pretty heavy and don't pussyfoot around emotions. 

Now that the album is finished, can you describe your own impressions of the record?

Jerry: When I listened to the record a couple months ago, I heard my anger and sadness and the shock and the chaos. I felt like maybe it was a very indulgent record to make on my part, but I'm proud that it documents a very real experience that seems missing from modern songs.

Anyone that has ever lost someone close to them in a shocking and sudden way understands death at its most absurd. You feel like you blinked and everything in life changed. You drive down the street and pass all these people in their cars eating french fries, singing along to the radio, picking their nose, and you're experiencing a sadness so intense that you're struck by how normal everything around you seems and your own life becomes surreal. I think the record captures that without taming it.

Creating something occupies you and that certainly helped me work things out. It requires you to put emotions into a container even if there's no lid. Maybe there is something comforting in that-- the process.

I spent a lot of time writing these songs, reflecting and being self-absorbed and depressed. And spent a lot of time with my band mates, my friends, who helped me get through it and had the guts to play beautifully on a tough batch of songs. With this record, I've created something I'm proud of with my closest friends, my brothers. It helps me feel better about being in the world. Like we made something together that's beautiful out of something that's forever sad.

I hope I didn't just compare our record to lemonade.

What is your hope that listeners will experience when listening to the record?

Jerry: I always hope that our records do the same for listeners that other people's records that I love do for me.

Will you be touring for the album?

Jerry: Oh yes, there will be plenty of gigs, but I doubt I'll be singing a lot of these newer songs in a bar at 1 a.m. on a Saturday night.

What are your plans for 2012? What's next for you?

Jerry: I just finished producing an Ed Askew record that a lot of the Black Swans were involved in. Keith Hanlon (drummer) engineered/mixed and Canaan Faulkner (bassist) and Tyler Evans (banjo) played on it along with Jay Pluck (Ed's pianist) plus contributions by Sharon Van Etten, Marc Ribot, Mary Lattimore, and Eve Searls. The record is fantastic so it'll be exciting to see what happens with it. Even with so many folks involved, it is still Ed's record. His voice and songs are so compelling.

I'm about to begin some collaborative projects with people who's music I love: Mike Shiflet (a drone/experimental/ noise musician), a minimalist folk-rock thing with Scott from Monoshock, and a possible songwriting/recording thing with Michael Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger) and James Toth (Wooden Wand) that will place us shoulder to shoulder with Little Village and The Firm. 

What have you been listening to?

Jerry: Most of the music I find inspiring is being made by my friends or by people in my community. Ed Askew is always inspiring to me. His songs are imaginative and free and gentle and singular. Hiss Golden Messenger and Wooden Wand both made the best records they've ever made this past year, which is saying a lot.

My friend, Jovan Karcic, is releasing his first solo record this year. He was in Gaunt (3 records on Thrill Jockey), the Haynes Boys (Tim Easton's first band) and played drums on the first Black Swans album. He recorded the whole record in his garage, played all the instruments. Very classic rock and very personal, at times like Bob Trimble and Parade-era Prince.

A couple weeks ago, right down the street from me, I heard this fantastic Kora player, couldn't believe how good he was and not something you hear at a farmer's market in Ohio every day. I spent almost an hour listening to him, this white guy wearing a college t-shirt. Turns out he studied with Toumani Diabate for 2 years in Mali. His name is Ryan Skinner and his group is called Bafilaben.

Brian Harnetty lives down the road, too. He re-configures and re-imagines lost and forgotten sounds into his own compositions. He's used Appalachian music and now he is using "lost" Sun Ra sounds for his next album and a new 7" on Scioto Records.

There's very little that makes the Internet go buzz or keeps people clicking that I find to be very soulful. But there is a lot of amazing music being made all the time by people who are responding to the world's push to be immediate by intentionally going the other direction and that's what interests me the most.

I'm also currently obsessed with Ray Wylie Hubbard and Bob Carpenter's Silent Passage LP and re-runs of the TV show Monk.

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