Guitarist and songwriter, Glenn Jones, returns with the follow-up to his Thrill Jockey debut, 2011′s The Wanting. For My Garden State, Glenn wrote a collection of reflective and evocative tunes in his childhood home in New Jersey while taking care of his mother who suffers from Alzheimers.
As a guitarist working in the American Primitivism tradition, Glenn employs a wide variety of alternate tunings and partial capos. Listening to Glenn’s expressive playing on his six-string and 12-string guitars, as well as his five-string banjos can be entrancing, exciting, and above all, inspiring. My Garden State is an instrumental album that will impress you in how it covers a spectrum of emotional terrain, without uttering a single word.
I am thrilled to offer my second in-depth interview with Glenn (the last time was when The Wanting was released).
Hi Glenn. I'd like to start by asking you how coming off of your experiences of making and touring for The Wanting prepared you and / or inspired you to begin writing the new material?
Glenn: I’m always energized when what I do is well received, and The Wanting seems to have reached people. The tours were well attended, and reviews of the album were good.
But even if I wasn’t making albums and playing for people, I’d still be writing and playing. First and foremost I do this for myself. Playing is one of the few things I’m OK at, and if I don’t do it every day I feel lousy. Maybe it’s a compulsion or a form of “biofeedback” or something. But wherever it comes from, the urge to play is irresistible for me. I have to do it.
Were there elements of The Wanting you wanted to explore further? What new directions were you considering moving into for the new album?
Glenn: I never really think in terms of “OK, what direction shall I go in for the next album?” Each album is a simply a collection of whatever new pieces I’ve written for guitar or banjo since the last album.
Though My Garden State has a loose theme, that theme only occurred to me while I was actually recording the album: “What do these pieces have in common?” Only that most of them were written while I was living in my childhood home looking after my mom.
Can you talk about how place and family influenced your songwriting and the making of the album?
Glenn: Well, we all start somewhere! Our family house in Waldwick, NJ, is where I was living when I went to high school, which is when my musical curiosity came alive. It is also where I was living when I got my first guitar, at age 14, where I was living when I attended my first concerts and bought my first record albums. Its proximity to New York City (for $1.10 I could take the Shortline bus, which stopped a few blocks from my house, and be at the Port Authority bus terminal in an hour) meant that as a teenager I had access to clubs, museums, so many great record stores. Anything I read about I could find in NYC.
From the late ‘60s, up until 1974 (when my dad finally got sick of looking at my mooching face and set a deadline by which I had to get out of the damn house and get on with my life!) I saw Sun Ra in New York dozens of times, plus Peter Stampfel, Fahey, Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, the Stooges, the Incredible String Band, and Pearls Before Swine.
Plus, I was attending avant-garde classical music concerts whenever I could, including John Cage, Stockhausen, and all those modern music knuckleheads. Discophile Records on 8Th Street in NYC was where I went for all my modern music LPs. I still have hundreds of LPs I bought there like Xenakis, Luc Ferrari, Mauricio Kagel, Stockhausen, and all of those imports you couldn’t get anywhere else. It’s clothing store now.
I heard Phillip Glass perform in a college friend’s loft in NYC when he had only one record out.
My radio station at the time was WBAI-FM in NYC. I don’t how much sleep I lost listening to Steve Post’s and Bob Fass’s late night radio shows on headphones under the covers while the rest of the family slept. I still have cassettes of some of their shows.
So, I have a lot of musical and emotional connections to our old family house, the person I was becoming, and am.
But, I couldn’t tell you exactly how, if at all, going back there influenced the writing on the album. To my mind, I was just following my usual impulse to find new things on the guitar and banjo, new tunings, new approaches. Like most of my pieces, I have distinct memories of where I was and what I was doing when I wrote the songs. So this feels like New Jersey to me.
Did you have a pre-conceived direction, vision, and or feel for the new record you wanted to make?
Glenn: You may be confusing me with Pete Townsend or David Bowie! No, I don’t really think conceptually. I follow where my impulses, tastes and abilities lead me, but I don’t look to impose anything on the music, and I seldom write with a thematic goal in mind. I have written music for films, and you do have to tailor your pieces to support the images you’re playing behind.
Though I certainly recognize that I have a style and sound, I also recognize that some things I do well and some things are quite beyond my abilities. Technically, there are lots more accomplished musicians than me out there!
But that doesn’t concern me. Technique can be learned, but once learned it can also be hard to get beyond, and becomes a curtain to hide behind for musicians who don’t have much of anything to say. I do have something to express and I have just enough technique to get it over. For me, that’s more than enough.
When you began working up the material, how did you initially want this album to connect to and/ or distinguish itself from your previous albums? Also, you recorded the new album with Laura Baird. Can you describe the recording process of the album and your working relationship?
Glenn: There is one question I ask whenever I’m ready to make a new album: Where to make it? Where can I best record this? Where am I most likely to feel relaxed, undistracted, supported, comfortable and able to experiment? Deciding where to record is perhaps the most critical decision.
My second album, Against Which The Sea Continually Beats, was recorded on the island of Martha’s Vineyard and everything about that experience was perfect: the seclusion, the time of year, the weather, the intimacy of the attic studio where it was made, and the enthusiastic support of Anthony Esposito (who recorded it). When I listen to that album, I feel again just how lovely a time I had making it.
Recording My Garden State at Laura Baird’s home studio in Allentown, NJ, was every bit as positive an experience as recording at Martha’s Vineyard. The proof of that for me is that I was relaxed enough and confident enough to make up two of the pieces on the album, “The Vernal Pool” and “Alcoeur Gardens,” pretty much on the spot, which are among my favorite tracks on the record. These pieces wouldn’t have happened without Laura’s complete indulgence of my every whim, including to go outside and explore the woods and streams and record ambient sounds, for instance.
For “The Vernal Pool,” I had her play the field recordings in my headphones, recordings we’d just made, as I improvised the piece. It was like having a conversation with the sounds of the outdoors, just like you’d have a conversation with another musician.
I could have made those ambient recordings part of the piece, but I preferred the way the guitar part sounded on its own. It didn’t need anything else, it breathed. (Though I did include her comment on the tape, “That’s where the frogs live,” at the head of the song.)
For “Alcoeur Gardens” I did the same thing, only it was the sounds of a New Jersey thunderstorm that I was playing with. For that, I decided to leave the nature sounds in, make them part of the piece.
Please tell us about your songwriting process, specifically for My Garden State?
Glenn: Aside from the improvisations, I went down with the rest of the songs already composed. I knew that I wanted Laura, who’s such a fine clawhammer banjo player, to join me on “Across the Tappan Zee.” And I had written “Going Back to East Montgomery” as an excuse to play with Laura’s sister Meg, whose musicianship I admire very much.
One aspect of the album I really enjoy is the interplay of your banjo playing and guitar playing throughout. Can you discuss your inspiration for each instrument, regarding your songwriting, and sonically how these come together for you?
Glenn: I’ve loved American old-time music for much of my life, especially the style of banjo playing called clawhammer, which is different than the bluegrass banjo style.
The problem, at least for me, being a guitarist, was that the set-up of the banjo flies in the face of what you know. On the banjo the highest open string note is where the lowest open string note is on the guitar, typically played with the thumb. (Plus that the 5th string ends in the middle of the neck- who came up with that idea?!) So, because I couldn’t play the banjo the way I wanted to hear it played, I avoided the instrument for most of my life.
Some years ago I went so say goodbye to my friend Ruthie Dornfeld, a fantastic fiddler, who, after many decades, had decided to leave Boston and move to Seattle. She’d packed everything she owned into her Volvo station wagon, right up to the roof, and there wasn’t an inch of space left for anything, let alone something the size of a banjo. So, with the first snow of winter just starting to fall and eager to be on her way, she pressed the banjo on me, hugged me, cried a little bit, got in her car and drove away.
I fooled around with the banjo for a couple years, and eventually wrote a song on it I thought was OK. When Jack Rose and I got ready to start a new tour some years ago, I just decided I’d bring the banjo with me and play it every night, win, lose or fail, the idea being that I better get good at doing something with it quick, as I would look pretty stupid playing it for people every night if I didn’t! And Jack was very encouraging.
For a long time I just assumed it was my lot to play it all wrong, not that that bothered me especially. I love the sound, the drone, the modal quality. But a year or so ago I was reading the notes that Mike Seeger wrote for an album of banjo pieces he’d recorded in all sorts of styles, and learned that there are many, many approaches to the instrument, some of them quite idiosyncratic and weird, and I realized there really is no right way or wrong way to play the thing!
Maybe I’m rationalizing, but I just figured that however I end up playing it is OK if it feels OK to me. For whatever reason, my banjo pieces tend to be shorter and more succinct than my guitar pieces, which I think breaks things up nicely, on stage and on record.
You also perform with Laura Baird and her sister Meg (The Baird Sisters) on some tracks. Can you describe these experiences?
Glenn: The people I’ve recorded with like Jack Rose, Chris Corsano, and the Baird Sisters are all people who I like as people as much as for what they do musically. If I didn’t like someone, it really wouldn’t matter how great they were as a player, I wouldn’t be very interested in working with them. Again, it comes down to wanting to make the process of recording positive, energizing and fun.
I’ve had my share of bad recording experiences (The Epiphany of Glenn Jones album with Fahey and Cul de Sac for instance). I know that album owes much of whatever musical success it achieves to how horrible a time we had making that album, suppression of ego, and all the psychodrama we had to overcome.
And though I absolutely love that album, and am immensely proud of it, I have no wish to surf the flames of perdition again just for the sake of making a record! No thanks.
How collaborative were these processes (recording with Laura and performing with the sisters)?
Glenn: I wish I could say they were collaborative, but the pieces with Meg and Laura were pretty much composed before I introduced them to them. Laura follows my melody closely on “Across the Tappan Zee,” but plays it in her own elegant, percussive, syncopated style. The only thing we worked out was when she’d come in and how to end the piece.
On “Going Back to East Montgomery,” Meg’s part is her own creation. I love how it complements mine so well, and at the same time is so distinctive and upbeat.
Was there a tune(s) that set the course for the album?
Glenn: “Like A Sick Eagle Looking at the Sky” was the first piece I wrote after The Wanting was recorded, and I made it a part of my UK and European tour in support of that album, which was a good way to get comfortable with the piece. I don’t know that it set the course of My Garden State, per se, but the tuning I made up for it was a new one and it led to the tunings used for “Going Back to East Montgomery” and “Blues for Tom Carter.”
What were you listening to during the writing and recording of the album that you can point to as significant influences?
Glenn: The Baird Sisters’ album, When You Find Your Green. I listened to a lot and it is one of my favorite records of 2012. That record and the sound of the record, which was also recorded at Laura’s place, is what made me want to record in the same studio.
Another record I spent a lot of time with was Nathan Bowles’ A Bottle, A Buckeye, which includes a number of very fine original compositions for banjo, all immaculately played. Listening to it the first time in my car on the way home from North Carolina, I could almost hear our friend Jack Rose exclaiming “Awesome!” in my inner ear. He’d have been so proud!
I'm not sure that it influenced my playing or writing, but it gave me the confidence to stick it out there.
I know I asked you earlier about your initial plans for the record. How would you say the final result lines up with that vision?
Glenn: The album is every bit as good as I hoped it be, better really, because I couldn’t have foreseen how satisfied I’d be with the improvised pieces, or how the field recordings would play into it, and what a pleasure it would be to make. I also feel like I made a good friend in Laura Baird, who I just admire so much. (I hope she feels the same way, because I hope to record my next album with her as well!)
What have you been listening to lately?
Glenn: Well, lots of stuff, but if I had to single out any one thing, it’d be this knockout of a compilation coming out on Dust-to-Digital in June, called Greek Rhapsody – Instrumental Music from Greece, 1905-1956. Lance sent me an advance copy and it hasn’t been off my CD player since I got it. It’s a double disc and hardcover book set, put together and annotated by Tony Klein. The song selection is killer and the tracks are mesmerizing, strange, frightening, beautiful. Wow!
And in terms of the emotional resonance of the performances, a few tracks are positively beyond the beyond. The packaging, as usual with the label, is very handsome, and Klein’s notes are smart, well considered and exceedingly well researched. If I kept such a list, this would be on my short list of best compilations of the past several decades.
I’ve also been enjoying Cluck Old Hen – A Barnyard Serenade, on the Old Hat label. It is a compilation of hillbilly and blues songs from the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, that are all about chickens. You can keep your Tommy’s and Diamond Dogs, Cluck Old Hen is my idea of a concept album!
And the expanded version of one of my favorite Sun Ra albums, Nothing Is, which came out as a double CD called College Tour Volume 1, with lots of previously unissued stuff, is just fantastic. It was issued a couple years ago now, but I just got it. It’s the first in a series, supposedly. Can’t wait for the rest.
Will you be touring nationally for My Garden State? What's next for you?
Glenn: A Midwest, Southern and East Coast Tour is just about finalized, which will start up in June. I’ll also be touring Europe and the UK in October / November and I’m hoping I can finally get to the West Coast sometime this year. Though I’ve done a couple one-off shows in Seattle and California, I’ve never done a proper tour out there.