Striking Out on His Own

Gabriel Kahane

“Having had that corporate experience, I just really wanted to go as far in the other direction as possible.”—Gabriel Kahane

Gabriel Kahane’s first album wasn’t released in 2008. Well, it was, but not really. “I was so young and naïve,” Kahane recalled recently over tea on a frigid day earlier this month. The tiny record label that the composer and singer-songwriter had signed with had set a street date for September 15, but inexplicably didn’t print any actual albums for five months. “For all intents and purposes, that record didn’t come out at all,” he recalled.

This time around, Kahane is taking matters into his own hands. On February 5 he will release The Fiction Issue, his fifth full-length album, for purchase on Bandcamp. When we met at a coffee shop in his Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park, he had just wrapped up a phone call with a fellow singer-songwriter, whom he had advised to avoid working with labels if possible. Kahane has learned a number of lessons about the industry since that first traumatic experience eight years ago, and is attempting to apply them all to this next phase in his career.

Gabriel Kahane

Though self-releasing is increasingly the norm these days, it’s a striking move for The Fiction Issue. For one thing, Kahane is backed here by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider who, despite their hip reputation and youthful vigor, are well-established denizens of the highly institutionalized classical music ecosystem, spending much of their time playing in the company of Yo-Yo Ma. And trekking out on his own is even more unusual for Kahane right now, given this record was, in fact, originally to be distributed by Sony Masterworks.

That recent transition, from Sony to self-release, is a complex tale of politics and artistry in an age in which the major labels continue to undergo convulsive change. But before delving in, first a bit about the music that Kahane is issuing next week. For the past decade, he has worked comfortably in the rock and classical spheres, alternating between performing in the grandeur of Carnegie Hall and the intimacy of Rockwood Music Hall. He’s written three-minute songs about breakups and fifty-minute orchestral works about the Great Depression. And he’s grouched about journalists who focus too much on genre-hopping and not enough on craft. A few years back, he worked with Brooklyn Rider and singer-songwriter Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) for a project at Carnegie, which became The Fiction Issue: a half-hour miniature drama, sung by Kahane and Worden and played by the string quartet. “Pop songs are spiritually related to short stories, as far as narrative economy is concerned,” he told me. This work is more like a two-character play (or, as the title alludes, a compilation of stories in the manner of The New Yorker’s annual magazine edition).

“If the main path of my creative life is as a songwriter, I feel like this is a slightly divergent, but not unrelated, body of work that expresses, in greater detail, certain aspects of what I do,” Kahane said of the new release. Come On All You Ghosts, the other vocal work on the record, sets three poems written by Matthew Zapruder that alternate affectingly between the transcendent and the ordinary. To fill out the full-length, Kahane composed Bradbury Studies, a craggily lyrical quartet that expands, in the manner of a nineteenth-century fantasia, on one of the best songs of his previous album, The Ambassador.

Gabriel Kahane

The Ambassador is at the center of the Sony Masterworks drama, and the past several years of Kahane’s musical life. When we met, he expressed deep gratitude to Sony for signing him and taking on a far-fetched pitch: a concept album focused on the city of Los Angeles, with each song telling the story of a specific building. “The fact that I was given the insane amount of money that I was given—in 2013, with no history of record sales—to make a carte blanche album, where the label didn’t hear it before going to mastering, is extraordinary,” he told me. But if the initial creative investment was strong, everything that came afterward was mired in difficulty. Fractures between art and commerce emerged, and Kahane found himself drowning in bureaucratic legalese as he tried to complete the record. “This is happening at a lot of big labels, where the business affairs people have a kind of stranglehold on the A&R people,” he said.

With its author’s strong profile in the orchestral world and his friends in indie rock—Sufjan Stevens played on Kahane’s first album—The Ambassador had the potential to land strongly in the classical and rock press. But Sony wasn’t able to garner the attention of major critics or market the album persuasively; it slipped by entirely unnoticed by Pitchfork. Sales were low but steady, mostly from word-of-mouth rather than the robust advertising campaign that one would expect from a major label. “The thing that was particularly frustrating was that they didn’t ultimately have the courage of their convictions when it came to sticking behind the record, even though it was slow out of the gate,” Kahane said. At the heart of the album is Empire Liquor Mart, a haunting account of the life and death of Latasha Harlins, an African-American girl shot in the days leading up to the Los Angeles riots. In a year of Black Lives Matter, it felt like the song could have landed as a significant part of the cultural conversation, but it was instead mostly overlooked.

And though there were a number of subsequent opportunities for album sales to reignite—The Ambassador was transformed into a live theatrical show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and received a strongly positive front-page review from the New York Times—Sony had already lost interest. “With something that was somewhat commercially viable, The Ambassador, their lack of commitment to that made it all the more clear that if I put out the Brooklyn Rider album with them, it would just be dead in the water,” Kahane said. He asked to be released from his contract and bought back the full rights to The Fiction Issue, and struck out on his own. “Having had that corporate experience, I just really wanted to go as far in the other direction as possible,” he explained.

Kahane isn’t bitter, and is appreciative of the risks that institutions have taken on his behalf. But he also has a much clearer sense of what can and cannot be achieved by the industry. “If I were talking to a young artist, I would say, in as much as it doesn’t make you tear your hair out from dealing with lots of logistical nonsense, do as much by yourself as you can,” he said. “Because it’s also really valuable to learn: learning how to book a tour, how to self-release an album, how to write a press release, so on and so forth. In the same way that if you work in any industry, and you work your way up from being the coffee boy to being the CEO, it will have been valuable that you did all of those tasks along the way. It’s humbling and grounding to walk to the post office and put twenty vinyl records in the mail.”

Brooklyn Rider by Sarah SmallBrooklyn Rider, photo by Sarah Small

For The Fiction Issue, Kahane is eager to navigate the experience unfettered by bureaucracy; he will briefly tour the album with Brooklyn Rider over the next week, aided somewhat by the institutional clout of a major string quartet. But his fan base is small enough that anyone who buys a physical copy of the album will receive a handwritten thank-you note. “I’m as grateful as the amount of time it takes me to write that note, that people are still willing to pay for music,” he said, “and perpetuate an industry that needs to exist, in some form, in order for us to persevere.”

Florist’s Beautiful “Help Me” Sound

Florist by Stephanie Griffin

“I think making the record made me realize the importance of not being afraid to have help and have support.”—Emily Sprague

On the day that Emily Sprague almost died, she had been living in her new Brooklyn apartment for just over a week. She and her friends had moved from an apartment in Bed-Stuy, where they were living after their residency at the Bushwick co-operative art space Silent Barn had ended. She’d scored a gig as a dog walker, a way to pay the bills while working on music as Florist. She was bicycling up Broadway on New York’s Upper West Side, and was making a left turn when a semi suddenly appeared, trying to beat her to the turn. “The way it works when a truck with a long bed makes a turn is that it doesn’t actually turn, it just kind of sweeps,” she explains. She’s sitting in the Grey Dog Café in SoHo, telling the story with a kind of amused detachment, as if she’s relaying something that happened in a slapstick comedy. The reality of the situation, though, was grave. “There’s a concrete median on Broadway, so I got stuck,” she says. Trying to get free while the truck was still in motion only made the situation worse. “I ended up falling off of my bike and rolling underneath. I remember looking up at the bottom of the truck and thinking, ‘OK, well, this is it. I’m literally going to die right now.’”

When she got free of the truck, Sprague shot bolt upright and tried to mentally assess the damage. “I had no idea what had happened. I was just in total shock. A cab had been right behind me the whole time and pulled up next to me and was like, ‘Holy shit!’” The cab driver gave Sprague a ride to St. Luke’s Hospital, which was only two blocks away, where the doctors told Sprague she’d broken both her neck and—just as frightening for a guitar player—her arm. After keeping her in the hospital for a week, they released her to her still-new apartment in Sunset Park for the long work of recovery.

The accident, and the months that followed, comprise the backbone of The Birds Outside Sang, Florist’s deeply moving new record in which Sprague wrestles not only with injury, but mortality, documenting her condition with both striking narrative precision and fits of grim humor. Both are on display from the outset: the album opens with Sprague, over a nervously-palpitating keyboard, singing, “I can’t feel my right-side ear/ but I’ll probably still not listen to jazz/ and I can’t feel my left-side hand/ God, I hope it comes back to me again.”

Florist by Stephanie Griffin

From there, songs unfold quietly and tenderly, Sprague’s gently-creaking voice nestled safely in the center of plinking, thrift-store keyboards and, in the album’s last half, tense, taut-cable guitars. There are nods toward the hushed, nighttime balladry of The Softies, but where their albums conjure a kind of cottony fantasia, Birds is stunningly clear-eyed. In the elegiac “Only A Prayer Nothing More,” Sprague sings, “Thunderstorms—a friendly thing that remind me I could be dead” as guitars vibrate quietly behind her. Like all of the songs in the record’s last half, it was performed with all of the members of Florist: Rick Spataro, Jonnie Baker and Felix Walworth. The record’s first half is just Sprague alone, and the production is a marked difference from the airiness of the last five songs. It’s suffocating and stark with songs like “Rings Grow,” comprised of little more than bare-branch guitars and sorrowful group vocals. “All of those songs are the actual recordings that I did when I was in a neck brace with one arm,” Sprague explains. “I recorded the first song on this tape recorder, because it was the only thing that was plugged in and ready to go. The second half is all of us playing together.” The decision to split the record was intentional. “It has to do with this idea of recovery being something that you do by yourself, but also that there are some things that you just can’t be alone for. You can’t just be alone all the time forever. And so it’s all of us, together. It’s this ‘help me’ kind of sound.”

It’s a natural dynamic for a group whose roots run deep. Sprague met Spataro when they were both in high school (she was in 9th grade, he was a senior), and he took a shine to a demo she’d uploaded to MySpace. “The first song I ever wrote was called ‘Sounds Just Like Ice Cream.’ It was probably a minute long, and I played it on a ukulele. I put it on MySpace, and I got a text message from Rick while I was at my friend’s house, and I was freaking out. We weren’t really friends, but I was a little bit in love with him. He was the only cool guitar guy in in my high school, the only one who played music and had cool taste and was kind of cute. I remember being like ‘Oh my God!’”

The rest of the group came together naturally — Spataro and Baker were living together in Albany, and they met Walworth, who also plays in Told Slant, when they all played a show together in Hudson. To hear Sprague tell it, what grew out of that was a connection that runs deeper than shared songwriting—something more familial than professional. “Rick and Jonnie, they’re the first friends I really ever had in music, and we’ve shared so many moments together, talking for hours. And Felix was somebody who has helped me so much through this whole process. What we do together is more special than anything we each could do alone.”

Florist by Stephanie Griffin

Birds is a testament to that, to the power of perseverance and friendship, and a gentle reminder of the beauty of life. “I think making the record made me realize the importance of not being afraid to have help and have support,” Sprague explains. “And also to have a little more peace with being alive. You have very little control over the things that can happen to you. There’s still a difference between knowing that I will die one day, and having the thought that I am about to die. It’s kind of just a step toward realizing that you are not invincible. Because while I know that it’s scary, and that someday it will end, I really do believe that it’s just fine. I believe that now. And I don’t know if I did before.”

Photos by Stephanie Griffin

Waiting for the Miracle

Tindersticks by Richard Dumas

“I think it’s about how memories define you, in a way. Getting older, losing a sense of yourself, or being aware that so many people are losing a sense of themselves, of who they are and the memories that define them.”—Stuart A. Staples

In the opening scene of The Waiting Room, the 51-minute film made to accompany the Tindersticks album of the same name, a small beam of light creeps its way through a window and spreads slowly across a bedroom wall. It’s a good introduction to both the film and the music that follows: like all of the Tindersticks records that came before it, The Waiting Room takes its time, its protagonists existing mostly in the pauses between actions. They rifle through old memories searching for clues and replace decisive motion with hesitation. They’re all waiting for something—death, hope, some kind of revelation—but it’s always just a few inches beyond their grasp. So they pace and worry and deliberate instead.

“I think it’s about how memories define you, in a way,” says Tindersticks frontman Stuart A. Staples, sitting in a Brooklyn coffee shop on a brutally cold winter morning. “Getting older, losing a sense of yourself, or being aware that so many people are losing a sense of themselves, of who they are and the memories that define them.” For The Waiting Room, Staples commissioned seven short films to accompany the album’s songs, with Staples handling two with his wife Suzanne Osborne and one on his own. The result is a gorgeous, mesmerizing film that gestures toward the album’s themes of memory, nostalgia, and hesitation without depicting them explicitly, or merely aping the actions in the song. “I didn’t want the films to be narrative or to describe the music,” explains Staples. “I wanted them to think about the ideas being a counterpoint to the music. I wanted them to create a visual space for the songs to exist.”

The project began when Staples was asked to be on the jury for the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. After reviewing the films as part of the selection process, an idea began to take shape. “As you watch them, you start to think that some of the reels [from the directors] are really successful,” Staples observed. “It was about being varied, with different viewpoints, being balanced but, at the end of it, feeling like you’d experienced something as a whole. I started to think about this in relationship to making an album—I want an album to be varied and I want songs to come from different directions, but at the same time, I also want it to be a whole. These two things started going through my mind, so I started to talk to Calmine Borel, the director of the festival, about it. Gradually, this started to emerge as an idea.”

Tindersticks by Richard Dumas

Some directors were natural fits. Tindersticks had already worked extensively with the French director Claire Denis on the scores for five of her films, so Staples already knew he wanted her to direct the short film that accompanies the simmering, Afrobeat-influenced “Help Yourself.” Other directors came at the suggestion of Borel. Staples gave each director a working version of each song with a few brief notes, but left the realization of the vision to each director. For Christoph Girardet, who directed the film that accompanies “Second Chance Man,” Staples simply said, “This is a song about risk.” The resulting film stitches together stock footage that appears to date from the early ’70s, showing a man sweating, a coin spinning, and a car recklessly barreling down a highway. The film is followed by another driving film, this one by Pierre Vinour, but unlike “Second Chance Man,” it operates at breakneck speed, the frantic rush of traffic mirroring the song’s panicked lyrics. “There are different things connecting with the song,” Staples says. “The speed, the frantic feeling that I think ‘Lovers’ has, the words, the feeling of me singing it. It’s the words that go around in your head—the subconscious that gets confused, then breaks out and you get clear thoughts for a moment, and then it gets cloudy again. I really felt this song could exist in the driver’s mind.”

While none of the directors involved in The Waiting Room knew what the others were shooting, repeated motifs begin to appear as the film goes on: water, blue skies, amusement parks, long drives, fragments of old films. Taken together, they work as a kind of abstract meditation on sadness and memory, all of them having a kind of wistfulness and longing, yanking at a door to the past that has long since closed. And while Tindertsicks have a long history of exploring the emotional terrain of the heart, there’s a kind of inescapable sadness running through all of the songs on The Waiting Room. The music is ruthlessly minimal—guitar recedes into the shadows, providing mostly texture and shade. The majority of the songs consist of dry percussion, mournful horns, and Staples’ warm, leathery voice buckling at the center. They’re The National without the need for crescendos, all of the emotional gestures beautifully underplayed.

In the title track, against a wheezing carnival calliope organ, Staples pleads “Don’t make me suffer” again and again. And in the album’s most affecting number, the spoken-word “How He Entered,” Staples takes a moment in time—a young man walking into a room—and pauses to sketch a heartbreaking narrative of hope and potential and its aftermath. His writing is elegant in its conciseness: “This is how he entered, how he came in:/ with an open heart, his eyes wide/ a rubber in his pocket/ …a skip in his step.” It’s the little details—the unused condom, the wide eyes—that make the song feel more vivid, more lived-in. The accompanying film is simply old black-and-white home movies of director Gregorio Graziosi’s grandfather on his wedding day. “It’s a song that’s looking back on those wide-open times with the perspective of ‘this is what happened,’” explains Staples. “But in that moment, anything could happen. I think it’s really important for the record to have the feeling of that moment—and the memory of that moment. I’m able to say, ‘This is what happened, this was my reaction to it, and I remember it, and I understand how that relates to me now, and where I went wrong.’”

Tindersticks by Richard Dumas

The album’s other two peaks come from a pair of duets. “We Are Dreamers!,” which features Jehnny Beth of Savages, is a tense, grinding song of desperation and disbelief. Its counterpoint is the light, lovely “Hey Lucinda,” where Staples tries to goad Lhasa De Sala to go out dancing with him. De Sala rebuffs his advances, singing, “I only dance to remember how dance used to feel.” The song was recorded in 2009, but was shelved when De Sala passed away in 2010. “I just couldn’t listen to her singing,” Staples explains. “Then last year, I wanted to listen to it again, after four years. And I just heard it in a really different way. I didn’t hear it as a song I was wrestling with, I heard it as a moment in time. The thing that is really great about Lhasa’s song is that so many singers would have taken a line like, ‘I only dance to remember how dancing used to feel’ and made it so sad. Lhasa understood that there’s mischief there. To me, the female part of that song—she’s already figured out that she’s moving on. She’s not clinging to the past anymore. It’s the guy who’s doomed. He’s going to be hanging on for dear life in a place that he doesn’t belong.”

It’s the ability to effortlessly capture that nuance that makes The Waiting Room—both the album and the film—so moving and unique. It’s the work of a band that repeatedly opts for suggestion over grand gesture, and is able to locate the panic, pain, and anxiety of the human condition again and again and again. “It’s kind of not right that, for 25 years, we’re actually this much engaged in what we’re doing,” says Staples. “On a certain level of creativity, I think what keeps you going is the idea that there’s something missing that you’re trying to figure out. And it’s almost getting to the point now where you’re thinking that, if you could just solve it, it could just be over.” That the search never ends is what makes Tindersticks’ music so poignant, and so real.

Photos by Richard Dumas

Exclusive Embeds

Attention music journalists, publicists, and artists who like the idea of a review or feature driving direct sales: you can now create exclusive embeds on Bandcamp! A site like Pitchfork, Fader or Stereogum can use an exclusive embed to offer its readers a first listen of an album or track, complete with a link back to Bandcamp to pre-order or purchase. Exclusive embeds can stream tracks that you aren’t streaming from your public album page, they can be restricted to one or more sites you specify, and, like other Bandcamp embedded players, they can be customized for a specific size/layout.

For example, in the above embed, all but one of the tracks can only be streamed here, on this blog — they’re not streaming on C Duncan’s public Bandcamp site. And like every other Bandcamp embed, there’s a direct link to purchase the album (in this case, a pre-order).

To create an exclusive embed, first navigate to the desired album, then click the Exclusive Embed link below the cover art (if you instead see Share / Embed / Exclusive, click that, then select Exclusive Embed). Note that the album must either be a pre-order, or if you are a Bandcamp Pro subscriber, an album for which you’ve disabled streaming on one or more of the tracks.

In the Exclusive Embed dialog, enter the URL of the site where the player can appear, check which tracks you want to stream, customize the layout and size if you wish, copy the code, and that’s it! A few more details can be found here.

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