Current favorite Howlin' Rain lyric: "I staggered like a crow into the empire / Where the floating seeds of star thistles twirl."
- Oct 2, 2019
- 2 min read
Updated: Jul 18, 2020
So, a few years ago, as a part of my record-as-many-covers-as-possible project (the results of which you can still listen to if you scroll down far enough), I recorded a cover of Josh Ritter's song "Monster Ballads." At the time, I hadn't yet written and recorded Asphalt Ghosts and the big ol' pile of new songs I'm grinding through now was just a twinkle in my eye ("twinkle in my fingers"?).
Nonetheless, I knew that I wanted to get better at layering guitars, and at creating weirdish atmospheric soundscapes, which was something I'd never really done any of. As a writer and recorded and performer of solo folk songs, pretty much the most adventurous thing I'd ever put to tape intended for others' consumption were songs strummed on an acoustic guitar that might, maybe have had a spot in the song for a second guitar or harmonica to play a solo. Hell, even most of my harmonica parts to that point weren't overdubs, but played live along with the guitar.
The covers project was part of my effort to expand my studio production boundaries, and there were a few times that I pushed out beyond my comfort zone (falsetto on "The Ghost of Tom Joad," the guitar solo on "Here Comes Your Man," the fact that I played The Mighty Diamonds' "Have Mercy" at all), but I never really Got Weird for pretty much entire recording career until "Monster Ballads."
I have no idea why it was that song. It's not that spectacularly weird of a song, either on its original (excellent) record Animal Years or when Josh and his band play it live. My version isn't even that strange, aside from some piano that's disconnected from the song's rhythm a little and a guitar line that follows and then sometimes clashes a little with the verse melody. But looking back, recording that song was the thing that got me to start thinking a lot more deeply, suddenly, about what I could do with sound as one guy with a few guitars and a room.
Arguably, I took that lesson a little too far in parts of Asphalt Ghosts, but that was (in part, at least) on purpose. I might be recording forty-six songs for the new album(s), but none of them are as balls-out odd as some of the instrumental passages on Ghosts. Nonetheless, for the last year-and-change, recording doubled vocals, harmonies, second guitars backing the verse and chorus, reversed piano loops, and just straight up weird space noises generated by swinging my guitars at things and then stopping right before I hit them have become kind of second nature. And, in a weird way, I have this take on "Monster Ballads" to thank for all of it.
Give it a listen by scrolling down to the Monster Ballads single on the music page.