Singer-songwriter Shawn Fogel returns with a six-song collection of smart, clear-eyed songs. Titled Volume 1 it is the debut recording from his latest endeavor, Brothers in Yarn. We are pleased to premiere it for you today. The opening “A Million Tiny Arms”, which serves as a kind of prayer for a return to childlike wonderment, showcasing the purity of Fogel’s voice and his gift for crafting uncluttered, unhurried arrangements. The material carries an undeniable emotional complexity, avoiding the binary of happy and sad but instead exploring those shades between, the darkness lurking in the light as well as the light breaking through the dark.
We recently spoke with Fogel about the origins of Volume 1, which is out October 14 and can be pre-ordered, and the birth of Brothers in Yarn.
It’s been said that this record got its start when you had a bout of writer’s block. Sooner or later we’re going to struggle with ideas. What did that look like for you?
I’ve had writer’s block before, but this bout while working on the last Golden Bloom album, Searching for Sunlight, was the worst. I usually leave writing lyrics for last, and even though the music was written collaboratively, I still write all of the words myself. We had gotten to the point where all of the music for the album had been written, arranged, and recorded, and half of the songs had no lyrics. Several months went by and I still had absolutely nothing.
What was it that finally rolled away the stone, if you will?
I reached out to some songwriter friends for advice. Someone recommended reading a book to get myself out of my own head and jump-start my creativity. This made me realize it had been far too long since I actually read a whole book. It was December, so I decided I would make a New Year’s Resolution to read a book each month for the coming year, and to challenge myself to write a collection of songs inspired by some of these books.
The first book I read in January was Matilda by Roald Dahl. It was my favorite book as a child, and I thought it would be interesting to approach the book with a new perspective. Not only was it incredibly easy to write the song that it inspired, “A Million Tiny Arms”, but also felt like I was able to get back to the songs that still needed lyrics for the Golden Bloom album. I realized that the songs I had been writing for Golden Bloom were intensely personal, and they were all about me. I guess I just needed a break from myself.
I think there’s an expectation for singer-songwriters to be confessional or to write wry social commentary. These songs land somewhere else.
I made a real effort to approach songwriting differently for this project. Typically, I would come up with chord structure and melody before I even know what the song will be about. Having a specific book be the starting place for each song was an interesting challenge. I tried to capture the tone of each book, as well as the emotions of characters I identified with. Although most of the songs include specific references to people, places, or things in each book, I wanted to make sure the songs could resonate whether the listener had read the book or not.
Reading can be an incredible jumpstart to creativity. I’ve gone through periods in my life where I’ve opened writing sessions by reading for a half hour before flicking on the computer or opening my notebook. And, being a songwriter, you’re probably often thinking about words, expressions, etc. Are there certain writers you return to for inspiration or comfort?
Of the six books that inspired the songs on Volume 1, I had read three of them before: Roald Dahl’s Matilda, John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. Each of these books had made an impact on me at different stages of my life; Matilda in elementary school, Siddhartha in high school, and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man in college. Revisiting these books also allowed me to reflect on who I was when I first read them.
Although I haven’t necessarily found artist inspiration in them, I have revisited books by David Sedaris and Al Franken many times.
What inspired “Simple Math and Its Consequences”? I love the song, but I also love that it references Kansas, the place I’ve called home for a number of years. But, more than just getting a shout out, it reminded me that this one hell of a desolate place at times.
This song was inspired by John Darnielle’s novel Wolf in White Van. I love Darnielle’s songwriting as the Mountain Goats and found myself captivated by this long-form work. I tried to match the music of “Simple Math and Its Consequences” to the dark tone of the book as well as channel Darnielle’s writing style into the lyrics without sounding like I was trying to write as someone other than myself. You’ll have to read the book if you want more insight into the references to Kansas!
“The Silence of My Control” has that amazing, McCartney-esque bass stuff happening. It has this warm quality amid lyrics that aren’t exactly warm.
Thanks! When I first learned to play the bass I pretty much just played root notes (think Dee Dee Ramone). The first engineer/producer I ever worked with in a recording studio told me that if I wanted to write more interesting bass parts, I should listen to Beatles albums and focus on what Paul is doing. Calling a bass part McCartney-esque is the highest form of praise!
And you’ve said that “The Secret to My Insecurity” is inspired by Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.
When I first saw the movie adaptation of High Fidelity, starring John Cusack and Jack Black, I was going through my own version of Rob Gordon’s post-breakup “What does it all mean?” crisis, complete with phone calls and visits to ex-girlfriends. I had not, however, read the book. In fact, I’m not sure I even knew that the movie was based on a book at the time.
It was easy to write “The Secret to My Insecurity” in first person voice because I was able to identify the emotions of the main character within myself. There was also something very satisfying about using a book that deals so specifically with music as the inspiration for a song. I tried to write a song that Rob Gordon would want to put on one of his mixtapes.
You hired Jason Hammel as the drummer for this record. What made him the right choice for this material?
When I made the demos I relied primarily on drum loops and samples because of the limitations of my home studio. I knew that I wanted live drums on the EP and I wanted a drummer who would bring something different to the music. I’ve been a fan of Jason’s band Mates of State since I first saw them back in 2003. Golden Bloom opened a few shows for them in 2014 and we kept in touch. I sent Jason the demos to see if he’d be interested in playing drums. He said he loved the songs and enthusiastically accepted.
What’s the difference between Brothers in Yarn and Golden Bloom? Can they peacefully coexist?
Golden Bloom started out as my solo project. I had released an EP under my own name a year or two before and had put together a band to play shows with. I found that I was uncomfortable playing as a band that was billed as Shawn Fogel, so I decided to come up with a name for the project, even if the music was all written and recorded by me. Since then, Golden Bloom has evolved into a more collaborative project over the years. In contrast, I consider Brothers in Yarn a solo project, just like Golden Bloom was in the beginning. I also think of Golden Bloom as a vehicle for open-ended personal expression, whereas Brothers in Yarn is about forging creative connections between literature and music.
For these two Brothers in Yarn shows we’re playing in New Haven and New York City this month, the band is comprised entirely of past and present members of Golden Bloom. I think that’s coexisting pretty peacefully. Maybe someday we’ll play Brothers in Yarn / Golden Bloom co-bills and then we can argue about who opens for who.
There’s that moment in the Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back where a journalist tosses one out at Dylan and he snaps, “You got a lot of nerve asking me a question like that!” What nerve-y question would you ask Bob Dylan, given the chance?
Hmm, maybe something along the lines of what he thinks his life would’ve been like if Mavis Staples had agreed to marry him? I’m not sure if that’s nerve-y, but maybe a bit personal. Perhaps I should just ask him if he’s read any good books lately.