Hermetic Music to Go: Talking to Ray Raposa


By Matt Ozga

Ray Raposa has settled down. For now. A man seemingly constantly on the move, the slight, soft-spoken 24-year-old songwriter, who records and performs under the name Castanets, has found a temporary home in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood—emphasis on temporary. “This is it, for a couple months,” he said in between sips of coffee at the Williamsburg record store/coffee shop where he works. A couple months is all Raposa can seem to tolerate living in one location; he’s been bouncing around the country since testing out of high school as a 15-year-old. But he’s sick of talking about that aspect of his life, so we’ll put it aside. For now.

Although 15 different musicians are credited on his debut album Cathedral, Raposa is the guy with the vision thing, the sole songwriting force behind Castanets. (And why does he call himself “Castanets”? “It’s too long a story, not worth the telling,” Raposa said. “It’s more of a couple-beers-at-night than a couple-cups-of-coffee-in-the-morning [story].”) Raposa has been supporting Cathedral by playing shows in the New York City area, with an East Coast tour set to kick off February 20th in Boston. He’ll be on the road for about a month—which, Raposa said, is fine by him: he does love to travel. But he’ll miss exploring his hometown-for-now, which he’s fallen for in a huge way. “[New York] is a big enough city that there isn’t really a typical day quite yet,” Raposa said, tugging at his long, straggly beard. “There’s always another borough.”

Since its October release, Cathedral has received breathlessly purple plaudits from all corners of the internet. (“An alluring, desolate album that convincingly explores the ambiguous intersection of a despair born of human fallibility and the fragile faith which holds the key to deliverance”, said Readbuzz.com in a typical example.) When asked if he was surprised his album has been so well received, Raposa blurted out the word “not” followed by 15 seconds of contemplative, beard-stroking silence. Then, finally: “Yes, sure. I mean, you work on something for a couple months of your life, and whatever prep work goes into it before that, [and] then it’s done and you have this strange piece of plastic. At that point, I think the last thing you want to do is start considering its fate—it’s done; I’m glad enough to be rid of it. So whatever happens to it [from] here on out is the sweets, the frosting.”

Among those sweets is good old fashion fan adulation, which has been “amazing”, Raposa said. “I really can’t take that for granted at all.” He’s even gotten semipopular enough to have earned an entry on the venerable Allmusic.com, which lists among Castanets’ “moods”: “Literate” (natch, Raposa’s writing a novel, more on that later), “Brooding” (hard to argue), and “Theatrical” (say what?). Raposa has seen the website; he didn’t understand “Theatrical” either. “I thought it was pretty hilarious,” he said, offering what he thought would have been a better adjective to describe his songs—“hermetic.” True, with its hushed, instrumentally spare moments, Cathedral often sounds like it was recorded in an abandoned house somewhere: just a man, his guitar, and backup singers so muffled they might as well be ghosts. But to call Cathedral merely “hermetic” is to neglect the frenetic, full-band noise explosions that cap several songs, providing the album with its most exciting musical moments.

Yet Raposa chooses always to isolate his vocals from those noise explosions. This is significant. By only singing during the quiet parts, he is clearly making a point, which is, Listen to the lyrics, dummy; they’re important. Makes sense; Raposa is a writer of fiction when he isn’t a musician. Indeed, the record itself was originally “supposed to be a song cycle, with obvious characters and a pretty definitive narrative arc,” he said. It didn’t work out the way he planned, although he said he was able to retain certain key themes: redemption, for example, and finding spiritual value in the seemingly ordinary, the domestic. “It’s a domestic record,” Raposa said. Okay—

Do you consider yourself a domestic person? I mean, do you want to find that someone, settle down? Get a dog, have a kid?

I’m pretty off and on.

In what sense? In the sense of wanting that?


Are you off or on now?

[laughs] Oh, I don’t know.

You don’t know?

I don’t know.

Raposa’s novel—which he said includes “fragments, letters, [and] lots of blatant metaphor”—was supposed to be released at the same time as the Castanets’ album. But it remains unfinished, and, even though his publicity people pump it pretty hard (part of the Raposa mystique, see), the book isn’t likely to see publication any time soon. Raposa hasn’t so much as looked at the thing in six months. Working on it simply fressed too much of his time; he had to break away from it or risk missing out on the pleasures of, well, “life, really,” he said. “Good fun living.”

His press release also plays up the whole travel thing. “Raposa tested out of high school at the age of 15 and traveled the U.S. via Greyhound bus off and on for the next four years,” it says. “This unusual educational experience spawned a musical vision that reflects a disquieting sub-strata of American life.” Consequently, Raposa has to hear “a lot of talk about travel” when he sits down for interviews. “It’s getting a little tiresome,” he said. “I don’t think [my travel experiences] were very crucial to my development or anything—especially my development as a songwriter. I’m not speaking for any greater populace or anything.”

Raposa is right, of course; half-right or not, he wasn’t just whistling Dixie when he said his songs were “hermetic”. Though their most obvious formal influence is country, a genre long dedicated to reflecting sub-strata of American life, Cathedral‘s songs attempt to uncover personal truths and universal themes, not to examine American dreams. Raposa’s more cryptic lyrics—and there are tons—too often obscure those thematic ambitions. But he can do openhearted and earnest with the best of them. “My God / It’s an eternity / Waiting for thee,” goes one song. “They’re still in love / Just waiting to be lifted up,” goes another. And, from the album’s simplest, prettiest, country-est tune, “As You Do”, this: “I bid you to love me as you do / I wish you to love me as you do / And I can’t ask you to take me and be true / But I can ask you to love me as you do.”

When asked which of Cathedral‘s songs is most fun to play live, Raposa responded, “None of them. They’re inherently not fun songs.” This is a problem. The minute-and-a-half burst of drum machine at the end of Cathedral is by far the most exciting moment on a pretty morose record. Fortunately, Raposa isn’t ruling out making an album of pop songs in the future. Here’s hoping he does. And, because you can’t be a nomad forever, especially when notions of a domestic life are tugging at your subconscious, here’s hoping Raposa finds that someone and settles down soon. At least then people would stop asking him about his restless ways.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/castanets-050308/