[30 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Psalmships is a folk project centered around the songwriting, aching lyricism, and deep emotional vocals of Joshua Britton, but it’s also a constantly shifting folk collective. The ever-changing group of players who record with Britton have helped create a discography of uniformly haunting and striking folk that also manages to never quite sit still. The records are always experimenting and morphing. I Sleep Alone, the latest Psalmships album, may be culled from various recordings, but it’s still somehow the most focused and potent album from Britton and company to date. It’s an album of spare parts—a solitary guitar, a drifting piano—beset on its far-off edges by subtle, expansive atmospherics. The songs may seem sparse, but the emotional heft fills up any and all space around it. These are often dark, isolated folk songs, but there’s a faint glimmer of hope on the outskirts of these tunes, a light that gives shape to all of these shadows. I Sleep Alone is a communal representation of very personal, very solitary ache, and one of the best and most deeply resonant folk records of the year. PopMatters caught up with Britton to talk about the album and Psalmships, and you can check out his insights as you stream the record. PopMatters is pleased to bring you the premiere of I Sleep Alone, out July 8 on Big School Records.
PopMatters: I Sleep Alone sounds—to my ear, anyway—like a natural evolution from the many previous Psalmships recordings. It plays with space like Kronotsky, but in a different way. It twists the intimacy of Anchored to Oak into something new, and experiments like Old Waves but in subtler shifts. What do you think this record reflects about where you are (or where you’ve been) as a songwriter?
Joshua Britton: The idea of being or feeling alone, and the struggles with loneliness and separation, have long been present in my music and writing. But never have I really addressed them directly over the course of an entire record, as I attempted to with ISA. And certainly it reflects where I was personally and professionally during the recording; despite collaborating with many great people to engineer, arrange, and perform these songs, I felt very much alone in the “administrative” role. When you don’t have a stable, consistent band, it can become difficult (especially over time) to feel secure and confident in what you’re doing artistically. Then add the role of managing the art, and things can get pretty isolating. But it was important to work with really positive and supportive people, so the record (and recording process) wouldn’t be completely drowned in its own subject matter.
PopMatters: Despite its spare feel, I Sleep Alone is still a record playing with texture and space. What is the process for you from writing a song on guitar or piano to finding these layers or expansions that end up on the record?
Joshua Britton: When other musicians are involved, typically giving them the space to experiment and find their way produces the layers. I can give vague non-sequiturs in an effort to explain what I might hear happening, but trusting these amazing people is the best fuel for fire. I play both the guitar and piano so sparsely—block chords and chunky hits with notes intentionally missing—that the layers are almost always a necessity. If I’m alone and mixing or over-dubbing, I usually build a few things on top of the base tracks (vocals and guitar/piano) and then just start tearing them away. Because the silence and the space matters just as much as, if not more than, the played instruments. I’ve always been moved by the pauses and reliefs in music, where reverb and sustain are more felt than heard, and the pace doesn’t even equate anymore. It need not be epic, but those moments create this tension that I want to get lost in. It’s where, a lot of the time, I actually feel like I know where the person performing is coming from; their patience, hesitations, insecurities, beliefs, all become less obscured by the performance in those moments. I keep that in mind every time I sit down to record.
PopMatters: One of the great tensions on this album is the way there are often people in the same room, sometimes talking to each other, and yet connection seems cracked. There’s still this carefully wrought isolation and distance. Do you find these sort of thematic strands running through your songs? What role does theme, or recurring ideas, play in your idea of what a record will be? Or what this record became?
Joshua Britton: I’ve been quietly amassing a concept catalogue from the start: there’s an overarching storyline being told, or rather, being collected in these albums. And I say “quietly” because it’s not overt. A lot of the subject matter is relatable, but the “why” behind the songs and the sequencing and the progression of records isn’t in your face. There’s still plenty of room for the listener to make what he or she needs from the songs and albums, regardless of my intents or purposes. One of the more obvious themes, I hope, is the search for a spiritual fulfillment. Part of why I make music and art is because of that search, so writing about the exploration is at least an achievable goal. It’s not as simple as “finding God” or seeking absolution, but more of a coming to terms with what I’m going to do while I’m alive, and if it really matters. The spirituality of humanity (where “humanity” means benevolence and not the human race) is a very important factor in my day-to-day, and therefore slips easily into the content. A good many conversations with my collaborators (whether they know it or not) help me to resolve, or at least continue questioning, our places and relationships in life.
PopMatters: Despite the isolation on I Sleep Alone, and bleak titles like “You’ll Never See the Morning”, “Every Day Is a Widow”, or “Heart Carries Blame”, some of these songs still seem to open up and reach out. The bellowing vocals on “Flesh Turn”, the jangling, dense guitars of “Heart Carries Blame”, that whistle on “Burying Words”—they all seem to reach out from solitary space. There’s bittersweet beauty here, to be sure, but do you also see hope or light on I Sleep Alone?
Joshua Britton: Absolutely. I’m well aware that the darkness, the bleak landscape of many Psalmships songs is hard to ignore. So I tend to search for what hopefulness might be there in the story and include it in the song. That dichotomy is important, not only to represent the dualistic nature of all things, but also to reflect the reliance of light on dark, and vice versa. I’m still here because of it. I’m still able to do whatever I do because of it. Pessimism is not an attitude I can comfortably live with, no matter how dark or bleak. I just strive to recognize the existence of those seemingly contradictory things. If I can do that, being “better” and whole is always going to be a possibility. I’m not a terribly depressing person, and my countenance is usually bright. But I recognize the hardship and pain, I embrace the difficulty of balance.
PopMatters: Like previous records, I Sleep Alone features a new set of musicians playing with you. How do you go about recruiting people for new Psalmships records? How do you think these players shaped the sound of I Sleep Alone?
Joshua Britton: I’ve worked hard to foster an easy, cooperative air in Psalmships. Letting collaborators and players come and go has been a great opportunity to breed creative exploits and evolving partnerships. Opening the door to one musician, obviously, brings with it the chance to meet and work with their comrades, and likewise adjusting to his or her departure provides more room for changes and re-evaluation. The biggest influence on someone being a part of Psalmships is whether I can be friends with him or her—can my trust be kept safe, can my insecurities be voiced comfortably, can our dynamic continue once the instruments are put away?
I’m not interested in finding the best musician for the particular part or song. I’m concerned with the best person to have along on the journey. Anousheh and Adam, as well as Allen Bergendahl, all came into the fold as a result of my love affair with Virginia and my friendship with Jonathan Vassar. A few years ago, the five of us worked on the preliminary tracking of what ended up being ISA (though only “Flesh Turn” made the final cut). Mike Batchelor and I have been friends since I started playing live; his opinions and sense of melody are invaluable to me. Brad Hinton has been a part of Psalmships in some capacity since 2010, and we collaborate on each other’s songs often because our awareness of each others’ strengths and pressure points is respected. And while Chelsea Sue Allen’s participation is rather new, her inclusion was nearly unavoidable; her playing, along with everyone else on the record, brought new life into some ancient songs and fleshed out tracks I’d written specifically for the album just days before recording them. All of them have a great sense of dynamics, of pace, and of boundaries. They are cooperative and patient and respectful. I am also a fan of their own individual projects, which gives me a healthy dose of competition.
PopMatters: Once I Sleep Alone is out, what’s next for you and Psalmships?
That’s difficult to say, really. There are no plans to record anything currently. It’s not that I don’t have the material, I just feel a break is due. There will be some auxiliary releases this year: collections of things that have seldom been available or out-of-print, perhaps another 7”. I talk monthly with Mike and Brad and Chelsea and drummer Daniel Harvie about what could happen next, so the conversation isn’t dead. I’d like to travel, spend more time building things and working on visual art, photography, graphic design. We might go out in September for a short tour, though, we’re in talks to make that happen.