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"An Identity Crisis in a Good Way": An Interview with Will Stratton

The upstate New York-based guitarist talks about his newest album, his intricate guitar technique, and the need to write music in tumultuous times.

"Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn't, the wolves and blizzards would be at one's throat all the sooner." -- David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

When you think of the great guitar heroes, a string of images rises to the front of the mind: long hair, flashy electric guitars, fingers two-hand tapping lightning fast solos up and down the guitar neck. Modern-day guitar heroes are guys like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Yngwie Malmsteen, each of whom exhibits technical proficiency that borders on the alien.

Songwriter, guitarist and composer Will Stratton isn't typically thought of as a guitar hero in the way those shredders are, but he should be. While Stratton's style exists well out of the realm of lengthy jam sections and technical showmanship, his prowess with the six-string makes him the most underappreciated picker of his day. Stratton's newest album, Rosewood Almanac (his first for the Bella Union label), is itself a tribute to the instrument, or rather an instrument: he named it for his latest guitar, which is made in large part from rosewood. "When Bob Dylan was obsessed with his 'wild thin mercury sound'," says Stratton, "That's the sound of rosewood to me. It's almost menacing in its precision.”

Like its predecessors, Rosewood Almanac is replete with wondrous guitar playing. On past classics of his -- "If You Wait Long Enough" is, for this critic, his indisputable best -- Stratton fingerpicks intricate guitar parts that at first pass sound like they would require two or three hands to be played correctly. One can easily locate Stratton's nimble playing in the legacy of pickers like Leo Kottke, who in their top-notch guitar playing developed a polyvocal approach to the instrument.

With fingers as fast as Stratton's, the guitar can sing in numerous voices at once. On Rosewood Almanac, Stratton's plays more delicately than ever; the gentle figures on "Thick Skin" and "I See You" require an adept but subtle hand. Plenty of the tunes on Rosewood Almanac require speed -- see the gorgeous acoustic and electric guitars on opener "Light Blue" -- but Stratton's dexterity is always in service of the music, and never exists for its own sake. It's one of the reasons why his playing is so impressive. When technique doesn't assert itself, it makes it all the easier to appreciate.

Rosewood Almanac follows 2014's Gray Lodge Wisdom, an album recorded following rigorous treatment and surgery for stage III testicular cancer. The process of eradicating the disease took a toll on Stratton; he told one critic that while hallucinating on ketamine after a 28-hour surgery, he felt like he was possessed. Such tumult could take the best out of anyone, but based on Gray Lodge Wisdom and Rosewood Almanac, the only thing the cancer treatment took from Stratton was cancer. A portrait of unassertive triumph, Stratton hasn't let considerable setbacks diminish his musical output.

When I speak with Stratton a week before Rosewood Almanac's release, the Western world wrestled with its own rising challenges. The day before our chat, Emmanuel Macron won the French presidential election by a sizeable margin over the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen. The presidential administration of Donald Trump continued to pile on controversy after controversy -- a fact that didn't change even as I finished transcribing our interview. Stratton's life-or-death situation is distinct from these in numerous ways, but in thinking of the challenges of making art in the face of great trials more broadly, Rosewood Almanac grapples with big issues just as Gray Lodge Wisdom dealt with the aftermath of cancer.

Stratton and I talk about the ways to respond to what Bertolt Brecht called "the dark times," as well as the identity crisis that facilitated the lyrics and music of Rosewood Almanac. But first, I have to talk to him about his guitar.

You'll have to pardon me for some Guitar World-esque questions, but given the guitar playing on the album and the name of the album itself I can't help myself. Tell me about the guitar from which the album gets its name.

It's a Guild F-30R. This is the second one I've owned; for awhile, I was making enough money to afford to own a really nice Collings bluegrass guitar. The last record I made [Gray Lodge Wisdom], I recorded it with that. But then I had this huge tax bill I had to pay, so I sold that off and ended up buying the same Guild model I used to own. It's not a brand-new guitar; they're not currently making this model, but they were making it for awhile when the factory was in Connecticut, in New Hartford. It's just a nice, reasonably priced guitar with rosewood back and sides, and a spruce top. There's something about the neck that I really like; it's a chunky neck, almost like a classical guitar. It's easy to maneuver around on, and it has a crisp, dry tone I like a lot.

Prior to this record, was there a guitar central to each recording in the way there is on Rosewood Almanac?

I'm always trying to buy "the single guitar I'll own for the rest of my life," and I always end up selling it and getting something else. I tinker and experiment with instruments.

I tend to go back and forth between Guild, Collings, Eastman, and Martin guitars. It depends on the record; I think each record has one acoustic guitar that I wrote most of the songs on, and then I kind of move on to the next one.

Do you play acoustic and electric guitar differently?

I think I play electric guitar the same way I play acoustic. A lot of the time with the electric guitar, I'm doubling or replacing what I'm playing on the acoustic guitar. I'm trying to get back into electric playing. I just built a guitar out of parts over the last six months that I'm tinkering around with; it's a Telecaster deluxe style guitar, with the weird humbuckers that they used to put on those types of guitar. I'm super picky about electric tones, but I don't think my playing on electric guitar has developed apart from my acoustic playing. I'm trying to play electric more separately, getting to know it better as an instrument. But there were a good ten years where I wasn't playing much electric guitar.

It's a weird transition. The action is so much lower on an electric, so you have to be so much more gentle. There's a subtlety it requires that I'm not really used to. It's interesting trying to develop a separate language for that instrument; it feels completely different to me. I can't do a lot of the alternate tunings I use on my acoustic guitars on my electric guitar because the string gauges aren't thick enough.

Where do you get some of those alternate tunings from? You deviate from standard drop-tuning configurations in ways I can't wrap my head around.

They're usually derivatives of open C or open D; once I get there, I'll tune one or two strings differently and go from there. It's pretty much just trial and error. When I find a tuning I like, I can maybe get three or four songs out of it, and then I'll move on. It's kind of a songwriting crutch at this point; I can develop a kind of miniature language for each tuning. Occasionally, I'll come back to one, and there'll be all sorts of possibilities that I didn't realize.

I call them "modal tunings" or "sus [suspended] tunings"; they're just slightly off from an open chord. That gives you a lot more tonal range because you can alternate basslines from being on the bottom string versus the second-from-bottom string. That opens things up because I find my technique favors the right hand. I grew up playing piano, and so the dexterity in my right hand is far more developed than my left, which is not optimal for a lot of guitar playing styles. I grew up listening to people like Leo Kottke, who were kind of the same way, where it's really all about the patterns you could figure out on the right hand, which you then manipulate based on what tuning you're in.

Billy Joel said something similar about his piano playing. He started out doing classical stuff, but then when he moved into the rock idiom, he said his right hand did all the work, while his left hand just filled out basslines or simple ostinatos. Did you study piano when you studied composition?

No, I had stopped taking lessons at that point. I was still playing so that I could write for piano, but my piano playing dropped off at that point. I wrote a lot for strings and woodwinds in college; I studied modern classical composition, so I was using the piano more as a compositional tool. I still do that a bit; I've started writing more for piano, which is fun because it's kind of like uncovering this old friend that brings out different kinds of music than the guitar.

And I have complicated feelings about Billy Joel. [laughs]

Care to sum them up?

The first or second cassette I bought as a kid was the second volume of Billy Joel's Greatest Hits. I admire how workmanlike his music is. But I also have a love/hate relationship with him, because in so much of his music he sounds so desperate to be liked -- no matter what the style is, he's always seeking out the approval of the listener.

Given that so many of your guitar parts on this record and your past records are so complex, I've often wondered what they would sound like arranged for a string quartet or perhaps a chamber orchestra. Do you have aspirations for that kind of composition?

I desperately want to write for films. I want to get back to what I was writing for in college, mainly chamber orchestras. I think you can hear that in some parts on the record. On [Gray Lodge Wisdom] I didn't make any of the string arrangements because I just wanted to focus on the songs, but on this record, I did all the arrangements myself. I had so much fun doing it, hearing that stuff brought to life, and I had forgotten just how much fun that all is. We recorded all the strings in like an hour and a half or two hours, so it was stressful at the time, but it was also really gratifying to get that done.

I like writing for other instruments, sometimes more than for the guitar. So often I'm butting my head up against my physical limitations, and it's nice to be able to give multiple parts to individual people to realize the music in a different context.

That's a good way of putting it. On some riffs of yours, like the one on "New Vanguard Blues", it sounds like if you added one more note, the riff would be unplayable. When coming up with songs or riffs like that, are you using any other instruments aside from the guitar?

My songs usually start with me playing and then hearing where something comes out. I think there's something subconscious that's nice about not concentrating too hard. Other times, I'll sing something into my phone, like a voice memo. With piano, the melody usually comes out first, because things are so spatially laid out on the piano that it's hard to avoid. There's a kind of subterfuge with guitar; sometimes, I won't know what notes I'm playing, but I know what sounds good.

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