an-identity-crisis-in-a-good-way-an-interview-with-will-stratton

“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.
Will Stratton
Rosewood Almanac
Bella Union
2017-05-12

“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.

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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.

Technique and technicality

Technique and technicality are topics that tend to get relegated to the “nerdier” side of the music press, like Guitar World and magazines like it. But in your decidedly non-Guitar World music scene, do you find that people talk about technique?

I’m more comfortable talking about this stuff than the emotional aspect of the music because so much of that is stuff that’s under the surface. I’m not actively thinking about it, whereas with the guitar stuff, it’s very tactile and I think about it in practical terms.

These days, I live upstate [in Beacon, New York]. When I do see [musical colleagues], we aren’t talking about what chords we’re using or whatever, but we do share music and learn from each other. Nathan Salsburg is a good example here — I admire him but don’t know him personally — and he has a website where he has a lot of his tunings up, it shows you which tunings certain songs of his are in. I haven’t been able to decipher any of those songs because they’re so complex, but sometimes I’ll go there and tune to one of his tunings, which will then lead me to a new, slightly different tuning that will give me some interesting results. It’s all dabbling; I don’t think I’ve had a dense, explicitly musical conversation with someone outside of college. It’s all just been osmosis and friendships playing out.

There are a few songs on Rosewood Almanac, like on Gray Lodge Wisdom, where there are multiple instrumental parts, drums, string sections, among other things. When you tour, though, you’re playing by yourself. Do you have a way of writing the songs such that you can re-create them in the live setting without feeling like something is missing?

When I play a lot of these songs live, they’re in different tunings than I use on the record. Sometimes I’ll embellish certain parts that were played by a different instrument on the album, and vice versa; there are times where I’ll strip out or simplify a more complicated part of a song. I tend to make my songs slightly different when I play live; I’m not looking to 100 percent re-create what is on the record, but rather to come at the song from a different angle.

I’ve been talking about doing some simplified string arrangements so I could tour with some string players, but for now, it’s just me., I’m constantly trying to write a full band record, but I can’t completely pull it off yet. It’d be really fun to tour with a band, but I think my guitar playing can get in the way of an ensemble dynamic.

Your touring regimen focuses on Western Europe, and you haven’t toured the US as much in recent years. Is there some way your music clicks over there that it doesn’t click here?

I don’t know. I don’t have a booking agent over here yet, but I’m about to try to make a push to play more in the States over the next several months because I’ve kind of been neglecting that. When I’m not on tour, I work a day job, and so I have to devote myself to keeping all of the balls in the air at the same time. I’d love to tour the United States; it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but for whatever reason, I’ve gotten more traction with my music overseas.

Were the lyrics to Rosewood Almanac influenced by any major themes in the way Gray Lodge Wisdom was influenced by your reflecting on your cancer treatments and recovery?

I think this is an “identity crisis” record, but not necessarily in a bad way. I wrote these songs while I was teaching at a boarding school. I was questioning what I was doing with my life, but also taking pleasure in a lot of non-musical pursuits, like spending time with my brother and his family and spending time with my girlfriend and her family. Some of the songs are about family life, about watching people you’ve known for a long time change, about moving to new places and figuring out what new places mean toward my own self-perception. I don’t think there’s the same kind of throughline [as on Gray Lodge Wisdom]; it’s more a collection of snapshots of different places I’ve found myself in the past few years.

When I was two-thirds done with the record, I was approached by Simon [Raymonde] from Bella Union, after which I wrote a couple more songs, finished up some string arrangements, and tied up a few loose ends. There’s an element of questioning on this record that then is subsumed by this purpose of trying to see things through.

On the title track of Gray Lodge Wisdom, you sing, “Why sing about God / When she don’t exist?” On your new record, you sing on the track “Whatever’s Divine”: “Thank Jah for your love / Thank Allah for your love / Thank God for your love / Or whatever’s divine.” Have you been thinking about spirituality more since your struggle with cancer?

I think it’s mostly a subconscious thing. I went to church as a kid, but it was a very Northeastern Protestant kind of experience; there wasn’t a lot of fire and brimstone in my religious experiences. I didn’t have much of a personal belief in any of it, but I was drawn to the ritual elements of religion. I’ve been an agnostic for my whole life.

I enjoy reflecting on religion, but I derive more symbolic meaning rather than deep spiritual meaning. Cancer caused a clarifying and deepening of that belief, which is similar to what I was reading at the time in Joan Didion‘s writing about grief and loss. Some people preach the gospel of positive thinking when they have cancer or another serious illness like it, while other people downplay that idea and say, “No, you have to get down to brass tacks and clarify what you really believe.” I had hallucinatory experiences in the hospital that, were I somebody different, might have had a religious effect on me, an “awakening” effect, but in my case, it reinforced an unwillingness to dwell on those questions at the expense of more pressing questions.

Have the post-treatment cancer checkups been good?

I’m in pretty good shape. I have a six-month checkup that I do. There have been some small, lingering issues, but overall I’m in really good health.

You sing on “Manzanita” about how “you love the way we grow old”. After having gone through the rigors of cancer treatment and coming out with a good bill of health, I hope you don’t feel you’ve grown too old.

With the cancer treatment, it’s like I lost a year of my 20s, and now I’m 30. But there’s no regret there. I came away from that experience with a lot of gratitude, and many memories that are, if not positive, really profound. I was really enjoying myself in New York City; I felt like I was getting somewhere, which is why I went into denial when I started to feel something was wrong. In the process of clinging to what I carved out for myself in the city, I allowed myself to get more sick before I was actually diagnosed and given treatment. So even though there’s a bit of regret there, it’s forward-looking. I don’t feel that I’m old, but it’s important to relish the process of getting older, to not sweep it under the rug.

Now having turned 30, and it being ten years since the release of your debut [What the Night Said], is there something 2017 Will Stratton knows about being a musician that he would want to communicate to the 2007 Will Stratton?

I was kind of a punk back then. [laughs] I was a sweet kid, but I was a little too sure of myself. I think humility, dedication, and gratitude — being kind to those around you — get people further ahead than sheer talent or self-confidence. I think I could use a little more self-confidence, but I wouldn’t trade self-confidence for the lessons that I’ve learned, which mostly have to do with being persistent and dedicated to your craft.

Chris Thile likened going back and listening to the early Nickel Creek records to revisiting high school pictures of himself, in part for the same way you just described your younger self. He felt that at that age, he was way more confident in himself than he ever would be as a more adult musician. How do you feel when revisiting What the Night Said and your other early material?

There’s probably one or two songs on each of those records that I can still play and get something out of. But yeah, it is kind of like looking at high school photos of myself. When I recorded What the Night Said, I had just gotten out of high school and I had a very limited perspective on what the world was like. Some of the sweetness in those songs is a reflection of that perspective. Those records don’t make me uncomfortable, but I do not identify with them at all as records at this point. There are glimmers; on tracks like “Who Will” and “Sunol” there’s an enduring aspect of my personality where I can still recognize myself in those songs, but on most other tracks I can hear who I was trying to sound like, or what I was trying to accomplish.

A common thread on your past few records, particularly Gray Lodge Wisdom, is the importance of place, on songs like “Dreams of Big Sur” and “Long Live the Hudson River Valley”. Do you feel like where you live now has given your music a distinct color?

I have trouble putting that stuff into words. I do some hiking out here, and I’m definitely influenced by the amount of nature that’s around here — it’s more literary, I guess. Part of my childhood was in California, and the other part of it was not too far from here, in Northern New Jersey. Those two places are pretty symbolic for me. The Northeast, for me, is about pragmatism and the realities of existence, while California is about optimism and looking toward the future. They’re pretty abstract ideas for me; that’s about as specific as I can get about them. Imagery pops up in a lot of my songs, lots of little references, but I don’t think any specific reference is all that meaningful. It’s more about the big picture.

You’ve been particularly active on Twitter with what to me is some particularly trenchant political commentary. Up until now, your music hasn’t been especially political, but given the tumult of American politics at the present, do you think that you’ll ever turn toward politics as a primary inspiration? Will there ever be “Will Stratton: The BernieBro Album?”

[laughs] I find it really hard to sing about political things, even though I think everything is political. I’ve felt like I was a socialist since I was really young, in high school. I’m always trying to figure out how to sing about politics more explicitly without coming across as a complete goober, but I don’t think I can really do it. The closest I can come is on songs like “Vanishing Class”, which is a pretty political song.

With this new material, I’m trying to sing more in other people’s shoes — kinda like Randy Newman, but less satirical. Who knows if any of those songs will make it on those next record, though? I read something George Saunders wrote — it was maybe in an interview — where he talked about the need for more empathetic art in the wake of Trump’s election, which is really the only positive artistic reaction I’ve had to Trump. Music, art, and film have the ability to bridge ideological gaps and bring people together.

But yeah, Bernie probably would have won. [laughs]

With that particular directive of Saunders’ in mind, do you feel optimistic about the future — however optimistic one can be in these times?

I forget who said this, but I think I’m a long-term optimist and a short-term pessimist. With some of my short-term pessimistic tendencies, it’s hard to know where to draw the line. Take the election in France yesterday: I think Macron’s election is a sort of stop-gap measure. He’s not going to be able to circumvent any of the forces that are giving rise to fascism in France, much in the same way I don’t think Hillary Clinton was going to be able to address the systemic issues in the United States that gave rise to Trump. On the other hand, if we can ride this out, if we can survive the demagoguery and the idiocy, and the fundamental misunderstanding that a lot of very desperate people have about what needs to happen, I think some really beautiful and positive change can emerge from getting through all that.

I hate to bring it back to cancer, but fascism is a cancer, it’s an ideological cancer. I think the process of emerging from a period of malignancy is going to make us better as people, just like it did the last time.

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