Still Flying, the debut album from Bridget Kearney (Lake Street Dive) and Benjamin Lazar Davis (Cuddle Magic, Okkervil River), arrives 8 May via Verve Forecast. The album is the result of a 2019 collaboration between the two longtime friends and Ghanaian musicians Aaron Bebe Sukura (master of the gyil, a wooden xylophone) and kologo giant Stevo Atambire. The material is a seamless blend of the two worlds and bravely strikes out at something new.
Pieces such as “Still Flying” and “The Weatherman” are laden with pop-style hooks but feature layers of sounds and rhythms that move behind what would normally move one to the dance floor. The material’s not as outré as Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew but it challenges the senses and asks to cast aside past sensibilities and embrace the beautiful and comforting climate of the strange. On these two songs and many others, rhythms that shouldn’t occupy the same space become comfortable companions and carry us into brave new listening experiences that we didn’t know we wanted and yet now can’t imagine living without.
With “Earthly Joys” and “Beethoven’s 9th” we witness what both Davis and Kearney have done exceedingly well elsewhere in their careers: Marry topnotch musicianship with the ineffable oomph of the almighty groove. Still Flying is one of those records whose mysteries will continue to reveal themselves for a long time to come and those mysteries will doubtless continue to please the listener intent on losing themselves in sonic ecstasy and the one who wants to probe the deeper waters of construction and composition. This is breathtaking work from four master musicians unafraid of going into the unknown.
When did you know it was time to make this record?
Bridget Kearney: We’ve worked together in various capacities for a long time. We met in college. I remember meeting Ben for the first time: I was in a practice room, someone knocked on the door, and it was him. “Do you want to play?” [Laughs.]
Kearney: We were roommates for a while. I played in Ben’s band, Cuddle Magic. Maybe ten to 12 years ago, we had our first duo performance. We were called Bbgun for a while, just doing a mix of each other’s songs. We decided to take a trip to Ghana together.
We’d both been interested in Ghanaian music since college, maybe even before that. We studied Ghanaian percussion music with this teacher at the New England Conservatory. Ben had been to Ghana once with his brother and a friend of theirs. We went together five years later. We did a lot of studying. The primary person that we connected to and worked with a lot was Aaron Bebe Sukura. He plays the gyil. We found both his playing and his ability to break down the music and help us understand the patterns within it were great and powerful for us.
We wrote some songs based on what we were learning from him and recorded them as an EP. [Bawa.] Five years after that, 2019, we decided to go back to Ghana. The reason that we wanted to go back was that Colter Harper, who was a professor at the University of Ghana, who is American, was going to be back in Ghana on a Fulbright to build a studio for the students. He said we should come back, that we could stay with him and study with Aaron again.
We decided to do it and to make a full-length record this time. We brought some recording gear, but no songs were written. We were going to be there for a month, so we decided we’d write and record it all in that month.
Benjamin Lazar Davis: Two-and-a-half or three months later, we had the final masters. It was so exciting to have that momentum sweep over us.
Kearney: It’s pretty unique for the way that both of us usually work. Most records that I work on take a couple of years: Collecting compositions, changing them, recording them. This was an opportunity for us to make a really focused project. We had certain components and made the best thing we possibly could in that time.
What’s different about the music of Ghana and what was attractive about it for both of you?
Davis: The music that we were excited about involve these cells of repetitive patterns with only five notes. There’s no IV note. To me, the IV note is one of the most emotional things that exists in music. The fact that there’s no IV note on the gyil means that when you put that chord under it or over it, there’s a change in the way that it feels. It reminds me of fiddle music. A lot of that music is pentatonic as well.
With the kologo, another instrument that’s featured, there’s also an incredible feeling, but what you can play on it is really impossible to notate in the western sense. Bridget studied music in Morocco a little bit, and this has that desert feel that is elliptical and inspiring. The whole project was about being inspired and imprint our sound on what we heard and what we learned.
Kearney: Kologo music and gyil music are from different regions of the country and, at least according to the musicians we worked with, these styles don’t generally interact that well with each other. In both, there are parts that excite my heart, my emotional side, and parts that really excite my brain, especially when you dig deeper and analyze the complexity of the patterns that are in the music. It’s something that was brand-new to me.
With kologo music, the time feel is so explosive that it disrupts your whole sense of what’s possible in time feels. If someone is able to do something that’s completely outside the definition of what we call rhythm, then anything is possible.
How would a typical composition begin?
Kearney: A fair amount of them began with these cells of gyil parts that Aaron brought to the table. He would be playing a looped pattern. Then we would take the looped pattern and manipulate it, shift it over in the bar so that it starts in a different place. We’d layer textures of harmony over it that would put each note into a different harmonic setting. When you shift the orientation of where the pattern exists in the bar and put different harmony underneath it, the note becomes something different. It’s no longer the one; it’s the four in the new key.
The process sounds very nerdy, but it’s always with the intent of communicating a feeling. Any time we’re applying a different tempo or a different beat or a different harmony to what we’re starting with, it’s always about communicating a feel.
The parts that started with gyil would also inspire what came lyrically. Once you’re able to listen to something and groove on it, you can decide, “What story does this want to tell?”
BLD: We’d start with the cell a lot of times, harmonize it and put beats and lyrics over it in that basic order for half or maybe a little more than half of the record. We took Stevo Atambire in and did four tracks where we had the cell from the xylophone music and, in some cases, already had the song completed. He would add his melody and lyrics on top of it. Bridget would explain what the song was about, and within four hours, sometimes he’d blast through with his ideas.
For two of the songs, they started with seeds he had. With “Dog Teeth”, he came in with a kologo part and a kick drum pattern. We took the kologo part and slowed it down and lowed it an octave and then wrote verse melodies under that and took pieces of what he did and repeated them as choruses, generally changed the order.
BK: There are a couple of songs that don’t have Stevo or Aaron on them, just Ben and me, but I’d say they’re also constructed similarly. “I Can Hear You” is only based on a song form that we heard. We heard these gyils playing that, and I said, “Whoa, that’s a cool form. I’ve never thought of writing a part like that.”
Those stems were helpful because we weren’t just staring at a blank page. And those stems also influenced what the song ultimately became. The essence is always there at the end of the process, but sometimes it leads you on an unexpected path.
BLD: With “Endings/Beginnings”, we started with this cell that we learned from Aaron, then went on this 17-hour bus ride with him up to the village he’s from. On the bus ride, we had our phones, with GarageBand on them, and we inputted a pizzicato string sound, which is still in there a little bit and then patterns from the xylophone. So on that bus ride, we reharmonized it and came up with the chorus melody.
When there are these different rhythmic and harmonic environments I would imagine that that also influences the lyrics.
BK: I was exciting for me as a sometimes topline writer on this record to work with these tracks. The beats and the setting for the story that you’re telling is pretty different than what I’m usually writing over. That encouraged me to write a different kind of melody and to land on different kinds of rhyme structures.
“Dog Teeth” is a great example of that. Ben and Stevo had worked on it, then I took a pass at it, and Ben said, “That’s cool, but I was envisioning something that moved along a lot faster. Something more percussive with more words.” I came back with a second-round that was completely different than what I had first imagined for it. I think it landed in this world that I’ve never put myself into as a writer or vocalist before. It was a really exciting place to land.