Chris Stamey Paints in "A Brand-New Shade of Blue" (premiere + interview)
Chris Stamey adds more new songs for the 20th century with his latest album, finished while he was in quarantine. The material comes from an especially prolific 2019. "It's like flying a kite and also being the kite. It's a euphoric time," he says.
A Brand-New Shade of Blue is the new release from Chris Stamey and the Fellow Travelers. Omnivore Recordings release the digital album on 17 July. Though tempting to refer to the collection and its 2019 predecessor, New Songs For the 20th Century, cut with the ModRec Orchestra, as part of a career renaissance, the truth is this new music is a continuation of the North Carolinian's singular odyssey.
What is more accurate is to refer to A Brand-New Shade of Blue as a brand-new chapter in Stamey's songwriting as he draws direct inspiration from cool jazz artists such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk and songwriting masters such as Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb.
The titular track speaks to the influence the aforementioned artists may have wielded over Stamey at some point but, more importantly, to how he has taken the influence and forged something exhilarating and new. This is neither the rebirth of the cool nor its second wind. If, as the American poet Albert Goldbarth wrote, ghosts are about unfinished business, this music, too, is about unfinished business. There's subtly and finesse found in these notes that have been lacking in American music for some time.
But one cannot merely settle these debts by dusting off the piano bench and summoning Cole Porter with a faithful but by-the-numbers reading of "Every Time We Say Goodbye". Instead, these debts are acknowledged by moving the familiar idioms forward. This is music that isn't interesting because of its ties to the past but, rather, because of how it greets said past without being entirely beholden to it. Perhaps unfinished really means ongoing.
Stamey points out that having spent the summer and fall of 2019 diving into the worlds of Bill Evans and Samuel Barber, he found himself in a flurry of activity in the late fall. "Suddenly, a flood of new songs appeared," he recalls, "in a torrent that kept me swimming alongside them for most of the month. It was a good season for songwriting, less so for anything else; I held tight to the piano, let the dishes pile up, and hoped to ride it out.
He adds, "It all started late one night when I tried to write a song called 'A Brand-New Shade of Blue' and failed. I had an idea where it should go but just couldn't find it. This song, or my concept of what it could be, was all I originally sat down to capture. I wrote it that first week, tossed it in disgust, wrote it again in the second. That sailed into the trash the next morning. The third version, well, friends, let's not talk about the third, okay? I knew what I wanted it to be but kept trying different ways to realize it: a version with quartal harmonies, a version with a tone row (yikes, talk about retro), a through-composed version where nothing repeated. But like a ball of yarn, it just kept unraveling. In the meantime, though, I was left sitting there at the piano. And guess what? Song after song, night after night, the tunes walked in, and I tried to keep up."
Then? "When I stopped, November was at an end, and yet I still had not gotten to the idée fixe here, the elusive sonic Sasquatch: the title song," he recalls. "It was only after I gave up on it pretty much altogether, however, after I turned my back on it that 'Blue' finally came out of hiding and tapped me on the shoulder, late in the evening in the first week of December, as a much, much simpler tune, one that now seems sturdy and solid and just right. And I'm proud that, even though there is famously no rhyme for orange, I could, in that song, at least quietly propose a serviceable chord for it."
The song, of course, would not be the song it is without the cast of musicians who helped the composer realize his vision, and Stamey is quick to acknowledge their contributions. "Brett Harris sang this, unaffectedly, vulnerably, beautifully, to kick off the sessions. Will Campbell (alto sax) and Elijah Freeman then underlined that searching quality to bring the song to life," he notes. "Charles Cleaver (piano), Jason Foureman (acoustic bass), and Dan Davis (drums) found some kind of telepathic ignition here, reading my thoughts and painting the full picture using only their deepest indigo hues."
Brand-New Shade of Blue isn't necessarily indicative of where Stamey will go in the future. He has another album, Sweetheart of the Video, ready for hungry ears as well. "I just finished it," he notes. "It's all guitars. Lots of arranging that's all four-part guitar harmonies and pedal steel, stuff like that."
Stamey spoke with PopMatters from his North Carolina home about Brand-New Shade of Blue and the art of songwriting itself.
You've mentioned that "Brand-New Shade of Blue" gave you some trouble but that it ultimately spurred the rest of this record. Does it happen a lot where you walk away from a tune, only to come back and say, "Now the pieces are all here"?
I've been in the songwriting racket for a long time and I know how I usually work and usually I can wait until the ideas have rolled around in the back of my head for a while and then get maybe get 80 percent of it in 15 minutes, maybe 20. It's not usual to get stuck. There have been maybe one or two songs in the last 50 years that have flummoxed me like that.
How do you feel when you're going through a prolific period like the one you described and the songs seem to just keep coming?
It's like flying a kite and also being the kite. It's a euphoric time. A lot of the process in this record was letting go in a lot of ways, both in that time of composition and in the recording because these last few records have been [about] writing songs on paper and then recording them rather than thinking, "How will I realize this in the recording medium?" The songs were really just a few sheets of paper.
For the last record, when I got around to recording most of the songs, I would hear orchestration and then record that orchestration as best as I could. I would try to capture what my hallucinations were of the music. On this one, I didn't. I really tried to leave it bare. There are a few string arrangements but mostly I tried to take what the players did and try to find the resonance of the notes inside the piano and let that be the violas.
I listened to a lot of Bill Evans over the summer and at first I would think, "Why didn't they have woodwinds there?" Then I thought, "Wow, I can dream woodwinds." I think I left a lot of space o this record for you to sit there and hallucinate your own orchestrations or hear what might be implied. In a way, it's a more active kind of listening. The singer leans in a little and all of a sudden you can pick up on all the nuance. You hear this on early Bob Dylan records, all kinds of music. Billie Holiday will rush a line a little bit and all of a sudden it's as if the heart was ringing out.
This is definitely a sparser record. In less elevated terms, I was finishing it while the pandemic was starting. Everybody was binging things and I was watching Bosch.He sits in his lonely room and looks over Los Angeles and plays these old jazz records in the dark. I started wanting to make that record, a record that would sound good in his apartment late at night on a tube receiver.
You wrote these songs on paper, so what is like when you get into the studio and start hearing the players fill in the blanks. Or leaving more blanks.
It's great. It's magic. I don't know if I have a compelling quip about it. My jaw drops. I'm also honored that some of my friends who have been mastering their craft for a long time will apply their skills to these pieces of paper. The people I've assembled are not in Los Angeles or New York but they can definitely hold their own with anybody in the country.
You have a songbook that accompanies this album and features the song "Persnickety", which I know you were working on after the last album.
We didn't record that one yet. It wouldn't work without everyone in the same room. It's really fast, you can't do unless everyone's in the same room, looking at each other. There's "Back in New York", which is a great song that I'm going to put out. There's actually a companion disc that I think we're going to call Complementary Hues. There were so many songs for the album, so the ones that had a little more of a backbeat or were a little more pop were held back.
Almost nothing has a backbeat on this record.
That's probably not something I should brag about because it'll turn people off. [Laughs.] Someone once told me, "Wynton Marsalis doesn't like anything with a backbeat." It's probably not true but you don't have to have that big guy banging on that snare on every two and four on everything.
Was jazz something you came to early on or was it something you picked up on later?
I think more musicians are much more catholic than their public face would suggest. When I started playing with Alex Chilton it was such a big deal for us to go see Charles Mingus. Alex loved him and he loved Chet Baker. Growing up, I would go see everybody. Classical music was more what I grew up with. But for jazz Mingus was particularly interesting because he was a composer first and foremost. I really loved those records when I was in high school.
Once I got to New York, the Art Ensemble of Chicago were kind of like my Grateful Dead. I'm not sure I could follow all of it; I'm not sure they could follow all of it all of the time, but I loved those concerts. The dB's were managed by a collective in New York that also handled Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton, a lot of the Chicago new music jazz players who migrated to New York. It wasn't as narrow as people were sometimes led to believe.
There are those great stories about the Grateful Dead and Miles Davis sharing bills.
I'm not a jazz musician. It's all based on songwriting. I'm trying to learn more about the way that chords fit together and the way melodies can work. I'm trying to become a better man as Jack Nicholson would say.
[Laughs.] I wanted to ask you about "Speechless" because that one struck me as ever-so-slightly different than the rest of the material. I heard more of an English influence in it.
That one does have a backbeat!
One of the two. It's an anomaly. It felt good to put that one after everything else. It felt like a nice encore. I don't know about English. I thought it was a Stevie Wonder song. He was always good with chords in a way that didn't make you think about them. Lyrically, it aspires to the kind of writing that Cole Porter would do. A list song like "(Let's Do It) Let's Fall In Love".
You have "Dangling Cheek to Cheek" which recalls earlier music but you have contemporary or semi-contemporary references in the lyrics. Like, I love country music but I hear so many songs that don't seem to know they were written in 2019 and 1938.
I think writing songs has always been, for me, like being a child at the beach: You walk around and you see these colored stones and think, "Oh, that's great. I'll move this here." It's a question of curiosity. It's not a question of planning or intent. I don't think about whether something is retro or modern. I think the state of mind when you're creating is not very calculating in that way. I will say that I was thinking about Depression-era songs.
"Come Home to Me" is definitely that kind of early 1930s kind of song. "Dangling Cheek to Cheek" is like "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" It was so much fun to sing Muhammad Ali and three-pointer shot. I don't know. I just didn't throw those lines out. I was curious and doing stuff that made me smile. Usually the songs where you are really calculated about it are the ones that tank. Nobody likes them.