Chris Stamey‘s new two-CD set, New Songs for the 20th Century, arrives 28 June via Omnivore Recordings. The collection finds the singer-songwriter taking a striking turn in his already storied career. Inspired by sheet music (Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, etc.) discovered in an old piano bench when it, and the accompanying instrument, arrived at his home in 2015, the North Carolina-based musician wrote a series of songs inspired by the Great American Songbook.
Assembling a series of players who were dubbed the ModRec Orchestra, Stamey includes 26 compositions on this new album. A range of vocalists lent their talents to the material: Familiar names such as Don Dixon, Marshall Crenshaw, and Caitlin Cary as well as the equally formidable Django Haskins, Nnenna Freelon and Millie McGuire.
The result is an album that spotlights Stamey‘s musical versatility and fertile imagination plus his ability to accurately capture the spirit of the songs and composers who inspired this new journey. Too often Great American Songbook-inspired collections feel like wan pastiche. But New Songs for the 20th Century has no ironic winks, and there is no waft of faux homage. The artist and his collaborators have fully immersed themselves in the music and, as a result, the listener may fully immerse themselves in the experience.
They can get a sense of this via the newly-issued “Insomnia”, which in the space of just under six minutes, perfectly exemplifies the full album’s intelligence and exuberance for rich harmonic environments and material unencumbered by compositional excess. Not a note is wasted.
Stamey points out that “Insomnia” was one of the first pieces tracked. “The sun had gone down at the Fidelitorium after a long day of playing, and the band, in this case, Kirsten Lambert (singing), John Brown (acoustic bass), Dan Davis (drums), Jim Crew (piano), Will Campbell (alto sax), and me on guitar, thought about calling it, but we decided to try this chart instead. And we got this quite delicious, evocative track, which seemed to flow out of midair, to chills all around.”
Bill Frisell and Nels Cline added typically deft touches to the song. Stamey adds, “When I played it for Bill and Nels, they knew exactly how to take its essence and blow it up into vast Technicolor fantasia, blowing my mind in the process. All I added after this, as far as arranging goes, was the quietest of tremolo strings on the choruses, based on a gesture of Nels’.”
The composer recently spoke with PopMatters from his home in North Carolina.
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This album recalls some of the earliest music you heard, pre-rock stuff. Thinking back on the songs you’ve written, did the music of your formative years find its way into your songs in ways you didn’t expect?
In my peer group, writing rock music in high school, with Mitch Easter and Peter Holsapple, we were using distorted guitars, and you just can’t have very many notes in the chord when you’re doing that because it just sounds like it’s blowing up. You play a major seventh chord on a piano or voice it for woodwinds, and it sounds like one thing; if you play it on an electric guitar through a Fender amp loud, it sounds like everything’s gone wrong.
So I did constrict things harmonically, for the most part, when I started writing songs. But I don’t think I was naïve about the songs I’ve written before this release. It is the difference in writing on piano. It’s also easier to play four and five note chords on piano than it is on guitar. Or the kind of guitar I have.
There’s a song called “From a Window to a Screen” by the dB’s that starts on a flat nine. It’s a B7 chord, but the melody starts on a C. When we were doing stuff like that, we were completely aware of it. It wasn’t random. So, writing this record in this style was partially a question of being freer to have denser chords consistently, but there’s also a richer language available when you’re not screaming. It’s also writing in a more constricted form, in a way, because so many of these songs are exactly 32 bars. A lot of them will have a 16 bar A section, a 16 bar B section, and an intro and an outro.
Writing in a rock band, you can do all these cool, dramatic things as it goes along. For that second verse, you can make it one-and-a-half times as long. You can pull half a bar out before the next chorus. You can do all these little dramatic shifts, but that’s almost like writing the movie. This kind of writing is more like writing a script. You’re writing it in a traditional form that can then be interpreted easily by people that pick it up and look at it for the first time.
How far were you into writing these songs before you knew it would be an album or was that always the intention?
I just wanted to collect stacks of paper.
But I started working with a singer named Kirsten [pronounced “Shirsten”] Lambert. We got together a great group of musicians and did a whole bunch of tracks that have, for the most part, not been released. But the first few of them are on this recording. “Insomnia” is one of them, “What Is This Music That I Hear?” is another. She started covering songs of mine that had already been released over the years and then I started writing new ones for her. That got me going a little bit and, really, I just kept at it.
I wrote a number of songs with singers’ or other songwriters’ styles in mind. “Lover, Can You Hear Me” is kind of a Billie Holiday song and Skylar Gudasz has this whole Billie Holiday quality to her voice, so I thought I’d do that one. There’s a song called “On an Evening Such As This”, which I wrote after playing Mancini’s “Moon River” with Mike Mills in Seattle. With “It’s Been a While”, I wanted to write a ballad for Tony Bennett. [Writing this material] was at times like learning a new language.
It was like an education to me. I would give myself tests. I was writing a bunch of more dense songs. “The Woman Who Walks the Sea” is a good example of a harmonically dense one, some tertiary and tritone movement. When you think about what Gershwin was doing or certainly what Irving Berlin or Harry Warren were doing, however, they often were writing songs that had rhythmic propulsion to them more than harmonic propulsion. I thought, “Let me try that.” That’s when I wrote “Manhattan Melody (That’s My New York)”. It’s almost “Hit the Road, Jack”. It’s got some harmonic interest, but mainly it’s just a cool rhythm.
I would think that hearing the songs realized in this setting would be a different experience than hearing your compositions come to life on a rock record.
This was so new to me in so many ways. It was fantastic when it would work. A lot of the players that I was using were really highly skilled at looking at a sheet of paper and making it come to life. It was really good for me because sometimes it would not be what I expected. It was almost always better than what I expected. I’d gotten to the point, working with the rock players, where I kind of knew the ins and outs of how that worked.
I’ve been doing that for a long time. Sometimes a jazz drummer [on this record] would do something that was so counterintuitive to me that my jaw would drop. [Laughs.]
But it would be great. There is something to the art of improvisation in jazz [where it’s about], “Let’s not fool around. Let’s do it now.” It’s happening right now at the moment. It’s not, “Let’s do pre-production.” That’s always been something that I’ve valued in any kind of music. The idea that you’re in a room right now and you’re making something that’s for real. It’s not like you’re going to woodshed it and come back to it a couple of months later. That was happening every day doing this kind of tracking.
Is this a direction that you want to pursue further or have you said, “This was such a special experience it has to stand alone”?
I consider this to be two volumes, and I’m writing a third now. I have a new song I’m finishing called “Persnickety” that I really like. It’s a bebop instrumental in the style of Monk.