In February 2021, Alec Ounsworth released New Fragility, his sixth studio album as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. This beloved cult band garnered immediate success with its 2005 debut and has since become Ounsworth’s solo project. Releases have been sporadic, with a full-length LP dropping every three-or-so years since 2007, but the quality has remained consistent.
New Fragility displays Ounsworth’s most personal and political songwriting to date, two seemingly divergent developments that blend organically on the album. Whereas Ounsworth is known for his oblique lyricism, New Fragility opts for a more straightforward approach, both lyrically and sonically, than any of their previous records.
“CYHSY 2005” documents the friction between having to go on tour and the desire to stay back with a person you love. It’s a simple slice of memoir, providing one of the album’s catchiest and most poignant moments. The staticky piano ballad “If I Were More Like Jesus” closes out the album with a rumination on self-doubt, and opening tracks “Thousand Oaks” and “Hesitating Nation” document “a hesitating nation on the way to a nervous breakdown”. The result is an album that doesn’t differentiate between the topical and the deeply personal while showcasing Ounsworth’s knack for crafting earworm melodies and his endearingly creaky singing voice.
Ounsworth spoke to PopMatters from his home in Philadelphia to discuss his most recent album, what he’s been listening to, and how he bet against the Philadelphia 76ers winning the NBA title this year.
New Fragility opens with two songs that are political on some level. You’ve stated that “Thousand Oaks” is about a mass shooting that occurred in 2018 and that the song “has to do with the impotence of the American government in the face of such tragedies”. Other songs, like “CYHSY 2005”, seem entirely personal and memoiristic. How did you go about blending political statements about America with more personal ruminations to make the record cohesive?
I react to what’s given to me in a given situation. I was reacting to a sense of alienation in relationships and the United States during the Trump administration. I felt at a distance from the country. I felt at a distance from one particular relationship, but I was sort of trying to consider, after therapy, and after all of these other things, the distance that I felt in any relationship that I had and why that might be. Is it me? Is it the situation I’ve been handed? These are things that I was going over and the sense of disappointment that I had.
With “Thousand Oaks”, the sense of disappointment that the United States fails to tackle the issue of guns is a pretty substantial one. I’ve got two little girls. After Sandy Hook happened, I thought, “All right. Now is the time we address it.” I wrote “Thousand Oaks” because I saw an interview with a woman who lost her son, who was only in his 20s, at that shooting. I thought, how can we not address these types of things? How can we not accept the fact that we’re not infallible? I think that had to do with the relationships and my approach to what is happening in politics right now. Let’s allow ourselves to be vulnerable and understand that we make mistakes and try to fix them. So I think that’s why I was able to sort of match up a little bit, you know. I saw certain similarities in both of those things.
Over the years, you’ve written some dense lyrics that resonate emotionally with people in different ways and that offer up different interpretations. What is it like when you go through and read what people think your songs are about? Or what is it like when they tell you what they think your songs are about?
It’s usually that people tell me, and that’s fine. I’m lucky enough to have strong relationships with a lot of fans. They tell me what they think a song means, and I will tell them whether or not that’s correct.
As far as the people who are guessing, who are writing reviews or whatever, I don’t really have that relationship. In a way, I kind of wish I did, you know? I could explain myself more clearly. I don’t feel like I’m given much of a chance often to kind of clear things up. But I mean, everybody’s entitled to his or her interpretation of any given song. And I don’t mind.
I was often a nerd in that sense. I would have lengthy discussions with friends about what this DB’s song had to do with, you know, whatever. People who really want to dig in will. They can also reach out to me directly, and I will probably respond if they really want to know. I believe in those types of people who have a direct connection with it. You’re communicating, finally, with one individual, like I was wandering around with headphones on all the time. And now you have an almost direct access to the person who created it. That’s kind of cool.
What have you been listening to lately?
I just got this record the other day. [Alec holds up a vinyl copy of Astrud Gilberto’s The Shadow of Your Smile, a Brazilian bossa nova record from 1965.] I really like how her voice sits in the mix. She is an interesting singer, innocent but also very composed.
I’m trying to listen to a little less of the older guys like Robert Wyatt or Scott Walker or Keith Jarrett — people like that who mean something to me and have meant something to me and try to explore what’s new. My friends don’t recommend much new stuff. So I had to do a Google search of the best albums of 2020 or whatever. I went through 60 albums. I liked five of them, I think. A lot of them just didn’t speak to me.
But there was some good stuff. Magic Markers was cool. LOMA. Mary Lattimore. I know Mary. She’s from Philadelphia, so there’s a personal connection. The Soft Pink Truth, I thought was cool. The Microphones released something new. I like Thee Oh Sees. Whenever they put anything out, I’m interested in that sort of thing. King Krule, I like him. So I mean, I don’t dislike everything new. I’m not that much of a snob.
I’m sure there’s a lot out there. Maybe I just happened to not come upon the best “Best Of” list or something. Whatever. There’s so much out there, you know?
I know the answer to this question is probably ineffable, but if all these newer records don’t speak to you, what do you think is missing from them? Sonically? Lyrically? If you could try to break this down to its core, what do the older records you keep coming back to have that so many of these recent releases lack? What are you listening for and not hearing there?
What I’m looking for is not too complicated, I imagine — something that needs to remain with me or feels like it changes me in some way. The relationship between myself and an artist is very much like any other relationship and has to do with what I bring to it and what I’ve experienced. When it doesn’t work, it’s ok. We are just not meant for each other. That’s all.
You’re right. It is somewhat ineffable, but I have a very strong reaction to what doesn’t feel right to me, and this is informed by a number of things. It helps that it is well crafted, but even this is not absolutely necessary. I try to steer clear of dissecting songs in any purely objective way because thinking in this way makes one a bit mechanical. Nevertheless, a song that drifts from beginning to end better have some essential adventures in it, or else it is just sonic wallpaper.
What percent chance do the Philadelphia 76ers have of winning the NBA title?
Like a true Philadelphia sports fan, I actually bet against them winning last year. This year, I bet my friend a couple hundred dollars that they would not [win]. He bet that they would win the whole thing. And I want them to, but I’m a realist as well. I don’t necessarily see them getting past the Lakers. Now the Brooklyn Nets are problematic. In the east, I kind of like the [Milwaukee] Bucks. But they’re doing well so far. I’d like to be proven wrong. I’d be happy to let go of the money if they win.