"A Certain Kind of Dream Quality": An Interview with Donovan Quinn
Donovan Quinn's (Skygreen Leopards) first solo album in seven years explores memory, love, and loss in no uncertain psych-folk terms.
5 December 2019
Donovan Quinn released only two solo albums during the 2010s: Honky Tonk Medusa in 2012 and Absalom in 2019. The latter is a set of 11 songs from the 11th hour of an unglued decade, a record both timeworn and new, whose title references a Biblical story of rebellion and regret.
Either solo or with the psych-folk band Skygreen Leopards, Quinn's writing dwells in love and loss, meandering through fleeting scenes of visual memory. But the moods are spiked with biting humor and abound in astonishing turns of phrase. "Me missing her is like nostalgia for the war" is how Absalom opens, delivered in Quinn's unmistakable, impressionistic voice.
Tones on Absalom recall the chamber pop and folk-rock watermarks of generations past. The inhabitants of these songs might be called down and out -- they're drunk in the rain, set apart, set aside, reminiscent and rueful. "May have gone a little bit grey, but hey, who gives a shit?" Quinn creaks in a moment of bitter resignation and transcendent whatever.
Seven years separate Absalom with its predecessor -- a length of time, the Old Testament advises, that must conclude with a forgiving of what's owed. "At the end of every seven years, you shall grant a release of debts," Deuteronomy commands. Is there something in parallel between a release of debts and a release of songs? Maybe nothing, but it's a resonance that, as with Quinn's work overall, creates a mystery in need of interpretation.
The phone conversation with Quinn tackled working through format limitations, the paradoxes of recording, going with intuition and being a prolific songwriter.
Congrats on the new album. It was a long time coming.
Thanks, man. It did take a long time. I'm pretty excited.
Absalom is your first solo album in seven years. What factors accounted for the long wait?
An album can be many things. Obviously, it grew around a 12'' vinyl format, which somewhat dictated pacing. It's a tradition that is no longer necessary now that you can go digital, but I like that tradition and its limitations. So, starting with the rough outline of having ten, 13 songs, and around 40 minutes, I began to think about narrative and what lyrical, musical themes could make a strong whole.
With Absalom that took seven years, I had the songs, but I didn't like how they worked together as a flock. So over time, I started to figure out how different aspects blend. In practical terms, that meant recording with a bunch of different folks in different settings and then doing heavy editing at the end. So, ironically, a lack of cohesion with the recording process was what provided the cohesion to the record.
I'm glad you brought up the recording process because there's a lot of home recording and a lot of solo recording on this. I think it really shows up in the album because it's very intimate, but it also sounds excellent. Do you prefer one way of working over another, in terms of being in the studio or recording at home?
No, not really. With Absalom both were necessary. With a band, like my band Skygreen Leopards, it's a little bit different because it's based around the relationship and the interactions you have with the same people. And so a studio setting is great for that because you can all be in the same room each time you go to record, and it provides the best environment for that.
For the solo recordings, it was different because there wasn't one band sound or one group of musicians that was providing the aesthetic. The initial recording sessions were at a pro studio in Sacramento, and my intention was just to do the record that way. But when I listened back to the tape, it wasn't doing what I wanted it to do. The songs were there, but it was too straight. So what I then did was I went and recorded a lot of the same songs over again at home, and then in different studios, and kind of edited everything together.
One of the reasons it didn't work is because in the moment I thought, "Okay, maybe an organ comes in here", or "Maybe this person sings with me", or "Maybe I'll try to sing in this way." But listening back to it, it didn't feel right. Using my intuition, I was like, "This seems like a misstep." So it became necessary to have the stuff at home, and be able to make changes, and edit things together, which was largely done with Ben Chasney, who mixed the record. So a lot of that credit goes to him.
How about the album cover. Who did the painting and why did you select it?
Joe Roberts did the painting. He's one of my really good buddies. He did my last album as well. He's a great artist, and I always trust him to do something cool. He showed me several pieces he'd done, and I chose this one just on intuition. It seemed to fit the album perfectly. It's called "A Night at the Loony Bin", I believe.
It's based on when Roberts was a kid in Wisconsin. There was an abandoned building that he and his young friends believed had been an asylum, and they dared each other to spend the night in this abandoned building. It turned out to have been an office building or something like that. The memory of it, the feeling of it, stayed with him, so he did this painting. I didn't know that when I first selected it, but it works well because I almost always write visual memory type songs.
I wouldn't consider Absalom a spooky album, but if you look at the tracklisting, you've got satanic nights, haunted trains, zombies, ghosts, lots of spooky stuff. Could you elaborate on your use of dark supernatural imagery in terms of your songwriting?
Well, I would say that it's kind of a recipe of sorts, where you're trying to dial into different elements. As I said, I write a lot of visual memory songs, a lot of love, and loss songs, and this has a certain kind of dream quality and certain melancholy in it, and I feel that you need a little bit of darkness there. But it's a dreamlike darkness, as opposed to something actually traumatic or violent. When I think about "Satanic Summer Nights", to me, it's dark, but it's dark in the way that Anton LaVey would be dark. It's not supposed to frighten or disturb anyone, but it's an ingredient there to provide the right mood.
Could we dig into Absalom a little bit more? Could you share a quick summary of that story and share why you chose to incorporate it into your songwriting?
Yeah, well, it's a Biblical story, and not being raised in a religious family or knowing the Bible super well, it's not something I'm coming at from the perspective of an expert. But Absalom was King David's son and Absalom rebelled against David, they went to war, Absalom was killed, and King David had regrets over it.
Reading over the story of Absalom and David, the aspects that appealed to me were familial conflict, a certain moral ambiguity in their characters, and how they might have seen things from a different perspective because they were at different points in their lives. Love and loss songs, whether it be romantic, relationships, family, or bands, have always appealed to me because it's a peephole into how characters view their own story, starting from a place of love and deep feeling and then mutating wildly over time via memory. Not that I don't like songs that deal more with ideologies and politics or straight narrative, but it's the visual memory songs that I care for the most.
In what ways do you feel like your songwriting has changed from 2012 to now? I know the album contains reworkings of older material, so that might be a little harder to answer, but how can you chart your evolution as a songwriter?
Well, as you get older, you get to know yourself better and better. I think this can be a good or a bad thing because you start to know specifically what your talents are, what it is that you like, and you don't like. Also, in terms of songwriting, probably the biggest change has been my guitar playing. When I was younger, I didn't think about it at all. I would just throw three or four chords together and be like, "Ah, it sounds fine" and get to work on my narrative.
Largely through playing music with Ben Chasny and Jason Quever, close collaborators, I began to think of the instrumentation a lot more, the melodies a lot more. So if you listen to the Absalom record side by side with any of the older records, the melodies and musical structures are more well-defined than they used to be.
What is coming up in terms of new creative projects or shows and performances?
Shows and performances are coming, but no confirmed details yet. As far as projects, I have a bunch of things queued up and ready to release. I have this series called "The Cult of Strangers" that I started, and they're songs that are more off the cuff, that I record at home, that I want to put out. As I talked about, Absalom took seven years, but ironically I'm a fairly prolific songwriter. I write songs all the time. It's just what an album is to me, you have to wait until it's a statement, and that might take a long time.