Having previously released an album entitled Scars & Knives, the Michigan native has spent his recent years working as a clinical psychologist, Guerra was inspired to return to the studio thanks to his friend Ian Schreier (Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, 9th Wonder).
“I had gone cold turkey with music for a number of year,” Guerra recalls. “I don’t think I had touched anything for at least five or six years. In late 2015 or maybe early 2016, I started reconnecting with some of the local people, including Ian, who mixed this record and mixed a prior record of mine. He invited me to his studio and it was pretty clear he was trying to get me to rethink my decision to not engage with music. Our conversation and being in the studio kind of sparked things again.”
Created in his own home studio, Guerra used an approach that he describes as “almost improvisational”, in the making of Carnival Barkers, incorporating drum patterns, keyboards and a variety of other instruments to craft the material. Along the way, he discovered a particular lyrical theme: The carnival barker, the person who tries to sell the unsuspecting a better life, a quick cash-in, a cure-all for what ails them.
This is an album in the traditional sense, a song cycle united against a common enemy. The record proves itself as much reportage as cautionary tale, replete with complex melodic and harmonic turns as well as truth-seeking lyrics that can provide hope in moments of hopelessness. Sometimes the portraits are elliptical, such as on “Window”, a portrait of a victim who has a narrow point of escape or “Flood”, in which the barker sells prosperity in the guise of chance. Elsewhere, there is the chain-gang-cum-Peter Gabriel rhythms of “Anchored”, a reminder of those less fortunate, the souls who sleep beneath our watchful eyes, the families who perish in the cracks or rivers of lives. Each is informed by unsuspected musical currents that sweep the listener along in the journey.
At times reminiscent of Paul Simon’s most woke moments, the early solo work of Peter Gabriel or Los Lobos’ ode to the silently suffering, By the Light of the Moon, Carnival Barkers is an exquisite portrait of the times that try humankind’s collective soul.
Guerra recently spoke to PopMatters about the elements influencing this album and how an artist finds their way in a climate that’s increasingly cluttered with competition.
Where and when did the lyrical themes of Carnival Barkers begin to present themselves?
The writing, in a way, coincided with the nomination process in the last presidential election. I started thinking about songs that would address the salient themes of the moment. The exploitation of prejudice or concern about “others.” I also wondered about what it would feel like to feel powerless. Things like “Helpless”, “Muggers”. All of that gave me an angle in in terms of the psychology of social influence that’s pretty malignant at times.
My understanding is that your work as a clinical psychologist involves working with those who suffer from anxiety and trauma. Are the carnival barkers of the world capable of causing anxiety and trauma in people?
I’ve had people reference what’s happening in politics. If someone has had interactions with people who might have been manipulative or exploitative or lied, the political events can activate that. But even without the political side, I’m often working with people who have been on the carnival barker side of stuff.
Have you long been fascinated with the carnival barker and what that role means?
I saw it really as this overarching conceptual umbrella. It helped me as I thought about how these songs were going to make sense together. From the start, I viewed this very much as an album. A group of a few songs hitting on a pied piper sort of thing. “Charmer” opens the record, very much in that vein. “Wolf”, a few tunes later, is a variation on those same themes. It wasn’t something I’d thought about for a long time but it resonated with me when I thought about it as a way to bring together the lyrical threads of this record.
We all want to fit in and sometimes it’s easy to be taken in when we hear someone say something that resonates with us.
There’s a question there: Why is someone doing something? What are the motives? What is the psychology? How does that happen? Why are people responsive to that?
I wondered, listening to this album, if you were influenced by progressive rock? There are chord choices or melodic choices that speak to that influence. You don’t always go in the obvious direction.
There was a period in my late teens when I was really influenced by late ’70s/early ’80s British pop. XTC, Squeeze, Elvis Costello. The progressions in those songs are super-interesting. In my tunes I usually feel like there needs to be multiple sections. Sometimes, instead of returning to the chorus, I’ll introduce a new section and end it with another one.
Who do you see as the audience for this album?
Ten years ago I think I was much more concerned about this question. When I struggled to find what “that audience” is, it was pretty impactful. That is, frankly, why I didn’t write for a while. At that time, I was trying to make a go of music as a career. I had a choice: Do I finish my psychology grad program or do I keep hunting for my audience?
Now, I’m less concerned about it and I think that’s because I’m confident about what the hell I want to write. If there’s an audience, there’s an audience. If there’s not, there’s not. Because I have another field that I’m engaged in and I dig, it doesn’t feel as threatening to me. It’s probably healthier for me this way.