There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington
The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.
3 April 2020
Paradise Of Bachelors
"I've always felt the passing of time very keenly," says James Elkington, the guitarist, songwriter, producer, and improviser whose resume stretches to several small-font pages. He is, for instance, guitar player of choice from some guys who play very well themselves -- Jeff Tweedy and Richard Thompson, for instance. In the aughts, Elkington fronted the late inimitable Zincs, a band that the Nightingales' Robert Lloyd pointed out was extremely funny, even if no one in the audience ever got it. Later, he teamed up with Janet Bean and Zincs bassist Nick Macri in the skewed traditionalisms of the Horse's Ha.
He plays with a good swathe of Chicago's improvisational community and jams in tandem with Steve Gunn when he's feeling freeform. He produces records for lots of other bands (including the rather wonderful new one from Nap Eyes). He has two kids at home, one six and one six-months-old. In short, he is busy, and he likes it that way. But still, he worries that he might not get to everything. "Even when I was a kid, I felt that there was not enough time to do what I wanted to do. It might be something to do with thinking too much about things," he admits.
In a lengthy, discursive interview, the Chicago-based musician does, indeed, think about many things, the flow of conversation haring off in one direction, only to double back and circle around and head out on another tangent. "Sometimes, I feel like I can't do a good job of something unless I've explored all the options," Elkington observes. "Also, and I don't know how relevant this is, but as a kid, nothing came naturally to me. People would find that they had certain talents or areas of expertise and would quickly begin to excel in some things but not other things. I didn't seem to have anything at all. I felt like it would take me longer to get to where people would get to quite quickly."
Case in point, his solo albums, first Wintres Woma in 2018 and now Ever-Roving Eye, both warm and gorgeous, studded with striking lyrical imagery, arresting melodies and intriguing musical intervals. And both several years in the making. "I think, okay, I'm going to start writing a record now. I know full well that it might be two or three years before I get the thing finished," says Elkington. "So, I have this underlying concern that everything is going to take me longer than it would take the average human being. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I seem to have a sort of baseline anxiety about that.
"The older I get, the more personal my material seems to get," he adds. "To this record deals with a lot of that and also the question of whether feeling the passing of time, is that a real thing? Is it something to get upset about? Because I know on an intellectual level that it shouldn't be. Really if you get up in the morning and do your best, that should be enough. Still, I can't shake this weird feeling that I'm going to run out of time to do the things that I want to do."
And yet, even so, he gets an awful lot done.
Same But Different
Elkington's music strikes a warm traditional tone, with echoes of Pentangle in his agile playing, his warm vocal tone, and the half-blues, half-Traditional British tenor of his songs. His latest album, Ever-Roving Eye isn't radically different from Wintres Woma, though it's not exactly the same either. Says Elkington, "I wanted to do the same kind of a thing but with kind of a broader palette. That was the idea. I'm not even sure that actually happened. I may have made the same record again."
The songs, originally, were more varied, but as he worked on the album, he started to let the outliers go. "I'm a big fan of coherence in records, and I wanted everything to sound like the same family of songs. Some of the things that I tried really just didn't work out. It's not that they didn't work out, but they didn't belong in what the majority of the record seemed to want to be," he says. "In my experience, there's always been a point of surrender with me where whatever my best-laid plans may be; they have to take a back seat to what this record is."
For instance, he'd been working on some songs with elaborate chamber-pop arrangements, along the lines of Scott Walker's music, but decided they didn't fit. Some older songs fell more into line with the rest of the material. The instrumental "Rendelsham Way" had been written and recorded for Wintres Woma, and "Leopards Lay Down" had existed, in some form, for most of a decade. The single "Nowhere Time" -- see how time keeps popping up? -- was written fresh, in about ten minutes, and Elkington knew immediately that it would be the first single. The record took shape quickly at first and then took ages to complete, says Elkington.
"The thing that was actually kind of slow, actually writing this record, was just trying to finish it up once the direction had kind of established itself. Trying to get that one or two songs to just kind of round it up took longer than I thought. Half the record was written pretty quickly, and the second half was almost written in reaction to the first," Elkington recalls.
My Friends Make Friends with Horror
Elkington's songs tread gently around gaping existential angst. Horror is a recurring motif. The songwriter says that's partly a reflection of contemporary events, but also his ongoing fascination with the horror genre. "The horror comes when you're bearing witness to a situation without having any control or agency over what's happening. Which is something that, yeah, we all have felt for a while. It's a strange time to be alive," he says. "But at the same time, a lot of the stuff I've been writing does reference my younger life. And me and a lot of my friends were into horror films, too. Which is a fairly common male juvenile pursuit. Not like frightening horror. More like campy period horror. I'm still interested in that stuff. But I think partly I'm interested in that stuff because it's a way of connecting to my younger self."
The lyrics couch striking, sometimes shocking imagery in oblique terms. It's not always clear what Elkington is describing. That open-ended-ness, he says, is intentional. "I'm not a big fan of directness in lyric writing. For me to enjoy it, I like there to be a sort of open space for interpretation, for me to sort of commune with it. In a way, I feel like the listener is the person who completes the loop. So, you have to leave some space there," he says. He admires writers like David Berman and early (non-racist) Morrissey who write precisely, yet still leave room for personal interpretation; he reads a lot of Dylan Thomas. "I also like a lot of, without being specific, a lot of '20s and '30s literature. The language was more ornamental, more flair-y, and I like that. I find that that creeps in more than any sort of modern verses," he adds.
Elkington works with many of the same people on Ever-Roving Eye as he did on Winter's Woma, beginning as always with long-time musical sounding board Nick Macri. Macri was in Zincs and the Horse's Ha and every other Elkington solo effort. He's the first person that I bounce things off. When I'm writing, it just naturally falls that about half of the stuff that I'm writing is going to sound great with him on it. So, he's someone I lean on a lot, and depend on quite a bit," says Elkington.
Mark Greenberg, too, has been recording and mixing Elkington's music since his Zincs days. Greenberg, says Elkington, helps him stay stable and on track during the recording process. "Neither Mark nor Nick has any problem telling me if something isn't good," he observes.
On drums again is Spencer Tweedy. "The way he plays is perfect for this sort of stuff," says Elkington. "In the best possible way, he plays like an old man. And he also, I think he has incredible technique, but he plays quieter than any drummer I've ever known. He can play kit drums while I'm playing acoustic guitar, and I'll still be potentially louder than him. And his timekeeping is impeccable. He's just kind of a crazy good drummer and as well as being an awesome guy."
All three of these musicians write songs on their own, so their contributions go well beyond their individual parts. "Everybody in the band is listening objectively and not just trying to figure out how to shoehorn their own personality into it," says Elkington.
Leaving Space and Letting It Rip
Elkington doesn't always know where his songs are going when he starts. Sometimes the best parts come from letting go and allowing the song to find its own way. "Ever-Roving Eye", for instance, took its time in taking shape. "When we recorded it, we recorded the middle section of it completely differently. And I didn't like it, but I didn't know I didn't like it until about a month after we recorded it. So, we re-recorded it without that middle section in it, and then I thought, well, something has to happen here, and that was when the guitar solo came into it," says Elkington.
It's the only real ripper of a guitar solo on the whole album, and Elkington says he usually saves that sort of thing for other projects -- like his improvisatory work with Steve Gunn or the way he plays with Jeff Tweedy. "Because it was a little bit of a left turn, I put it towards the end of the album so that it didn't disrupt the flow of anything before, but that sort of guitar playing is like the other side of the coin of what I do. There's isn't much of it on this album because there isn't any room for it. There isn't room for it on this whole album, but on that particular song, it's just one spot where I felt like I could that," says Elkington. He likes playing that way. There might be more of it, he hazards, on the next album.
A Change Is As Good As a Rest
When we spoke, Elkington was still gearing up to play some shows to promote Ever-Roving Eye. The coronavirus epidemic had started, but it hadn't yet forced the state-wide lockdowns that have, since, made touring impossible. But even without touring, you can expect this jack-of-all-musics to stay busy, writing his own material, recording with other bands, producing and arranging other people's music. "I'm one of those 'a change is as good as rest' people," says Elkington. "It can be quite energizing when you've been working on your own material to stop and go off and work on somebody else's record. And vice versa. You can be getting bogged down working on someone else's record and say, well, when I finish this up, I'm going to go record this song. It seems like almost everything I do is a reaction to something else.
"The challenge sometimes is not to repeat yourself," he adds. "When you're working on someone else's record, your immediate reaction, or what you thought should happen in the arrangement, is maybe something you thought before and attached your own music. So, trying to remember what you've done before and not repeat it too much -- that's the only tough part. But no, I find it quite energizing. I like to busy. The thing is, I do like to be busy, but I complain about it almost constantly. When I'm not busy, that's a different kind of existential dread that I'm not good at handling."