Out of Nowhere: An Interview With Maps

Jennifer Kelly

James Chapman's moody, dream-fuzzed songs spent 2006 evolving from home-taped reveries to NME-charting singles. This year, with a new album in the works, a partnership with Bjork soundman Valgeir Sigurdsson, and a rising tide of blog interest, the Northampton (UK) songwriter is poised to move from off the map to off the charts.

The song starts with little more than a whisper, its wrinkled papery longing cut by the merest hint of keyboard drone and synthesized bass drum. "Yeah, the summer cold can co-ome," sings James Chapman, known more and more these days by his nom de plume Maps, pausing for breath before continuing, "Brings you sounds you thought were go-one." It's just a wisp of melody, barely there but riveting. And yet while the song starts out vulnerable, clearing showing its 16-tracked bedroom taped roots, it gains hazy pop heft in the chorus, a dreamy, floaty, pearlized cloud of sad euphoria, set to the words, "I found a love / But lost my soul."

That's "Lost My Soul", the opening cut to Chapman's blog-inciting EP Start Something, a collection of six superlatively beautiful, densely populated one-man songs. The EP, along with an earlier single, have lately won this Northampton native a deal with Mute, raves from NME, and a production partner best-known for working with Bjork. "Yeah, it's great!" says Chapman, asked about the sudden rash of interest. "It gives you a real buzz when you know people are liking what you're doing. Probably the most exciting thing that's happened was our first London show, which was sold out. They were turning loads of people away on the door -- pretty crazy really." That was on November 24th at London's Luminaire, where hipsters were packed to the walls, drawn by the ever-building buzz around Maps' electro-pop songs.

Not bad when you consider that music has long been a fairly solitary undertaking for Chapman. He got his start at seven, playing the violin. "I still sometimes play it now, when I need it in something I'm writing, but I haven't kept it up as much as I'd have liked to!" he admits. Forming his first band at 17, Chapman invested in a 4-track recorder so that he could keep track of songwriting ideas. That purchase proved to be a more decisive milestone than anything the band itself produced. "Then when the band broke up I carried on writing on my own. I got a real buzz out of it, and still do," he says.

Chapman's delicate balance -- between unearthly electronic atmospheres and flesh-and-blood pop sounds -- may reflect his own love of both chart-worthy songs and experimental glitch. "I was going out and getting drunk for the first time when Britpop was at its height I suppose," he says. "That's when I was in a band for the first time. I was listening to bands like the Stone Roses, Spacemen 3, the Chemical Brothers. I've never really thought about what the specific influences were on this record. I've just been listening to a lot of new electronic music in the last few years -- that's what's exciting me at the moment."

Lately, though, he's been attuned to sound, rather than strict verse-chorus melodies, a progression you can hear moving from the EP's oldest cut "Some Winter Song" to more current compositions like "Lost My Soul". "Some Winter Song", with its gentle guitar jangle and straightforward singing, sounds more like a conventional song than anything else on the record. By contrast "Lost My Soul" and "Tonic Girls" are textures, moods ... a pure distillation of sound that goes directly to the head.

Asked about how he constructs this signature dream-fuzzy sound, Chapman says, "I do take a lot of time over that. I normally think about how I'm going to record the song when I'm in the early stages of writing it. I do try to make each song different from what I've done before somehow, and that's generally through the sounds I use."

The words, then, are evocative but mysterious, not quite linear but tied inextricably to the song's melancholy vibe. "'Lost My Soul' is about wanting to be with someone really badly, but knowing that they're not good for you at all. I think it's a situation that most people have been in at some point," he explains. "The chorus is bittersweet really, I guess."

For this record, Chapman employed a limited palette of instruments. "I mainly used my sequencer, which has synth sounds and drum sounds on it, and a little 'pocket' sampler which I sometimes fed through my effects pedal," he says. "I used my acoustic and electric guitars as well. Then I mixed it down on to my 16-track."

Asked about how the synthetic sounds blend with natural ones -- or what the relationship between organic tones and artifice should be -- Chapman declines (perhaps wisely) to pontificate. "I've never really thought about that really," he says. "I do love experimenting with synths loads though. I love the fact that you can have so much control over everything on a synth. You don't have that with guitars. I guess that's why some people prefer guitars, but I think I'm the opposite!"

Yet, like it or not, Chapman is now making his peace with guitars (and reduced control), as he remakes his songs for a full five-piece band. He's playing guitar, sequencer, and singing himself at live performances now, augmented by friends Ben on drums, Phil on keyboards, Andy on bass, and Matt on keyboards and drums. There's also a laptop at live shows. "It's pretty different to the recorded sound, but I reckon that's a good thing really," he says. "We'll be playing a lot more gigs this year."

Chapman will also be broadening the instrumentation on his upcoming CD, titled We Can Create and due out on Mute in May. He worked with producer Valgeir Sigurdsson (Bjork, Bonnie Prince Billy, Coco Rosie) in Reykjavik, Iceland on the CD, a collaboration that he says was extremely positive. "He was great to work with. I really fell in love with Iceland, too," he says. "We worked from my demos and added new sounds and beats. We also used strings and brass on a few of the tracks which was awesome."

Along with the new CD, Maps will be giving away a Regions CD, a collaborative project in which Maps works with other bands. The first, a remix swap with The Longcut, is already in the can, and Chapman says he's looking forward to subsequent editions. "That's it really," he says, signing off. "Can't wait for this year! Cheers!"

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

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