The Summery Sweetness of Eaux Claires

Rare are the times when a moment is so perfect you recognize it while it’s happening. Usually that kind of appreciation happens after the fact, when reflection takes over and lends the past a rosy hue.

Let me take you back to one such night in the summer of 2015.

Bon Iver had been silent—in the sense of playing live music—for sometime. After releasing his second, self-titled album in 2011, and touring extensively behind its more expansive sound, Justin Vernon had retreated. By 2015, it had been three years since he’d performed.

The inaugural Eaux Claires, held July 17-18, 2015.

It took a music festival, and the creative control that kind of event offered, to entice Vernon back onstage. Beginning in early 2015, he teamed with The National’s Aaron Dessner to begin launching Eaux Claires—a two-day collaborative extravaganza set along the Chippewa River, in Vernon’s hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Among a smorgasbord of music from every genre imaginable, the inaugural July weekend would also feature a Bon Iver headlining set.

My ears pricked up.

Back then, I lived in Champaign, Illinois, a six-hour drive from Eau Claire. After years in Louisiana, I’d been learning the language of midwestern music, and Eaux Claires offered a chance to deepen that knowledge, to see some of the midwestern bands I’d recently heard live while enjoying some of my favorites, like Charles Bradley, Hiss Golden Messenger, Sturgill Simpson, and The Lone Bellow.

All of that PLUS a Bon Iver headlining set? Twist my arm.

I texted my friend Melissa, who adored The Lone Bellow, and suddenly our “Wouldn’t it be fun if…?” morphed into actual plans. Mel purchased a festival ticket, while I began pitching outlets. At the time, I’d been freelancing more and more in the hopes of transitioning my local-heavy writing into national bylines. When I pitched Consequence of Sound about reviewing the weekend, I was thrilled they said “yes.”

An artsy window shot of Melissa and I gorging on cheese curds in downtown Eau Claire.

It marked my first major event coverage. But not just words—I’d be taking photos, too. I spent the entirety of the festival scrambling from stage-to-stage, capturing images from each set’s first three songs, before checking in with Melissa, who regularly inserted herself into the audience, and then dashing off to the next show. After nearly a year spent pushing paper in an office that took “soul crushing” to a new extreme, I thrilled at what music journalism—actual on-the-ground musical journalism—felt like. Part of me knew I’d never go back to a world where I couldn’t participate in it to some degree.

But enough wind-up to this pitch. I can’t remember exactly when Bon Iver became one of my favorite bands, though my listening had skewed heavily in their favor for a few years by then, but it all solidified that Saturday evening in Eau Claire.

The Chippewa River.

By the time their set rolled around, I was exhausted. There’s a different kind of physicality required to covering a festival rather than simply attending, and I wasn’t prepared for that amount of go-go-go. Plus, it had been hot with a capital H. But my onsite work was done. My co-writer would be taking photographs and handling the Bon Iver blurb, so I could take it all in and simply listen.

Melissa and I grabbed beers and found spots about midway back from the stage—room enough to enjoy Bon Iver without the dense press of a crowd. The sun dipped behind the trees lining the festival field; the stars slowly sparkled to life. I remember tilting my head back and drinking in the dusky beauty of the moment.

Fans, including those that had parked themselves in front of the stage barrier since the gates opened that day, began chanting and tossing beach balls around. Anticipation ran high. We’d finally, collectively, reached the reason so many of us had traveled far and wide, had taken a chance on a brand new festival.

The lights dimmed as Bon Iver took the stage, breaking into “Heavenly Father,” the song Vernon contributed to Zach Braff’s 2014 film Wish I Was Here. The opening monk-like chants, done with a kind of android-esque effect on loop, suddenly felt as spacious as the Wisconsin night sky. The stage stayed mostly dark for the remainder of that opening incantation, before Vernon began singing in his chest voice, which, as a side note, might be one of my favorite sounds on this planet. It’s a resonant baritone that nestles in my solar plexus every time I hear it.  

Gazing at the stage where Bon Iver headlined on Saturday, July 18.

In the midst of the song, I again gazed up at the sky, tracking the growing number of stars that were visible now that the last light of day had faded. Something about taking in that bejeweled sky, feeling affixed to the earth and partner to a small piece of magic, left me awed. I felt the perfection of the moment acutely.

I ended up returning for the next three versions of Eaux Claires—in 2016, 2017, and 2018—until the festival went on hiatus, giving organizers time to rethink its form and function. Rumor had it they would be moving the festival from one onsite location, by the river, and scattering shows throughout downtown Eau Claire. But that never came to fruition because the year it should’ve returned, 2020, was well…you know.

I’m not exactly an avid festival goer, but that inaugural weekend fostered some deep and abiding love for Eaux Claires that remains to this day. As soon as they announce Eaux Claires V, I’ll be back. But I’ll never forget that Saturday night in July, when I felt some connection with the great wide open of this strange and lovely existence, soundtracked by Bon Iver’s return. It was magic and all the more special because I recognized it then and there. No need to wait until memory casts its emotional glow. I felt the power of meaning in the moment.

Burnout By Any Other Name…

It’s never a good sign when the art that most enlivens you begins to feel draining, when staring at the wall feels more restful than engaging with an introspective song or a lyrical passage in a book.

The term burnout has been bandied about in recent years, most regularly ascribed to someone whose work-related stress has placed them on the spectrum of mildly-drained-to-emotionally-destitute. It reached peak buzzword when journalist Anne Helen Petersen claimed it as the ultimate millennial problem. In actuality, it’s closer to workplace-induced depression. But burnout has cache, while depression does not.

On some level depression makes sense. When music and books and film—the creative pursuits that provoke a hearty thrum in your spirit—stop feeling meaningful, it’s a symptom of a larger problem. And people with depression tend to withdraw from activities they formerly enjoyed.

But while burnout has become a catchall diagnosis for work’s never-ending demands and the physical, psychological, and emotional effects of those pressures, I find that its meaning (even as a form of depression) has fallen increasingly short. Because it’s used to describe such a sweeping experience, and because the means to overcome it remain hazy at best, it feels more nebulous than ever.

One phrase I recently stumbled upon has offered a new perspective. In Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, he describes a time in his life that many would now equate with burnout. But he called it “spiritually empty.” Perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics, but, for me, “spiritual exhaustion” gets closer to the problem.

And why wouldn’t it? Late stage capitalism has turned us into products as much as we’re expected to produce. We are noun and verb, operating in an endless sentence. As Frederic Jameson explained, under capitalism “everything, everywhere, became commodified and consumable.” In such a society, our spirituality exists only in and for the marketplace.

It’s an exhausting churn that would leave anyone emotionally bereft, looking for meaning but unable to pursue it because we’re too exhausted from the never-ending demands of our day and the roles we’re meant to play therein. We produce, we acquire, we consume, the result of which leaves us vacant and untethered.

I mention all of this, on a music blog no less, because it’s been a strange summer for me. I have the freedom, time, and space to listen to music as late and as long as I’d like, but the amount I’ve read and written about it—two sides of a coin that I’ve long enjoyed tossing—has significantly decreased. I cannot bring myself to sit still long enough to get lost in a book, and, perhaps more frightening, I do not want to sit down to write.

Under contemporary lexicon, it’s burnout, but the more powerful claim seems to be spiritual emptiness. It’s a deep and abiding malaise, which makes sense given the ongoing pandemic, the cult-like adherence to misinformation, climate emergencies, increasingly restrictive legislature, and any number of new and pressing crises that arise on a now-daily basis. It’s been a season ripe for anxiety and the result, it would seem, has been a lingering spiritual emptiness. 

I don’t know the answer—or the antidote, for that matter. I don’t know the way back to creative pursuits that require energy when I feel so depleted. “Unplugging” from what my friend calls the “distraction industrial complex” and choosing instead to play records from my finite collection has helped to a small degree. Lately, I’ve been burrowing into the sounds of Allen Toussaint’s 2012 album The Bright Mississippi. The way he practically tap dances over the piano feels akin to a balm, a kind of deep breath that I didn’t know I needed to take.

Playing Toussaint and other records isn’t going to solve the larger issue of burnout, spiritual emptiness, or whatever you want to call it. But it does offer a brief rest, one that can hopefully feed the spirit until you’re nourished enough to keep going—and maybe one day eventually sated enough to thrive. 

Movement & Location

People move for all kinds of reasons—a job, a relationship, to be closer to family. Sometimes it’s just a matter of changing scenery or finally taking up residence in a city you’ve long loved.

I recently moved for my records.

You read that right. I mean, we can say it was for other reasons, like a growing desire to get away from apartment living, or crummy neighbors who don’t understand how sonorously subwoofers carry across thin walls, or to be closer to the “action” of downtown Durham. All of those hold a degree of truth.

But the reality is that I moved for my records.

I moved because I’m a considerate and selfish listener. Considerate because, when I know there are people living around and beneath me, I’m not going to play my music very loud. And selfish because, really, what’s the point of listening if you can’t do that at least a few times? Headphones only go so far. Sometimes, like say when you’re cooking, you want to crank Stevie Wonder all the way up so the bass line vibrations of “Sir Duke” lend themselves to the very best sauce possible.

In all the years I’ve rented, I’ve never rented a house. It was mostly apartments and duplexes—and they were nice apartments and duplexes, but shared walls meant being aware of your neighbors, so inevitably there were limitations to what, when, and how I could play my stereo. Like a kind of musical Goldilocks, it was always a little too much: Don’t play records too early or too late, certainly not too loud, and never too long.

I hadn’t planned on renting a house because, as a disturbing new study has found, rental markets are horrendous. Even in cities where it’s mildly more affordable than the coastal metropolises, it’s still not very. But when luck threw a good find my way, the slight uptick in rent seemed like a reasonable tradeoff if it meant enjoying my space—and my stereo—more.

Forget a room of one’s own, here’s to a house.

So I moved for my records.

I’ve documented before what they mean to me. In fact, in that prior blog post, I shared the thrill of getting to play one of my favorites, Punch Brothers‘ 2012 album Who’s Feeling Young Now?, loudly on one of my last nights in New Orleans, when I knew my neighbor was at work and the volume wouldn’t bother her.

Since moving into my new place, I haven’t played the album. In fact, it’d been some time since I’d put it on. The opening track “Movement and Location” is too true to hear sometimes. The lyrics, partially, but I mean more the music itself. When I hear that opening agitated fiddle-banjo phrasing and the bass pacing around in a kind of antsy delirium, something in my stomach but more likely my soul goes, “This!”

Punch Brothers approach bluegrass with a classical twist, building breathtaking arrangements and time signature changes that elevate the genre. I adore their entire catalogue, but “Movement and Location” has long been my favorite song of theirs. Maybe it’s the subject matter—the energy of migration, a choice I’m fond of and have discussed elsewhere on this site—or maybe it’s such a beautifully realized and rendered song between its emotional build and pace and vitality.

It’s not that “Movement and Location”—or any song or album, for that matter—sounds better loud, but there’s a certain release when you don’t have to worry about whether your music is imposing on anyone else. I know I tend to overthink these things, but I also know what it’s like to be on the other side, to hear an inconsiderate neighbor start blaring their music at the worst possible time. I never want—or wanted—to be that person, so as much as I could slip into an album when I played one, I could never really let myself go.

The other night, a solid month into my new living situation, I played Who’s Feeling Young Now?, which inevitably brought me back to that night in New Orleans when I cranked the volume. This time, it wasn’t a brief escape while my neighbor was out. I didn’t have to be considerate or concerned that my stereo was disturbing anyone. I didn’t have to worry about the time of night and who I might be bothering. It was divine. I’ve long known the thrill of movement, but the thrill of location was mine at last.

Jesca Hoop’s ‘Pegasi’

I’ve seen singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop twice in concert, and both times she’s brought me to tears. Some sorcerous combination of her lyricism and voice—a dusky alto—knocks a chink into the walls I’ve scaffolded around my heart, letting the light of a larger truth shine through.

The first time it happened, Hoop and Sam Beam were touring their collaborative 2016 album Love Letter for Fire. I caught them at New Orleans’ Civic Theater, where they traded between performing together and playing songs from their respective solo albums.

During one such moment, Hoop debuted a new song—something she hadn’t recorded yet. She plucked it, title then-unknown, on her electric guitar, setting a soft, slow rhythm against which she spun the myth of a relationship and the reality of its end.

The song worked heavily in metaphor, detailing a Pegasus and the rider who tames her—at first. “When we’re in love, we’re alive/ You’re the envy of the sky/ Every ember wants to ride the supernova,” Hoop sang that night, drawing out round, warm vowel sound leading off the syllable “ova.”

The beauty of that initial imagery, its sparkling ascendency, turned in the latter half of the chorus: “But I fear you’ll see the day/ When I’ve endured all I can take/ I won’t bend but I will break/ Under the weight.”

Try and control anything “built to soar” and watch what happens. Hoop’s song portrays love’s ecstatic start and the inevitable downfall that occurs when you ask anyone to change their very essence. I knew it well.

Writing is my version of soaring, and it requires a certain kind of time and commitment and effort and energy. I’ve yet to find a romantic partner who isn’t threatened in some way by those elements—and the fact of my giving each one to something other than them.

But so far the tradeoff hasn’t been worth it. As fulfilling as companionship can be, writing and the freedom to do it well has been the better choice. If I sound overly precious about the craft, it’s only because I’m so deeply in love with it. Peter Schjeldahl put it best when he wrote:

No wonder guys get jealous.

When Hoop released her fourth album Memories Are Now one year after that show in New Orleans, I found the track. On the studio version of “Pegasi,” she quickens the tempo and adds in gorgeous pedal steel that domes the night sky as though it were a shooting star tracing the arc of the heavens.

Able to hear the nuance of the verses, the relationship portrayed in the song grew clearer. It begins as one of care. “You’ve found a map to my heart/ It lead you to the well/ You combed at my mane/ I’ll wear your saddle and reigns,” Hoop sings. Those initial days are heady ones, and Pegasi feels the rush to “take to the sky like poetry” because her rider makes her better.

But ultimately their differences become their downfall. The rider wants control—a fact that might have seemed fair given the care that first attended it—but Pegasi wants to fly. It’s not a problem of compromise but restriction.

To this day, I feel the unbridled beauty of Pegasi’s choice. Of course you cast your rider aside when they threaten to cage you. Rare is the rider who can accept a wild nature without breaking it, warping it into something other than what attracted them in the first place.

The Ephemerality of Streaming

This is going to sound like a daft thing to complain about considering the endless amount of music that now exists at our fingertips, but I’ll never acclimate to how quickly songs slip in and out of my life under the streaming model. There are, of course, many times throughout the day when I purposely play something and consciously listen to it, but the ubiquity of streaming music—and the way it soundtracks much of daily existence—means that certain songs escape my full attention and fail to lodge in my memory.

You could chalk it up to a lack of attention on my part, or the sheer quantity of songs and the fact that many now exist independently of the albums that once structured them, but I wonder how much of it has to do with the ephemerality of streaming versus more enduring physical media, like vinyl records, CDs, or cassettes. Those forms have greater permanence, thereby shifting our engagement with the music they house as well as the memories we form about and around said music.

For me, one of the more telling moments of ephemerality—or early senility—came last summer when, seemingly out of nowhere, the opening piano phrase of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” popped into my head. At the time, I couldn’t remember who sang it or the song’s title, but I knew it was an 80s new wave classic, so I started poring over playlists. After two hours of what felt like an increasingly harried rabbit hole, I found it. Oh glory!

But then a month went by and one evening I remembered that funny time when an 80s new wave song got stuck in my head and how hard it was to find. Gee, what was that song again? It’s not as though much time had passed, but there’d been so much else to think about and remember—and then there was all the music I’d heard in the interim. Neither the band nor the song title came to mind. Again. It was gone into the ether.

You could argue, rightly so, that if I was more familiar with Tears for Fears or 80s new wave, it wouldn’t have been such a big to-do. After all, background and context help prop up memory, and are instrumental to any search. But it signaled a larger quandary, even after I found “Head Over Heels” again and used Spotify’s handy “Liked Songs” option this time. (Now, every time I hear a song I remotely enjoy, I make sure to save it because it’s the best way to find it should I forget, which I regularly do.)

My point, if I can be said to have one, is that vinyl—or really any physical music media—seems to offer such a different experience. Sure, none of us purchase as much vinyl as songs we stream (unless you’re Questlove—God bless that man’s collection), so a collection, being narrower by default, is easier to remember. We’re also likely to return to it frequently enough that it bolsters our memory of what we’re playing.

But maybe the problem with streaming and ephemerality comes down to ownership, a topic I’ve been thinking of lately especially in light of vinyl and especially in light of a vinyl collection. Russell Belk wrote in his 1988 article on possessions and identity formation, “Because of the purposefulness and the commitment of time and energy spent in developing a collection, it is natural that a collection may be seen as more a part of one’s self than are isolated consumption items.”

There’s something to be said about the way possessions help us form and define ourselves; the objects we acquire and keep around us not only say something about who we are but actively feed into this larger idea of our self and our memory. Physical objects can—not always—prop up memory. I always use books versus digital articles or e-readers when explaining the phenomenon. When we read a book, we map it out as a space and can therefore find previous passages easier than on an e-reader. You may remember around what part of the book a bit of action occurred, but on an e-reader it’ll be harder to find than if you’d been reading a physical book.

Streaming and even purchased MP3s are only ever borrowed forms of music. And with streaming there’s the sheer number of songs that churn through your consciousness on a daily basis. On the one hand, I’m grateful to have such rich access to the catalogues of my favorite musicians as well as artists I’ve only likely discovered thanks to the streaming model. I realize what it offers, though don’t get me started on their inequitable pay structure.

But on the other hand, what do we sacrifice by engaging with such an ephemeral form of music? And, yes, I know that music itself is only ever ephemeral, but I’m talking about the forms—the media—used to transmit that moment, that experience. Will all of this streaming leave us fragmented and forgetting the amazing song we couldn’t stop playing last year but now can’t place, overwhelmed by the options and remembering not a one?

On Cringeworthy Listening Histories

I often succumb to the obstructive instinct of curation. It’s one of my fatal flaws, and it’s only gotten worse with social media and the rise of platforms like Instagram, where perfection has been commodified in ways narrowing and detrimental, but I can’t blame the apps entirely. Some part of me has always resisted being fully seen. In many ways, getting to know me means getting to know only the bits I choose to share.

A part of that instinct—to hide what isn’t pretty and focus on what is—includes music, namely my listening history. Given the place music holds in my life, as well as the writing I do about it and the breadth of my listening and the way it’s all blossomed into a kind of identity, it’s been hard at times to cop to past tastes. I rarely talk about what I listened to in high school because I find it embarrassing. But why?

To my way of thinking, music functions as a language. The wider you listen, the more you come to grasp the “grammar,” priming your ears for elements like dissonance or syncopation or contrapuntal music. Listening more narrowly, that is shifting your focus only to what’s fun or easy, makes it harder to engage with something complex. You lack the structure. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start off with easier sounds and develop from there—building blocks being the fundamental part to any learning process.

So maybe this is all to say that we follow different paths to our current listening tastes; mine started out rather rudimentary but has since grown into an eclecticism I’m quite proud of. Still, perhaps it’s because of that pride that I feel embarrassed about my teenage years when I fell hard for the seemingly layered and complicated sounds of one Mr. Dave Matthews and his Band.

It started with 1996’s Crash and grew from there, moving backwards through their earlier music, 1993’s Remember Two Things and 1994’s Under the Table and Dreaming, and forward with 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets and 2001’s Everyday.

My love for DMB far exceeded the music itself. DMB posters lined my bedroom; I was a (card carrying!) member of the DMB fan club; I bought their limited edition Ben & Jerry’s flavor ‘One Sweet Whirled’; and I dragged my high school boyfriend Terry to what was then known as Sunrise Amphitheater every summer when they inevitably toured. Or, I should say, Terry allowed me to drag him since his family owned box seats.

Recently, the podcast Bandsplain attempted to contextualize and clarify what it was about DMB that attracted such a following. As critic Grayson Haver Currin put it, they offer “virtuosity and easy accessibility.” They brought together elements from other genres—jazz, bluegrass—and built a kind of jam band-ish alt-rock. Though they lacked the skill to be a true jam band, they knew enough to “crack open” their studio cuts and create a memorable live version.

I remember thinking how sophisticated it all sounded as a 16-year-old. Their live shows were a marvel, and I imagine still are, which is why they continue selling out their summer dates and why their major output since their early catalogue has largely been live recordings.

But in re-listening to their music recently, I couldn’t hear the textual marvel I thought the songs displayed when I was younger. I did, however, hear fiddle lines that would lead me to bluegrass, and drumming that would lead me to jazz and math rock, and West African-influenced phrasing that would lead me to a deep-seeded love of Malian guitar, and other threads that would develop into the sounds that comprise my tastes today.

I’m not saying DMB laid the exact foundation, but perhaps it trained my ear to engage with a variety of sounds that weren’t readily available for easy consumption at the time. Unless you were a kid in the know about music, which I very much was not at that age, DMB was a door into a world of complexity and wonder.

In fact, Currin pointed out on Bandsplain that while DMB were working on the follow-up to Everyday (what would become the darker album later released as The Lillywhite Sessions), they backed away from what was becoming a melancholy sound for them, scrapped their songs, and instead released the far happier Busted Stuff in 2002. It was around that point, which coincided with my graduating high school and venturing off into new tastes, where I fell away from the band.

Busted Stuff displayed a glossy sheen that didn’t interest me. Funnily enough, the anodyne quality I heard back then has largely defined what I hear now. Re-listening to DMB brings back memories rather than moments of musical connection that have stood the test of time. I can throw on any number of older songs or albums I haven’t heard in years and enjoy the music. But not so with DMB.

As for being embarrassed about my former devotion to the band, that’s something I’ll have to come to terms with as I work on shedding the obfuscating instinct to hide my real self in favor of a glossier version. I suppose the true shame would be if my listening ever stopped, if my curiosity faded. I’ll own my DMB past any day if it means I can point to it and show you how much I’ve grown, how it’s just one sound among many with still more to come.

Tiny Ruins’ “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round”

New Zealand singer-songwriter Hollie Fullbrook, who performs under the name Tiny Ruins, writes deliciously hushed songs. If you pushed me to sketch a more synoptic descriptor, I might go so far as to say it’s shy music for shy listeners. It’s still and spare and soft, standing in the corner waiting for you to pay attention to its textured arrangements and sensitive lyricism.

I’ve previously written about Tiny Ruins’ song “Carriages,” spotlighting it for a P4K staffers list in 2018, but my absolute favorite remains “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round.” Both appear on her standout album, 2014’s Brightly Painted One.

“She’ll Be Coming ‘Round” begins as though it were climbing the mountain nestled at the song’s center; Fullbrook steadily plucks her guitar strings, unhurried. Her first verse hints at a sense of sudden freedom, gained unexpectedly. “Like a brightly painted one/ Freed from the turning of the wheel,” she sings, prolonging her vocal sustain so that it works alongside and around the guitar’s ponderous rhythm.

But a hint of what’s to come flashes shortly before the two-minute mark, when an electric guitar ripples frenetically in the background, leading into a climatic release. It’s as though the song exhales, and a larger determination emerges. Freedom acquired is not freedom kept without some kind of backbone.

It takes some time for the song to reach that wild and hardy spirit. The pace shifts around the 3:30 mark, picking up the tempo when a bass drum takes over and beats a kind of strength into the honest declarations Fullbrook has been sharing. “No more relying on,” she repeats, backed by a swell of voices.

In the song’s final moments, atmospheric organ surrounds her voice, as she comes ’round the mountain, so to speak, and delivers a lyrical line of purpose: “That old freewill might be a myth, but I’m gonna try and get me some.”

Shy doesn’t have to mean slight. Although Fullbrook’s vocal delivery never moves beyond quiet to capture the brash confidence the song’s final assertion might warrant, the mere fact of its echo lends it shape and substance. Charge forth, she seems to say, and carve your path on the mountain.

Long Walks with Waxahatchee

At the start of the pandemic, somewhere around mid-March, I started taking long walks after work. With routines not just interrupted but in complete tatters, I set a new one for myself, tracing my own map of Brooklyn with nothing but my stride.

I’d sign off my computer, grab my over ear headphones, and cast off for some direction that felt fitting that day: north to Brooklyn Heights, east to Prospect Park, south(ish) to Windsor Terrace, or west to Red Hook. Those early months were noticeably empty in the evenings, and the city felt heavy with despair. Walking became my way through, a means of treading water until I could escape the rip tide pulling me away from shore.

Eventually my initial compass whittled down from four points to simply north and west—the latter far more than the former. Red Hook became the escape. I didn’t know it at the time, but I sought the water.

Maybe your origins have little to do with your affinity to being by water—after all, it does seem almost primitive to enjoy that part of nature—but I thank my early years on Toronto’s lakeside beaches and extensive time at my grandparents’ cottage on Lake Nipissing with shaping my craving for lakes, rivers, oceans, and all manner of watery expanse. The lap of the water—its soothing, steadying rhythm—satisfies some yearning in me that never fully stills.

It was in the spring pandemic months that Waxahatchee‘s album Saint Cloud arrived. It showed up at the perfect time, which was also somehow the hardest, so I guess Dickens called it after all. Initially, I tried out many different songs for those long walks, but only something brand new would do—a blank canvas on which to paint the experience of an unfolding global crisis, and its devastating impact on the city.

The Statue of Liberty watches over the bay.

The country-influenced, Americana-leaning album marked a departure from singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield’s previous work as Waxahatchee: her dark, growling rock on 2017’s Out in the Storm; her electrifying Merge debut, 2015’s Ivy Tripp; and her previous two lo-fi LPs. Saint Cloud felt capacious and warm. From the way her protracted vocals take up space on the opening track “Oxbow,” I felt a hesitant flowering that shifted into a steady assurance, as if Crutchfield had crossed her arms, raised her chin, and was staring you down in the parking lot. I needed that grit at the time.

The album dealt largely in her new sobriety, a choice she feared would limit her songwriting potential, but instead maximized it. Without the numbing haze that had followed her around, Crutchfield stumbled into a bright-eyed wonder. The album sounds like golden hour—that magic time of day when the setting sun’s waning light softens everything it touches.

“Lilacs” remains a standout for me—a song about the passage of time, about watching its ebb and flow by way of something’s bloom and decline, and how that circularity plays out on the larger stage of our choices. “If I’m a broken record, write it in the dust, babe/ I’ll fill myself back up like I used to do,” she sings, her voice full of vim and vigor.

Even though Crutchfield wrote and recorded the album before a pandemic crossed anyone’s mind, her culminating song and title track “St. Cloud” is oddly prescient, especially given the context in which I first listened to it. Though a good deal of Saint Cloud situates Crutchfield in her native south, the final two songs return her to Manhattan.

On “St. Cloud,” she sings, with an almost dirge-like piano structuring her vocals, “When you get back on the M train/ Watch the city mutate/ Where do you go when your mind starts/ To lose its perfected shape?/ Virtuosic, idealistic, musing a fall from grace/I guess the dead just go on living/ At the darkest edge of space.” That last line in particular haunted the moment. We’d lost over 30,000 New Yorkers between March and May, yet their deaths felt strangely abstract. Stuck as we were in our tiny boxes, we had only the endless wails of the ambulance sirens to alert us to the growing toll. “St. Cloud” gave voice to the grief—it feels like a memorial written in real time.

Beyond the emergency of the larger moment, everything felt in disarray. I was close to ending the most stable relationship I’d known. Although we’d been looking for an apartment together since November—a serious step forward with light talk of marriage fluttering at the edges—things had taken a strange nosedive in January and our recovery hadn’t come close to stabilizing when the pandemic hit. I asked for time apart and those long walks clarified our approaching end. “Arkadelphia” just handed me the sentiment, the way, if you’re lucky, a song will articulate a hazy feeling: “If you get real close to the ending/ I hope you know I did what I could/ We try to give it all meaning/ Glorify the grain of the wood/ Tell ourselves what’s beautiful and good.”

What’s wild, and entirely my fault, is that as much as I love the album, I have to choose my re-listens carefully because I’m immediately taken back to those late March walks when the world was falling apart—both the larger instance of it and my own personal version. I imagine that will fade with time, though who knows; perhaps the needle in this particular groove goes too deep and Saint Cloud will always be my long-haunted-pandemic-treks-to-Red-Hook album. There are worse appellations, I suppose.

View of Manhattan from Red Hook.

I want to say something profound about that experience one year ago. I even brought my laptop over to Wilmington, where I recently rented a docked sailboat; I thought the meaning would become clearer when I sought out water and listened to the album in full once again. But be careful about drawing parallels, about tracing the line between here and there, once and was. You can walk the maps you create for yourself, but that doesn’t mean they’ll reveal a point. I’ll leave it, instead, to Crutchfield: “If you burn slow, burning slow/ On your own roof, yell what you know/ Burning slow, burning slow.”

Field Report’s “Michelle”

Don’t you love it when you go to see one band and end up finding another? That’s been my luck more than a few times, including one night in late 2014 when I heard Milwaukee-based singer-songwriter Field Report (Chris Porterfield). He was in Champaign opening for fellow Wisconsinites Phox, who I absolutely adored at the time (still do, really), though their musical career was brief.

But that night it was Porterfield who left me stunned.

At the time, he was newly sober and touring his sophomore album Marigolden. The songs trafficked in the detritus of his decisions, and the wary wonder of a new perspective. That evening, he played “Michelle,” and it was one of the few times that a song I’ve never heard before left me absolutely thunderstruck.

The song begins with piano that sounds as though it’s pacing the room, antsy and absorbed, before Porterfield’s voice bursts in, sustaining the opening lyric, “Oh Michelle.” He holds the “Oh” as if it were a scar someone had brushed against, triggering pain that hasn’t yet dulled and resides still beneath the skin. It’s a guttural response, summarizing the anguish of his tryst with a married woman caught in an abusive relationship.

Musically, Porterfield writes tender songs, but it’s his lyricism that’s most striking. I count him among a small cohort of contemporary songwriters who capture scenes with literary specificity, including Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and Phoebe Bridgers. In fact, one of the lines from “Michelle”—”I went looking for the river, but I only made it to the railroad bend”—remains a favorite to this day.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The song opens in color, a foreboding of what’s to come. “Tonight is bruise-black swelling golden green,” Porterfield sings before recounting a dream in which the momentum of their relationship, its sheer impossibility, ends in the tragedy of a car crash. “And the car was Shelby blue,” he recounts, holding onto the color as it pangs across other memories. “Blue like the one in the photo of your father and you/Blue like the label on the beer you always choose/Blue like me and you, Michelle.”

A guitar picks up the piano’s earlier agitation, as the song builds out into full frame, the image sharpening with touches of pedal steel. But despite that sonic edge toward hope, the closing verse falls like a punch. Porterfield, having dreamed of a car, pleads with his lover to run away. “If we leave right now we’ll be there by morning/There being anywhere but here,” he sings, his voice weary with resignation. “We can make a new start; we can make up new names/I’ve already picked yours, Michelle.”

Yeah, I’ve been a fan ever since.

NNAMDÏ’s ‘Brat’

As genre slowly dissolves into the ether thanks to people’s increasingly omnivorous listening habits—fueled largely by the cross-current of streaming—music has come to sound a little like this and a lot like that, but never an entirely straightforward thing.

You can’t slot Moses Sumney, Yves Tumor, and serpentwithfeet, to name just a few, into any one category because they take from so many. That all of these artists are Black is important. Historically, Black musicians have been relegated to separate musical genres for little else besides race, as Karl Miller argues in Segregating Sound. Early A&R men operated under the assumption that white audiences wouldn’t want to listen to Black musicians, so they divided artists into blues and country, and later R&B and pop, despite similar foundational tenets informing both groups.

But as more artists borrow sounds from multiple genres to build their own, it opens the door to see their work in a new way—informed by race, sure, but not restricted by it. The Chicago multi-instrumentalist Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, also known by the mononym NNAMDÏ, fit that new effort. He makes ambitious music.

I first met NNAMDÏ in 2015, when I interviewed the Chicago math/prog/electronic outfit Monobody. At the time, he played drums for the band, but had already released two solo albums of his own: 2013’s Bootie Noir, followed closely by 2014’s Feckin Weirdo.

It’s clear how much he enjoys wandering sonically, instincts he refines on his fourth and latest album, 2020’s Brat. Each track shape shifts to some degree, but what might seem disheveled on the surface instead builds into a revelatory statement. It’s been a minute since an entire album, not just a song, grabbed my attention so entirely.

Opening track “Flowers to My Demons” begins in stark fashion, with flamenco-esque guitar and NNAMDÏ’s voice. But stark in this instance does not mean quiet. The flurry of sound erupting between those two instruments fills out the firmament before drums enter halfway through to ground the interplay.

The album—an internal monologue of sorts that lays siege to notions of identity, perception, and even sanity—hinges on segues that happen as fast as the fleeting thoughts each track strives to capture. “Flowers to My Demons” takes one second, quite literally, before it switches into the synth-heavy, trip hop-leaning track “Gimme Gimme.” The shift is sudden and yet seamless. Across both, NNAMDÏ plays with two voices—his natural lower register and an affected falsetto representing a shadow thought that haunts the album, questioning his thoughts, actions, choices, and behavior.

The burst of energy which begins Brat eventually levels off. NNAMDÏ’s inner questions move from a manic state to something more dampened. On the breathtaking “Glass Casket,” he builds a dreamy, synth-laced R&B track that finds him imagining different futures, though every path feels impossible when you want it all. “I wanna be a traveller/I wanna witness everything/And then bring it to my bedside/I dream about it even when I wake up,” he sings so despondently that the confession feels quietly devastating.

Brimming as Brat is with worries, anxieties, and doubts, it ends on a hopeful note. The penultimate “It’s OK” resounds like a mantra, while NNAMDÏ builds the found sound of birds into the meditative final track “Salut.” Despite each song’s calm, meditative lyricism, they build mighty sonic atmospheres to inhabit. In this case, the sentiment doesn’t need to match the sound—it can serve as a contrast, building a picture of complexity that matches what it means to be human, because in the end we’re all a little like this and a lot like that, but never an entirely straightforward thing.