Chosen One: Glenn Jones
Interview with Glenn Jones.
“My closest friendships have been with people who share my love for the instrument — John Fahey, Jack Rose. I think about them everyday and every time I pick up the guitar.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
The steel-string acoustic guitar as a solo instrument is one of those treasured sounds where a kaleidoscope of colour and feeling illuminates from the embers of a past not yet arrived upon. The timeless sound dispelled by this age-old tradition is nothing short of staggering, whose trajectory — some would say — points back to one pivotal figure, namely John Fahey. The late American fingerstyle guitarist has played a hugely influential role in developing the American Primitivism movement that, in turn, has led to a seamless array of awe-inspiring guitar talent. The self-taught nature of the music and its minimalist style lies at the heart of Fahey’s work that flows effortlessly into the new generation of guitarists such as William Tyler (Merge), Daniel Bachman (Tompkins Square), Cian Nugent (No Quarter Rex) and not-too-distant generations such as Mark Fosson (Tompkins Square) and not least, Glenn Jones (Thrill Jockey). The devotees of the Takoma School of guitarists are a joy to behold.
2013 marked the release of several indispensable instrumental guitar records: the latest opus from Nashville native William Tyler (‘Impossible Truth’), a new batch of transcendent psychedelic appalachia courtesy of Virginia’s Daniel Bachman (‘Jesus I’m A Sinner’) and the latest masterpiece from guitar luminary Glenn Jones (‘My Garden State’). His latest Thrill Jockey full-length release is a tour de force of storytelling greatness — expressed by the steel strings of Jones’ beloved acoustic guitar rather than the mere usage of words — where a vivid sense of longing, joy, sorrow and hope is cast by the guitarist’s deft touch of hand.
‘My Garden State’ is the follow-up to 2011’s ‘The Wanting’. Two years previously, ‘Barbecue Bob In Fishtown’ was unleashed into the world, following on from Jones’ prolific psych-folk based outfit of Cul De Sac. Over the course of a twenty year history, the nine albums released by the Boston-based collective (Jones on guitar joined Robin Amos on synthesizer, sampler, production and engineering) wonderfully experimented with the folk tradition and farther reaches of psychedelia and ambient terrain. Esteemed collaborations included Damo Suzuki (Can) and guitarist John Fahey. One of their towering achievements must be the band’s fifth studio album, entitled ‘Death Of The Sun’. Album closer ‘I Remember Nothing More’ – built from the sample of an old Cajun 78 — a ghostly voice is repeated over a meditative drumbeat and swirling acoustic guitar notes. A breathtaking moment that serves one of the many pinnacles of this very special band. Jones’ solo work has spanned naturally from those remarkable records.
‘My Garden State’ was written in the New Jersey home where Glenn Jones’ family moved in 1966, while he was caring for his mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. This newest collection of pieces for guitar and banjo represents a further evolution of Jones’ achingly beautiful instrumental music, whose combination of expressive playing and technical skill transcends space and time. Recorded by Laura Baird in Allentown, NJ, Laura joins Jones on ‘Across The Tappan Zee’ on banjo, interweaving her plaintive melodies with the delicate guitar playing by Jones. The piece is a journey that crosses the vast plains of America, crossing the great Mississippi River and into the heartland of Jones’ home-state of Jersey. A family tree is forged deep in the imprint of the sacred guitar melodies. ‘Going Back To East Montgomery’ is a sublime piece of music built upon a beautiful series of chord progressions — gradual and evocative — that indeed conjures up the sound of returning home. To something familiar yet somewhat unknown. The passing of time I feel is etched across the mid-section of the drone-guitar notes that are wonderfully sustained throughout. A gorgeous rise occurs later that serves one of the record’s many epiphanies. The spirits of mentor John Fahey and Robbie Basho are present across the eight or so heavenly minutes. Laura Baird’s sister Meg, who was a founding member of Espers and plays with Laura as the Baird Sisters, joins in on the closing minutes of ‘Going Back To East Montgomery’.
‘Alcouer Gardens’ contains use of field recordings where a crackling thunderstorm is bubbling underneath the mournful guitar melody. Despite the rain, there is something quite calming produced here. A dialogue — deep and personal — is on hand here, which in fact could well be a source of solace and shelter from the storm. A ballad to soothe your heart. Similar to ‘Alcouer Gardens’, the preceding instrumental cut ‘The Vernal Pool’ were composed spontaneously in the studio, a technique Jones developed on tour with Damo Suzuki with his former band Cul De Sac. ‘Like A Sick Eagle Looking At The Sky’ is a brooding lament that captures emotion in its rawest state. The alternate tunings are utilized to stunning effect here. ‘Bergen County Farewell’ serves the ideal counterpoint — like that of a colourful rainbow slowly forming after a torrential downpour — whose upbeat tempo and melodic refrain brings ‘My Garden State’ to a stunning close. Field recordings of chimes and the music of birds singing are the final notes you hear (‘Chimes II’) as Jones’ deeply personal and beautifully enriching journey reaches its end.
‘My Garden State’ is out now on Thrill Jockey.
As part of Record Store Day this year, Thrill Jockey issued ‘Welcomed Wherever I Go’ EP (vinyl-only, limited to 1000 copies) by Glenn Jones, comprising a brand new EP of archival and live recordings. ‘From A Forgotten Session’, taken from the EP, can be downloaded from Thrill Jockey’s Soundcloud page HERE.
Interview with Glenn Jones.
Congratulations on the truly stunning ‘My Garden State’, Glenn. The album really plays out like such a beautiful journey and such a special sense of place and much emotion is distilled across each of the album’s ten tracks. The songs were written in the house you and your family had moved into and lived since 1966 and the house itself (and also your mother of course) act very much as the focal point for these songs; ‘Bergen County Farewell’ being written after the sale of your mother’s house. I would love to gain an insight into this writing process and the space in time in which these songs were written?
Glenn Jones: The album is a collection of my newest pieces for guitar and banjo and not much more than that, really. When I was recording the album, I still hadn’t thought of a title. In thinking about it, I realized that what the pieces had in common was that they were mostly written in the house in northern New Jersey where our family had moved to in 1966. Over a period of about two years, while my sisters and I took turns looking after my mom, the pieces were born, in part, in that house.
This, and the fact that the album was recorded in New Jersey as well gave me the idea for the title. I don’t know if its true for most composers, but I tend to associate a piece of music with where I was when I wrote it, who I was with, what I was doing, a season, a recollection of a time of day, the way the light came through the window, what I might have been feeling, even with the instrument it was written on, because sometimes the instrument tells you where to go.
So when I play ‘Across the Tappan Zee,’ for instance, I’m thinking of the drive south from Massachusetts, where I live, into New Jersey — a trip I’ve made so many times, it’s positively boring! Crossing the Tappan Zee bridge over the Hudson River and finally into northern Jersey — it’s a feeling of “journey’s end.”
You recorded the album with Laura and Meg Baird at their home studio who also add their wonderful touches to the album; adding banjo, guitar, and various sound recordings which add such a beautiful sense of texture and mood to the album and your own guitar playing. What was your experience like working and recording there and playing music with the Baird Sisters? I imagine it must have been the ideal setting to make the album itself?
GJ: Actually the home studio belongs to Les and Laura Baird; Meg is a frequent visitor, but doesn’t live there. (Meg was living in Philadelphia at the time I recorded the album, and has recently moved to San Francisco.)
But I take your point and yes, Forest Hill Farm was an idyllic spot to record. Its about a quarter mile off the main road, so it’s quiet, laid back — there’s that energizing feeling of being away from it all.
Which wouldn’t in itself mean much if the person I was working with wasn’t also supportive and indulgent — Laura was both those things and more. It was a terrific recording experience, one of the best I’ve had, and I think the feel of the album reflects that.
In terms of naming the album ‘My Garden State’, as well as the fact it obviously provided the location for where you both wrote and later recorded the album, it is also your home. Could you talk about New Jersey itself; what are your favorite places to see and things to do there?
GJ: No, my home is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I live with Nora and our two cats, Django and Hopscotch. Most of us grow up and leave our family homes, visiting it now and then, on holidays and such. Same with me. My visits there since I moved out in 1974 have tended to be short — a weekend, rarely longer. I’m not a particularly nostalgic person, so it wasn’t like I went out of my way to revisit my old high school or such scenes of former humiliations.
But suddenly I found myself forced by circumstances to be in places I didn’t typically make a point of visiting: the railroad tracks that pass through the town where I spent many hours with my boyhood friends; the neighborhood where my first girlfriend lived; the stores nearby (or what’s left of them) where I bought my books, my comics and records; the streets where I made the rounds as a teenager, delivering newspapers, my first job.
Waldwick is just another suburban town, but it was freighted with memories, whether I wanted to revisit them or not. This was the house where I came of age, where I was living when I became obsessed with music, where I got my first guitar at age 14, where so many cats, dogs, mice, hermit crabs and goldfish lived and died — where my father lived and died. This was my bedroom, where I listened to Bob Fas and Steve Post on WBAI, out of NYC, under the covers, on headphones, afraid to go to sleep for fear I’d miss something. Where I first listened to Love, Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, the Incredible String Band, as well as John Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis and, most important for the future me, my first John Fahey and Robbie Basho albums.
Whether one is especially nostalgic or not, it’s hard not to feel something in such a place.
In terms of your writing practice, your songs — whether improvised or not — are always so expansive and contain so much substance and real feeling. What tends to be your preferred method for writing your music? Can the pieces be worked on laboriously over a long time or can they be written spontaneously?
GJ: Both, but I rarely improvise in concert, because I’m just not good enough to pull it off reliably. I always record some improvised pieces for each album however. Though not all of them make it onto the album, because not all of them are good enough. ‘My Garden State’ includes two improvised pieces, ‘The Vernal Pool’ and ‘Alcoeur Gardens,’ which were made up on the spot. Some of the composed pieces, ‘Like a Sick Eagle Looking at the Sky’ for instance, took more than a year to finish.
My favourite piece at the moment is ‘Alcoeur Gardens’, it seems to embody so much feeling and such a wonderful spirit, while the sounds of a thunderstorm is in the background behind your gentle, stunning guitar playing. I would love to gain an insight into this song’s construction?
GJ: Something I often do in the studio is to play along to something else, ambient sounds or whatever, something I can hear in the headphones as I’m playing, but which aren’t part of the finished piece. The listener is left with just half of the “dialogue.” It’s a way of building “space” into a performance. That was true of both improvised pieces on ‘My Garden State’, but I decided to include the ambient track — a recording of a thunderstorm that Laura had made — on ‘Alcoeur Gardens,’ to “reveal the device” so to speak.
Can you recount your first time picking up a guitar? What are your fondest memories of learning this instrument? What drew you to music to begin with?
GJ: Yes, it was my high school friend Mischa Falkenburg’s Goya classical guitar. I knew nothing about playing it, per se, but I loved the sound. I think he still has it!
Music was so important to young people of my generation, it was so exciting, there was so much to hear. For me and my friends, music was no casual interest, or just for entertainment. It was something we were obsessed with, that we listened to all our waking hours, something we debated and argued over.
There’s such a wealth of wonderful guitarists out there who are making such incredibly moving and evocative music, for example William Tyler, Daniel Bachman and Ryan Francesconi to name only a few. What do you think it is about instrumental guitar music that makes it so magical and special for musicians to play?
GJ: I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, writing for guitar and playing guitar gives me what little feeling of self-worth I have. The guitar has always lent itself to a personal expression, it’s small, easy to carry, suitable to so many, various styles.
My closest friendships have been with people who share my love for the instrument — John Fahey, Jack Rose. I think about them everyday and every time I pick up the guitar.
‘My Garden State’ LP and ‘Welcomed Wherever I Go’ EP are available now on Thrill Jockey.