Time Has Told Me: Ed Askew
Interview with Ed Askew.
“He sang in the morning
And after work he’d sing
A song before supper
For the world”
—‘For The World’, Ed Askew
Words: Mark Carry, Paintings: Ed Askew
During the Autumn of last year (albeit several decades late), I discovered the enchanting music of U.S. singer-songwriter Ed Askew, in the form of a mix-tape compiled by Philadelphia-based harpist, Mary Lattimore (who also plays on Askew’s current album, ‘For The World’). The mix was entitled ‘Keeper of Beauty’ (three words which conveys the sheer beauty and purity of the artist’s empowering works of divine art), and Ed Askew’s ‘Blue Eyed Baby’ appeared towards the gentle close (sandwiched between Nils Frahm’s ‘Went Missing’ and Samara Lubelski’s ‘Keeper of Beauty’). A ripple-flow of piano notes and rich tapestry of harp notes forms the ideal backdrop to the songwriter’s delicate voice. In the words of Lattimore: “Ed is a legend and his songs make people weep, they move people. I played harp on this one. Very proud of this record.”
Ed Askew is a painter and songwriter living in New York, whose reputation has solidly grown to become a New York music legend. This reputation is not undeserved, the singer songwriter released ‘Ask The Unicorn’ on ESP (also home to Pearls Before Swine, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler) in 1968 to critical acclaim and cult status (in much the same way as Mark Fry’s ‘Dreaming With Alice’, Vashti Bunyan’s ‘Just Another Diamond Day’ and ‘Parallelograms’ by Linda Perhacs forged a rare odyssey of psych folk treasures from this golden age circa late 60’s/early 70’s period). In recent years, each of these artists have thankfully received their much-deserved recognition and universal acclaim as a new generation of music fans are introduced to these utterly transcendent musical works. Last year, the British-based independent label, Tin Angel Records, released Ed Askew’s deeply affecting full-length album, ‘For The World’, an album steeped in stunning beauty and honesty. What is most striking about ‘For The World’ (after endless revisits throughout the changing seasons) is how hugely enriching the narrative of Askew’s collection of songs are that, in turn, serves the vital pulse to the rich sonic canvas. A wonderful use of colour and evocative imagery — songs created from the mind of a painter — includes recurring imagery of a child’s eyes, nature, willow and maple trees, the ocean, and sense of belonging and home-place, typified by the use of the rose as almost a symbol of the album, referenced by the famous quote of Gertrude Stein’s (the tiple-based lament ‘Gertrude Stein’ feels like a song you’ve always known, particularly the chorus refrain of majestic harmonies). Moments of joy, solace, sadness, nostalgia, loneliness, and despair are etched across the vivid colours of ‘For The World’s mesmerising web of sound.
In the summer of 2011, Ed Askew embarked on his first U.S tour at the age of 71, in support of the limited vinyl/digital re-release of the 80’s era cassette tape ‘Imperfection’, accompanied on piano by Jay Pluck and travelled with tour mates, The Black Swans. A short time later (two weeks in fact), as a result of the tour, it was decided that Jerry DeCicca (of The Black Swans) would assist Ed in making a record, which would later become ‘For The World’. The group spent a week in a West Harlem warehouse that September. The recording sessions comprised the gifted talents of Jay Pluck, two members of The Black Swans’ Tyler Evans (banjo, tiple, electric guitar), Canaan Faulkner (bass) and Eve Searls (backing vocals), along with Mary Lattimore (Meg Baird, Thurston Moore) on harp. Later on, electric guitar was added by Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello) and backing vocals on three songs were provided by Sharon Van Etten.
The raw emotion and tearful sadness of ‘Moon In The Mind’ immediately stops you in your tracks. A song so powerful, touching and intensely sad. The lyrics are sheer poetry, which drift slowly beneath the windswept beauty of harmonica, piano, and guitar: “Golden boats float down a river of sighs / Rain on the street is falling tears my eyes.” A lyric in the following verse resonates powerfully, the light of hope and darkness of pain and fear are effortlessly coalesced together as Askew achingly sings “Wings of an angel open in the dark sky.” The musical interlude of harmonica arrives later that is filled in a prevailing sense of despair and searching, matching the mood of Miles Davis’ ‘Kind Of Blue’ or ‘On The Beach’ era Neil Young. The album closer (and title-track) is a torch-lit ballad to cast light upon the darkest of days. As the chorus refrain of rejoice brings the album to a fitting close, the horizon comes into view, where the bluebirds are singing, that marks the end of a wholly enlightening experience. Like the album’s cover painting (a self portrait by Ed Askew), ‘For The World’ is a work of true art: rare and true.
“We chase the birds away and they flee
To evergreens down the street
We make castles in the leaves
Of maple trees”
(lyrics taken from ‘Maple Street’)
‘For The World’ is available now on Tin Angel Records.
Interview with Ed Askew.
You have spent a lot of your life living and performing around New York. I love how the city is almost a character inside the world of your songs that forms the foundation to your songs, particularly the beautiful ‘Gertrude Stein’. Can you please describe New York for me, in your eyes and how much of an inspiration the city has served your music and song?
Ed Askew: This is Empire City: http://edaskew.bandcamp.com/track/empire-city
Yes, the City is bigger than any of us. A joy and a tragedy. I’ve gone everywhere in NYC since I moved here. Though I’ve lived at one location, I have worked with kids (doing art) in Harlem, Washington Heights, and the upper west side. I have painted apartments across from the Met Museum and downtown. I have played shows in Brooklyn and Manhattan. And I have baby sat for friends in Queens.
Of course, I have used the City as a setting for more than one song. They say that L.A. has no center. But NYC doesn’t have a center either. And, even if I do stay and work here in my room most days, I always feel the city around me: the rivers, the bridges, the politics, the various communities.
I would love for you to discuss for me please the title of the record, ‘For The World’. I feel those three words serve the perfect embodiment of the album’s ten songs. The beautiful self-portrait painting that adorns the sleeve in a way, reminds me of Dylan’s ‘Self Portrait’ or at least it comes to mind when I take the record out of its sleeve. Was this a painting that was completed at the same time of making the album?
EA: “For the World” is the title the producer preferred. Though I like it. It is the tittle of the song by that name. And I agree that it expresses my desire to share my music; or really our music, since I am not the only one on the album.
The self portrait is an interesting story. Originally, Tin Angel was interested in some of the self portraits I did a while ago, that I have on Flickr. Then there was discussion about using some more recent charcoal self portraits. But these are tall and narrow. So I made a charcoal drawing in a square format, that I thought might fit the album better. Then someone said we should have something in color. So I added color to the portrait, and sent it to Tin angel. I said, “maybe you can use this for something”. And everybody liked it.
One of my favourite songs off the new album is ‘Maple Street’. I love how the piano melody flows along your stream of poetic words, and the fragile guitar accompaniment works amazingly. The vivid imagery of the maple tree and maple leaves are scattered throughout the album. I would love for you to please discuss ‘Maple Street’, the street itself (if it is a street you walk down often or originated from your imagination) and the importance of nature in your songs. I love the sensual aspect to your songs, and ‘Maple Street’ is one such example. The lyric “we will build what we believe” is one of my favourite lyrics contained in ‘For The World’.
EA: Yes, that’s Mark Ribot playing lead guitar.
Maple Street is a Street near where I grew up. It’s where my church was at that time. The story is made up. Though I did try to build a kind of low, not to high up, “tree house”. It fell on my head. I wasn’t hurt.
I just liked the idea of a bunch of kids making something like that. Cooperating on such a project. Doing something, without being organized, and protected by adults.
Can you please take me back to your first ever European tour which you embarked on last year, Ed. This must have been a very special moment for you. Can you recount your memories of these shows? I’m sure there is a vivid sense of recognition and anticipation for the concerts that have certainly been a long time coming. What were your thoughts on Europe and how was the experience for you, both personally and artistically?
EA: Well, we had a nice time mostly. Though we spent a lot of time in cars and on planes. And I got really sick one night, for no apparent reason. Be that as it may, it was nice traveling with friends. And we got to play for a lot of people at a bunch of packed shows, which was gratifying.
One (me and my band) is working, of course; making an effort to present these shows as best we can. I find that if one is having fun and is relaxed, the audience will feel that way also. It’s interesting that we work so hard but have so much fun doing that.
It’s difficult for me to sit down and tell stories and present memories. I think, as time passes, and we remember this time, certain events will stand out.
I almost forgot to ask you. Last year I had the good fortune of interviewing Mary Lattimore, the Philadelphia-based harpist who plays with you on ‘For The World’. When discussing your music, Mary mentioned that there’s a really great story of how you lost the Tiple on a train and it was returned to you years and years later. I would love for you to tell me this story, please Ed.
EA: Tiple Poem, maybe 3 years ago:
he put down the tiple
annoyed at the weight
of the new wooden case
he had been carrying around
and sat on a bench
while waiting for the train
to New York
and i think
that it is true
that we are sometimes
punished for our
idiotic thoughts or moods
for when the train arrived
leaving the tiple behind
and now some 22 years later
he has apparently been forgiven
for this momentary lapse
who never knew he was ever annoyed
by the weight of the tiple
because that lovely man
who was the one
who found the lost tiple
has tracked him down
and returned it
I think this explains it, more or less. I had written something about my history with that instrument for Fretboard Journal (see “HOW I GOT MY MARTIN TIPLE”: https://www.facebook.com/enarcrane). And a the man who found the tiple was able to find me when his friend saw the magazine.
Can you please take me back to your earlier recordings. I would love to gain an insight into the making of ‘Ask The Unicorn’? Shortly before this time, you acquired your Martin Tiple and I was very interested to read that the majority of your songs were written during a teaching job for a prep school in Connecticut. Please take me back to this period of time in your life and what fond memories you have of this time-the mid-to-late sixties? As ever, music and art must have been closely inter-related and connected.
EA: I don’t think often about the 60s. I was in Art School for many of those years. I got a Masters in Fine Art from Yale in 1966. Liked being in art school. It was safe. I didn’t need a job. I could just paint, mostly. I had good friends, who also painted mostly. After that I worked at a school in Ridgefeald CT, I worked as a Night Watchman some time around then, lived home, had a girl friend, moved in with her in Brooklyn. She left. I lived in the lower east side. Signed with ESP Disk. Fell in love with a boy (didn’t work out), went to England for a week or two to see friends, moved back to New Haven. Met Carl, became lovers. Made Ask the Unicorn and started performing publicly. All between 1966 and 1968. I will probably write about it someday, when i am up to it. I made art. I made love, a lot (not at the privet school) I sang for the kids a lot. Drank a lot of vodka (at that time my “teaching” didn’t go all that well. But it kept me out of Vietnam. And some of the kids befriended me) I smoked too much dope. I wrote 25 or so songs.
Lastly, I’d like to thank you for the wonderful and insightful answers, Ed. Returning to the present, I would love to learn what you’re currently working on? Is there a series of paintings you’re in the midst of creating? (If so, I’d love to see an example of one such work). Also, in terms of music, are there new songs forming in your head, in the interim since the completion of ‘For The World’? I wish you all the best with these special projects and look forward to uncovering your next works of art.
EA: I am currently working on songs. I am hoping to have one or two harpsichord songs to put up on Bandcamp by the Summer. Also the Ed Askew Band has begun work on a second album for Tin Angel records. We have already recorded three tracks with Josephine Foster singing backup and, in one case singing a duet with me.
I have recently made 12 collages. you can see them on Flickr:
I’m planning to do more of these when I have time. I make free form paintings on paper. Then I cut them up and use the material to make the collages.
Paintings supplied by Ed Askew:
(i & iii) “here are two simple paintings I recently made. No title except “small objects series”. Both March 2014. 14′ x 11″ —Ed Askew
(ii) Self Portrait: “Dots 1970’s -1990”
‘For The World’ is available now on Tin Angel Records.