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Chosen One: Dean Wareham

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Interview with Dean Wareham.

“Writing a song is a long road. Or it can be.”

—Dean Wareham

Words: Mark Carry, Photographs: Dean Wareham

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Last Spring marked the long-awaited release of the legendary Galaxie 500/Luna frontman, Dean Wareham’s solo debut full-length on the London-based independent label, Sonic Cathedral. The self-titled album showcases Wareham’s immaculate song-craft and peerless musicianship; traits we have come to know (and cherish) from the American musician’s storied career (from the reverb-drenched, indie-rock gems of Galaxie 500 to Luna’s utterly transcendent dream-pop opuses). Following on from last year’s beguiling solo mini-album, ‘Emancipated Hearts’, a marked immediacy and directness is inherent in Wareham’s songbook as a rejuvenated spirit burns brightly across the debut album’s rich sonic canvas.

The debut record was produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket at his home studios in Louisville, Kentucky. “I bought My Morning Jacket’s first album, ‘The Tennessee Fire’ back in 1999 and loved it,” recounts Wareham, “perhaps on account of the generous amounts of reverb on his voice, or the fact that he would belt things out loud and high”. The recording sessions comprised the formidable line-up of Britta Phillips on bass and Anthony LaMarca on drums. Album opener ‘The Dancer Disappears’ contains Wareham’s pristine baritone washed across a sky of sun-blissed guitar tones and an infectious groove. A vivid sense of nostalgia, memory and new beginnings unfolds before your very eyes (and ears) as an illuminating new chapter is forged in Wareham’s sacred songbook. A crystalline pop gem is masterfully crafted (sharing the glorious shades of Phil Spector and Jim James’ own solo material), which is inter-woven with Wareham’s poignant lyrics: “Now that we’re here / I’m ready to leave / The whole wide world behind.” An undying spark of optimism flickers like rays of sunlight, perhaps reflected on the album’s stunning front-cover artwork, which was beautifully designed by Sharon Lock (whose work similarly adorns the sleeve of label-mate, Cheval Sombre’s ‘Mad Love’ record). A few moments later, Wareham sings “Bring back the magic and light the match / There is a train that I’m hoping to catch” that brings to mind Tindersticks’ frontman Stuart A. Stalples’ solo album ‘Leaving Songs’ and particularly the Lhasa de Sela duet, ‘That Leaving Feeling’.

The fulfilling journey continues on ‘Beat The Devil’ as Wareham sings on the opening verse, “Take the high road to the sea / On the lost coast is where we’ll be” that recalls the tender ballads of ‘Deserter Songs’ era Mercury Rev, Daniel Johnston and Sparklehorse; while lyrically the spirit of The Byrds song — and Dylan-penned — ‘Ballad Of Easy Rider’ comes to mind. The song’s closing guitar interlude serves the perfect prelude to what follows, namely the only cover version on the album, ‘Heartless People’, written by Michael Holland. A song of immense power and emotional depth seeps into your consciousness. Sonically, a gorgeous ebb and flow of warm percussion and clean guitar tones flows effortlessly beneath Wareham’s endearing voice. A love song filled with pain, loss, longing and regret is created as a seamless array of poetic prose makes its swift dance to the forefront of one’s heart and mind: “But you / You and I / Hate to see a flower die / Somebody tell me / Which way the power lies”. An achingly beautiful lapsteel appears on a later verse as a darkness permeates the headspace: “No one ever really knew/The trouble in my heart / She had a way with me / Right from the very start”. ‘Heartless People’ could belong on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s ‘I See A Darkness’ or any of Johnny Cash’s ‘American Recordings’ such is the deeply affecting ballad’s brilliance.

‘My Eyes Are Blue’ beautifully depicts a father’s everlasting love for his son. A sublime country pop gem radiates throughout with Wareham’s pristine vocal delivery providing the song’s glimmering spark: “I don’t know my eyes are blue / I only know they’re following you”. The perfect pop song contains gorgeous backing harmonies and soaring guitar licks, that in turn, creates something of a symphony. A song of love and rejoice is wonderfully brought into full-focus as Wareham asks: “But how can we lose when we already won?” ‘Love Is Not A Roof Against The Rain’ conjures up the timeless sound of Gram Parsons (particularly, ‘Love Hurts’) as an intimacy descends upon the listener. The sparse folk song is a tour-de-force in songwriting, revealed in a later verse: “I can hold the midnight in my hand / Spoken like a singer in a band / Everyone remembers what they want / Stories told to give their life a font”. An honesty and directness prevails as a torn heart is laid bare, particularly on the chorus refrain as Wareham asks: “What have I done with my life”.

Part B evolves into psychedelic guitar-based pop gems, from the hypnotic groove of ‘Holding Pattern’ to the Velvets-esque ‘Babes In The Wood’. The latter transforms into an uplifting psych haze as the chorus refrain of “Take care of the babes in the wood” shares glorious shades of Galaxie 500. The star of Wareham continues to rise but this well-known fact has been written in stone ever since the turn of the 90’s, of course.

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‘Dean Wareham’ is available now on Sonic Cathedral (Europe) and Double Feature (USA).

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http://deanwareham.com
http://www.soniccathedral.co.uk

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Interview with Dean Wareham.

Congratulations Dean on your utterly beautiful new solo album. I love the immediacy and directness of these songs and indeed, the gorgeous flow of music throughout. Can you please take me back to the recording sessions with Jim James and what the experience was like recording in his Kentucky home studio? 

Dean Wareham: Thank you Mark. Let’s turn back the clock to the summer of 2012. Jim James invited me to play a summer festival that he was curating in Louisville; I played a set of Galaxie 500 songs. After the festival, my band (my wife Britta on bass, Anthony LaMarca on drums, and me) retired to Jim’s house in the suburbs of Louisville. It’s a home studio but frankly it had nicer equipment than a lot of studios I’ve recorded in. We set up the drums in the living room, vocal microphone in Jim’s den, and guitar amps in the garage. We spent two days, walked out of there with four songs, including “The Dancer Disappears,” “Heartless People” and “Babes in the Wood” and decided right away that we would come back in December and finish a whole record.

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I was interested to read that ‘The Dancer Disappears’ and the Michael Holland cover ‘Heartless People’ were some of the first songs recorded for the album. I feel both those songs really shape the album. I love the beautiful arrangements of ‘The Dancer Disappears’ and lyrics such as “Now that we’re here / I’m ready to leave the whole wide world behind” evokes a vivid sense of journey that marks a new chapter. Can you talk me through ‘The Dancer Disappears’ please, Dean? 

DW: I will try. It’s really two different processes — the music and the lyrics I mean — working separately and then hopefully working together. Often a song starts as someone else’s song; in this case I was strumming Glen Campbell’s “Mary in the Morning” and then we started playing around with those chords but set to a disco beat. When we got into the studio Jim James had a different idea for the drums; he set up a heavy slapback delay and that forced our drummer Anthony to change what he was doing. Lyrically I wanted to write about a last hurrah, the idea that as you get older you will have one last big party and then leave it all behind. And also during this time I was aware that I was about to leave New York City after thirty years and move to the west coast, which I certainly had mixed feelings about.

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The cover song ‘Heartless People’ fits so perfectly alongside your own songs. Can you shed some light on this song please and its inclusion on the album? It’s such a gorgeous, tender song with deeply affecting song-writing. Thank you for introducing me to the music of Michael Holland.

DW: Yeah, this is the second Michael Holland song I have recorded. Michael and his identical-twin brother Mark were in a band called Jennyanykind in the 1990s, and I like that band but I like their side projects even more; Mark Holland recorded a few albums as Jule Brown (and I worked with him on those) and Michael Holland made a really great bluegrass album called “Tomorrow’s American Treasures”. I don’t even like bluegrass much but really loved the album he made. But back to your question, Michael sent me a home demo of this unreleased song he wrote — “Heartless People” — and I have been waiting to record it for a couple of years. It is a devastating song — the one lyric “You can hope for the best / But what is written in stone?” gets me every time I sing it. I think back to how we recorded that one, and to tell you the truth we almost gave up on it while we were rehearsing — it just wasn’t working. But Jim James set up this great vintage ribbon microphone into a plate reverb and all of a sudden my vocal sounded really silky, and so did Britta’s bass, and Britta and Anthony played a really fantastic rhythm track and then Jim James added a strange jazzy guitar lick and Anthony the pedal steel, and it all happened so quickly.

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The stunning front-cover is beautifully designed by Sharon Lock, whose work I first came across through Cheval Sombre’s ‘Mad Love’ album, released on Sonic Cathedral a couple of years ago. The artwork is a perfect embodiment of the uplifting music contained on the record. 

DW: It is just possible that the artwork is better than the album. And I am not dissatisfied with the album — it’s just that the LP cover is, as you say, stunning. It is glowing, effulgent, colorful, mysterious. Mind you, I haven’t yet seen it with the yellow translucent vinyl, the UK vinyl is out but we had a problem here.

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I love that sense of musicianship and joy of playing that is clearly present on these special recordings. I would love to gain an insight into the writing process of your songs? Is it a case that you have the songs written beforehand and then bringing them to the table, so to speak? Your trusted ensemble of Britta Phillips (bass) and Anthony La Marca (drums) and Jim James have such a deep understanding of the music, it’s lovely to witness while listening to the record.

DW: I don’t generally bring finished songs to the table; I bring ideas, chords, riffs and then we sit down (we in this case being Anthony and Britta) and try them different ways and do this for a couple of months. And then when the recording session is booked the panic sets in and I realize I had better write the lyrics or else I will look like a fool standing there with nothing to sing. This time I was a little bit lucky because my voice completely gave out during our December sessions, which gave me an extra couple of weeks to finish the words.

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Were there particular production techniques used by Jim James on these recording sessions that set them apart from previous releases? It’s cool too to think that clearly, the music of My Morning Jacket owes a lot to the unique reverb-filled sonic creations of Galaxie 500. It’s a wonderful combination that works so well.

DW: This record sounds very different to last year’s “Emancipated Hearts” EP, which was produced by Jason Quever of Papercuts. That one was a wall of sound. This LP is more hi-fi. Jim James has made some really massive sounding records, and he does not shy away from bold statements. That is perhaps what is different here — he pushed me out of my comfort zone at times. I tend to keep things pretty restrained (not always, but that is my default), while he goes for it. That was a good dynamic on this album.

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‘My Eyes Are Blue’ is another truly captivating song. I love the intricate arrangements of sun-blissed harmonies, clean guitar tones, and enlightening feel. I really do get a sense that the songs are just pouring from you and it’s all so effortless. How has your song-writing changed over the course of your career across the various incarnations?

DW: Good that it sounds that way, but I promise you it is not effortless. Writing a song is a long road. Or it can be. Some things come quickly (for example, “Happy & Free”). But “My Eyes Are Blue” was very different in demo form. When we started playing it for Jim, he immediately suggested that we start with the chorus instead of the verse, a clever idea, and I’m not sure why I’ve never done that before. And then all kinds of pretty things were added; pedal steel, Jim’s beautiful backing vocals, and an nylon-acoustic guitar solo that I played straight into my computer over the Christmas holidays. Lyrically I had about three pages of potential verses; ideas pulled from here and there. One review suggested that I was singing this one to Britta but in truth I wrote it for my 12-year-old son. Perhaps this is too much information, I know it’s not very rock and roll to write a song for your kid. And yet there are some good songs in that vein — “Kooks” by David Bowie comes to mind.

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Are there certain records you feel proved influential in making this solo record, Dean? 

DW: Particular songs have their influences. So I know that certain songs take initial inspiration from other songs by Glen Campbell, Kaleidoscope, the Seekers, the Bee Gees, Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones, and Donovan. That can be how a song gets its start — but the final result doesn’t sound remotely like any of those artists, because sonically you start heading in different directions. Instead it sounds more like Dean Wareham as produced by Jim James.

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Lastly, my current favourite is the sparse ballad “Love Is Not A Roof Against The Rain”. A song of redemption that possesses such power and intensity. “What have I done with my life” resonates so powerfully. I would for you to discuss your memories of writing this song, and indeed the title of the song itself?

DW: “Love is not a roof against the rain” is a line from a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay (an American poet who was wildly popular in the 1920s) titled “Love is Not All.” Lately I’ve used this trick of taking one line from someone else’s poem and then writing my own song around it, so that’s what I did here. Her poem, about the power of love, starts:

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;

She concludes that love may not be food or drink but she wouldn’t trade the memory of love (“the memory of this night” she writes) for anything else.

And again, this song was very spare indeed till we got into the studio, and we kept the first two verses that way but then Jim suggested it should explode at the end in a supernova of pedal steel and synthesizers. It is fun to play live.

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‘Dean Wareham’ is available now on Sonic Cathedral (Europe) and Double Feature (USA).

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http://deanwareham.com
http://www.soniccathedral.co.uk

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Written by admin

July 17, 2014 at 7:20 pm

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