Bryan John Appleby Moves Beyond the Seattle Sound
There used to be a function in iTunes where you could sort your songs by how many times you’d listened to them. It may still be there, but I’ve learned it can be a bit unsettling to peer that deep into yourself. The last time I tried it, I was a bit embarassed to see just how many times I’d listened to the last album from Seattle songwriter Bryan John Appleby. It was way back in 2011, and I was moving into the second year of a festival I’d started–Seattle Folk Festival–and discovering how little I knew about key things like artist draw, ticket sales, and budgeting. I had quite a number of sleepless nights and was in dire need of soul-soothing songs, which I found in Appleby’s Fire on the Vine album. I wasn’t the only one, either. Appleby seemed to come out of nowhere with this incredibly gorgeous, fully formed album that blew everyone away. He actually came out of a burgeoning scene at the time that also gave us bands like Sub Pop darlings The Head and the Heart (who Appleby toured with), who catapulted to stardom on the backs of their legion of Northwest fans. It was a time of gentle folk harmonies, soft banjo, luxurious beards, clap-along choruses, and the kind of earnestness that had been previously banished from Seattle by the hipster elite. That same earnestness, we would later learn, had deep ties to the church, either reflected in the gospel harmonies, or the searching, questing lyrics that drew frequently from deep biblical sources. It’s a sound that’s largely gone now, just five years later, replaced in the halls of Sub Pop either by Black Constellation hip-hop (Shabazz Palaces, THEESatisfaction) or badass fem-pop (Hardly Art’s Tacocat or La Luz).
I can’t help but think that Appleby must have struggled with the bottom falling out of the Seattle indie folk scene, and he recently did an op-ed piece for Seattle’s City Arts magazine where he talks about moving beyond this sound. With his new album, The Narrow Valley, he’s largely succeeded, crafting a much larger sound for his songs that’s drenched in strings, layer upon layer of complex harmony, long orchestrated instrumental breaks, all of it seemingly created for a much bigger screen than the folk songs he used to be known for. I keep touching back on cinematic analogies, and though it seems hackneyed, it’s a useful way to talk about an artist who’s making a larger story than just another love song. I wanted to know more about the new album, especially after I got my hands on the beautiful vinyl packaging, so I reached out to Bryan for more information.
Devon Leger: I love the album and love how it sounds on vinyl, but I was surprised when putting it on the turntable that these were 45s! I had assumed they were 33 1/3 like usual. Tell me more about why you went with 45s to release the album. Didn’t that quadruple your costs?
BJA: Yeah I should have labeled them as 45s. I think a lot of people have been thrown off by that. I havent heard it slowed down yet, but who knows, it works for Dolly. Could be cool at 33 too.
That decision was only based on the length of the record. I think the whole thing runs at 48 minutes, so if I did a single vinyl at 33 1/3, I would have to cram 24 minutes on each side which, from my understanding and what the vinyl guys told me, is physically way too much music to fit on a 12” circle. Anything over 20 minutes per side and they have to cut the grooves shallower to fit everything. I could have done a double 10” which would have been kind of cool, but it was the exact same price as the double 12” and the art looks way better full size. And I could have done a double 12” at 33 1/3 but then there is a ton of space on the records with nothing on it. I don’t know if there is a benefit, other than I liked the idea of physically spreading the songs out on each side, filling up all the space.
Anyway, the guys who pressed it to vinyl kind of steered me through those decisions. It was totally way more expensive, I had to come up with some real scratch for that pressing.
Tell me about your own interest in vinyl. Do you listen to and/or buy a lot of vinyl? What were some influences from older music that you came to through vinyl? What new vinyl have you been listening to?
BJA: Vinyl offers such a great contrast to all my more modern methods of consuming music and art. Truthfully, I take in 95% of my music digitally, on the go. Choosing to listen to a record on vinyl every so often is a way to break up the way I listen. It’s like slowly sipping a cocktail instead of gulping down a cheap lager. Both great, just different paces. I think it’s pretty important to build in some of those more focused, patient, deep listening experiences, especially when I consider the steady flow of information that I surround myself with all the time. Vinyl is a way to shut off the stream for an hour every once in a while. I put my own record on vinyl with the hopes that it would provide others that immersive listening experience. I think that this new record is a hard one to listen to casually, in the car or something. That’s good and bad.
Stuff I like? There are a bunch of great records I’ve enjoyed specifically on vinyl. I don’t know if it’s because it actually sounds better or because I’m listening in a more careful way with less distraction. I’m sure it’s both. As for influences, a lot of the Nilsson records first came my way on vinyl. Randy Newman’s first self-titled record as well as Sail Away. The Beach Boys’ Friends. Through vinyl, I really got into Living in the Material World by George Harrison. Finders Keepers Records put out a record that I got reasonably obsessed with this year called The Sound of Wonder! Its a compilation of Pakistani artists from the ’70s, psychedelic pop specifically made for movies. I heard that one first on vinyl. Also, stuff from Light in the Attic is always great to listen to on vinyl.
As for new vinyl, Angel Olsen’s new record is way cool on vinyl. K. Skelton from San Francisco put out a vinyl called High Maintenance Diva Princess. I love that one. Grand Hallway’s last record on vinyl is very nice.
This album seems more cinematic in scope than the last album. Can you tell me more about that? You’ve always worked with large arrangements, but this seems even grander. Is there a concept behind the album?
BJA: I was drawing on a number of sources, all of which seemed to align in this cinematic way. A lot of the music I listen to has that “golden age of cinema” quality to it. Roy Orbison, Scott Walker, Les Baxter, Brian Wilson, Ennio Morricone, Patsy Cline, all that stuff is where my ears are drawn a lot of the time. In all of that, there is this feeling of warmth in all that music that I want to give people, give myself. So that’s what ends up happening a lot of the time when I’m writing. I have those lush orchestrations in the back of my mind, even when a song is simple or I’m playing it solo. I hear the orchestra behind me. And I was lucky enough to have the talent of the producer on the record and of the band live to really get those extra layers that I can’t achieve on my own.
Since the music was pulling things in this cinematic way, it seemed natural to follow that lyrically, so yeah, there is a narrative that runs through the whole record, its a concept record for sure. I ended up gravitating towards my own origin for that narrative. The stories all take place in the Central Coast of California, in a isolated valley town, which is very similar to where I grew up. Near my home town is Big Sur, the Salinas Valley, coastal towns along the highway like Moss Landing and Davenport, the Pajaro Valley, and all these places add up to a very visual landscape, filled with strange lore, ripe for song-writing.
You talked with City Arts a bit about the transition from the Head and the Heart era of Seattle indie folk to where we are now. Can you elaborate on that? How do you think the scene has changed since THATH’s breakout success?
BJA: That’s a big question. Well, it’s nothing new. Music is shifting and evolving all the time, reaching back, observing the present climate, and anticipating changes to come. That’s all normal and good. But my big point with that City Arts article was to show that for me, it’s important to maintain an “including but not limited to” position. Whenever one type of music gets that much attention, is emphasized or spotlighted like that, things get weird. You start to see a lot of young bands more focused on copying a specific moment or movement rather than drawing from the wider spectrum of music around them. I’m not suggesting a reactionary response, moving away from a genre just because its popular. I still love folk! Again, including but not limited to. But I do think that if you’re following in the wake and rising with the tide of a specific genre’s success, it would be easier to phone in something that sounds like that popular thing rather than mining the depths of your creativity and drawing from a broader waters of influence to make something more interesting and less cliche. I just get suspicious when I hear 40 bands that just happen to have a formula very similar to The Head and the Heart. And of course, I don’t blame THATH. Those dudes just did their thing.
The music in Seattle has always been diverse. If one thing has changed since 2011, it’s that one specific genre is no longer being promoted as “The Seattle Sound.” I’m glad for that. I don’t think that folk was ever THE sound of Seattle, so it’s nice that the media has stopped promoting that idea so much. Artists have less pressure to bend into certain stylistic expectations. On the other hand, eyes are no longer fixed on Seattle looking for the next big thing, which means that a lot of cool bands (Pickwick, Deep Sea Diver, many others) are getting no support from a very timid music industry. “Are you a surf band? Are you EDM? No? Go fuck yourself.” Luckily we all have awesome, beautiful, sexy, intelligent fans that keep us moving, keep us supported. (Thanks guys).
How does Seattle and the Pacific Northwest continue to inspire your songwriting and music?
BJA: We get the chance to tour the West Coast a couple times a year and, top to bottom, I love the Western states, specifically those along the coast. Whether it’s Orcas Island, Ojai, Half Moon Bay, Astoria, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, I feel most like myself when I sense that the Pacific Ocean is close. It’s an inexplicable connection coming from skeptic that generally doesn’t believe in inexplicable connections. But I feel this one. Anyway, I was born in Washington, grew up in California, moved to Seattle ten years ago, drive up and down all the time. The entire West Coast is home to me. I imagine that my writing will always grab from some aspect of that. At any given time my lyrics and music may center around the moods and landscape of the Puget Sound or the Monterey Bay or the Oregon Coast or wherever. Seattle will always be part of that connection.
Pick up Bryan John Appleby’s new album, The Narrow Valley, on double vinyl from Bryan directly at Bandcamp: