Lori Carson – This is how it feels, now
For some players, music is ultimately just a stop along the road. I’m reminded of many aspiring musicians I’ve known over the years who eventually gave up the ghost and moved on: the Doctors’ Mob guitarist who’s now a record-store manager; the singer for the Skunks who became a murder mystery writer; the Hey Zeus bassist who’s currently producing prime-time network TV shows. Most everyone knows a few such characters.
Others consider music just one piece of the grand puzzle. Butch Hancock doesn’t consider himself a songwriter by trade, regardless of the considerable credits he’s racked up over the years. To Hancock, music is just one spoke in a wheel of life that has also involved photography, carpentry, river rafting, dry land farming and other occupations. “I don’t look at myself as a songwriter, or as a musician, or as a photographer; those are just part of what I do,” Hancock explained many moons ago. “And if I’m a tractor driver one year, then I’m a tractor driver. But that’s just part of what I do.”
Yet there are also those for whom music, to paraphrase an old adage, isn’t everything — it’s the only thing.
“I’m convinced it’s the only calling I have, and the only ability I have, really,” says Lori Carson, reflecting on her life spent in pursuit of song. “I’m kind of bad at everything else. But I always could make up melodies, and did from the time I was a little girl.
“Sometimes I think about, ‘What else would I do? If I have to do something else, what would it be?’ And I would be in such big trouble. I’ve been so lucky, because I’m terrible at math, and I’m a bad typist, and my deductive reasoning sucks…but this, I’ve always been able to do.”
The nature of Carson’s music backs up her assertion. Through four solo albums, and two more as a member of the adventurous collective Golden Palominos, she has delivered songs that sound as if they had to be written. These are not knockoffs cast casually about in search of a market niche or genre tag; rather, they’re vessels of personal expression, exorcising demons lurking beneath the surface, revealing truths hidden deep within the soul.
Carson’s 1997 disc Everything I Touch Runs Wild ranks among the decade’s most emotionally evocative recordings. From the seductive opening track “Something’s Got Me” — with its scene-setting first line, “There are some things you can’t possess/They come to own you instead” — to the heartstopping centerpiece ballad “Snow Come Down”, to the rolling rhythms of “Train” and its blunt admission that “If I had the guts I’d go right now/But I don’t have the guts,” the album is a classic catharsis of love, lust, longing and loss.
Or, as songwriter Gary Heffern wrote a couple years ago, it’s the kind of record that “throws you against the wall, knocks you to the floor, stands over you, rips out your heart, thrusts it in your face and says, ‘Here — this is what it’s all about.'” That’s the kind of effect Carson’s music tends to have on people.
For those who have tuned in, anyway. Elvis Costello once described Gram Parsons’ music as being “much too close to real emotion” to reach the masses who seek slighter, simpler pleasures on the radio dial. Or, as Parsons’ grievously angelic partner, Emmylou Harris, told Mojo in July 1998: “It’s like the light was too strong, and people just had to turn away…because it was all too painful. It could rip you up. Not many people can take music that real.”
Carson may be in the same boat, for better and for worse. Her occasional local shows during the past couple years spent in Seattle before she moved back to her home turf of New York recently rarely drew more than a hundred or so people — yet all who attended hung on her every note with hushed reverence and respect.
Such close attention is virtually required for the impact of Carson’s music to resonate in a live setting. “I’d offer to pick up the tempo, but I don’t wanna raise your hopes,” she confessed wryly to the crowd at Seattle’s OK Hotel one summer Saturday night in 1998. At her shows, accompanied only by her guitar, a hollow-body electric with a warm, smooth tone, Carson quietly delivers personal revelations with an unguarded intensity matched only by the melancholic beauty of her melodies.
All of which would likely be lost in settings unsuited to making such direct connection with the audience. “The first time I ever toured completely solo was opening for Counting Crows on their first tour, when they had that huge hit, ‘Mr. Jones’,” Carson recalls. “I was playing for massive crowds with just an acoustic guitar…it was a nightmare. Very scary.”
Since that experience, she says, “I’ve resisted going out on tour with another band where I would be the opening act and playing in larger venues. I’ve passed over that to do little tours, where I can headline and play in small clubs to people who are already fans, in a quiet, comfortable situation. Because I just feel like the music business is hard enough, and I want to have as much pleasure as I can in working. And doing that is very pleasurable.”
The flip side, of course, is that it’s difficult for an artist to climb the career ladder without moving on to bigger venues at some point. To that end, Carson admits, “I would welcome wholeheartedly the opportunity to try it out in a different context.” While she agrees her music is delicate and personal by nature, “I don’t feel that should necessarily limit things. I think it could translate [to a bigger venue]. There are bands who play quiet music to a large audience, and there are ways to make it work.”
Whether that opportunity may come in support of her new album, Stars (due out Sept. 28 on Restless), is unforeseeable at this point — but musically, Stars feels slightly less inclined to such small-scale settings. Though the overall tone is still steeped in moody reflection, there’s a noticeable lift to the proceedings on several tracks. An atmosphere of peaceful contentment seems to have settled in since Everything I Touch Runs Wild, which came across as if it had been written during a period of considerable inner turmoil.
“It’s hard for me to be terribly objective at this point about the emotional tone of the record,” Carson replies when that contrast is suggested, but she says she did feel a greater sense of stability in terms of how the new album was made. “I think it’s really well put-together compared to the last record. Each song arrangement feels very complete to me. And I think that may also have something to do with it feeling ‘whole’ emotionally as well.”