Lori Carson – This is how it feels, now
Everything I Touch Runs Wild had been a bold step for Carson, her first attempt at self-production after working with Anton Fier on her 1995 disc Where It Goes and the Golden Palominos records This Is How It Feels and Pure in ’93 and ’94, respectively. (Carson made her debut in 1990 on Geffen with the Hal Willner-produced Shelter.) The bulk of Everything I Touch Runs Wild was recorded in her apartment, a strategy that brought the innate intimacy of her songwriting to the fore but also resulted in some sonic inconsistencies. “I really like the last record, but there’s a lot of variation in terms of production value, and some of the arrangements are so minimal that they practically fall off as you’re listening to them,” she says.
Fier co-produced a couple songs on Everything I Touch Runs Wild with Carson and also was credited with “additional production and remixes” on two other tracks, a procedure that ended up influencing the way Carson made Stars. “He took the initial elements and dumped them into his computer, and recorded some other stuff, and just spit out these wonderful versions of ‘Something’s Got Me’ and ‘Train’,” Carson recalls.
Carson and Layng Martine, who produced Stars together, decided to employ a similar method on the new album. Initial recording was done at Water Music in Hoboken, N.J., with Joe Ferla, who also receives a co-producer credit on the disc.
“The plan was always that we would record, get all this great stuff on tape, bring it back to Seattle, dump it into the computer, and then use those elements to make remixes, in a way, of each piece,” she explains. “Not remixes as in dance remixes, but just sort of to re-approach the songs. We did a lot of overdubbing with Seattle musicians, and Layng did a lot of work moving things around that we had recorded, editing the pieces and adding loops and changing things.”
The end result is an exquisitely crafted album, the most mature and well-rounded release in Carson’s catalog as a solo artist. Rhythmic patterns, samples and effects, string arrangements (by renowned cellist Jane Scarpantoni), and even touches of pedal steel guitar weave together gracefully, sketching a picturesque backdrop for Carson’s heavenly vocals to float above and beyond the soundscape’s horizons.
What’s most striking, however, compared to her previous work, is the degree to which her lyrics remain down-to-earth. The desperation and depression that often pervaded Where It Goes and Everything I Touch Runs Wild has given way to an acceptance of happiness. “Soon the dark will give in/To the first grey light,” she foreshadows on the opening track, “16 Days”; later, on “Rainy Day”, she confides, “In spite of everything/I feel a little bit hopeful again.”
Such optimism flowers into full-fledged bliss on the album’s final two tracks. “Fourth Of July” is a sparkling recollection of watching fireworks light up the sky over Puget Sound on Independence Day: “I’ve been dreaming this day would come for such a long time,” Carson sings to her beloved. “Do you know how much it means to me to have you be mine?” If there were any doubt, it is erased on “Treasure”, as she declares, “Anything that came before does not compare/To the sight of you standing there…These everyday days feel like treasure.”
The pedal steel swoons provided by Jon Hyde on “Treasure” also take Carson’s music as close to countrified territory as she’s ever been, though it’s still a major stretch to consider this music twangy, even by the most alt. of alt.country standards. Even so, there’s a common thread between Carson’s lifelong interest in classic song form and the structural foundations upon which traditional country music is built.
“When I started listening to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, and people who were very song-form-oriented, it was like, yes, that’s it,” she says when asked about her primary influences, also naming Carole King’s Tapestry and Joni Mitchell’s Blue as childhood inspirations. “What I do admire about country music is the whole songwriter thing. I mean, Nashville is a whole town full of songwriters coming up with these very form-specific songs.
“But in practice, I haven’t listened to a lot of country music. I think it’s more just never really being exposed to much, and not seeking it out. I’m sure it’s something that I’m going to be turned onto at some point. And, you know, I really like that Steve Earle record with the bluegrass musicians. It seems like a lot of country is so slick and insincere-sounding; I can’t imagine ever loving that. But as for all the quirky stuff that I don’t know about, I’m sure there’s a lot there left to discover.”
Lately, Carson says, she seems to be winding her way back down that road toward more traditional perspectives on songwriting — but only after she took some significant detours in entirely different directions with the Golden Palominos in the mid-’90s. Spearheaded by drummer and producer Fier, the Palominos have metamorphosed many times in the past two decades, with wholesale lineup changes that have taken the collective’s records in drastically different directions, from art-jazz to country-rock to ethereal electronica. The two records Carson made with the group opened her up to possibilities she’d never considered before.
“I went through a period of getting so far from the tradition of song form that in the last few years, I’ve been interested in finding my way back a bit,” she says. “I felt it was something that I could never forget how to do; it was so much what I identified myself to be, this songwriter who was very form-oriented. That’s how I saw myself. And then through the Golden Palominos, that was very much challenged. It was like, ‘Why does a song have to be that? Why do you have to have a verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus out?’
“When that was first suggested, I revolted big-time. My attitude was like, ‘You are crazy, you’re an idiot! You’re ruining this!’ But that’s often how a learning experience is; you’re coming from a place where you’re just committed to your position so thoroughly that you don’t even know what else there is. And that was my biggest time of discovery as a result, because I accepted the fact that I knew very little about what was possible. And as a result, I feel like I let a lot of that go, and wrote very differently.
“But lately, I like songs. And I like to listen to songwriters. Give me a Ron Sexsmith record over anything that’s beat-oriented, for the most part.”
Beat-oriented projects, of course, might prove more commercially viable in this day and age, but it’s the muse that’s in control here. Carson remains determined to put her artistic instincts at the fore — even as she realizes that music is her one true career calling.
“And I never take it for granted,” she adds. “I feel like at any point, things could change, and I could have to figure out something else. I think living with that is part of what earns me the right to keep doing it. It earns me the right to proceed, knowing that I’m ready to get some job I don’t want to have, if it means continuing to support myself as an artist.”
No Depression co-editor Peter Blackstock is quite glad he doesn’t have to support himself as an artist.