Leo finds out more.
Jo is definitely one of my favorite singers (and songwriters) working in NYC right now, so that’s the first thing. Also you can’t really meet her without thinking, “Yeah, but what do you really think about this.” She has that kind of mystique. This is also reflected in her songwriting, it’s really visual, and relies on fragments and sensory clues to kind of transport you into the stories of the song (which range from high-contrast urban settings, to rustic settings, the non-space of internal turmoil). I think we work similarly in this respect. What you get at the end is an atmospheric narrative; songs that tell you about what happened, but don’t really, so you can become a character in them (which includes occasionally the narrator), kind of like a Star Trek holonovel. She also has a huge range of things she does musically from super folky, to dreamy, to the Danny Elfman-esque concept rock with Dalton Deschain & The Traveling Show.
Honestly, we’ve been working together sporadically for years. I’ve been trying to produce a Jo Kroger solo album for too long, and she is the first call I make when a project I’m working on needs a vocalist or vocal arrangement. She is all over the album ReEntry I did a few years back. That being the case, when I began itching to do a collaborative project she was my first call then as well. In many ways, we started Caves & Clouds for philosophical reasons as well. As I’m sure you’re well aware, America is a far more “interesting” place than it has been in my lifetime. It seems very clear that a culture of cooperation is pretty alien to many Americans at the moment. Unfortunately, this also pervades artistic communities. My own mantra these days is “be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” so we decided that (in our own small way) that doing a project like this (in earnest) would be a kind of outgrowth of our community, and that might encourage others to do the same, a “a rising tide lifts all ships” as the Big City Folk founder Niall Connolly likes to say.
Caves & Clouds is the title of a song by Casey Black from the album “It Shapes Me As It Goes” that I produced in 2011. Kind of a community favorite (Casey, the record, and the song), it features accompanying vocals by many members of the Big City Folk collective, and in many ways captures the atmosphere of illusion and doubt we seem to have found ourselves in. There is also a feeling in it that fantasy is not just an escape, but a place to find answers. I think that community is like this as well, it is that protection and insulation that gives us the opportunity to create, find answers, and make sense of our experiences. Caves & Clouds are both things that jump start (for me at least) imagination, and the pairing of them comes from our community. As you pointed out though, it also sounds nice. Plus, I now can almost certainly get Casey Black to buy me a drink next time I see him ;).
And if there’s a better reason to pick a name than free booze I’ve yet to hear it!
Interesting that you mention the ‘interesting-ness’ of America currently; the eyes of the world have certainly been trained on various less-then-inspirational aspects of the USA’s contemporary history of late (when we’re not distracted by the impending threat of Falklands War II), and this actually reminds me of something you mentioned the last time we spoke, about how many people in the folk scene have a kind of expectation about folk music, that it has a sort of responsibility to be more socially conscious than some other genres. Is there a political impetus behind any of the work on this album, or any of your other current work for that matter? Could you also speak a bit more about the process of collaboration for you and Jo? Is it very much a sit-down-and-talk-stuff-out affair, or more about mixing individual contributions?
I’m glad you asked this one. I’d say the impetus for doing the record is political full stop. This really was the winter of our discontent. The hero death year culminated in a fractious election that no one is happy about. The winners seem self-consciously obsessed with asserting their right to have won while the losers preach chaos and apocalypse with a side of cultural backslide. The result, a society mired in screaming about who bungled what, when, how, where, and to whom while even more people continue to slip through the cracks. It’s not chaos that reigns, but confusion. One thing I always felt could always assert about most of my fellow Americans is our cultural belief in our own agency. Whether this was a comfortable myth or not, that notion seems to have been eroding for some time, and this winter has brought the whole thing to a head. Its like a horde of paper tigers concealing cannons, birthday cakes, and cigarettes. Not one of these things is good for you, and every one of them is loaded literally and figuratively. I can’t really speak for Jo, but that is for sure what I’m attempting to bring up in this record, and I suppose that leads us to the next topic, folk music.
As I probably droned on about when last we spoke, folk music is kind of a problematic genre. What is it? Old songs? Acoustic quitars? Simple forms? A concentration on narrative (or at least lyrical content)? Who knows? People who listen to it or search for it seem to think any two/three of these will do. It does have opportunities for social engagement, but then so do most art forms (see Parliament-Funkadelic), and I wouldn’t really say it’s an expectation unless you came of age in the 1960’s or have a particular attachment to your Bob Dylans and that. In fairness, many “folk” singer/songwriters (particularly women and minorities) have taken the opportunity to revive that idea of late, but the genre is still dominated by too long songs played by mildly attractive white men who have once been sad about something and may or may not have: 1. Felt nervous around the opposite sex 2.Spent time in the woods that they found meaningful 3. Learned a jazz chord 4. Had difficulty expressing feelings, 5. Attempted a long distance relationship with limited success, or 6. Enjoyed wearing western shirts. That said, I have been/am kind of part of the problem, and the record and the project is (for me) about that as well.
Collaboration, hmm. I think both of the methods you mentioned apply. In the sneak peek demos (which are live recordings of two album cuts which can be found at cavesandclouds.bandcamp.com
), it was very much a mixed contributions kind of thing. I have a huge amount of respect for Jo as a songwriter and am kind of obsessed with preserving the things I really like about the way she both writes and performs. As the record takes shape though, we’re starting to get in a rhythm that kind of goes like this. First, have an idea, run with it, pass the baton, the other person runs with it, get together and hate on everything, argue, carve away the mutually hate-able bits, and then the progenitor of the idea gets to say when its done. I like this because then the person who came up with the idea in the first place gets to be the guardian of the idea. It’s not the most efficient way to do things, and relies on an ability not to get “precious” about things, but it seems to work and we do produce quite a bit.
Having listened to the tracks I have to say I’m really excited about this project, so I’m going to take this opportunity to encourage anyone who reads this to do some pledging, and also ask if there are any plans for a tour or any live promotion for the album?
Right on! Me too, and to be real, I have a hard time getting excited about music these days. Excellent! There are definitely plans for both touring and live promotion. In fact, at some of the higher support levels folks get access to a live gig archive (kind of like podcasts of the gig). We are already due to tour the eastern US in May, and there will be some online gigs as well (as soon we can work out the tech adequately). If we hit our full amount, the plan is to be back over in Ireland, the UK, and Europe in the fall (September/October most likely) as well.
And then I’m going to wrap up with my patented (not actually patented) quickfire round:
I saw a slightly obnoxious but actually quite smart idea on a gig board in a bar the other day, where for each band there was a note saying “for fans of…” If you had a sign like that over Caves & Clouds, what would it say?
For fans of…hmm. I really want to start listing books, but The Civil Wars maybe? Bjork? The Handsome Family? This is a part of the pitch I definitely need to work on.
If you were speaking to an ignoramus who hadn’t heard Jo Kroger before now (which you are), what record would you suggest as a good place to start?
What’s your favourite song title from the album so far?
There is a tie for first place for my favorite song title. It is either “Things Fall Apart” or “Pneumania.”
And the one I’ve been waiting to ask: What’s your opinion on Star Trek Enterprise?
Hahaha! This is also the one I’ve been waiting to answer. Let me start by saying, I have very fond memories of Quantum Leap. The first time I attempted Enterprise I couldn’t stand it. I did however make another attempt, and here’s what I thought in a letter on Feb 15 2017:
“I have taken this opportunity to both assuage my loneliness and indulge my masochistic tendencies by watching Star Trek Enterprise. It’s bad. Not as bad as its theme song, but bad. Basically Scott Bacula plays “the cool dad,” and sort of supervises a 90’s era bewigged supermodel, Ricky Gervais’s scrawny cousin and discount Brad Pitt. For the sake of diversity, there is a Charlie Young clone ensign, and an Asian supermodel translator (who’s frumpy uniform & hair foreshadow the imminent nerdy-to-hot girl tv transformation). Unfortunately team diversity is painfully forgettable, being as wal-mart greeters have more lines. Oh there is also an alien doctor, a Denobulan?, aka Neelix 2.0 (0.5?). There’s a dog too, a beagle named Porthos, and other than the Quantum Leap reunion episodes with Dean Stockwell, the runty (albeit cute) canine is by far the most watchable character. The Enterprise itself looks like a cross between a European pay-toilet and a Best Buy on the inside, and on the outside like a waffle iron flanked by a pair of partly extruded cherry chap-stiks. I guess this is to be expected from the network that brought us WWF Smackdown!”
Now ultimately, it was aight. I appreciate the amount of effort the writers took trying to tie unify the Star Trek Universe, and it does look really good. They were bad (meaning worse than usual) about naming things, and the time travel bits we’re confusing. The good things about the story are the good things about fan fiction, imaginative exposition. I for one wanted to know more about the Andorians (and Jeffrey Combs was awesome), and Vulcan home life, though I suspect getting on a fan-fic blog would have been a better use of the time. And that theme song…
Always a huge pleasure talking to EW.
Hopefully we’ll be seeing them sooner rather than later!