Better get in on this people. Grab the vinyl here.
What happens to artists who quit? I imagine it’s like taking a carbonated beverage and shaking it up real hard, then having to decide whether or not you’re going to open it up or put it away and wait for things inside to calm down. Pressure. You do stuff, then you quit doing stuff, things build up, then you have to start doing stuff again. Jenn Champion made some very cool stuff with her band Carissa’s Wierd. Then she quit. Then she came back and started S. Her music exudes control and precision and confessional, passionate lyrics. Thing is, she has a lot of stuff to say. I hope she doesn’t quit, again, any time soon. But then, what does quitting mean anyway?
[Photos from The Business Presents in July.]
My father and I lie down together.
He is dead.
We look up at the stars, the steady sound
Of the wind turning the night like a ceiling fan.
This is our home.
I remember the work in him
Like bitterness in persimmons before a frost.
And I imagine the way he had fear,
The ground turning dark in the rain.
Now he gets up.
And I dream he looks down in my eyes
And watches me die.
—Frank Stanford (1948-1978; from What About This: The Collected Poems of Frank Stanford, Copper Canyon Press/Third Man Books, 2015)
Why does an artist set out on a journey to find his own unique language to say the things he needs to say, create two “sister” records early in his career (“More” and “In the Morning,” just a couple of years apart) that together contain 11 perfect songs among others, defining a vocabulary and voice, an astonishing accomplishment in these days of apathy and industry ruin, only to walk alone, deep into a personal wilderness, to search for something even more complex and revealing and experimental after inhabiting the very thing he was searching for since the early 2000s, and found? It’s something outsiders cannot easily decode. More records appeared, of course, each just a little more varied, each circling around similar subject matter and textures, some even changing personas completely.
But the patterns began to shift. Because, in the end, it’s about the burning questions. The questions that keep artists awake all night. The questions that wreck relationships, unquiet the mind, and haunt the escape of sleep. The questions that force the hard things to the surface, the dark things into the light, the dangerous things that can break a man. Artists can’t hide from the burning questions.
And so, the wilderness called, for renewal as much as for new directions or confirmations. What can I say about this artist now, at his latest moment of transformation? About this man, Keith Zarriello, his ever-changing identity as The Shivers, his music that opened The Business Presents music festival in July in Anacortes, WA, the artist who has come to define my longing for a direction for my small record record label, Untide Records, and which haunts my imagination about what might be possible for all his records as yet to be demoed, as yet to be recorded? I want to say something to you that no one has ever said about him, something that will crash your world, like his music did mine, and make you see and hear what I see and hear in this artist’s teeming and tormented art. I want to do that, but then… I hesitate, and I don’t. Not here. Not now. I don’t because he’s my friend, but more important than that, vastly more important than that, I don’t because he’s still out there working, and something is changing, something new is coming into being. The wild places haven’t finished with him yet, so all remains speculation.
Music has always been the first art form because it requires no advance study to connect to those it connects to. You just fall into the music you love. If you love the music, if you love the language the artist has discovered for himself, you love it. There’s no need to write long arguments, proofs, about why you love it. You just do. It’s one to one, and remains so. Every song was written for you and it speaks to you as if you’re the only person who gets it, really gets it, because it becomes yours. We want to possess the people who can do this for us. But that isn’t possible, either. They belong to the wild places where their greatest songs are written. They belong to their searching, far away from all of us.
Opening night, Keith walked into the venue, picked up his vintage Silvertone, plugged it in, and within minutes tore through his taut set list of songs from his decade-long conversion from novice songwriter to journeyman recording artist. It was a rare moment that felt all the more valuable for its spontaneity, vulnerability, and risk, coming from a man who only briefly stepped out of his wilderness mid pilgrimage. His search continues. The burning questions still have a firm hold on him. Every great songwriter travels this road, again and again. Pays the toll in a kind of existential loneliness and aloneness none of us can even imagine.
There remain many more songs inside this artist that will reveal themselves, in time. One day soon Keith will walk back out of his wild places, reformed as yet another new vision of The Shivers, and his records will literally speak for themselves. And those who know, will know. The music will fall into place, and those who get it, will, once again, feel his new writing is just for them. When the needle drops onto the first track, some of the burning questions will be finally be answered. But fortunately, not all of them.
You’re my bondage and my freedom,
my flesh burning like a naked summer night,
you’re my country.
Hazel eyes marbled green,
you’re awesome, beautiful, and brave,
you’re my desire always just out of reach.
(555 Bandcamp page)
Some recording artists, like some poets, can’t be discussed in the vulgar commercial terms of audiences, as Robert Graves famously said a zillion years ago when the world was so much younger than it is now, when the world was enraptured by her poets, the canaries in our coal mines of culture.
These recording artists, as indeed our dwindling number of poets, speak to people directly, one on one, not in groups. Whether on vinyl or in live performance, the job is about talking to one person at a time, continuously, with every word, every note, yours for the taking.
That’s the secret behind Owen Ashworth’s latest project, Advance Base, and his touring, but was also true of his other project, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. His recent appearance at The Business in Anacortes, WA (for the record, Anacortes is not a hipster town, you’re thinking of that other place), proved Mr. Graves right, even all these zillions of years later. Every song Owen offered up, with several selections from his latest LP, “Nephew in the Wild” (Orindal Records, 2015), which I wrote about… whenever, was like something personal, for each of us in the room.
The applause at the end of each piece seemed to crash in and stomp on the tenderness of what felt like something very quiet, very intimate, very… just for me, OK! But it’s the polite thing to do, to applaud when songs finish. And yet, every time, the noise of such annoying social conventions with Ashworth’s songs breaks the spell, which only reinforces the long dead, irascible Mr. Graves, all those zillions of years ago.
Real conversation has no need of praise or apology. That night, at The Business, everything, every story, every song, every feeling, every memory, was… just between us.