by Blake Edward Conley
Who are you?
A sick man, a spiteful man, an unattractive man; I believe my liver is diseased.
By my count, you put out 3 distinct official releases (and 2 live sessions) this year in the form of Aspirant, Nightsongs, and O Meadowlark. Each one is distinct in its approach. What prompted the sudden flood of material? I know Aspirant and Nightsongs consist of older material, so what was it about now that prompted their release into the world?
I met Michael Potter (who runs the Garden Portal label) at the 3 Lobed Records showcase that happened in Raleigh in 2016. After the 1000 Incarnations of the Rose festival last year, he got in touch with me about the idea he had for Garden Portal and asked if I’d be interested in doing a release for it. I had finished Nightsongs and Aspirant a good while before that, but no opportunity had come up to have them released on a label. I really hadn’t had the energy to self release them so I eagerly accepted his offer. I sent both albums to him and thought maybe he’d just want to release one or the other but he was into releasing both. I’m grateful that worked out as well as it did. The other releases (by Dura and Alexander) on Garden Portal are really worth checking out too, as is Michael’s Rain Song tape that came out on Already Dead Tapes earlier this year.
OMeadowlark and Nightsongs are collections of material that people familiar with your prior releases under your own name would see as continuations of that, while Aspirant is distinctly its own thing both in vibe and instrumentation choice. I find it much more in line with, say, your works with Matt Johnson under Graceless. What inspired this particular collection of songs and what was the writing process for them? Did you have a grand vision for this particular release?
I didn’t really have a vision for Aspirant when I started putting it together, no. I honestly wasn’t in a good place when I put that one together and just needed to do something to clear my head.
I used recordings I’d made on my phone over the course of a few years to start most of the pieces. Some of those recordings were of instruments I came across and played something on while out at antique stores, friends’ houses, etc. Others were not as musical – recordings of insects, mechanical noises, conversations, etc. I used a computer to splice the phone recordings together into more homogenous textures and did a lot of outboard processing – running parts through pedals and guitar amps, using some things in my house as reverb chambers (a stove, a piano). I don’t remember what all was involved in the processing. I combined the phone recordings with some stray loops I had on my computer and some additional textures from a turntable and the weird collection of records I’ve gotten while touring. I always have an eye out for oddities at record stores. Vinyl recordings of monastic chanting, birdsong, music boxes, radio broadcasts, etc. all made their way in there I believe.
O Meadowlark is presented as a concept album based on your old musical persona Poor Faulkner, who is Poor Faulkner and what happens on his journey through this album for those of us w/o the press release handy? I’ve also read the material was principally improvised and composed in one night. Was there anything in particular that made you sit down that night to compose the 6 pieces that make up the record?
Poor Faulkner is a name I decided to use for the first set of recordings I made after I started to get serious about doing solo guitar music. It’s a reference to a publicized exchange between William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway that I read about. Faulkner said that Hemingway had never been known to use a word that would send his reader to the dictionary. Hemingway replied “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
At the time I just thought it sounded like a good fake blues name, maybe like my own Blind Joe Death, but it’s since become a character that lets me explore the possible significance of some of my own experiences and slip into a perspective that’s different from my usual one, though the line between my own perspective and my character’s isn’t always too clearly drawn.
I didn’t really have anything in mind when I sat down to record O Meadowlark. I was procrastinating and feeling restless that night so I put up a mic and recorded seven improvisations, six of which ended up being the album. The story that emerged when I listened back to what I’d recorded is that a grieving Faulkner follows the call of a bird to a cabin in the woods near his house. An angel descends and tries to communicate something to him, which Faulkner struggles to understand. At the end of the album, he’s taken to a celestial place to be shown a vision by the angel. I’m just about finished recording an album that takes up where O Meadowlark left off.
One of my favourite things about your releases is your beautiful and distinct collage art. How long have you been doing this and what is your process for making them? Do you have a vision in your head you are trying to fill, or do you see where the chosen ephemera takes you?
I didn’t really get into doing visual art at all until I released my first solo tapes in 2013 . It was really freeing to be working outside of a band and not to have to worry about pleasing anyone else, so that gave me the confidence to explore a little. I had also recently started what would become a really valuable friendship with musician/writer/artist etc. Dakota Brown (aka Wica Intina) who was mostly doing poetry and prose writing and visual art at the time. We used to hang out at a coffee shop in Cookeville all the time and talk about Aldous Huxley, the Beats, the Surrealists, Dada, etc. I think we encouraged each other to reach out into other artistic mediums, so he started doing more music and I started doing more visual stuff.
My process for doing the collages is usually just to work as fast as possible to see what emerges. Sometimes I pick the material I’m going to cut up according to an idea I have; sometimes I just use whatever is nearest or even scraps from other collages that I’ve done. I’ve found using that method in any medium can be a way to reveal the workings of the subconscious mind and it has served a kind of therapeutic function for me. Sometimes giving form to psychic processes that might have otherwise slipped away unexamined can help with confronting emotions that aren’t easy to deal with. Also just as an aside, I know I put “cut up” up there in reference to my collaging process but I usually tear things out instead of cutting them unless I’m working with lettering. I don’t like smooth edges.
You started your musical path in life playing in loud rock band and on electric guitar. What ultimately led you to being and staying primarily on acoustic instruments and solo? Do you ever foresee a more steady return to electric instruments and steady collaborations in a band scenario? What do you find most satisfying about being and performing solo?
(Tw: alcohol abuse, suicide, mental illness, oversharing, etc.)
I started getting serious about composing for the acoustic guitar after a couple of traumatic experiences made it hard for me to deal with anything other than what was necessary. I almost lost my own life to a struggle with depression and alcohol abuse that had lasted for years, and which involved a hospitalization after a suicide attempt; and later the same year, just as I was graciously able to start to dust myself off, my dad got diagnosed with cancer and died six months later. Focusing on acoustic music gave me a world I could retreat into, and I needed to spend a lot of time in that world – more than could be confined to weekly band practice or whenever I had the opportunity to play through an amp or effects.
As part of the treatment program I started after my hospitalization, I was introduced to a form of therapy that uses mindfulness (in the form of cultivating intense awareness of something present – an object, a sensation, etc.) as a way to help people with certain mental health diagnoses deal with overwhelming emotions. That cultivation of present awareness, which is very similar to the practical aspects of some forms of Buddhism, started to find its way into my guitar playing. When I played electric guitar, I became increasingly aware of the separation between my body and the guitar in my hands and the speakers at the end of my signal chain. The speakers are what actually cause the air to vibrate and put out sound. That separation isn’t there to nearly the same degree when I play acoustic instruments, and I realized it wasn’t possible for me to play electric guitar with the same degree of intimacy and mindfulness that I experienced when I played acoustically.
The last time I tried to play electric guitar was last winter sometime, so maybe 10 or 11 months ago. It honestly didn’t go very well, so I’m not sure about a return to a band scenario. I felt like I was being overstimulated and opening myself up to something hurtful even though the sound I was working with wasn’t very loud and didn’t have any distortion at all. It brought to mind something I read by Captain Beefheart, one of his 10 Commandments:
“Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the ‘devil box.’ And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you’re bringing over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.”
My guess is he didn’t take any of that seriously or else he would realize what a mistake it is to be an “equal opportunity employer” in that context, or at least he would have been trying to summon Michael instead of Casper or Wendy.
With that, who are some influences that led you to write music the way you do? This can be music, art, writers, movies, food, locations, etc.
I was into metal and punk for a long time, and I think that outsider and DIY attitude still influences me a lot. I probably wouldn’t have made it through high school without the Ramones and I was really into how many punk bands I listened to started their own record labels.
My Bloody Valentine and especially Scott Cortez and lovesliescrushing changed how I perceive sound when I first heard that stuff right after I started college. Low is probably my favorite band if I had to pick one. Brian Eno and Stars of the Lid taught me patience and deep listening. Stars of the Lid led me to Arvo Pärt, Gavin Bryars, and Henryk Górecki. Hearing Pärt in particular opened up a kind of quiet reverent space in me that’s shaped my spirituality as well as my approach to music.
I think I first heard Ornette Coleman when my brother was taking a jazz appreciation class in college, and lately jazz, especially Coleman and ecstatic stuff like Albert Ayler and Alice Coltrane, has been inspiring me to explore treating timbre for its own sake, or at least to pay attention to sound qualities other than just the fundamental pitch that a string is emitting. There’s also a big improvising and experimental music scene in Boston that’s been influencing me a lot in a similar way since I moved here.
I started to get really into blues and folk stuff during a period in 2007 or so when I found myself without a band to play in for a while. Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and Nick Drake made their way into my listening habits and that’s when I first started experimenting with open tunings and finger picking on the guitar. I also started to get into John Fahey and the Takoma Records school of guitar during that time, and that stuff has obviously has influenced me a ton. I’d put myself more in Robbie Basho’s lineage than Fahey’s though, and that owes a lot to Rich Osborne, who is one of the few people who had the good foresight to try to learn some of Robbie’s techniques from him. Robbie is really poorly documented compared to a lot of other guitarists in this vein so having Rich around and being able to actually watch him play has helped me decipher some of what’s going on in Robbie’s playing. With that said, Rich’s musical personality is a whole lot different than Robbie’s was, and he’s very much doing his own thing with whatever technical stuff he learned from Robbie.
I think hearing James Blackshaw made me obsessed with learning tremolo techniques, which took me a while but I’ve got a few now. I also owe some of my fixation on right hand flourishes to seeing Daniel Higgs play in Nashville several years ago and being entranced by some of what he was doing on the banjo. I talked to him after his set and he mentioned being influenced by the Iranian tanbur, which led to my introduction to the music of Nur Ali Elahi, a Kurdish-Iranian philosopher and theologian in addition to being a tanbur master.
Indian music has also been a big influence for me, especially hearing Z.M. Dagar, which came about through the influence he had on Jack Rose. His music is one of a few examples of hearing something for the first time and feeling like a whole world opened up in front of me that I wasn’t aware of before.
As a singer, I’ve been inspired by people with really unconventional and androgynous voices I think. Björk, Nico, Klaus Nomi, Liz Fraser, Lisa Gerrard, Robbie Basho, Anohni.
I also have to mention Glenn Jones, who inspired me to get serious about the approach to guitar I have maybe more than anyone, both through his records and all the liner note writing, compiling, festival organizing etc. that he’s done. Glenn is a friend of mine now and he introduced me to Rob Noyes right after I moved to Boston in 2016. Rob is a good friend too despite cruelly moving to Japan recently. I assume his guitar playing made it there intact. Being around Glenn and Rob the last few years has really challenged me to try to play better and to think about what my particular contribution to this little school of guitar playing might be.
I feel like I’m already being too long winded here and I haven’t even gotten to non-musical influences yet. I ought to mention Kerouac, Andre Breton, Dostoevsky, Aldous Huxley (especially The Perennial Philosophy), Theodore Roethke, Matsuo Basho, Shunryu Suzuki, Sappho, Attar, Rumi, Meister Eckhart, Dorothee Soelle, William Blake, Nagarjuna, Ibn Arabi, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Plato, Karl Jaspers.
Having asked all of that, you have been a consistent collaborator with others in small, often one off records. What do you feel you bring to these scenarios and what do you look for in a collaborator?
I don’t usually look for anything in particular in collaborators or think too much about it, it’s usually just about sharing a space and making something with friends.
Blake’s favourite question! What gear are you currently using? I’ve noticed you have a very fascinatingly eclectic collection of stringed instruments. Is there one in particular you are most drawn to when composing? (nongear nerds, skip to 10)
I used three instruments on O Meadowlark: a Bart Reiter banjo with a maple rim and rolled brass tone ring that I bought from Glenn Jones a couple years ago, a 1971 Guild D40 six string I’ve had since 2008 that’s the only six string acoustic I’ve ever used seriously, and a Carl Holzapfel 12 string that was made sometime between 1925 and 1935. I played a couple of 12 strings before that, but this is the first one I’ve had a really strong connection to and the only one I’ve used since I got it right before relocating to Boston. I try not to get too attached to any particular instrument but this 12 string has a really magical quality about it that would be hard to replace. I also have a harmonium from the early 60’s at the latest that’s really important to me. For better or worse I never would have started singing if I hadn’t found that instrument. I think it’s made by the Bina company, which is still a big harmonium manufacturer.
I do have a pretty big collection of instruments. I have a newer Dyer-style harp guitar, an autoharp, an Appalachian dulcimer, an Oahu square neck guitar, a cheap fiddle, a type of lyre called a kinnor, and another couple of banjos that I’ve made recordings with. In addition to those I’ve got a bowl shaped mandolin, a Renaissance lute, two ouds, a tanbur, a setar, and a sitar that I mess around with a little. I don’t really take what I do on those instruments too seriously since for the most part I’m far from embedded in the cultures they come from and can’t do justice to any of them. I’m mostly just really fascinated by all the different configurations of the same few ingredients we’ve ended up with and like trying to trace the ancestry of these instruments back as far as it can go.
Any final thought, philosophies, shoutouts, recipes, etc that you’d like to share with everyone?
Keep a deep love in your heart and be as kind as you can bear to be. Also तत्त्वमसि.