Last year, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma released In Summer on the excellent small label Geographic North (who also released a couple of my other favorite electronic albums of recent years.) It was my first exposure to the experimental musician, though he has a long history (with San Francisco post-rock genre-pushers Tarentel and Raum, a collaboration with Grouper’s Liz Harris, among other group and solo efforts.)
In Summer drew me in and wrapped me up in its dreamy soundscapes. The songs are sometimes lush and sometimes harsh but always beautiful and engaging. They wash over you as slow-changing waveforms with gain, distortion, reverb and delay pulsating in and out. The modulation of the wave is put under a microscope and amplified.
I was excited to see a new album from Cantu-Ledesma and I was eagerly anticipating more of the same aural and electronic exploration.
On The Echoing Green starts that way – with a harsh and intense looping detuned piano. But that soon fades into a sustained and staticky high-pitched tone that sounds like a kettle going off and, suddenly, our prelude is over. ‘A Song of Summer’ begins and it’s a very different beast. The waves of distortion are still there but they’re floating over a lovely twinkling synth line with an upbeat rhythm section buried underneath. Then Paula Garcia (of Buenos Aires’ Sobrenadar) begins to sing and all of a sudden, you feel like you’re listening to a lost shoegaze classic of another era.
On The Echoing Green is both that and something very different. In collaboration with Garcia, guitarist Byron Westbrook, and others, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma created an album of both intense sonic tapestry and honest-to-goodness rock songs. It never settles into one groove for too long. It refuses to be pigeonholed. Even midway through ‘A Song of Summer,’ just when you think this might be Cantu-Ledesma’s radio moonshot, the catchy melodies slowly fade, giving way to the static tide. For the rest of the 10 minute run-time, the song builds itself up again from the foundations, bringing you back to that shoegazey guitar line and faded propulsive beat.
Just when you try to place a genre name on the album, it swerves into a completely different lane. It maintains a consistent and warm reverby glow throughout but goes from ambient to shoegaze to harsh electronic to experimental and back. There are killer guitar solos and minutes-long excursions into deconstructing one sound sequence. Lest you think this is only for the highfalutin and supercilious avant-garde, ‘The Faun’ ends with some studio talkback left in – “Woo! We got some shit done” – before ‘Tenderness’ returns to the shoegaze feel with Garcia playing Bilinda Butcher to Cantu-Ledesma’s mellowed-out Kevin Shields.
On The Echoing Green never sits still long enough for you to pin it down. It defies any label as soon as you try to give it one. It turns on a dime from pretty to abrasive, from chill to intense, from nostalgic to caustically future-forward. As its sensuous beauty precariously balances with the unknown and the downright frightening, this album feels like 2017 itself. But more than just a sign of the times, it feels like yesterday, today and tomorrow collapsed into one layered and stoned fever dream.
Cantu-Ledesma shared some thoughts on his work and the new album via email:
The album title comes from a William Blake poem. He describes the ‘old folk’ watching the innocent and joyful play of the ‘little ones’ in a park. It’s pretty openly sincere and romantic (in the idyllic and picturesque sense of the word.) Would you say this a romantic record?
Well, I guess the answer to that question is somewhat subjective. I do have to admit though that I often have themes of love embedded within my songs, and I don’t think this record is different. That being said, I don’t purposefully set out to write a romantic song or records, it just tends to end up that way.
Like yourself, Blake was a sort of artistic polymath, working as a poet, painter, and printmaker. How do you think your experience as a visual artist or a potter affects your approach to making music?
I actually don’t see a lot of difference between working on visual art and working on music. For me they are both forms of creative expression. There tends to be overlap in the way I visualize music or the shape of songs and records.
The album cover is a beautiful painting – “Au Pair 2” by Andrea Belag. The grand, graphic brushwork, the flowing lines, the color gradients… it feels perfectly matched to the sonics of the album. How did you come upon the painting and when in the album-making process did you choose it for the cover?
My partner knew Andrea’s work and when she saw the type of paintings I was looking at, she suggested I might like her paintings. I found her website and wrote her immediately as it was pretty late in the process of getting the record turned in. I actually had a different image by a different artist selected, but he pulled out at the last minute and I was in a rush to find something else. In retrospect I think it fits the music a lot better than the first image I chose.
You’ve said that you were interested in bringing out the more overt pop elements on this album. What are some of your favorite pop albums and what do you think indie and experimental musicians can learn from the pop songwriting playbook?
Funny, I’ve gotten this question a couple of times recently! I’m surprised there seems to be an assumption that because of the music I make I may only be listening to harsh noise or long form drone work, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Like every other musician I know I listen to a lot of music, and a good amount of what would be considered “pop”. For this record I was thinking a lot about Eno’s pop records (in particular Another Green World) and a lot of Krautrock records – Faust, Neu! et al. I was interested in how those records sequenced really catchy overt pop tunes with much more subdued or abstract songs, which is why the second side is a bit more bumpy then the first. I think writing good catchy pop songs is really hard, it’s definitely a craft. I was trying to, not so much be a pop songwriter on this record, but more fit some of it’s elements into my way of working.
You’ve used vocals pretty sparingly in your music before this album. What made you choose to include them so prominently on this album? How did your collaboration with Sobrenadar come together?
I’m not sure I made a decision before hand. It was more like when I did get the vocals and started mixing them into the songs it just didn’t sound right to have them as low in the mix as I usually do. I heard Paula’s music on the FACT website and thought that she might be a good fit. At that point I actually wasn’t sure I wanted vocals on the record, I was more curious to see what would happen. I contacted Paula and she was game to try, so I sent her A Song Of Summer, and she sent the vocals back a few days later. It was all pretty easy and effortless. Once Tenderness was mixed I thought it might also sound nice with vocals so I sent her the track and again she sent me vocals back pretty quickly.
You’ve talked before about how you sometimes think of an album visually, with peaks and valleys. How much do you think about the sequencing of an album? What is your approach?
Sequencing is really important to me, I see it as an essential part of finishing the record. I usually think of tracks in terms of side A & side B, with both sides having a maximum running time of around 20min – which helps me to first get my mind around what will or wont fit on the record. I often will look for the first song on each side, and then I try to move from there. It’s really just a matter of feel once I have the opening tracks. I will often play around with sequencing for a while – Echoing Green actually went through a few last min changes and edits to tighten it up, something I surprised myself in doing – I’m usually done and that’s that!
You’ve lived and worked in Brooklyn, Berlin, Munich, and San Francisco – some of the world’s best cities for music. For a performing musician, how do they compare? Do you feel like the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the places you live seep their way into your music?
Well I actually don’t preform very much anymore, so I can’t speak with a lot of authority as to how they compare. As for their effect on me, I think my environment definitely colors the music, but even so I’m not always sure how. I think I’m more interested in emotional landscapes, but of course those are effected by place as well.
In 2005, you co-founded Root Strata, a label that has released music by a number of eminent experimental artists. What’s it like running a label and what have you learned from being on the other side of the artist-label relationship?
When I started Root Strata in 2005, I had no idea what I was doing or where the label would be going, nor any sort of vision as to where it should go for that matter. Maxwell joined me a few years later and helped a lot with organizing and doing day to day activities like mail order and answering emails. The one thing I have learned is running a label is really hard work! It takes a lot of time & effort to do it well, and at least in our case, it’s not a job but more of a hobby. We don’t do it full time, and we don’t make income off of it. I do love supporting friends and releasing music that we think is important, but it’s become increasingly harder to have people pay attention to what we’re doing. Honestly I think Root Strata’s days are numbered!
Although On the Echoing Green rewards a deeper listen, it also works great as naptime musical accompaniment. What are your go-to nap albums?
Oh, there are so many! Recently it’s been Harold Budd, longer works by Shivkumar Sherma, and the kora music by Toumani Diabaté or Ablaye Sissoko.
On The Echoing Green is out now on Mexican Summer