Thursday, May 1, 2008

Carsie Blanton: Wonder in Song

Carsie Blanton: about to delight your ears.
Photo by Chris Kendig.

I can't stop listening. To Carsie Blanton's album, Ain’t So Green, that is. I picked it up some months ago, after seeing her perform at Club Passim. What kind of album is it, and what does it sound like?

The album is:

* Hypnotic in sound (try not playing it often).

* Shaped by the undulations of Carsie's voice, mood, and melody.

* A voice offering careful contemplations and ambiguous convictions.

* Both a keenly-worded critique of the comforts of love, and a tribute to its wondrous delights.

* 13 songs full, including a hidden track that will make you weak at the knees and strong in your heart. This last track is akin to a kiss on your lover's eyelids, or their kiss upon yours (mix tape makers, share!).

It sounds like:

* A stroll through jazz vocalist stylings, folk articulations, and pop witticisms.

* A lover admitting the range of their outward loyalties and hidden reservations.

* The double-edged and layered days of lovesick, love-full, & love-almost.

* Early-fall epiphanies that you get during quiet, leaf-kicking walks.

* The simple pleasure of lounging in the lush, wet grass of spring.

This explanation is purposefully filled with imagery, openness... and thought bullets. Though I have lived with the album, and rejoice in the twists and tug-of-wars of each song, I find it hard to codify. Nor would I like to play the game of "what do you get when you mix Singer X with Band Y, and leave them on a desert island" with her tunes. I've played the album for refined art collectors and jaw-dropping tourists at my gallery job. I've introduced it to friends who have since become hooked on her memorable way with melodies. When it's in my headphones wherever I may be I end up whistling and humming along.

After the Club Passim show, Carsie and I shared thoughts on her songs, poets we've learned from, and and our daily rituals. She just may become your new favorite, by the interview's end. If so, get yourself to a rollicking show of hers. In case you need more, pick up Ain't So Green and let it transfix and delight you.


CE: So, outside of Club Passim. I'm having a conversation with Carsie Blanton. And you are living where?
CB: Philadelphia.
CE: And you are how old?
CB: 22.
CE: And you moved from Oregon?
CB: Mmhmm.
CE: Did you go to school out there?
CB: No, I grew up in Virginia. I was actually homeschooled. I moved to Eugene when I was 16, and I moved to Philadelphia last year.
CE: What were you doing in Eugene?
CB: Mostly, worked some jobs, played in a couple bandsdid some slam poetry, actually.
CE: How did you get into that?
CB: I had been writing for a long time, already, and I liked the idea of a format where I could write poetry and then perform it.
You liked the idea of being in this performative space?
: Right. I had a couple songs, but I wasn't writing regularly. I liked the idea of being able to perform anything I wrote, as long as it was conducive to a live crowd like that.
Did you do this weekly?
It was more, like, monthly. There were these competitive poetry slams. There were actually a lot of slam poets in Eugene, Oregon, of all places. So, they get together a couple hundred people on a Friday night. There would be, like, 15 people competing. Then, you get judged, first three rounds, and all that. I bet you're familiar with the slam format.
Yeah. You'd compete sometimes, as well?
: I did. I never got very far as a slam poet, I have to admit. Ha ha ha. But I enjoyed it.
Are there any nationally known slam poets that speak to you?
CB: At the time, I was really into Saul Williams. There's a poet, Alix Olson, who did a national tour. She came to Eugene. That was probably when I got excited about it. She is one of these queer, feminist, kind of angry, young poets. She's very good.
CE: Yeah, she's really emotive. She's sharp, but then you kind of cry.
CB: Yup, she's great.
CE: So, I had made a famous tape that went all over Massachusetts colleges, from her performance at Clark. I'd heard about this tape from people at other schools in this area — it was around 2000, 2001. They'd say, "Oh, there's this Clark tape." I would reply, "Oh, I made that." I had no idea that it had this history.
CB: That's great.

Paradoxes & "What Most Moves Me"

CE: So, you found a space to write songs more. How did the songwriting develop?
CB: By the time I moved to Eugene, I had already written a couple and thought of it as kind of the ideal art form. I was already performing a lot of covers and writing poetry. It seemed like an elegant thing, to bring them together. And I'd always been inspired by a lot of songwriters.

So, I went out there and was singing back-ups in a band. I was playing with Nicole Martin, a friend of mine. We had a duo, with two guitars, harmonies, and stuff, called The Short Skirts. We started playing together regularly. That was when I started writing regularly, getting more into the creative side of it.

CE: You were in another band that you were singing back-up for?
CB: Yeah, it was a funk band, called the Champagne Syndicate. I went on tour with them, out west.
CE: Okay. Covers. What were you covering then, and why?
CB: Mostly, Patty Griffin. We did a lot of Patty Griffin songs. We did a couple of Nina Simone songs and some older, jazzy stuff. I know we did "Stormy Monday." One or two Ani DiFranco songs; we were both big Ani devotees at that point.
CE: Which Nina Simone songs?
CB: We did "Sugar in My Bowl."
CE: Wow, wow.
CB: That's what we were doing, Nicole and I. I would find some more obscure stuff, occasionally. There are a lot of songwriters in my family, and I know a lot of people that are songwriters, so I did a few covers of songs that weren't, you know, popular. I had picked them up from one place or another. I covered some Leonard Cohen, some Joni Mitchell, and some older folk, as well.
CE: Which Leonard Cohen did you choose?
CB: Well I did "Famous Blue Raincoat" and "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye."
CE: Wow, wow. He was one of the most influential artists to me, in high school.
CB: Uh huh. I can't blame you.
CE: From 14 to 21, I carried his book, Stranger Music, almost always with me.

When you sing these songs, they're obviously emotionally charged. There's a range of emotions going on in your music, as well.

CB: Yeah.
CE: Are there times when it really hits you, in the middle of singing? Or, what brought you to sing "Famous Blue Raincoat?" If anything is too personal, just let me know.
CB: No, not at all. It's hard to say. I've always listened to and sung what most moves me, and it's hard to say why it moves me. I'm definitely attracted to poetry and more complex uses of the language. I enjoy Leonard Cohen more than Donovan, or somebody who was a little more popular, but a lot more pop-driven. I'm always more attracted to the really emotional and lyrical stuff.
CE: Sure.
CB: I appreciate good insight, and insightful and original use of the language.
CE: Which I hear in your music. Like the song, "Willing to Fall." That has the whole discussion in there. It's very layered. The phrases are very charged. It sounds like you’re convincing a story to someone, but it turns out, there wasn't enough convincing. You're releasing your conviction, by the time of the chorus.
CB: Yeah. That's definitely a theme in my music. Somebody actually gave me a quote one time that was something like: what makes my songs interesting is that I've mastered the ambiguous. Ha. I thought that was a good way to say it. What makes a song interesting, to me, is that it says more than one thingits complexity. In a lot of my songs, I'm actually saying two things that seem to be contradictory, and then, trying to marry them by the end.
CE: Sure.
CB: "Willing to Fall," it starts out: "I love you so much that/ I feel like I've already lost you." That was this idea that when you're closest to someone is when you are most afraid of being apart from them. And just the inherent contradictions of being in love, which is full of them, of course. That's a good example of trying to bring to light this paradox that we all live in, you know?

CE: Mmhmm. Hmmm. I'd imagine you memorize poems?
CB: Mmhmm. Ha.
CE: Let's talk about a poem or poet we could get on a level with.
CB: Sure. Actually, it's funny, because I was writing my set list and I was going to say something about this poet, Jane Hirschfield. Do you know her?
CE: No.
CB: I wrote a song recently that was directly inspired by a poem, which I don't often do. I mean, I'm often inspired by poetry, in general, but this was kind of like taking the concept of the poem and rewriting the story.
CE: Are the same characters in the song that appear in the poem?
CB: They're not. It's more like, there's a punch line to this poem. I took the punch line, and then rebuilt the rest.
CE: Oh, that's great.
CB: So the poem is called "Da Capo," and it goes... [We are stalled by car noise & voices of people walking by.] Should I wait until the car passes?
CE: Yeah.
CB: Heh, heh. Um. [Pause, pause, pause.] So it is:

Da Capo

Take the used-up heart like a pebble
and throw it far out.

Soon there is nothing left.
Soon the last ripple exhausts itself
in the weeds.

Returning home, slice carrots, onions, celery.
Glaze them in oil before adding
the lentils, water, and herbs.

Then the roasted chestnuts, a little pepper, the salt.
Finish with goat cheese and parsley. Eat.
You may do this, I tell you, it is permitted.
Begin again the story of your life.

-Jane Hirschfield

I love that poem. I love that there are really only two lines in it that are meaningful, at all. The rest is just some imagery that you could relate to. At the beginning, she says, "Take the used up heart... /and throw it far out." At the end, she says, "… it is permitted./ Begin again the story of your life." So, it's this beautiful poem about starting over, but she only uses ten words to say it.
Sure. Everything is around the ritual of food, per se.
Right. Cooking and eating as the daily rote of living. So, I took that and wrote a song called "Buoy." The punch line of the song (as I think of it) — the last verse — is: "What fool keeps holding onto something after it is fell apart?/ Hey you, send it to the warehouse/ Get yourself another heart." It's that same idea: there are an infinite number of beginnings; it's not just the one chance.
And the work, the real work, is to get yourself to start over. Just as, the real work, ironically, is to feed yourself.
That's what I love about that poem. She's gently and subtly using this metaphor of eating, because it's just another thing you have to do. Throwing away your heart and getting a new one, as well as cooking your soup. It's just daily life, you know?

"Buoy," or rewriting a poem by way of a song. It is permitted.

Bound for a Song

CE: Who do you go see for shows, when you're not playing with them?
CB: That's a great question, because it's fewer and fewer people, the more shows I play. I'm crazy about a local band in Philadelphia right now, called The Lowlands. They're a bluegrass band. Their singer-songwriter, Chris Kasper, is a brilliant, brilliant lyricist. Brilliant melodies. Great voices. Besides that, I always see Patty Griffin, whenever she's nearby.
CE: I have her set list, on the side of my book shelf, from when she played with Emmylou [Harris] and Gillain [Welch].
CB: Wow, I went to one of those shows.
CE: It was so good. Do you guys take the Mass Pike west, to go down to Philly?
CB: What's the number of the Mass Pike?
CE: 90.
CB: We take 90. 90 to 95, I guess.
CE: If you pass Worcester, that's where "Making Pies" is about.
CB: Really? Worcester? Huh.
CE: Yeah, it's about Table Talk Pies, in Worcester. She's imagining herself as a worker there. I went to school in Worcester and lived there for several years. It's interesting to hear the song. When she was on a Maine radio station, I heard her talk about it. It's this factory that I've known about, driven by. These pies, they're like 7-11 pies.
CB: Little peach pies or cherry pies?
CE: Yeah.

CB: The other artist I'm really into is Devon Sproule. We toured a little bit together. She's a total genius, I think. She's one of the few contemporaries out there that is not known well, that every time I see her, she completely blows my mind. I have to go lay down for a while. She's that good.
CE: What does she do, live, that hits you?
CB: It's mainly her songwriting. She's a meticulous lyricist, as well as being a total jazzhead, and kind of obsessed with jazz guitar and chord progressions. So, she's juxtaposing these beautiful, very, very poetic lyrics about mostly about Virginia (where she lives), domestic life, and these simple concepts over these complex and catchy jazz chords and melodies. She's kind of writing Cole Porter standards, only, about modern life.

It's great. She's playful and cute and sweet when she's on stage. She reaches for notes that she might not hit and says really goofy stuff. She completely draws the audience into this childlike world that she lives in.
CE: That's amazing.

CE: You see this [singing professionally] as an indefinite thing, I would imagine.
CB: Yeah, yeah. When I moved to Philly, from Eugene, I went at it like: I don't have any idea about how to go about starting a music career. I'm going to go to Philly and, basically, see what falls into my lap. So far, it's been great things. Lots of great shows and great people helped me out. So, I'm still kind of sitting with my lap open, hoping that things keep falling there, you know?

CE: What are you listening to, in the car?
CB: The Quebe Sisters. They're this band, from Texas of three singing sisters with a country-swing sound. They're such a joy to listen to. It's unabashedly bubbly music.
CE: Nice. What are you reading these days?
CB: Right now, I'm reading non-fiction. I'm reading a book by Temple Grandin. She's an autistic woman who designs humane slaughter houses. She has a thesis about how autistic people think visually, and that's why they're hard for non-autistic people to relate to. Most people think linguistically, while animals think visually. She describes her life with animals and the way she relates to them. It's really interesting.
CE: Did she get famous? Was this a New York Times Best Seller, from a while back?
CB: I think she was on NPR, and probably on New York Times book lists.

CE: Have you ever written a song around non-fiction? Not from your own story, but from a major event, or a political concern.
CB: Not really. I base most of my songs from stories of people's lives. They're not always from mine; they're always just stories personal stories rather than stories that I'm not directly related to, in some way.
CE: Sure, sure. So, they're stories you bear witness to?
CB: Exactly. I've dabbled at trying to write more politically, but I have a hard time thinking of anything interesting to say about things that I'm not intimately familiar with.

CE: What drew me to your music is the world it creates, and the possibilities it offers for things like longing. I'd say, there's some relationship to environments, too (for example, "Flight to Philadelphia"). It seems to come from the way you may relate to things your worldview. I'm interested in what you hold onto: either convictions (like, "This is how I wish things were in human relationships”), or tactile things and experiences.

CB: That's a good question. I find, the more I live a creative life the more attention I put on writing as my profession the less abstractly I tend to live my life. So, I'm into tactile pleasures, like dancing and food, stuff like that. In my day-to-day life, I spend a lot less time thinking abstract thoughts, unless they're bound for a song. I spend a lot more time doing things like shopping for tea cups. I'm really into tea cups. I have a dog that I love. I do a ton of dancing. I dance three or four nights a week, right now.
CE: Classes, or?
CB: I actually teach in Philly. I do social dancing, as well. Swing and blues, which are both social dances, rather than choreographed.
CE: You teach choreographed?
CB: No, I teach social dancing. I went to a dance here last night, and there's another one tonight, a little outside of Boston.

Wonderment & Delight

CE: Something that hit me about your music was the way that sound you offer these aural pleasures, so to speak, with your guitar, with your voice. There is something about certain sounds that you're making. Either, how do you get to these sounds, or what is the sound that you want to make? That you hear in the natural world, or that you've heard in your head, that you haven't hit yet.

CB: I would say that the musical aspect of what I do is the most intuitive and least premeditated. I tend to mull over concepts and lyrics a lot, and not as much about the structure of songs. I'll spend a lot of time coming up with chord progressions that I like, but not a lot of time on melodies. I feel they need to come from not a logical place, but from an intuitive place.
CE: Sure, sure.
CB: As far as the sound that I want to make, I'm thinking a lot about that right now. I'm trying to think about what my next album should be like. The closest thing that I could say is that I'm going for a feeling, more than a sound. The feeling is kind of like: being privy to a 4-piece jazz ensemble in the '30s, with Billie Holliday or some incredible vocalist in the front, that feels really intimate and really creative relentlessly creative. Something unexpected is happening at every moment.
CE: Sure. Do you listen to Rickie Lee Jones?
CB: I do.
CE: I hear that in her.
CB: Definitely.
CE: Although her music is a bit poppy, when you see her live, you see how raw and rawly orchestrated it is.
CB: Mmhmm. Rather than a sound, I want to be able to create a world, like you were saying. Create a world where the audience is completely transfixed and just delighted. Delight is the main emotion I'm going for. I want there to be this sense of wonderment and delight in every moment. That's what I try to do with my lyrics and my melodies, and that's what I hope to do when I involve more instrumentation.

CE: Beautiful, beautiful. Maybe a few last questions. We were talking about feelings and albums. Let's talk about albums that, for you, capture a feeling, space, era, or mood. Albums that conjure up these whole, autonomous worlds these possible worlds.
CB: Well, one of my favorites for that is actually it's my favorite album Patty Griffin's first record, Living with Ghosts. The amazing thing about it, to me, is that she's completely created an alternate universe, with just her vocals and guitar. There's nothing else happening on the whole record. There are only ten songs, but you completely go there with her. From the first note, she brings you there and you stay there. It's this incredible depth and complexity of emotion. It's just relentless, from the beginning to the end. It's so fresh. Every song is fresh. Every idea is fresh. Every word is fresh. So, that's the epitome of that, for me. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Radiohead's Ok Computer is one of my favorites.
CE: Sure.
CB: That kind of creates a world by creating a lush atmosphere. With Thom Yorke's voice, he just the same thing he pulls out that deep emotion.
CE: Any songs that resonate with you, on that album?
CB: I really like "Let Down."
CE: What's the chorus on that one?
CB: "Let down and hangin' around/Crushed like a bug on the ground"
CE: Yeah.
CB: I love that one. And then, "Breathe," or whatever. It has some weird name. The chorus is: "Breathe, keep breathing." That was the one that was on the soundtrack for… oh, that's right. It's called "Exit Music for a Film" because they put it in Romeo and Juliet. So, those two. I haven't listened to that in a while, but I spent many, many hours listening to it.
CE: When you put it on, it hits you. You're like, "Oh, wow," from the beginning.
CB: Maybe I don't listen to it because it's so nostalgic for me. It's the soundtrack to a good three years of my life.

CE: Any books of poems that have hit you in the same way? Adrienne Rich always does that to me. Her books are like complex concept albums. I'd recommend getting The Dream of a Common Language and reading "Twenty-One Love Poems."
CB: For me, the staples are Collected Poems of e.e. cummings. I've read probably every poem in that book.
CE: Any numbers that hit you, or, by the first lines?
CB: Gosh. What recently? I'm trying to remember.
CB: Have you ever played one with guitar?
CB: No. I don't go in for that, because they're not built with a melodic structure, necessarily; I wouldn't presume to be able to write one. I just memorized "my youthful lady will have other lovers." Do you know that one?
CE: I don't know that one, closely.
CB: See if you remember it:

my youthful lady will have other lovers

my youthful lady will have other lovers
yet none with hearts more motionless than i
when to my lust she pleasantly uncovers
the thrilling hunger of her possible body.

Noone can be whose arms more hugely cry
whose lips more singularly starve to press her-
noone shall ever do unto my lady
what my blood does,when i hold and kiss her

(or if sometime she nakedly invite
me all her nakedness deeply to win
her flesh is like all the 'cellos of night
against the morning's single violin)

[Not in poem:
CB: Shoot, I'm missing part of it: "like a bright…trees," um, oh...
CE: I got it at home.
CB: So, the last line is: "My youthful lust will have no further ladies."
CE: Wow, wow. ]

[* remainder of poem:]

more far a thing than ships or flowers tell us,
her kiss furiously me understands
like a bright forest of fleet and huge trees
-then what if she shall have a hundred fellows?

she will remember,as i think,my hands

(it were not well to be in this thing jealous.)
My youthful lust will have no further ladies.

- e. e. cummings

CB: I'm just a sucker for that kind of turn of phrase, you know?
CE: Yeah.
CB: It starts out with one complete concept: my youthful love will have other lovers. And you're going along, oh yes, she's young, and she'll go have other lovers. He loves her, but it's passing. Then, the end is: "my youthful lust will have no further ladies." Again, it's that paradox of love, where you feel, at once, all the possibility and all the doom of the situation. Ha.
CE: There's a delicacy to his intensity, definitely. Like in the one that ends: "nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands." It's delicate, but strong.
CB: And so clever, and so smart. In one of his introductions in that book, he says, the trick of his poetry can be summed up by one burlesque joke, and that is: "'Would you hit a woman with a child?No, I'd hit her with a brick.'" Which is so true. You read his poems, and so much of it, like "my youthful lady," is puns. They're these very intricate puns. He just strings you all along, to the end.
CE: Like "o by the by."

CB: Exactly. There's Wisława Szymborska, who's Polish. She has a book called View with a Grain of Sand.
CE: She keeps coming up out with new stuff. I keep reading her.
CB: That is the only one of hers that I've gotten into, but I've enjoyed it. And then, Mary Oliver is my perennial favorite.
CE: I was going to ask how you felt about her. Some people are really into her, some people aren't.
CB: No, I love her.
CE: I hear a connection between your songs and her poems: this whole thing about reminding yourself of the world around you, and, at the end, of the world inside.
CB: There's the theme of changing perspective repeatedly, through a piece. She starts out looking at a blade of grass, talking about the blade of grass. Then, by the end she's kind of talking about life and existence and God. And you completely buy it. It's such an easy transition for her to make. I respect that, and I like that kind of writing.
CE: Do you know "Five A.M. in the Pinewoods?"
CB: How does it go?
CE: The end is, um: "I was thinking:/ so this is how you swim inward,/ so this is how you flow outward,/ so this is how you pray."
CB: Yup, yup, it's a great one.

CE: It's funny. I was 19 years old. I mean, I'm 26 now, I'm not much older. I was a sophomore in college. I was coming back home. I said, "Let me show you what I'm reading in college!" I read this honey poem ["Honey at the Table"] from American Primitive.
CB: Mmhmm.
CE: I mean, my father's a content and active theater professor, but most of my family are successful, math and science people. I read my mother this poem about Mary Oliver [/the persona/ "you," the reader] eating honey at her table, and wanting to be becoming, really this creature, this bear, going up a tree, to the source of the honey.
And she says, jokingly, "So, you're getting these scholarships, and we're paying more money, so you could read poems about honey?"

CB: Ha, ha.
CE: We laughed at the ridiculousness of it
CB: Yeah.
CE: But the necessity — it's almost like, if that's how you see the world, or if there are certain things that you want to connect with, then, it's necessary. That is your language. That, to me, is political. This whole site is part of a bigger picture where I like to share culture with people; as opposed to leaving it "up there," bringing it down here, and making it intimate. That calls for the real work, of having to look at it closely, and having to earnestly appreciate it. Then, you're not separate from it, you know?
CB: Mmhmm. Right.

CE: Um, what are you looking forward to, in the spring?
CB: This spring? The first thing that comes to mind is warmth, because it's pretty cold. I don't have any plans, honestly. So, I guess I'm looking forward to the possibility of travel and making a record.
CE: Nice. Pretty, pretty. Thank you.
CB: Thank you.

Ain't So Green: play, bask, dance, and repeat.

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