FEATURE: Melville from Inside the Whale: Artists and the Creative Benefits of Isolation and Sparseness  




Melville from Inside the Whale



Artists and the Creative Benefits of Isolation and Sparseness


MAYBE it is not a new phenomenon…



but more and more artists are turning away from the distractions and technology of the studio to record somewhere more remote and quieter. We all know the story behind Bon Iver’s album, For Emma, Forever Ago, and the fact Justin Vernon had broken up with his girlfriend and needed to get away. He was in a state of despair and, between November 2006 and January 2007, laid down a collection of rather intimate and haunting songs that ranks alongside his very best work – many consider the album to be his very best. Vernon, before recording the album, was ill with mononucleosis and a liver infection. He was frustrated with life, in general, and drove to his father’s remote hunting cabin northwest of his hometown in Raleigh, North Carolina – he set up home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and shut himself away from the rest of the world. When interviewed in May 2008, he talked about his experiences. The article set the scene regarding the cabin and the first flickers of For Emma, Forever Ago:

Vernon arrived at the cabin in a state of disrepair, having driven through the night from the stifling, swampy heat of North Carolina, where he had settled with the members of his former band, DeYarmond Edison, with whom he had played since his teens. "I felt very uninspired [in North Carolina]," he says. "I needed to get back. So I broke up with everybody, I broke up the band, I broke up with my girlfriend - broke free to do that".


The cabin was built in 1979 by his father, and Vernon would often spend weekends there growing up. It stands on 80 acres of land rich in aspens, wolves and wild turkeys. "The cabin's like a little alpine-style, timber-frame cabin, used to just have a dirt floor, but the last few years my dad's made it ... maybe too nice." He smiles gently. "Like there's plumbing in it now. But there's still that ancient vibe, because you're so far away from everything."

At first, he admits, he did little but drink beer; gradually, he began to acquire a self-sufficiency that may be the source of the record's feeling of completeness. He chopped logs and hunted for food. "That year was the first time I had killed a deer. It didn't feel good. You want to hit it here," he says, touching his side. "You want to kill it really quickly." It was a good two weeks before he set up any of his music equipment - two weeks in which his head cleared and inspiration came. "I didn't go up there to make a record," he says. "But music was just part of the process of me ironing out that weird vibe inside me. I sat down and started working on the songs, layering vocals on top of vocals, trying to be a choir".

The results one hears from For Emma, Forever Ago stun the senses. The syllabic and wordless quality; the overtaking of emotion as opposed to musicality and technical – it is a profound meditation and rumination on the desolate surroundings in which he recorded and the turmoil seeping through his veins. It sounds rather like a passage from Herman Melville 1851 novel, Moby Dick (or ‘The Whale’): the sailor, Ishmael, obsessively questing Ahab, captain of the whaling ship, Pequod, in order to exact his revenge – read the novel to see why. In fact, it is more akin to Ahab being inside the whale itself: a certain sense of safety and doom sit alongside one another; the sounds of the outside world a mere echo and distorted hum. Often, life can get in the head and dominate every rationale and movement. We get obsessed with ritual and technology; the buzz of the city or the demand of the family. It may sound rather rustic and hard cutting off from life and settling in a remote cabin for a couple of months – sans Internet, Netflix and a decent oven. Whilst a musician like Bon Iver would not have the luxury of amps, a big studio and all the instruments at his disposal; there is something rather humble and challenging being cut away from that crutch. Artists pre-Internet and modern technology had to rely on, before getting into the studio, very basic means and, as such, created much more pleasing and personal songs.



I like artists who can utilise technology and push limits but, in a day where we all get hung up on social media and a rather safe way of life – settling in a woodland location and taking things back to basics can revitalise and infuse the senses. Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago was his debut album and it was a brave decision creating an album and launching it into a world where the very best works – Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible and Radiohead’s In Rainbows, among them – of 2007 relied on traditional studios and equipment. Maybe that is why the record stood out: you could hear the sweat and emotion; there was the sense of a man alone with his thoughts and his music…nothing else to distract the mind and no aids to blur the lines between authenticity and distortion. Jack White, on the other hand, entered a similar sense of isolation when he recorded his latest album, Boarding House Reach. DIY, when reviewing the album, drilled down to the crux of Jack White:

There’s a popular view of Jack White. It’s one that casts him as a crotchety nostalgist, sitting in a wooden cabin surrounded by tape reels, with two tin cans and a string in place of a phone and a three-mile restraining order on anyone with a Facebook profile. It’s a reputation that people love and loathe in equal measure. For the acolytes, he’s a purist to be held aloft in these increasingly fickle and transient musical times; a man so devoted to the vinyl cause that he started an entire empire (Third Man Records) in celebration of it”.


IN THIS IMAGE: Jack White/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

Maybe the surroundings he recorded in did not match Justin Vernon’s in terms of its remoteness and simplicity: White was in a small apartment but, for the most part, distanced himself from modern appurtenances and aids. He set up a small apartment in Nashville, Tennessee and recorded on reel-to-reel tape. He did not need all the gadgets and electronic luxuries that were used on his previous two solo albums. If anything, he was going back to the early White Stripes days when Jack and Meg White would lay down the material on four-track and make the albums sound as raw and Detroit Garage-Rock as possible. Whereas White’s move was a chance to reinvent and record in a new way – preferring a less gutsy and raucous sound of his previous works, Lazaretto and Blunderbuss – it proved you do not need even to use laptops and the comforts of home to create great material. Whilst there are gulfs between the work of Bon Iver and Jack White – the former received much more praise from critics – each artist felt the need to record in a way that differs from what’s around them. White, since the breakup of The White Stripes, moved away from their rigid and disciplined uniformity – the power of the number three and using guitar, drums and the odd piano here and there – and settled into a more expansive and broad style of working.


IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for Max Cooper's album, One Hundred Billion Sparks/IMAGE CREDIT: Max Cooper/Getty Images

Another artist who has caught my ear is Max Cooper. He recorded his current album, One Hundred Billion Sparks, in a different way to many artists. It is interesting reading this article that gives a bit of background:

One Hundred Billion Sparks sees Cooper further refining his widescreen style of techno, ambient and experimental music. The UK artist says he conceptualized it during a month spent in isolation in a remote Welsh cottage. 

The album "is my attempt to express what was there after I had removed my everyday life," Cooper explains. "No phone calls, no emails, no messages, no human contact for a month, that was the idea. What I found were the fables we live inside, our constructs, the mechanisms which create them, and the experience of parsing them." 

Today's announcement also comes with this quote: "We are one hundred billion sparks. One hundred billion neurons whose firing creates feelings and ideas. One hundred billion neurons that make us all different yet connected".

Even though the three artists I have already mentioned come from different parts of the musical globe and have different experiences regarding recording/writing; each of them has stripped away the modern world and decided to go back to basics.

Cooper’s album is out on 20th September and it will be interesting to see what that lack of phones/emails and technology has done to the music. I feel more and more musicians will follow the example of Max Cooper and shut away the gadgets and gizmos. Look at the history of music and you can see some vivid examples of artists recording in unconventional spaces. Bob Dylan and The Band recorded in a big, pink house near Woodstock (for The Basement Tapes); The Rolling Stones recorded Exile on Main St. in the basement of Keith Richards’ French mansion; U2 went to Slane Castle for The Unforgettable Fire Adult Themes for Voice, by Faith No More, was recorded in various hotel rooms. It is not unusual to embrace the unconventional but what I am referring to is artists who completely dispense with modern-day technologies and seek something more honest and less distracting. Many new artists are recording music at home and recording on very simple devices. Look at classic albums like Odelay (Beck) and Nebraska (Bruce Springsteen) and you have homemade sounds in them. I think a lot of artists get too focused on creating something polished, ‘professional’ and simple. We are all too reliant on devices and technologies. I wonder whether we will ever move past this mode of working when we really don’t need to.



By that, I mean we have come a bit too far and are getting too comfortable letting the Internet and technology create sounds and put music together. I would like to see more artists, established and new, either recording or writing material away from the home or somewhere that is quite remote and rural. Not only are you away from the ringing of phones and the noise around you; it is you alone with your thoughts and the music alone. Sleater-Kinney recorded their celebrated album, The Woods, in rural, upstate New York in the depths of winter – it was their seventh record and they needed to get away from the post-9/11 world and the need to stretch their legs (in 2005) was evident. They recorded in intense conditions and often were surrounded by snow; a lot of the songs were nailed in one take and it was a very different way of working. If it is a way of throwing out the rulebooks or finding fresh inspiration; getting into a new way of working or reconnecting with the natural world – I am seeing a lot of modern cases, that I have not mentioned, of musicians either recording in a remote woodland location or a rather simple, technology-free space. It may sound rather horrible and unusual but, as we have heard, it can change an artist’s sound and add fresh spark into their careers. In a time when we are all obsessed with technology and social media; it sounds rather appealing unplugging it all, getting into the car and…



RECORDING music surrounded by nature, quiet and no distractions.