Chris Bathgate and I are talking about singing, but not about lyrics.
On his latest album, Dizzy Seas, the nationally renowned songwriter has ten songs that, abstruse as it may be to describe them in this way: are as dense as they are simple.
The experience of listening to this album is much like a session of mantra meditation; musical phrases are rounded, ambient boundaries are bled together, lyrics become wordless/melodic utterances, and the throb and slow spill of its tonality tornadoes tenderly around your ears to set in this subtle swarm of calming serotonin, almost to the point where you may tune out of the very record you're listening to.
"...I want the listener to literally be free to daydream during the song, and then maybe I can bring them back into the song later without them knowing it. So I was thinking about how much do I really need to say, in a song... How much space do I need to give my listeners, so that they can effectively drift off for a minute."
And in my head... I could hear that famous quote "Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." --Brian Eno
Dizzy Seas is a tricky album to decipher. Or, rather, it's trickier if you encounter it with intentions of deciphering it. I don't think it's a record that will give you exact directions, like how many more blocks or how many left or right turns you'll need to make before you find the answer. It just kind of vaguely gestures toward a horizon for you and says: "that way...." It's that way.
"Some of the lyrics are totally cogent and make logical sense, others are fractured. I'm sure people are saying some of it makes no sense. Some songs are meant to be about something, but others are just images dropped in your life that circumspect what I'm interested in communicating. I learned that from (Emily) Dickinson.
I mention that this is an ambient record, even though Bathgate is still categorized as a folk singer. And he nods, yes, that's still where his roots are... But the thing with folk singers, is that we look to them as oracles, poetic pundits in a way. We are too inclined to zone in and suss out meaning from the words that are melodically metered out by a "folk singer." But this is the album of a "folk singer..." It's something else, not just tonally, but lyrically.
"Don't tell people what you want them to feel, just draw a big circle around it and let them exist in a little bubble... It's not something overt, but through circuitious messages, you can get your point across and leave a little discovery-after-the-fact. And, also! Who am I to say what a song is about?"
What stands out about Dizzy Seas is the way it affectingly simulates the sense of being on a body of water, or near a body of water--this sense of floating, or having these foggy tones sort of wash over you in a way that gives pause. It's an ebb and flow of harmonics and chords during songs like "Hide" and "Nicosia," while even the more traditional folk-rock rumblers seem to have something more dreamy aimed at in their designs.
"I felt that I'd demanded the outdoors for my life, more so than the outdoors influenced me. There came a point where –this is kind of how I live now– I was more and more uncomfortable when indoors, more than before. Working outside, being outside; it became a huge priority. I felt weird having ceilings over my head. I don't know, really, if I can put it into words, whether it affected (my music). I'm sure it did. But, it was just that I was locked into nature, from 6pm, til 6am, I was in the woods. I was wading in the Platt River and swimming in ponds, fishing and cooking my dinners..."
That sounds like a solace. Maybe we can dig into the ways in which the wilderness wound up influencing the way in which these emotions were expressed, or intoned. One of the major themes that's explored by Dizzy Seas is how much happiness can you, specifically you, can derive from YOUR environment.
"Why's it always gotta be heavy?"
Bathgate sings this lyric in "Beg," with a rushed marching cadence, almost audibly frustrated with himself. It's a matter of always losing your grip on whatever is: 'happiness...'
"I think that question, of: 'why's it always gotta be heavy...?' is just as much me asking myself, as, really, asking the world," Bathgate said. "How much of your own happiness comes from you or, vice versa, how much of your sadness comes from your environment, from the world as your perceiving it... How much of it comes entirely from you?"
Thinking back on the "oh's" of the song, "O(h)m," or the weary "aaaayyy's" of "Hide," and I think about how wordless melodic utterances can mirror the sounds of emotions, such as a wordless laugh, or a wordless cry, or a wordless sigh... We, as humans, sometimes just make noises.
“In college, for a class, I read an article called 'Soundtracking of America,' wherein the author presents this theory that music, alone, without any lyrical content, cannot express an idea in full. I thought arduously about that ... I think you need to open your mind to the broadness of what an idea is, to fight that argument. If I sing a melody, you can't be like: 'Oh, well, you're singing about Detroit,' or 'You're singing about sparrows...' Or, 'about fresh fruits...' You won't have that solid factual thing to pin meaning to... But, I think music, and the way that people experience music, isn't so hard-and-fast. It's not a misnomer. It's just the correlation (of lyrics) is a little reductive, to 'what music communicates...' I think there are things other than ideas that are communicated, and I think ideas can be communicated in full without lyrical content, but rather just in the musical interplay."
As we wound up our conversation, I ask about how so many of the lyrics mention "the mind...," and he admits that, indeed, "the mind" has been on his mind.
"You have senses, and they give you information about the world, but the engine that puts that together is your mind. But your mind is never able to objectively perceive those things without the influence of emotions. So..., that's where I am! Dizzy Seas was really a question... There have been some write-ups tying it to this idea of: 'Are the seas dizzy? Or am I...?'
"So, which thing is out of balance? If you can even tell..."