Sunday, April 12, 2015

New Voice / New Character: An Interview w/Chris Bathgate (April Tour)

Chris Bathgate has been on a journey. A couple of them, at least...

The neo-folk trailblazing singer/songwriter was thrown, emotionally, by all the acclaim bucketed upon his undeniably brilliant first batch of releases, epitomizing the overly-worn word-mash for music journalists, "hauntingly beautiful" with his A Cork Tale Wake and Wait, Skeleton... The voice could be as frail as a December oak leaf in the bridge yet as hardened and heavy as the tree, itself, timbering through the chorus, over a storm of bracing guitar strums.

He considers the stressful, self-shredding scrutiny of the following three years (2007-2010) to be a "journey," trying as it was, that led to the release of a vindicating and revitalizing album called Salt Year. Stark and somber, at points, with its spare and trundling percussion and that aching, elemental tone to his voice, and yet warming and propulsive at other points, with twanged-out guitar-rock riffs and driving rhythms.

Bathgate was back. But, not without a considerable wear and tear from that journey, where he scrapped the fledgling demos for Salt Year multiple times and nearly backed away from music entirely.

But there's a new journey, since....

"And it had a similar shape as the Salt Year journey," Bathgate said. "But, it swung into the deep extremes that Salt Year only grazed the surface of... Death, love, poverty, manipulation, deceit, chaos, isolation....were all exterior factors to that time or, rather, journey. "

Bathgate has been a bit of an itinerant troubador, lately. Ann Arbor, MI loved to claim him throughout the 2000's as he was attracting attention from NPR and PASTE Magazine, but he's since moved around the country several times, hoping to settle "back home" soon...

With new songs written, Bathgate is leaving for an east coast tour this week...

Bathgate had been filling his recent "hiatus" (through majority of 2012-2013) with day jobs, slowly chipping away at songs, primarily for SKULLS. He scored the soundtrack for a film called From This Day Forward while also taking some time to work in the production office for another film, earlier this year, down in Baton Rouge, LA. And every Spring, he's continued to return to a teaching job he's held for a few years out in New England.

"I've just started touring outside of the Mid-West, again," Bathgate said. "I haven't necessarily had a specific goal other than to recover financially from the past two years of bad luck." He's continued taking the best job he can find, often outside of Michigan. He's been home for only seven months out of the last 2+ years.

But, says Bathgate, what's more interesting than the "severe details" of this recent journey is the path that was blazed out of the struggle, towards a "new musical vision."

"The cathartic writing that came out of that time re-invigorated my love for music and composition. I've become way more appreciative because of that newly-overcome rough patch. I worked and wrote my way through it."

"The well-trodden path of struggle's influence on my music is paramount," Bathgate said. "Most of the new material I've been sharing with folks is of that journey, during that hiatus..."

"I get messages from fans that start like: "...Dear Chris, I connected with your music during a time of immense struggle." Often, this is followed by "...Thanks," and a short explanation of how the connection to my songs was helpful to them in that time, however abstract. It feels good to know that my struggles are putting good in the world, however small, through the vessel of song. It seems my own struggles are not without positive external impact."

To overcome said-span of financial misfortune and self-scrutinizing torment, Bathgate set out on a tour he deemed "The Curse Breaker." He may have been tempting fate since, with everything else, mechanical breakdowns for his touring vehicle have also been constant, lately. "My hope was to rid myself of this bad luck with ceremony and a stepping-back into performing. On that tour, the engine of my van threw a rod on my way to one of the final few shows. A wonderful fan picked me up at a rest area of I-96 so I could make the show."

Bathgate's recently toured with Kalamazoo-based Americana outfit The Go-Rounds. Before that, he was on the road with singer/songwriter Molly Sullivan, was free of vehicular troubles, though not without a few close calls.

Meanwhile, Bathgate and Sullivan collaborated on a few tunes in 2014 for their live sets together. Bathgate played lead-guitar in Sullivan's Cincinnati-based band during a midwinter tour, where they discovered their complimentary styles.

"Stylistically," Bathgate says, "(Sullivan and I) are both songwriters using loops and ethereal washes. We both have distinct and stylized voices. So, when we play for each others' fans, they get it. The crossover receptions have been more than warm for both of us. We're more mutual appreciators, rather than heavy collaborators at this point. We just have been having lots of conversations about arrangements and record-making in the van, on tour."

As expressive and vulnerable as his previous records could be, Bathgate said he feels bashful about revealing overly detailed experiences, lately, because the conditions of his life "could be so much worse."

"As it is for everyone, life can be tough. Real tough. The last two years were pretty strange and brutal, but I'm still here. Things can, and they may...get worse. But, I'm better prepared for those times. Regardless, it's all material, and I'm thankful for it."

Bathgate is bringing several new songs encompassing this new chapter in his creative life. "Songwise," he says, "I've been bringing things into extremes that reflect the emotions I've experienced... bringing those emotional poles of the live set way up, and way down, often in close proximity."

"Maybe you could say my recent solo sets have been...sonically manic..." says Bathgate.

"There are a number of very honest, raw, slow and vulnerable songs with lots of ambient and ethereal under-paintings...There are also a slew of uptempo barn-burners emerging..." 

Bathgate is currently putting the finishing touches on these new sonic extremes, honing them into something feasible for a full band arrangement. As a solo singer, the songs have a lighter touch, even if the emotional content could still be tremendous and soul-quaking for some... There's the balance, a subtly to the atmospherics, lightly fogging the dusky melancholy of the words from that evocative voice...

This new loop-centric, guitar-based set leads to base tones pulsing from a small tube amp, hollow body, DL4 slap back and an amp spring for optimal reverberations. Bathgate's creating an interplay between the tones from a low-presence, round, reverberated fretboard pickup and a thinner, dirty lead of a bridge pickup.

"The ambient and atmospheric additions to my onstage tone have come from Earthquaker Devices, and Eventide.  I’m into washed out, low presence, ambient chords right now. The nuanced swells those companies have created are a really exciting for me to play with.  Their pedals are highly adjustable, and I can use the combination to create a unique palette.  With an ambient wash it’s all about the changes, which is a big part of my writing now. I’m still concerned with melody, but in a different iteration...."

The instruments on Salt Year covered the most important melodies and functioned as a chorus would in other songs. With his new songs, the melodies are like "slow hooks" or recurring themes. His voice is being pushed into louder realms than before, as you can hear on the Le Cheneaux Sessions video streaming above ("Fogged Clarity").

"Creating subtle tone differences allows for the same guitar to be looped and remain discernible. The same is true for the secondary Wollensa microphone that I sing into. The tiny radio-esque vocal tone allows for a different mood, a different voice, perhaps a new character."

A new journey, a different voice...

Chris Bathgate - Spring 2015 tour dates
April 14 - Anabell's - Akron, OH
April 15 - The Bug Jar - Rochester, NY
April 16 - The Fire - Philadelphia, PA
April 18 - Rockwood Music Hall - New York, NY
April 19 - The Burren - Sommerville, MA**
April 24 - House Concert - Sommerville, MA**
April 25 - House Concert - Willaimston, MA**
April 26 - Dream Away Lodge - Beckett, MA**
April 27 - Lizard Lounge - Cambridge MA**

**w/ Samantha Farrell

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