Keeping a busy schedule as a longtime member of Bon Iver doesn’t leave S. Carey a lot of time for his solo work. But based on his beautiful new record Break Me Open, which arrives this Friday (April 22), the demand for Carey’s singer-songwriter output is bound to grow.
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Break Me Open came out of a period of personal loss for Carey, as he dealt with a divorce and the death of his father while creating the record. But the music doesn’t sound like somebody going through a dark night of the soul. While the delicate soundscapes and Carey’s ethereal vocals occasionally evoke harrowing heartbreak, those moments are balanced out by hope and uplift in both the music and the lyrics.
Carey will be splitting up his time this spring and summer between touring with Bon Iver and also headlining with a five-piece band that will be playing songs from Break Me Open and his other three solo records. He took a moment to talk to American Songwriter about making the new record, the pain and pleasure of parenthood, and tackling difficult personal moments in song.
American Songwriter: Your solo output is spread out pretty wide time-wise over the last dozen or so years. Is that just from being busy with your other projects or is it about finding the inspiration?
S. Carey: I’ve been on the road with Bon Iver for the last 13 or 14 years, and so that’s sort of been my main gig. And then also I just feel like I’m definitely not a prolific writer or anything. I sometimes have to wait till the inspiration comes. Sometimes I won’t write anything for months. And then I’ll get the urge and it will start to come together.
AS: You traveled to a lot of different locations to make this record. What was the impetus for that?
SC: Some of the songs are newer, but some of them are years in the making. I like to chip away at songs and take my time, so a lot of it was worked on back home in Wisconsin. At my house, I would do a lot of demoing and writing. We worked in various studios. We worked at Justin Vernon’s studio in Eau Claire a little bit. We worked out of another studio called The Hive. And then we just had the idea to go somewhere totally different, to get out of the Wisconsin vibe.
We decided on Northern California. We met our friend Chris who was living in Los Angeles. He drove up the coast with a bunch of recording gear. We drove across the country because it was peak COVID time and we weren’t sure about flying. We drove across and slept in the tour van and brought some instruments and set up shop for about nine or ten days. It was such a great experience, something a little bit different, a different setting. It was so calm. We were about a quarter-mile from the ocean, so we could hear it. I would go jogging up Highway 1 every day. It was beautiful, and back home it was like negative-20 degrees (laughs.)
AS: You also used more co-writers than you had in the past. What do you think those collaborations added to the finished product?
SC: About half the songs or more were co-writes in some way, shape, or form. A lot of that co-writing process was sort of taking somebody’s idea, like a basic synth idea and having that be the inspiration for the song. So it’s not like we were sitting down together working on lyrics together or anything like that. It’s not something that I haven’t done in the past, but I sort of embraced that part of the process. Asking my bandmates and other collaborators that I have worked with, or one of them I even just met through Instagram, just being open to “Hey, send me any ideas that you have and we’ll see if anything sparks.”
A lot of times, nothing sparks, or it takes years to figure out what the song is in some cases. But other times, it just happened really quickly where I started to hear a melody and started to think about what the vibe was, what the lyrics could be, what I was going through in my life at the time, and how that would match the sonic landscape that somebody else had created.
AS: As a Dad myself, I really loved the way you came at the songs about your kids (“Island” and “Paralyzed”) on the record. Was it important to touch on the inherent pain that goes with fatherhood, knowing that they’re going to grow up and away from you at some point?
SC: Those songs, I don’t think of them as sad, although they kind of are. It’s more just trying to explain that deep love that you have for these people that are your kids. And often it’s really hard to even describe. I think I just sort of went in the direction of trying to show that love in a different way from my perspective, and the challenges of coming to those realizations as a parent.
AS: How did your father’s passing work its way into these songs?
SC: It didn’t really thematically. There are a couple of other songs that aren’t on the record that are still in process right now where I’m kind of dealing with that grief. But I think the impact of losing him and that being piled on top of me going through a divorce definitely impacted the sense of loss and grief and change as a whole. In a couple of my other records, I definitely wrote about him and his impact on me as a kid. We had a lot of the same interests. He really got me into the outdoors, and on some of the tunes, I write about my inspiration from being outside and in nature and the beauty and spiritual aspect of that. That sort of idea and appreciation came from him. So he’ll always be in my music for sure.
AS: The album is titled Break Me Open and you are fearlessly opening yourself up on these songs. It’s one thing to do that kind of soul-searching in private, but it has to be a bit daunting to reveal all those emotions for the world to hear. How did you feel about going to those places in your music?
SC: Pretty mixed emotions (laughs). It was therapeutic, but it was hard. I definitely questioned that part of it sometimes. But in the end, I just felt like it’s important stuff to talk about it and for people to have that background when they listen to the music. Hopefully, it helps people in their own way and their own struggles. Life is full of curveballs. I appreciate it when other artists are so open and vulnerable. I wanted to do the same even if it’s hard.
AS: The last refrain on the record, from the song “Crestfallen,” is Not all for naught. It suggests that there was something learned, maybe even something gained from all this. Do you hope that others listening to this album who might be going through their own difficult times will take lessons from that?
SC: Absolutely. You’re going to probably reach a fork in the road where it’s like “Do I stay in this darkness and dwell on it and go even further, or run away from it and try to escape it? Or do I take the other fork where it’s like this is the hardest thing, it’s terrible, it’s challenging, but can I grow from it, can I try to take away some positives?” That’s what I’m trying to do, and it’s hard, but the music definitely helps.
Photo by Peter Larson /Shorefire Media