Since its launch in 1999, Syd Butler’s Frenchkiss Records has served as a breeding ground for some of the most acclaimed indie rock acts of the last 20 years, including The Hold Steady, The Antlers, The Dodos, Local Natives and Passion Pit in addition to Butler’s own group Les Savy Fav.
In 2021, Frenchkiss steadily continues to reestablish itself as one of the foremost American indie labels with the forthcoming release of When The Day Leaves, the anticipated fourth LP from Valley Maker. For 10 years, the name has served as the creative conduit for Austin Crane, a South Carolina native who recently moved back to his hometown of Columbia after spending much of the past decade in Seattle, where he was going for a doctorate in human geography at the University of Washington.
Yet before he officially settled in with his wife Megan in their new forever home, Crane headed back to the Pacific Northwest to record When The Day Leaves during a three-week session in the woods outside of Woodinville, a small town northeast of Seattle at the foot of the Cascades. He stayed in the loft of Spencer’s Way Out Studio, working alongside collaborators Trevor Spencer and Amy Godwin in Spencer’s horse barn-turned-recording studio, where the trio (along with some auxiliary musicians including Chris Icasiano on drums and percussion and Morgan Henderson on woodwinds) crafted 46 minutes of atmospheric rural folk rock.
American Songwriter is honored to premiere the first single and video from When The Day Leaves with “No One Is Missing,” one of the more rhythmically driven tracks on the album.
“The video for ‘No One Is Missing’ was filmed on Edisto Island in South Carolina’s lowcountry by dustoftheground,” Crane sets the scene. “It’s a lush, isolated place. The beach where we filmed is only accessible at low tide and is full of dead trees. I felt like that tidal flow, combined with the generally surreal and outside-of-time quality of the landscape, provided a spatial and and visual connection with where ‘No One Is Missing’ is coming from as a song.”
We had the chance to catch up with Mr. Crane shortly after New Year’s Day, where he talked with American Songwriter about not only the new single but favorite Frenchkiss albums, COVID-19 and utilizing his good work as a human geographist as a songwriter in this exclusive Q&A.
How much does your education in human geography inform the songs on this new album?
At the level of creative expression, songwriting has always felt like a distinct, but complementary, practice from my academic research and writing. But I’ve become increasingly aware of how they blend into one another. Writing my dissertation and writing When The Day Leaves were co-existing projects, with time usually devoted to both on any given day when I was home from tour – so that back and forth likely ensured a degree of conversation between the two pursuits.
Being trained as a Human Geographer involves thinking a lot about how people and places are interconnected politically, economically, socially, etc. — and also how unequal power relations produce inequalities in how the spaces of our lives are interconnected. My personal research is on the political geographies of migration and borders in Europe, focusing on how humanitarian organizations assist migrants in navigating an often-difficult process of seeking asylum.
There are certain moments where songs on this record engage directly with themes from my research — the violence of borders, or the challenge of caring across difference, for example. But there’s also a general terrain of meaning on this record where the geographic influence is maybe less direct, but still very much there. Here I mean how writing this collection of songs was a way for me to try and make sense of what it means to be human, to embrace change, to try and face another day and love people – this amidst what’s felt like a pretty uncertain past few years in my life, as well as a bitter socio-political moment in the US. So, I guess that general theme of connection – to others, to place, to our history, etc. – would be an overarching way that human geography meaningfully informs my songwriting on this record.
The little town outside of Seattle where you guys recorded the album sounds really quiet and chill. How much did your environment in the Northwest woodlands inspire and inform the direction of this new music?
I always feed off of spatial and environmental influences when recording, and making this record felt pretty special in that way. Trevor Spencer, a longtime friend and collaborator of mine, over the past few years has transformed a horse barn into this beautiful studio named Way Out in Woodinville, WA. I had just moved from Seattle to Columbia, South Carolina before making this record. After briefly getting settled in SC (and writing a few final songs for the record), I flew back out to Seattle to make the record with Trevor. I stayed out in the studio for all three weeks of recording.
Tracking the record in this temporally focused and environmentally consistent manner was a unique and really joyful experience for me. Trevor and I were there every day recording, and other friends/musicians came through intermittently to add parts. I feel like that unfolding process allowed us to construct the world of this record in a way that was experimental and collaborative, while also intentionally keeping everything cohesive. We tried to create a record that feels both centered and dynamic, where the recordings maintain a core songwriting dimension but also build a spatial environment that unfolds around the songs. I’m really proud of what we made in this way.
I do think that being out in the woods, at the feet of the Cascade Mountains, was an inspiring place to make this record, encouraging us towards imaginative and contemplative arrangements. We began recording in November, when the days get really short and the rain, fog and deep grey skies settle in — a season in Seattle that, for me, always highlights the cyclicality of time and life. Maybe that sounds cheesy, but the shift from summer into fall can feel pretty extreme there. In retrospect, having tracked in the months before the pandemic, it feels like the process of making this record was a meaningful way for me to say goodbye (for now) to the Pacific Northwest. The album reflects both the transition I was undergoing at the time, as well as the momentary rest found in making this record in a beautiful environment with friends.
Sessions for When The Day Leaves took place just before Coronavirus came into our lives. But how do you feel this new music resonates with the events of this past year, given how much the human condition has been pushed to the brink while dealing with both pandemic and rampant civil unrest?
These songs are attempts to hold darkness and light in tension, and to deal honestly with our human predicament in that way. I decided to title this record When The Day Leaves for several reasons that resonate with this past year. On one hand, the title reflects an impending heaviness or darkness. This directly resonates with the political times we’ve been living through, before and during the pandemic – from the many forms of injustice that Black and Brown people regularly experience in this country, to climate change and environmental crises, to the abject failure of our leaders and collective society to save lives in this pandemic. On the other hand, the title recognizes the beauty of particular moments in time and space, such as how a sunset can connect us to the natural world – and the importance of recognizing and resting in those moments in order to carry on. Finally, the title speaks to the cyclicality of time, and the challenge of making peace with different seasons of life. In all of these ways, I have felt like the album resonates with the social and political uncertainty of our pandemic reality.
Maybe this is because, while these songs were written pre-pandemic, they reflect a season of my life that was already very much in transition and limbo. I wrote the majority of these songs in the months preceding or following my move from Seattle, where I had lived for over six years, back to the region where I grew up in South Carolina. I’d been sitting with a lot of questions about what it would be like to move back, who I was becoming in the world, and what it means to live in America at this moment in history. While I’ve don’t think the ideal purpose of songwriting (my songwriting, at least) is to provide answers to all of life’s questions, I very much believe that writing, sharing, playing, and listening to songs can make us feel less alone with our questions. Hopefully these songs are enjoyable for people; and for some, maybe they can provide a companion in facing the uncertainty and beauty of being alive in this moment.
More important than my thoughts on the record, particularly in light of all this past year has held, I’d like to conclude with a statement of solidarity that Black Lives Matter.
Please tell me about the first single “No One Is Missing”. What is the song about for you and how did it come together?
At its core, I think “No One Is Missing” is a song that tries to make sense of how we connect with one another – amidst life’s challenges, through experiencing loss and change, and despite our many imperfections. The song juxtaposes meditations on this at a societal level and at a personal level, for example, reflecting on the experience of being a touring musician, leaving and returning home. The song came together one day in my Seattle apartment when I was trying out a variation on a guitar tuning that I read Ali Farka Touré used (for guitar nerds: tuning the low E up to G). The main riff came to me pretty quickly, and the lyrics followed. I had some upcoming tour dates opening for Steve Gunn across Europe, where I was able to try the song out live. It felt right, and people responded kindly – so I knew, when planning for recording, that the song had a central place on the record. It was really fun to work out the groove and feel of this track in the studio with Amy Godwin (vocals), Chris Icasiano (drums) and Trevor Spencer (bass). We wanted to build a kind of forward momentum, a rising energy, over the course of the song. Then Morgan Henderson’s woodwind parts and Willem de Koch and Chloe Rowland’s trumpet parts really added a transportive and contemplative dimension to the instrumental breaks, rounding out the track.
What is something that you like about this song that you hope your fans will take away from it?
I think it’s one of the more groove-centered songs on the record, and I particularly enjoy how Amy Godwin’s vocal part skates in and out of the song’s verses to build the dynamic arc of the track. Amy’s an incredible singer and dear friend; we’ve been collaborating on recordings since 2010! I hope people will enjoy her vocal parts on this song and the whole record as much as I do.
What led you to working with Syd Butler and Frenchkiss Records? Which Frenchkiss albums are must-owns for you?
This will be my second record with Frenchkiss, and I’m really honored to be a part of the roster and ongoing story of the label. I became aware of the label many years ago as a listener when I was simultaneously enjoying records by The Dodos, The Antlers, and Local Natives, and I realized they were all released by Frenchkiss. I met Syd and Paul in 2018 through a mutual friend and had a chance to hang out with them for a day or two in LA soon after I had finished recording my last album, Rhododendron. I was over the moon when they said they wanted to release that record, and it’s been a joy working with them since. Definitely have a lot of love and gratitude for those guys!
If I had to pick an all-timer Frenchkiss release, it would probably be Visiter by the Dodos. That record has been really inspiring to me as a guitar player and, compositionally, it was one of the records that pointed me towards lots of other music, such as West African guitar and kora music, desert blues, and Ethiopian jazz that I have grown to love and be inspired by in recent years. I’ve also really enjoyed Eleanor Friedberger’s last two records; I think Eleanor’s a great songwriter and those records create a very cool, inviting atmosphere.
What are you looking forward to in 2021? Are you confident live music will start up again soon?
Well, I don’t know if I’m confident about much right now, but I’m hopeful for live music coming back later in 2021 with recent vaccine developments. We’ll see!
I’ve always loved playing shows, but I don’t think I realized until they suddenly stopped altogether how much live music has been a source of community, joy, and connection in my life. I’m really missing it.
In terms of what I’m looking forward to in 2021…many things! 2020 was a very strange year for me, in addition to the pandemic, because I spent the year project managing a major construction/renovation project on our house in Columbia. When we moved here, we bought a 1930’s downtown house that was affordable but needed a lot of work….so in the absence of shows, that house renovation project became my primary occupation. It was nice to have a project that was forward-looking amidst the pandemic stasis, and I learned a ton, but it’s also been quite overwhelming!
We finished all the work up a few weeks ago, and I feel like I’m starting the new year living in a space where I can finally be at peace to write and play music. So I’m looking forward to getting back in a regular flow of songwriting. I’m also excited to explore parks and natural spaces around the Carolinas that I haven’t seen or been to in a while.
On that academic side of things, I’m teaching a geography class online and working towards (finally!) completing my dissertation this spring. Defending the dissertation is something that I’m very much looking forward to, hopefully followed later in the year by lots of shows, if/when that’s a safe thing to do!