In a year that can be effortlessly defined by what was “supposed to be,” changes, destruction, and the hopeful shifting of perspectives, there’s hardly a more appropriate title for an album than What I Was and More, the new sophomore LP by Seattle, WA duo Elizabeth “Beth” Wesche and Darren Guyaz, known together as March to May. Premiering today on American Songwriter, What I Was and More, follows March to May’s 2017 debut Through the Night. The new 12 track LP takes the west coast band’s penchant for twisting the musical conventions of folk, pop, and chamber music, and proceeds to incorporate more conceptual reinvention – this time through the personal narratives of the songs themselves.
There’s an inherent
deceptiveness to the core elements of March to May’s latest project, as the
majority of Wesche and Guyaz’s instrumental toolkit – acoustic guitar, violin,
cello, harp, piano, bass, and percussion – present timbres that evoke
tonal lightness and emotional poise. The idea that What I Was and More takes the inherent delicacy of these
instruments and uses them to soundtrack stories of grossly challenging
proportions – alluding to events and contemplations people often have either
little to no control over and-or that require a commitment to full reevaluation
and reconstruction – makes for a cleverly contrasting record. What I Was an More knows how to present
tough topics in an aurally appealing and more mentally digestible way. The
album centers around the need for dismantling of what is, to move toward what
should be, either internally or externally in one’s life. And regardless of
whether the arrival of change is initially sparked by positive or negative
things, the overall goal is to engage in movement toward something new.
Prior to today’s premiere, March to May discussed how change and evolution shine through for each of them on What I Was and More andhow the added changes from the arrival of COVID-19 influenced their creative thought process around the album even further. The duo also highlight some of the finer artistic decisions behind select tracks on the album that showcase the band’s newest creative risks in particularly intriguing fashion.
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Beth Wesche: Creative destruction is a pretty powerful theme running through the album — realizing (willingly or not!) that certain things in your life are no longer working, and the process of tearing them down, figuring out what to keep and what to abandon, and building new, better things out of the parts that are left behind. That process can feel destructive, and can result in some pretty seismic changes in your external life. But it gives way to a resurgence of energy, transformation, and growth. With this album, we were interested in writing about what that process looks like internally — the back-and-forth you have in your head as you’re sorting out where you are and what to do next.
Music has a
funny way of being both a soundtrack and a mirror. We’ve always said that we
know we’ve gotten a song right when someone can listen to it and have it mean
something to them that’s completely different from what we were specifically
writing about when we created it. It means the song has become less about us
and more true to a universal tone that other people can relate to out of their
own lives and own experiences. So I guess most of all, we hope that our music
can be a catalyst and give voice to people’s experiences.
Darren Guyaz: We would love for the listener to take away a breath of inspiration with the reassurance that beneath the semblance of despondence and destruction lies the resurgence of growth and transformation. [Like Beth mentioned,] music is a mirror. What I Was and More invites the listener to see their own reflection, perhaps feeling the dichotomy between hope and despair, between loving and letting go; the liminal space that allows movement. If our music sweeps away the listener to a place that initiates an internal change, we’ve succeeded. Our utmost hope is that our music is catalytic: that it comforts those seeking change; warms the heart of those lost in the depths of their own distress; and gives a voice to those who need a lexicon that speaks to them unlike any other.
Wesche and Guyaz: “The Roses” is (a song) bookended by an Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet, and constructed like a palindrome — it unfolds itself, and then folds back up again, but not quite the way it started. Also, (listen for) that cello line!! It’s probably one of our favorite lines in the whole album. Originally, we’d thought about bringing in an electric guitar there, but our cellist had other ideas!
“Hylas” is loosely framed around the John William Waterhouse painting “Hylas and the Nymphs,” and the Greek myth it portrays. It’s the first time we’ve addressed emotions like bitterness and anger head on, and also the first time we’ve played the villain in one of our own songs. It was surprisingly empowering. But it’s also interesting because it captures something we really love about how songs can change their meaning over time, and how listeners can influence what we hear in the music, too. Shortly after we released the music video for the song in July, a friend watched it for the first time and said “I get it! It’s about mental health, isn’t it? It’s about someone’s relationship with depression and anxiety.” That’s not what we were thinking of when we wrote the song at all, but as soon as she said it, we knew she was right — it absolutely is about how the voices in our own heads can betray us and drag us down. And now that’s something the song means to us, as well.
We named (“Fin de Siecle”) after a literary and artistic time period at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, which was characterized by massive cultural, social, and economic upheaval and was very much the end of an era. When we wrote it, we were thinking about the rapid pace of societal change, and wanted to capture a feeling of recognizing that the tipping points for what you’re experiencing happened have passed; the time to go back is long gone, and now the only option left is to figure out a way forward. Covid-19 wasn’t on our radar at all when we wrote it, but it feels pretty relevant right now.
in the piano of “The Way We Love” made it deceptively hard to record. However,
the song itself is particularly meaningful to us; at the end of 2019 (which at
this point seems like an eternity ago), Beth had a breast cancer scare. While
it ultimately turned out to be a false alarm, The Way We Love came out of the experience as a kind of comfort,
but also as a fiercely loving, fiercely protective reminder of the ways in
which love buoys and strengthens us in the face of the unimaginable.
Wesche and Guyaz: (Amid the complications brought about by COVID-19) we have wavered over the past six months between feeling like (releasing What I Was an More) was the right thing to do and feeling that the timing is horrible. That said, we’ve come to realize the appropriateness of releasing the album now rather than waiting for COVID-19 to subside. Music has always been something that people turn to as a way to get through the bad times as well as the good; people need creativity, newness, and energy now as much as ever, if not more so.
This album, with its undertone of internal transformation, is maybe even more poignant. The pandemic has definitely made things more complicated. On one hand, we’ve been extraordinarily lucky (we finished recording the night before everything shut down here in Seattle, and detail after detail has miraculously fallen into place as we’ve mixed it, mastered it, and gotten it ready for release). That said, like every musician we know, we’ve had to shelve or completely reimagine many of our plans, or figure out how to do them on a shoestring budget and with as few people involved as possible. We’d originally had a large venue show scheduled in Seattle with our full band around the album release, as well as several tours in the east coast and in Europe. But as they say, the show must go on! The question has become more about how nimbly we can pivot.
The other interesting thing we’ve been managing with regard to our release is that Beth was accepted into a Master’s program at Oxford, so she’ll be in the UK for a year starting this fall. We’ve been coming up with different fun strategies for how to bridge the gap while she’s gone since before she even applied, so we’re not worried about it slowing us down (we’ve actually spent the summer working on some really neat projects that we’ll share more about over the course of this next year). That said, the pandemic has definitely forced us to get even more creative about how we connect, since our plans to travel back and forth will be a lot more limited and it’s obviously torpedoed the tours we had planned both here and in the US and abroad. But the funny thing about constraints is that they can force us to turn things on their head and come up with even better plans that we had in the first place. Oddly enough, quarantine has been a good training ground for the year to come — we’ve had to try new approaches to creating at a distance, and have gotten to the point where we think that working together across continents will be kind of fun!