Travel To A Place Of Empathy

By Christopher Hislop

Gabriel Kahane is a man who never stops creating. Seriously – look him up. He’ll be making an appearance at 3S Artspace on Saturday, Sept. 15 in support of his latest marvel, “Book of Travelers,” which is a record he created from the inspiration he gathered traveling around the country beginning the day after the 2016 presidential election. He opted to travel without access to phone or internet and instead collected stories from strangers – closely listening to what they had to say and share.

EDGE caught up with Kahane to learn a bit more about the ambitious project and what he enjoys about taking to the road to present these songs.

EDGE: You’ve made a lot of records over the years, with those collective experiences in mind, what were the goals behind this one? Was it more or less difficult to make?

Kahane: “Book of Travelers” was a fundamentally different endeavor than any recording project I’ve embarked upon in the past, but in some ways, it represents the continuation of a trajectory I’ve been on for a while, and that’s the trajectory of research-based art.

My previous album, “The Ambassador,” was a study of Los Angeles through the lens of ten street addresses, and involved a fair amount of research — getting to know Los Angeles literature, history, politics, architecture, film, etc. But just about all of that research was second-hand. It grew out of an emotional fascination with the texture of the city, and it is a personal album that I remain fond of, but it’s also somewhat cerebral.

With “Book of Travelers,” the nature of my research changed fundamentally. On the heels of a lot of touring with Punch Brothers, I had been working on a passel of songs dealing with travel in a more abstract, historically-minded way — looking at the way in which travel transformed from a religious endeavor (pilgrimages) to a mode of edification (the grand tour in Europe in the 18th century) to leisure in the 19th century (as factory owners realized that their employees would do better work if they were given time off) and then finally looping back to the religious, or at least spiritual, in the way that the national park system in this country, the way it’s written about, is encoded with religious or spiritual themes. “Come find God in the trees!”, etc.

But I felt compelled to humanize, to personalize all of this, and I kept coming back to the idea that I should take a trip of my own to serve as some kind of framework for the sixteen or so songs I’d written. This coincided with the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, and, like many other Americans, I was struck by how naked the rift in the body politic had become that summer. I wanted to get outside my NYC cosmopolitan bubble and talk to people, not as a means of dismissing legitimate and sometimes life-or-death differences, but to explore the possibility that those differences were being amplified by the digital space, and by an industry that profits from our division. And so I set out to kill two birds with one stone: to plan a trip that would become the narrative frame for a bunch of songs I’d already written on the subject of travel, and to explore America at a particular fraught moment in our country’s history.

Of course, fate had its own agenda. The election didn’t turn out how I’d thought it would, and so I found myself turned upside down as I set out for Penn Station on Nov. 9, 2016. I ended up tossing three quarters of the material I’d written before the trip, and more or less began again, using the 70,000-word diary I kept during my trip as a rough guide for the songs I would write over the next several months.

Then the recording of the album presented its own challenges: to make a long story short, some false starts with respect to the scale of the album (as far as instrumentation was concerned) finally led me to hunker down in Tony Berg’s studio in LA for a few days, each in August and September, recording with only a piano and my voice. The recording process itself was fairly straightforward, particularly compared to previous albums of mine, but I think it’s fair to say that getting to the ten songs that make up the album was a bit of a challenge.

EDGE: How’d you get hooked up with Nonesuch Records? What has their response been like to “Book”? Are they into it?

Kahane: I’d met Brad Mehldau at a house party on the Upper West Side when I was 22 or 23, and he became an early advocate of my songwriting, which, as a total superfan of his, meant the world to me. He brought me to a Jon Brion show at the now defunct club, Tonic, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he introduced me to Bob Hurwitz, then president (now emeritus) of Nonesuch. I think either Brad or I slipped an early demo of mine to him, and thus began a more than decade-long courtship that finally came to fruition last fall. There was a near miss back in 2011, when Bob had expressed strong interest in putting out "Where Are the Arms," after which I ended up signing with Sony Masterworks for a short-lived deal that wasn’t really the right fit. When I sent seven rough mixes to Hurwitz last September on a whim, I wasn’t expecting much. But he wrote back a few days later and asked to have lunch, which I knew from previous experience meant he was interested. He offered to put it out on the spot without having heard the rest of the album, which was hugely validating. I think Nonesuch feels energized about the response to the record so far. It feels like a “little engine that could.” I love working with the people there. They are all so deeply passionate about what they do, and it’s a dream to be on a roster with so many artists I admire.

EDGE: Do you recommend traveling without the crutch of a cellular device? I mean, on the surface it seems kind of silly to ask this because it wasn’t all that long ago that it was the norm. That said, smartphones and the like have been the norm for a decade plus, and for the younger generation, it’s all they know and trying to navigate daily life without it would seem like a crazy thought.

Kahane: Absolutely. I am, like everyone else, totally addicted to my phone. But there have been lengthy periods over the last five years where I’ve put plans in place to kind of detox or moderate my use of the internet/social media, etc., and I always find that the quality of my thinking, and the quality of my attention to other people, immediately improves. One of the things that I particularly lament about the smartphone age is the sense of being unmoored when you wake up in a strange place. There have been certain tours where I will turn off my phone before I go to sleep and then when I wake up, I just wander the streets of whatever town or city I’m in, and figure out where to have coffee or breakfast by smell rather than using Yelp or some other digital aid. This sounds totally banal, but I don’t think I can overstate the value of waking up somewhere unfamiliar and allowing oneself to be overwhelmed by the sense of not knowing. In a different way, I try to do this at home, too. Because a great deal of my work is creative, I’m able to decide when to be available digitally. My most productive periods have often been those where I stick to a rigorous schedule during which I only check email once a day and keep my phone off from the time I go to sleep ‘til about 4 p.m. But it’s really hard to stick to that when you’re trying to promote a record. So I’m still working it out.

But there are much broader consequences to our blind acceptance of our digital tools. I think most crucially there’s this dogma that anything that’s efficient is axiomatically good, and I want to challenge that. The first song on the record, whose lyrics are pretty elliptical, contains a number of references to clocks. I became, while working on this record, somewhat obsessed with the idea put forward by Lewis Mumford in his book “Technics and Civilization” that the clock, much more than the steam engine, is the signal development in setting in motion the machine age, for, he argues, “the clock synchronized the actions of men.” I’m really interested in pushing back against the idea that efficiency is always good. There are some things in life that really want to marinate, that require time to blossom. Among them, I think, would be the categories of imagination and empathy. I think that a huge part of our empathy deficit, on a national level, has to do not just with the fact that we represent ourselves online by faceless avatars in the digital realm, but that we are too distracted and fragmented to have the bandwidth to conceive of someone else’s point of view.

EDGE: Is songwriting an easy or arduous process for you? It seems like the content flows right out of you given the commanding catalog you’ve built up in a relatively short amount of time. That said, are you the type of writer that carries around a notebook and makes things happen on the spot, or do you have to schedule “office hours” when it comes to the act of putting pen to paper?

Kahane: All of the above! Sometimes things come out whole — “Baltimore,” “What If I Told You,” and “Little Love” are all songs that took a single day to write. But others on this record were more tortured. “8980,” which sounds fairly simple, went through something like 20 drafts of lyrics, and the music changed along the way as well. Editing is a huge part of my process, and the ability to discard material is something that’s really important to me. The tricky part is striking the balance between trusting your first instinct and knowing when to dig deeper for something better.

EDGE: Music. Why do you seek it? Why do you create it?

Kahane: For me, music and storytelling are inextricably linked. Whether I’m writing for an orchestra or a song for me and a banjo, I think it’s all driven, to a certain extent, by my interest in processing my experience of the world into stories.

And I think, increasingly, I’m trying to use my work as a means of opening people up, emotionally, to perspectives that might be alien to them. There’s something interesting to me about the way that the first person “I” shifts relatively frequently in songs. In "Book of Travelers," you’re often left to imagine, say, race, ethnicity, gender, at the same time that you’re being drawn into an intimate story. And I think the fact that those aspects of identity are rendered invisible by the form of songwriting — i.e., that it’s not a visual medium — is perhaps part of what enables the act of empathy to occur more readily.

EDGE: Theater. You do a lot of work in and for the theater. What got you interested in theater? How does theatrer inspire your songwriting? How does songwriting inform the way you approach the writing you do for theatrical performance?

Kahane: I think this dovetails pretty well from the question above. For me, I don’t necessarily distinguish between theater and music. All performance is spectacle in some sense, and it’s just a question of ratios. The thing that’s radically different in songwriting for theater versus songwriting that’s intended for an album is that in the theater, you really need to get your point across in real time — the viewer can’t move the needle back and listen to the track again. They’ve just gotta get the information as it’s happening. So I think this leads, in theatrical songwriting, to go for tighter rhymes, and to be less impressionistic lyrically. But I don’t believe in orthodoxies, and sometimes I’ve ignored that ... and similarly, I think that my work in the theater has probably led me to value clarity in my pop songwriting such that the stories that I tell can be extremely specific, perhaps less elliptical than what you might expect from a pop record. It’s a balancing act.

EDGE: Fiona Apple, Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird, Brad Mehldau, Chris Thile, Beck’s “Song Reader” project ... You’ve done some serious work with some well-known artists. What do you enjoy about collaborating with your peers? How does collaboration help fuel your own creativity?

Kahane: Collaboration is just deeply energizing, particularly when you spend, as I do, a lot of time alone. I learn so much from my peers about my shortcomings as a musician, and I think that creating with other people is a really great way to dismantle the myth of the lone genius. I think most great art, in some sense, comes out of a community.

EDGE: I’d love to hear more about all the commissioned work you get for different orchestras and symphonies. Is it easier to write instrumental compositions vs. lyric-based songs? Is it a different mindset completely or does it all come from the same place?

Kahane: As I said before when talking about why I make music, it’s basically all in service of storytelling. Ninety percent of what I do in the orchestral world involves text — I just did a big piece for the Oregon Symphony called “emergency shelter intake form,” for full orchestra, four soloists and a community chorus comprised of folks who’ve had experiences with housing insecurity and homelessness, which was essentially the prompt for the commission. That piece premiered in May, and then we recorded it in Portland last week for release sometime next year. In a way, it’s very much connected to “Book of Travelers” inasmuch as it speaks to our empathy gap as it relates to those experiencing poverty in this country. So even though I’m writing for 80 musicians, I’m still working out the same conundrum from a thematic standpoint.

EDGE: You’re heading to New Hampshire to play a gig at 3S Artspace here in Portsmouth. Have you spent much time here in the Granite State? What excites you about the show?

Kahane: I’ve spent two stretches on the other side of New Hampshire at the MacDowell Colony, which I can only describe as “my happy place.” So I’m really looking forward to returning to the Granite State. This album is a conflicted love letter slash list of grievances to and about America, and I’m thrilled to be singing from it anywhere that’ll have me.

EDGE: In general, do you enjoy touring and meeting more and more “strangers”? Do you tour exclusively by train?

Kahane: I do enjoy touring. I started relatively late, so I haven’t gotten sick of it yet! I tour exclusively by carrier pigeon.

EDGE: What can folks expect when they come out to see you play?

Kahane: I hope folks will experience a pretty diverse evening from an emotional standpoint. In addition to the songs from the new record and back catalog, I’m also going to sing some new jams from what I’m calling volume one of “Twitterkreis,” or “twitter cycle," which are musical settings of tweets I started writing after finishing the housing insecurity and deep poverty piece this spring. I just needed a palate cleanser and needed to make myself laugh.

EDGE: What do you hope people take with them when they experience “Book of Travelers” in a live setting or in the recorded format?

Kahane: I hope people will be moved by the stories I’m telling.

And more broadly:

This is a little bit of a rehash of some things I’ve written above, but basically, I think we are experiencing a massive empathy deficit in this country. A lot has been reduced to false binaries. We live in a country that is poisoned by systemic racism, sexism and xenophobia on the one hand. On the other hand, it’s the case that a huge part of our economy has been hollowed out over the last 40 years at the same time that wages have remained stagnant. So you dangle the red meat of racial animus in front of folks who are looking for someone to blame for their struggles, and you (and by you I mean the kleptocratic ruling class) do that to distract people from the real source of their pain, which is an economy that is fundamentally rigged against them due to inequities in tax policy and the gutting of the social safety net over the last 30 years — you do all of that, and it’s no wonder you arrive at a moment where ethno-nationalism rears its terrifying head.

I want people to slow down. I want them to interrogate systems, not symptoms. We need to zoom out and look at how we got to this moment, not simply rage against every bad act. It’s only if we have the audacity to simultaneously fight for justice for all on the one hand, while also acknowledging the pain of those who seem to be pushing us in the wrong direction, that we can actually heal as a country — at least that’s what I believe.

 

Go & Do

What: Gabriel Kahane in concert with "8980: Book of Travelers"

When: 7 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 15; doors open 6 p.m.

Where: The Gallery at 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth

Tickets:$18, members; $20, in advance; $22, day of show, available at www.3Sarts.org

More info: All ages, seated show. Visit www.3Sarts.org

 

 

 

Source : http://www.fosters.com/news/20180913/travel-to-place-of-empathy

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