It’s the place few want to visit, and if they do, being honest enough to reveal what happens there is a task not many are suited for. But for Chris Stamey, his new album Lovesick Blues is “the closest I've ever gotten to the sound I hear in my head in the middle of the night.”
What has resulted is a plaintive and personal collection that still has enough bright moments to give hope to the brokenhearted, all with the brain-embedding hooks that have been Stamey’s trademark for decades. And as far as he’s concerned, this was the right time for such an album.
“Our world has become increasingly visually-fixated,” said Stamey. “If we aren't traveling in cars, with ever shifting vistas, we are planted in front of screens, flitting between fluttering images. I'm no different, I live in that world, too, but I do love the dark. When the sun's down and the lights are off, it's easier to change ‘hearing’ into ‘listening,’ where the difference is in the quality of attention paid. My pitch imagination has grown more specific over the years. I wasn't referring, poetically, to the sound of desolation, but to more of a fantasia. Oddly enough, I think it's also easy to imagine music sitting in noisy restaurants or bars, the ambient clatter turns into xylophones and timpani and guitar harmonics.”
And while Stamey does hit several intimate notes lyrically throughout, not to worry, the 58-year-old North Carolina native is doing fine these days on the personal front.
“I was very influenced by an interview that Terry Gross did with Nick Lowe, on Fresh Air, where he said - and I'm definitely paraphrasing here - that he wasn't heartbroken, but he could remember what it was like,” he said. “I think I'd felt it was disingenuous to write about sad times if I wasn't living them now, but like all of us, I can remember times of despair, and hearing Lowe say that was liberating, even if it seems obvious. I live in hope these days, though.”
That’s not surprising, considering that he’s still on top of his game musically and lyrically. It’s not a claim many who’ve been in the business this long can claim, but the dB’s founder has pulled it off. As for it getting easier as he goes along, Stamey says Lovesick Blues was smooth sailing.
“This was an easy record to make, as they go,” he said. “Producer Jeff Crawford and I decided to record my parts first, then augment them as needed to get the sense or meaning across, however you define that. Usually there's a ‘monster at the foot of the bed’ with record-making. You start with the adventure, but by the time it comes to sing the final lyrics, you're boxed in and perhaps some of the decisions – about key / timbre / tempo / arranging - no longer are valid. So this was an easy one, in that regard. We started with the end and then made the beginning fit. As far as writing goes, I think what's most important is to make room for it and make time for it, which I haven't always done. Doing the orchestrations has been a real learning experience, one I had to stretch to reach, and of course I'm still learning about that. But it's great fun to scratch some things down on paper and then get to hear it turned by a group of string players into the sound of fluttering birds or rampaging elephants or whatever else you can imagine.”
The fluttering birds are still a ways off in a New York City sitting in the heart of winter, and hopefully no rampaging elephants will be showing up, but other than that, the stage at Joe’s Pub is set for Stamey and his five piece group to arrive this Saturday, February 16th. For someone who spent several key years of his life in the Big Apple, it’s always a thrill for him to return.
“It's immensely invigorating to be back in New York,” he said. “Of course it's like the seashore: it's a beach that is shaped differently now from when I lived here; you turn your back for a minute and the Lower East Side has waved its arms and become transformed. I love North Carolina, but I always try my hardest in NYC. It's like standing on top of Everest. And a lot of these songs that are about Manhattan. I can't ever sing ‘Occasional Shivers,’ for example, without seeing certain West Village watering holes in my mind's eye. Being able to come back and play with friends like (cellist) Jane Scarpantoni on a song like ‘The Seduction,’ which I wrote specifically for her decades ago, and hear her soar through it, is particularly a thrill. Same goes for singing with (vocalist) Lydia Kavanagh (Golden Palominos). The musicians of NYC always remind me of why I do this.”
And if you think you’ve heard Stamey live before, you haven’t heard him like this, making a visit to 425 Lafayette Street even more imperative for longtime fans.
“Playing in this format - with cello, viola, violin, and piano, and without drums - is just fantastic, lots of shivers,” he said. “We have some really good charts now, and some great tunes for this ensemble. Most people have never heard me play like this, and I'm just really proud of the way it sounds. It is kind of kismet to be playing a release show for a record called Lovesick Blues just two days after Valentine's Day, don't you think? So that's got a lot of curb appeal for me, as well.”
Stamey’s return comes after a successful 2012 that saw the release of the first dB’s record in 25 years, Falling Off the Sky, and subsequent live dates with his old mates. Of the reunion, Stamey says “We had fun doing the shows, and of course Peter (Holsapple) has so many great songs, there's nothing like being in the center of them on a stage. It was also nice to have a new record of songs we liked to play. Of course the reunion thing can be a tight-fitting suit, but it was an honor to be invited to wear it.”
So is it safe to say that there won’t be another 25 years between dB’s albums?
“I don't know that I'd want to say that anything is safe, really,” said Stamey. “Always good to be on your toes, is my motto. But I can speak more easily for myself, to say I'm working on songs for another record of my own now, and I'm excited about this.”
And though it’s been a long journey since those early days in New York, it’s something that comes back to him as soon as he sets foot in the city.
“I got my first tape recorder on a trip to NYC, at the age of five, and recorded with it all the way through the night on the train back,” he said. “And I moved to town first and foremost because I had heard Television play, to an audience of three, right after CB's opened. It's always been at the top of the mountain to me, musically and artistically. But on the flip side, I do think great things can come from outside the city.”
Like North Carolina for example.
Chris Stamey plays Joe's Pub this Saturday, February 16. For tickets, click here