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Matt Conner

writer, music journalist

Matt Conner is a freelance writer and journalist who has interviewed nearly everyone who has ever played music. That isn't entirely true.

SSv Interview: Hem

[In the summer of 2007, I launched a music site called Stereo Subversion for the sole purpose of helping to promote and explore what I termed "Meaningful Music." The goal was to highlight artists crafting substantive content and/or imaginative concepts. Six years later, the same is true. Here's a recent interview that illustrates just that.]

For those who tried to read between the lines on Hem’s latest album, Departure and Farewell, you likely hit the nail on the head. Over the last decade-plus, the Brooklyn-based band has released several beautiful folk albums to great acclaim. But everything has a life cycle, and Hem nearly completed their own.

Death, it seems, was a necessary consideration to bring new life, and Departure and Farewell is a goodbye in name only. Hem’s Gary Maurer and Dan Messe recently sat down with Stereo Subversion to discuss the latest album and how they nearly walked away from it all.

SSv: It’s been a long time between records, what has happened in that time?

Dan: Well, I think what happened was, we were thinking Hem had run its course after Twelfth Night(2009’s record of instrumental accompaniment to a Shakespearean production) and were just interested in wrapping things up in a big bow. And so we decided to call the recordDeparture and Farewell. Really making something that was a good summation of our career. And in the course of making this “ending,” I actually started using pills, I actually got addicted to them. And the band completely exploded. I basically poisoned the entire well where we couldn’t even finish the final record. We were just going to walk away at one point. That’s true right Gary?

Gary: Yes, clearly for several months [the record] was not going to get done.

Dan: And it languished like that until I hit bottom and asked for help, then the band started to heal. And all of the sudden there was a rebirth, not just in terms of my own health but also in terms of the love we have for each other and the love we have for the music we make together and how grateful we are. It started out as a swan song and became a rebirth.

SSv: Is it strange or painful to make this a part of the new record’s story, or are you comfortable talking about it?

Dan: I’m not comfortable talking about it at all, but it’s such a part of the album. We write songs that are not confessional but they are autobiographical. So we tend to write in metaphor about experiences that we go through in our life. We could have taken this part out and just been vague about it: ‘We had troubles and we got over it.’[Laughs]

Gary: It would have been easy to make up a whole other story because there actually have been a lot of other changes since (2006’s) Funnel Cloud. We could have just pretended, like Dan said.

Dan: I think in the spirit of this second chance, it really is a miracle, and I wanted to honor that. And also, you are able to recover—or find recovery at all—when you are at a point when you’re completely hopeless and lost everything. And you want to share the story so that someone else might hear it and find their own way back. You feel responsible for other people going through it. So we just decided, as a band, it would be ok to talk about.

You can read the rest of the interview over at Stereo Subversion.

Take Up Your Spade

On a recent afternoon, I had the chance to break bread with several friends here in Nashville. (Actually, we broke chicken tenders.) The conversation was lively, but it was the lingering moments outside, after nearly everyone had left, that stirred me most.

Russ Ramsey asked me what I was writing lately, and instead of answering the question, I updated him on the latest freelance assignments I’d been given. He politely listened to my answer and then asked me again, “What have you been writing lately?” I told him about the essays and ideas I’d been planning to write as soon as I cleared my slate. Simply put, I gave him an embarrassingly short progress report.

After lunch, I went back to the Rabbit Room office and sat down with Pete Peterson to discuss some future ventures for the site. The conversation turned again to my own writing and the exact same thing happened, another gentle nudge reminding me to dig for what is meaningful. Twice in the same day, I’d had someone push me to move beyond immediate tasks for the sake of something meaningful.

Easter & Expectations

Ever since my wife and I set our sights on moving to Nashville several months ago, I couldn’t wait to get here. Expectations of new friendships and opportunities brought hope after a frustrating and lonely year of wading through vocational changes wondering where the next steps would lead us. I knew a change in location was not a cure-all, but still, I couldn’t wait. I was ready to go.

Yet after several weeks in Nashville, life is beginning to become routine. We’re finding a new rhythm. We love our new house, our new life, our new schedule, but we also find a lot of it is familiar. We’re still the same people with the same habits, the same pressures, the same likes and dislikes. The new scenery is lovely, but the sheen on our new environment is beginning to fade. The experience was really about the expectation more than the lived-out reality.

I’m convinced that we live more through our expectations than we do through our actual lives. It’s the expectation of what is to come that gives us hope in the current moment, and it’s the dashed expectation that ruins long stretches of our existence. Think about this for a second.

How many days do we spend simply holding out for the upcoming vacation? How many weeks are spent working for the weekend? How many months are simply the precursor to the birth, to the wedding, to the holidays? I find this happening all the time in my own life, whether it’s an upcoming concert, a reunion with friends, an opportunity to travel abroad, or even the chance to get back inside a really compelling book. We lose the current moment in anticipation of moments to come.

Josh Garrels: The Sea In Between

Josh Garrels: The Sea In Between – Trailer from Mason Jar Music on Vimeo.

For most of the last decade, Josh Garrels has created his intriguing blend of folk and hip-hop in strict isolation—whether holed up at John Dillinger’s former home in central Indiana or sequestered away in a bedroom of his own. The results speak for themselves: a beautiful discography that has cemented Garrels as a truly independent artist.

On his most recent full-length album, Love & War & the Sea In Between, Garrels opened up the creative process to include some friends in a collective known as Mason Jar Music. A group of NYU and Julliard alumni, Mason Jar Music previously backed Garrels on a takeaway show featuring his song “Words Remain.” It was the beginning of a relationship that continued with Mason Jar’s production of a few of the tracks on Love & War and eventually blossomed to include tour dates and a brand new documentary, The Sea In Between.

Mountains, Hills, and the Inequality of Men

Not all men are created equal.

The phrase sounds odd, but for me it rings true. I’ve been turning it over in my head in recent days and weeks as I’ve reflected upon my own story and absorbed the journeys of close friends. Together they reveal the truth about the statement oft cited that tells us that the opposite is true.

Of course, we all value the belief that we are all on a level playing field, and I will admit the lens through which you view that phrase will change the way you measure it. But in the real world in which we live and move, work and play, step up and back down, we are definitely anything but equal.

***

This entire last year has informed the lesson I’ve learned about (in)equality. A few months ago, some of our closest friends gave birth to a beautiful baby girl troubled by multiple medical issues. Their lives since this moment have been a rollercoaster both inside and out with a whirlwind of emotions accompanying a constant rotation of appointments, tests, and results. Even now there are more questions than answers.

Madeleine L’Engle On The Relationship of Truth & Fantasy

For many of us, Madeleine L’Engle has been a foundational author and speaker in our understanding of truth and culture. Five years after her death, her works still speak profoundly to me, and I recently took in Walking On Water yet again for, I believe, the fifth time. Whether you’re a fan of her masterwork A Wrinkle in Time or love her poetry (a personal fave is A Cry Like A Bell), L’Engle’s impact spans the globe and several generations.

Here’s a great hour-long talk from The Veritas Forum in ’98, in which she discusses the relationship between truth and fantasy:

 

Environmental Friction

Every year, there was a slight exodus from the church that I pastored. Typically around the beginning of summer, a few members of our community, largely comprised of 18- to 35-year-olds, would venture out for the Great Plan that lay before them. It was a sad yet expected time and the transient nature of our community became a part of the ethos of our church.

While that segment of the population is bent toward mobility across the board, there was always a cross-section of our congregation in search of an easier time of things. Our part of the country (a post-industrial Midwestern small town) is notoriously difficult to find jobs within. The city itself lacks any real cultural options, the educational system is a complete disaster, and local bureaucracy features the same small-town politicans trading the mayoral seat every other election.

In short, there’s a lot of environmental friction here.

A Midwife of Ideas

Giving birth should be your greatest achievement not your greatest fear.” -Jane Weideman

I’m a bit perplexed — perhaps even unsettled — about why the word picture of a midwife remains so striking to me. I’m not even the right gender, nor do I have any children. Yet for some reason the metaphor has stuck ever since first hearing it on a road trip.

My wife Lindsay and I recently set out to join the extended family for a weekend of fishing, boating, and swimming. With several hours to pass, my wife hit up the local library for a few audio books and started with Discover Your Genius by Michael J. Gelb. It’s a book intended to motivate the creative drive of the listener/reader by pulling out insights from some of the greatest “geniuses” in history.

In the very beginning, as Gelb is describing Socrates and Plato and their continuing influence on the world, a passage jumped out at me and it’s remained with me ever since. Gelb says that that Socrates thought of himself as a “midwife of ideas.”

RR Interview: Andy Osenga Talks Leonard

[Editor's note: Today is the final day to buy the Rabbit Room exclusive pre-release of Leonard, the Lonely Astronaut.]

If it seems the Rabbit Room has been abuzz with a lot of new music lately, that’s because two of our favorite artists have just released their best albums to date within a short span of each other. Both Eric Peters and Andy Osenga have graced our ears with beautiful, inspiring albums in the last few weeks that we just can’t get enough of. For Peters, Birds of Relocation is a hopeful, joyous refrain that warrants repeated listens. For Osenga, Leonard, the Lonely Astronaut finally showcases the fantastic rock artist that had yet to emerge — all encased in a sci-fi theme, of course.

We recently took some time out to talk to Osenga about his new record and what it meant to finally release an album comprised of music he’d want to listen to. Osenga’s journey is a frightening but compelling one about the freedom of realizing that you can’t please everyone. In the process, he’s crafted his finest music yet.

Matt Conner: It seems the overall buzz is that this is your best album yet, and I would have to agree wholeheartedly. This is a great album, but I’m curious about your take. I’m sure it’s hard to say that an entire collection is better or the best.

On Background Music

The “Plays” category of my iTunes and Spotify lists fails to adequately represent my musical tastes. While I would claim Radiohead (circa ’97-07) as my there’s-a-gun-to-your-head-so-pick-one-now musical favorite, it’s not even a fair fight between the most-played artist among my list of albums. That title belongs to Ólafur Arnalds.

Sometimes I might listen to Arvo Pärt. Other times, Sigur Rós hits the spot. Mostly, however, Arnalds fits the bill. Any time I write, which these days is most of the time, Arnalds is the background music of choice, the lingering arrangements perfectly framing thoughts and phrases as they come or soothing me when they fail to arrive.

For those who are unaware, Arnalds is a mid-20s Icelandic composer and I wanted to pass this along to you as a gift from my background to yours. I’ve a near-borderline obsession with anything Scandinavian/Icelandic when it comes music, but I believe anyone will appreciate the mood created by the simple recordings of Living Room Songs. All of the tracks are free downloads offering snapshots of the quick takes he put together in his tiny Icelandic apartment.

But this is not just a post about free music. Instead, since this is a community made up of so many artists and appreciators, I’m assuming that we all have our favorite background music. To that end, I’d love to hear your favorites. For such a prominent aspect of our creative lives, it’s something rarely discussed. Do you have a favorite way to fill the silence or do you prefer to avoid any unnecessary noise?

“Þú ert sólin”
by Ólafur Arnalds
from …and they have escaped the weight of darkness

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