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Stay Folky

January 16, 2009, 12:00 am
By SFR Staff
Isaac Gillespie: 1971
Self-released, 2008

What would happen if Arlo Guthrie and the Band had a baby that then hung out with  James Taylor and listened to a lot of Old Crow Medicine Show and sometimes rode the bus with Don DiLego while playing Nashville Skyline on its iPod? Isaac Gillespie's 1971 would happen, that's what.

The album is a mix of comfortable folk songs about death, women, friends, love, heartbreak, traveling and friends. 1971 is a 13-song collection featuring Gillespie's homey, nasaly voice often harmonizing with itself, singing folky story-songs over a twanging guitar. All in all, pure gold. The intimately-recorded self-released gem introduces us to Gillespie, who comes across as utterly genuine, super friendly and immensely talented.

Full disclosure: I grew up with Isaac Gillespie. All through high school he was involved in one music project or another. When I was 15 or 16, I took part in one of his creations, a relatively large band called the Hobo Blues Tribe.

As the name suggests, we had a gimmick. We all dressed like homeless people. Hobos, if you will. And by “we all” I refer, of course, to the band members – which included approximately two guitarists, a bassist, two drummers, two backup singers (one of whom was me) and a horn section with a trumpet, tenor sax, trombone and at least one other instrument I'm not thinking of. Then there was Isaac's mom with the video camera at all our gigs. For a high school band, it was pretty intense.

So you can imagine the spectacle when we all traipsed onstage in our ripped-up windbreakers, skullcaps, torn-out jeans and fingerless gloves. We specialized in classic rock – lots of Isley Brothers, Van Morrison, Joe Cocker and the like, and I lent my voice to a few Aretha Franklin tunes. I'll have you know that we won the 2002 Chatham High School First Annual Talent Show (the prize of which was a $25 gift certificate to a local record shop – that amounted to about $3 for each band member). We also recorded a CD in Isaac's garage. I never did get my hands on a copy, but I bet it was good.

Fast-forward 9 years and Isaac has made his debut onto iTunes. I knew I had to shell out for 1971. So rather than pontificate on the album, I thought I'd let Isaac do the talking. Er, typing. He was kind enough to answer my inquiries via email from his home in New York City.

What artists, past or present, have most shaped your sound?

It's a little embarrassing to admit that deep down I'm a child of the 60's.  When I was in eighth grade I stayed home sick from school and watched my parents' VHS of Woodstock and my life has never been the same.
But more specifically I'm really interested in the intersection of folk/country music and soul. Where Otis Redding meets Hank Williams. And to me, recently, that means the Band. I've just been listening to the Band non-stop for the last year or so.  Between Richard Manuel's sweet soul growl and Levon Helm's howlin country bark and Rick Danko's weezy sincerity. It's just perfect.

I also want to give a quick shout out to some of the amazing unsigned artists in the New York scene right now. Benjamin Shepherd is the most talented songwriter that I know of right now anywhere at all. And Alisha Westerman is also a phenomenal songwriter who will be all over the place as soon as they put one of her songs on the O.C. or some VW commercial.

There's a kind of deceiving simplicity in your songs. On first listen they sound like classic folk tunes. On second listen the layers come out. Did this take a lot of toggling?

That's the nice thing about recording digitally is that you have the freedom just to play with lots of sounds and find something that you really like. That's what Brian Wilson used to do with the Beach Boys but it was costing a fortune since they had to pay for all that tape.
One of my favorite little happy accidents was the keyboard part on “Takin' A Vacation.”  I had this sound in my mind but I just couldn't get it down right. I had spent the whole afternoon recording take after take of keyboard parts for this song. And then I had to go through all of what I'd recorded to pick one take. It was just a process of going through and listening to the whole song with one version of the keyboard part turned on and then listening to the whole thing again with the next take. It was a tedious process and it wasn't going very well.

I was getting pretty frustrated to the point where I wasn't really paying attention to what I was doing and I accidentally left two of the keyboard takes on at the same time. It was like a revelation! I hadn't meant to do it at all but by using two takes together I'd created this sort of lush Garth Hudson texture. And ultimately that's what you hear on the album.

Why 1971? You weren't even alive in 1971.

To me, 1971 represents a transition between two eras. It's like a building year. By 1971, it's clear to everyone that the 60's are definitively over but it doesn't seem like the 70's have really yet begun. And so everyone just took the year off and stayed home. It was like 1971 was like taking a breather on a macrocosmic scale.

So musically what that means is that a whole lot of great but modest records were made. The Band's Cahoots, Sly & the Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On, Don McLean's American Pie, Joni Mitchell's Blue. All these albums that were infused with a real intimacy and sadness. This is the year where Hunter Thompson says that, “with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark... where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

I think there's a kind of a parallel, too, between that time and the period that this album was made. All the songs from this album were written between 2005 and November 2008. It's sort of the great George Bush hangover. I think by the time Katrina had come and gone even the people who voted for him knew we were just waiting for the next guy for any sort of progress to happen. I think even Bush felt that. To me that's 1971. It's a holding pattern where you sit in the corner and think about what you did.

There are a few live tracks. Where were they recorded?

All the live tracks were recorded at the Sidewalk Cafe on New York's Lower East Side. It's this funky little backroom of a bar/restaurant but they've got the oldest (and best) open mic in New York. A typical Monday night starts at 7:30 and lets out just after three.  And during that time you'll hear everything and fall in love at least twice.

And a ton of people have come out of that scene from Regina Spektor and Jeff Buckley to the Moldy Peaches and Jeffrey Lewis. But that's sort of become home base for me and all the live stuff comes from shows I've played there.

Speaking of recording, how did you record this? And where were the studio tracks taped?

I think I should be sponsored by Apple or something because I did all the studio stuff myself on my macbook with Garage Band in my bedroom. I'm like the poster child for the iLife product suite with this album.

I actually started the project by recording a bunch of guitar/vocal tracks alone in this cavernous warehouse space in Harlem on Labor Day. And then spent the rest of the fall experimenting with different sounds in my apartment. Then in October I took them to my older brother who is a brilliant and talented sound engineer who programs high-end guitar pedals for rock stars like the Mars Volta. He sort of helped me make sense of what I had recorded.

How long has this album been in the makings?

About half of the songs come from an intense period of writing in '05-'06 and then the other half have all been written in the past six months along with all the recording. In the middle time I was a TV producer and made documentaries about Justin Timberlake.

If you could have been born in a state other than New Jersey, which would you have chosen and why?

I would love to have been born in the great volunteer state of Tennessee. Or maybe West Texas. The flamboyant lawlessness of Louisiana has always been appealing. I love the surreal landscapes of Utah and of course the great and varied state of New Mexico. Basically anywhere except Maryland. I had to take a trip once as a child to the Baltimore Aquarium and it scarred me for life.

I actually have a song for the next album about a trip I took to a very small town outside of Albuquerque called Jemez Pueblo. And that brings us to Neil Young's “Albuquerque.” That's a great song.

I've always known you as Tim. When and why did you shift to Isaac?

I started using my middle name when I went off to college. I mean it's a no-brainer, just do the comparison: McVeigh/LaHaye/Allen vs. Newton/Asimov/Hayes. What would you do?

“Fruitless Reckonings.” Oh, “Fruitless Reckonings.” That song is so beautiful. Say something about it.

What should I say? Fruitless Reckonings comes from a feeling of ‘What if the person that you broke up with for very good reasons was actually your only chance at fulfillment and salvation?' Like you were on the happiness train and then you got off.

I mean it's an absurd feeling but it's one we all have. So I think there's an implied sense of self-mockery. Like it's really ridiculous that I feel all wistful about this person but I do feel this way so there it is. A fruitless reckoning.

Was I your favorite member of the Hobo Blues Tribe? You can tell the truth.

Anything else would be an obvious fabrication.

 

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