Scattered pearls: interview with Casiotone For The Painfully Alone
There's sad and then there's crushing. Sad is something tragic you see on TV, a daunting statistic you read in the paper. It might sting for a second but then you change the channel. But crushing cuts deeper. It isn't sad in a general sense; it knows your name and leaves a mark. It's your secret suddenly rendered into words. It's your fear or your unfulfilled hope set to music. It's the mess of your life revealed in someone's else voice.
Owen Ashworth, the man behind Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, is the master of crushing. With his four albums, he's invented a sprawling cast of characters with the authorial eye of Sherwood Anderson and the bleakness of Steven Patrick Morrissey. From Scrabble-loving Roberta C. to the Smiths-obsessed Toby, Ashworth's eulogized the outcasts and doled out sympathy for the heartsick. And on his first three albums, he's done it mainly to the beat of his own drum (machine). Armed with his eponymous Casiotone, he's established a poppy lo-fi electronic sound that's become synonymous with his name.
However, on his newest album, Etiquette, Ashworth has loosened the limitations and widened his scope. His portraits are more fully fleshed out and the music is richer. But even as his intentions amplify, his characters remain as stuck and flustered as ever. They bear everything from an anonymous New Year's hookup to the perils of gay red-state romance to burger-slinging at a grease trap to failing at independence and having to move back in with the folks. Thankfully, the lyrics have gotten more crushing to match, with a few couplets that could splinter even the toughest of shells. With Etiquette, Ashworth's not only produced his best album yet, but, in a surprisingly crowded field, one of the best albums of 2006. Check out my interview with the man behind the keyboard himself, Owen Ashworth:
NL: Obvious question first. You've added a lot more instruments and expanded your sound on Etiquette beyond the previous three albums. Is that something you're looking to continue or even further with future albums? Do you already have a direction for the follow-up?
OA: I think the next album will probably have a lot of piano on it. I like the idea of making a totally non-electronic album. It's been a lot of fun to get other people involved, and I just happen to know some highly musical dudes. I imagine there will be some solos.
NL: You've collaborated with some cool artists like Jamie Stewart and Dear Nora. Who would some of your dream collaborators be?
OA: I would like to make a record with the guys who played on that Neil Young album Harvest. Also maybe some really dope horn players. Right now I'd be really happy to meet a good pedal steel player here in Chicago.
NL: Since your music is so relatable, I'm guessing your fanbase can be pretty intense. What are some memorable fan responses or interactions you've had?
OA: I can't really talk about this due to a pending lawsuit. Let's just say that things "get weird."
NL: Why'd you choose "Bobby Malone Moves Home" as your next single?
OA: Well, "Young Shields" was the first single from Etiquette, and "Bobby Malone Moves Home" is sort of like "Young Shields" part two. Or like "Dad of Young Shields." I think it makes a nice companion piece. I think the two songs nicely sum up the album.
NL: You've lived in Portland and San Francisco, two of my favorite music scenes in the country. Did living in those areas affect or impact your music in any way?
OA: I have some really close friends in Portland and San Francisco who also play in bands. Some of my favorite music was made by some of my favorite people and that's a really nice feeling. I don't know if I've ever felt like I was part of a scene though. I've always been attracted to lots of different kinds of music, and the idea of a bunch of bands from the same town all playing the same kind of music doesn't sound so interesting to me.
NL: How do you decide which songs should feature other vocalists? Is it at the outset or after the song is written? And do you write them with specific singers in mind?
OA: None of the songs on Etiquette were written with other singers in mind. I had recorded a early version of "Holly Hobby" for a single and I thought it sounded kind of lame. At some point it occurred to me that maybe it would be a good idea to let Katy Davidson sing it instead. Katy's a much better singer than me. Originally, "Love Connection" was going to be a duet between Jenny Herbinson and myself, but after we recorded it, I just decided that it sounded better without my vocals on it. I can't remember why Jenny sang "Scattered Pearls." Maybe I just had a "feeling about it." I get a lot of "feelings about things." I like the idea of using different singers sort of as actors because all of the songs have different characters. Maybe in the future I will write songs specifically for other singers. I kind of like the idea of producing a solo album for Jenny. I haven't actually talked to her about it though.
NL: In my experience, I find musicians and filmmakers inspire my writing at least as much as other writers do. Are there any authors, filmmakers or other artists that have particularly influenced your work?
OA: Of course there are lots. I like Raymond Carver a lot. Also there's an online comic called Achewood that I like a lot. I don't know if it has actually influenced my songs but I think the jokes are pretty good. I like Edward Gorey too.
NL: How many of your lyrics are based on actual people and events and how many are products of your imagination exclusively?
OA: It's more complicated than actual vs. imaginary. Real people and events inspire a lot of the songs, but things get mixed up all of the time. It's never my intention to tell a 100% true story. It's more interesting to make stuff up.
NL: Related to that, whenever I hear "I Love Creedence" and the line "she's still the only one besides my dad who's ever said 'I love you Creedence,'" I can't help but wonder: Is Creedence's mother dead? Is she bad at expressing her emotions? Is Creedence half-using Elodie as a maternal substitute? Do you go this far with your characters where you know about them beyond the songs?
OA: I'd rather not give away too much of the backstory. I like to leave the songs open to speculation. My characters usually have more going on than what makes it into the songs. I hope people wonder about them and imagine their own stories.
NL: What are some of the best things you've seen or done while touring?
OA: I saw some alligator roadkill once. That was pretty exciting.
NL: What are the last few albums you've heard that have full-on amazed you?
OA: I bought a CD of Bill Withers' first two albums and it is way way awesome. I really love that song "Lonely Town Lonely Street." My friend Jay Purdy recommended a John Prine live album to me and I've really been enjoying that one, too. That guy has got some great songs let me tell you what. That new Parenthetical Girls album is pretty amazing too. Talk about speculating about the backstory, holy cow.
NL: What are the chances that you'll do a Scrabble concept album one day?
OA: No, I don't think I'll do that.
* MP3: "Young Shields" - Casiotone For The Painfully Alone from Etiquette [Buy it]
* MP3: "Cold White Christmas" - Casiotone For The Painfully Alone from Etiquette [Buy it]
* MP3: "Lonesome New Mexican Nights" - Casiotone For The Painfully Alone from Casiotone For The Painfully Alone/ Fox Pause split 7" [Buy it]