Earlier this month, Seattle-based Valley Maker – the songwriting project of Austin Crane – released a new album called Rhododendron. The album was immediately striking for its subtle yet powerful tone. Crane composes songs that feel in tune with nature and also the way we as humans interact with our surroundings. Though he’s originally from South Carolina, Crane’s brand of psychedelic and at times quiet folk feels influenced by the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Listen to the album and you’ll also feel the inspiration of artists like Bill Callahan, Jason Molina, and Gillian Welch, all of whom happen to be heroes of Crane’s. Instrumentally, there are also complex sounds that can be heard in the guitar playing, especially as Crane seems to be drawing from a melange of influences that include West African music. To achieve the album’s unique, sound he teamed up with his old college friend Chaz Bear of Toro y Moi, who produced about half the songs on the record, with Trevor Spencer, who’s also worked with Father John Misty and Fleet Foxes, producing the other half.
Crane is currently working on a PhD at the University of Washington in Human Geography, and it’s easy to hear that theme reflected in his music. Much of the lyrical content throughout Rhododendron touches on issues of migration, borders, and humanitarianism. In our current political climate these issues are often divisive even though they really shouldn’t be, and Crane uses the music to remind us of the connections that bind us all as humans regardless of our beliefs. There is something intellectually refreshing to his approach to songwriting and the way he communicates it through music, making Rhododendron one of the most exciting releases to come this year. Recently we talked with Austin Crane about the way his studies inform his music, channeling our complex times into lyrics that avoid being bleak, and the artists that inspire him.
Interestingly, you are currently working on a PhD at the University of Washington in Human Geography. Can you talk about how that theme reflects in your music?
I started studying Human Geography in my early-mid 20’s because I was interested in how people and places are interconnected and how various inequalities are produced and maintained. This pretty quickly led me to an interest in borders – which I think are one of the clearest ways we differentiate between people’s lives and life possibilities in the world today. On one hand borders are completely imaginary; they’re constructs that only have the power we legally and socially bestow on them. But on the other hand, crossing a border can be a matter of life and death; and people are often stigmatized socially for having crossed borders – we’re seeing the sad effects of this dehumanization now with the current administration, whose foundational policies have been so exclusionary towards migrants and refugees.
So my PhD work comes from an interest in how and why migration and borders are such animating forces in our politics today – and I’m not sure if I can draw a direct line between that and anything I’ve written musically. But I do think my research has caused me to think a lot about how we regard one another as humans across differences. I wrote a good bit of this album during and right after the 2016 election, and while I don’t see the record as being focused on any central concept or problem, it definitely comes from a headspace of trying to make sense of where we’re at. So how do we exist in relation to one another in dark times; what does love and understanding look like across difference; what can we ground ourselves in to keep going…those are some questions that feel generative towards songwriting for me, and I imagine my research has encouraged that at a fairly significant level.
Does being in the world of academia, particularly in your case, affect how you think about songs and lyrics in any way?
I can’t think of any overarching or premeditated way that it does – but I also tend to view things in a fairly holistic sense, meaning I don’t think any part of who we are exists in isolation. From a writing perspective, I do see songwriting as occupying a space that is fairly distinct from academic forms of writing. My favorite thing to do with songs is to ask big questions, to try and enter the space of some mystery or some unknown. For me, a song doesn’t need to solve anything or make an argument; it exists to be with and to inhabit, and maybe to share in with others. I don’t always know exactly what my songs are going to be about when I start working on them, but if I finish one, that usually means it needed to be written. Most of my songs end up being an amalgamated reflection of my headspace and responses to external experiences – placing the internal thoughts and uncertainties from my brain into conversation with larger questions around people, politics, faith, time, and just being in the world today. One nice thing about being a PhD student is that I get to work from home a lot, so I have the luxury of usually having my guitar close by and being in a space where I can comfortably chase song ideas. So I would say for the most part my orientation towards academic versus musical/lyrical writing are pretty different – and while sometimes it’s a little hectic, I do think balancing the two worlds has usually been complementary and productive for writing.
What is your approach to songwriting as a whole during a time when it seems increasingly difficult to escape the negativity – do you aim to provide musical escapism or tell it bluntly?
Yeah that’s a question I think about a lot. I do sometimes struggle with what kind of change or difference music can make, as compared to more direct political actions. Some days and weeks feel like I’m promoting myself/my music while the world around me is in a pretty dire condition, and I sometimes struggle with that, to be honest. But in my heart I do believe that music is one of the best things we have and that we can share with one another; I think we need music, especially in times like this. I feel really grateful for music everyday – for the chance to play it, experience it, and to share in it with others.
So I definitely think music can provide a sense of escapism, and people may or may not have that experience with music I’ve written. But for me as a writer and listener of music, I’m usually not content to stay there for very long. For example, “Beautiful Birds Flying” on the new record is a song that flirts with escapism, but for me, it also engages the question of how to be alive with others in a world of seemingly unending violence and the confusion that brings.
In times like this, I feel increasingly drawn to songs that activate my mind towards the world, songs that are contemplative but in an open and imaginative way. I’ve been really inspired by Bill Fay’s music lately and was listening to his song “Never Ending Happening” last night: “the never ending happening / of what’s to be and what has been / just to be a part of it is astonishing to me”. That’s the kind of writing I need to hear sometimes: it inspires me to be more open to others and to the world; it gives me traction in areas where I feel stuck. So I definitely think music can be a form of shelter and/or escape, but not only that. Ultimately when I write a song I try to write something that feels honest and grounded, while remaining open to mystery, such that people can inhabit the song with their own questions and circumstances as well.
Who are some of the artists that inspired you going into the writing and recording of this album?
I’m always inspired by Gillian Welch from a songwriting perspective. Over the last few years I’ve listened to a lot of West African guitar-based music – artists like Tinariwen, Ali Farka Toure, Boubacar Traore, Sidi Toure, etc. – and am really inspired by the approaches to guitar playing and to song structure. I listened a lot to Hailu Mergia, Mahmoud Ahmed, Mulatu Astetke and other Ethiopian artists around the time of recording. Some classics like Graham Nash’s Songs for Beginners, Bill Fay’s Time of the Last Persecution, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, and Van Morrison’s Moondance were in rotation. I listened to a lot of Cass McCombs around the time of tracking, particularly Big Wheel and Others, which I love. I could keep going, but those are a few that come to mind.
Is there a significance behind the album title Rhododendron, like does it carry some sort of deeper meaning for you beyond just being a cool plant?
Yeah, definitely. It’s a plant I’ve been around for most of my life, having grown up in the Southeast and now living in Seattle. So the album title is partly a tribute to continuity in the natural world over different seasons of my life. It’s also connected with a song by Magnolia Electric Company, “whip-poor-will”. Jason Molina is a songwriter I’ve loved for many years, who passed away several years ago, sadly. So I wanted the record to pay homage to the enormous gift his music has been to my life.
Chaz Bear produced some of the songs on the album. What’s your connection like with him and how did he end up producing? Were there any creative musical ideas he gave you that you hadn’t previously thought of?
I got to know Chaz when we were both students at the University of South Carolina – we took a film class together and became friends through that. Throughout college we played some shows together and would share music we were writing with one another. I’ve always had a lot of respect for him as a musician and person, and we’ve talked on and off again about the possibility of working together on a recording project. We finally made it happen for this record, as we were both in the Pacific Northwest for a season, and I’m so glad we did. We recorded four songs together and the process was really collaborative. I brought in some demos I had made in my apartment as a reference point, but our process was basically that we would start with tracking the core elements of the songs first and then try out whatever ideas came to mind. Chaz’s production – particularly his bass, drum, and keys/synth parts – definitely took the songs into a new sonic realm for the project. After we tracked the first two songs, “Beautiful Birds Flying” and “A Couple Days”, I remember feeling a new clarity about how the record would take shape, and excitement that it was going to be a fairly different sounding record from the previous one, which is what I wanted. I’m really grateful to him and proud of what we made – and the same goes to Trevor Spencer, who I worked with in Seattle to record the other six songs on Rhododendron.
Photo credit: Kiersten Miller