It’s only February, but I feel confident in saying that one of the best albums you will hear this year is Carson McHone’s Still Life, due out this Friday, February 25th on Merge Records. The Austin-based singer-songwriter has been performing much of her adult life and forged a respectable folk-rock meets country sound on her previous full-length albums, 2015’s Good Luck Man and 2018’s Carousel. Yet Still Life exists on a higher plane. The album is rich with instrumentation that feels full and commanding yet warm and inviting, with sentimental accordion, twelve-string guitar, horns, choir-like background vocals, and organ all coming together in one beautiful symbiotic wave of sound. McHone also seems to be tapping into a range of new influences, including British folk-rock, soul, 60s and 70s pop, and glam rock, all of which form a sound that, mixed with her complex lyricism, is vibrant and timeless. In other words, Still Life is not the kind of album you throw on once and forget about.
To make the album, McHone decamped far from her home base in Texas to the Great White North of Ontario. Here she linked up with the prolific Daniel Romano, who somehow found a break from constantly releasing albums to be able to produce and record the album along with a handful of super talented players. Romano – who has never been afraid to take his sound in new directions and shift from a country album to psych rock to paisley pop and more – clearly has a chemistry with McHone as Still Life truly feels like a collaborative effort.
As we emerge to a state of normalcy after a depressing couple of years, Still Life is exactly the piece of art that can lift spirits. McHone, who hasn’t played a show in two years, will also be hitting the road this spring with Romano and his band where she will undoubtedly treat listeners to these new songs. Recently, she took the time to chat about the making of the album, finding its sound, musical inspirations, collaborating with Romano and more.
You seem to be moving away from a more country-influenced sound to something a little more rooted in pop and soul on this new album. Were you consciously pushing towards a different sound than your last album?
I just followed where the songs lead. It’s not so much that my interests have changed, it’s more so that I’m learning how to listen to things more as a creator, in a way that I can pick things out and put them to use myself.
You worked with Daniel Romano in Canada on this album. Did being away from Texas and working with Daniel make you approach the music in a different way?
Daniel has made all kinds of music over the years and as we explored different feels, he could facilitate different options on the drums, or bass, guitars, etc. We made this record in the living room, because that’s where we were, and because things were locked down, but I do believe that making it when and where we did gave me some healthy perspective. Approaching these tunes in a completely different space, faraway from the place where I’d written them, physically and emotionally, solidified them – the things they carried either fell away or became clearer and more potent, standing there stripped of context and with a different backdrop.
There are some wonderful horns on the album. Was using a horn section something you always wanted to do?
Thank you! There have been a few times I’ve had a trumpet player sit in for shows, but I’d never had horns on my records before. There were lots of firsts for me in making this album – the horns, all the harmonies, etc. That’s our friend and fellow Outfit bandmate, David Nardi, on saxophone, and I’m hoping to have him play some sax with me when we do live shows again! The rest of the orchestral parts were arranged and played by Daniel on a midi keyboard, and I just love the parts he wrote! It would be nice to have real players to execute those things at the drop of a hat, but I love what we were able to put together given our limitations, and having David come in and play just makes those parts really pop.
One of the things that stands out about this album is the sheer amount of instruments and musical textures on any given track. What was the recording process like and was there anything you tried that was a challenge compared to how you have recorded previous albums?
One of the things I really appreciate about Daniel is his attention to detail – the shaker here, the tambourine there, doubling a vocal – those things can make the feel of a song. This isn’t necessarily profound stuff, but like I said I am developing my ears as a creator and I am realizing which of those things is causing that emotional impact, so when I hear it happen I can say so, or when I want to hear it, I know that’s what I want. Along with being an incredible musician, Daniel is also a poet, and I appreciate his poetic sense of space, he knows how to add things with his playing that elevate the words without taking breath from them. That’s a fine line, but it’s nice to fill out a verse with a counter melody on a twelve-string if you can do it just so that it doesn’t step on your toes, but keeps you on them! It’s like a dance – and the more people or instruments involved, the more you have to be aware of your own space – so with just the two of us, we could stretch out and then make the calls.
Because it was just the two of us working in the living room, we had to build out each song in steps – which is very different from playing live with a band – but that was a limitation that we leaned into and it allowed us to try things without being committed to something until we were sure of it.
I read that the sounds on this album recall John Cale, The Kinks, Richard and Linda Thompson among others. Were there any specific albums you were listening to as you went into the recording that you were inspired by?
Randy Newman 1968 – Randy Newman
Scott 3 1969 – Scott Walker
Blonde on Blonde 1966 – Bob Dylan
The Stooges 1969 – The Stooges
All Things Must Pass 1970 – George Harrison
You’ve said that there is an underlying thematic tension in these songs. Can you elaborate on what this means and is there an overall theme linking these songs together?
The songs of Still Life exist in a sort of liminal space – some are still with the turmoil while others seem to be closer to the edge of revelation.
When were these songs actually written? Would you say you were inspired to write during the pandemic?
All of these songs were written prior to the pandemic, but recorded during a lockdown, and the album seems to embody that time in an uncanny way. Time and space seemed to hover in this strange limbo, which is where these songs exist, in these elevated moments of introspection – it was a sort of pause, but it’s in that beat that change can begin, a shift can happen – the literal isolation allowed me that in a way.
I saw that you recently announced your first show since 2020. Have you actually not played that long and if so, do you feel like you are ready to return to playing in front of live audiences?
I haven’t played a show since March 9th, 2020. I miss it immensely, and I’m realizing more and more as time goes on how much the performance aspect of making music means to me. I am feeling hopeful that these first runs we have, now booked for April and May, can happen, and that we can stay on schedule for the summer tours and festivals.
What can fans expect from this tour with Daniel Romano?
I’m hoping that it will feel like a collaborative art show – everyone participating in each others’ sets and a merch table that’s out of this world…