Don McCloskey Finds Core Values In ‘The Chaos and The Beauty’ Of Life (INTERVIEW)

Photo credit: Bryan Karl Lathrop Photography

Don McCloskey recently released his new album The Chaos and The Beauty via Lemon Hill Records, and it represents several years of development for a number of the songs. He also turned his band’s rehearsal sessions in Philadelphia ahead of the album release into live performances at Fergie’s Pub as a residency where they continued to hone the songs for ongoing spring and summer shows. A major development for McCloskey, who has never been overly focused on digital release and the role of social media, has been the significant streaming attention directed toward the single “First in Flight”, which was chosen by his friend Rob MclHenney for the finale of the Apple+ show Mythic Quest. 

The multi-layered song, with its varied song structure, rising energy, and movement towards affirmation is actually typical of the whole sound trajectory of The Chaos and The Beauty, so fans of the song will find plenty to dig into on the album. For McCloskey, the thematic developments on this album, as well as the interesting cover and singles artwork by Geof Lynn, stem from the contrast between lighter and darker elements of life and the “grappling” we all have to do to establish our own core values. I spoke with Don McCloskey during his Philadelphia residency about the development of The Chaos and The Beauty. 

Live music seems to be a big part of your plans right now and for this summer. How soon are you diving into playing the new album? 

Right now, I’m doing a residency at Fergie’s Pub, one of my absolutely favorite venues in Philadelphia. The reason that we set up the residency is that we were rehearsing in Philadelphia anyway in preparation for the new record coming out, so we thought, “What if we do a show somewhere local?” We’ve been able to do a live rehearsal and work a lot of stuff out in front of friends and family. It’s been so much fun. 

I’ve always played live regularly, and I used to write things and test them out in front of audiences and other musicians. When I was doing solo acoustic shows, I would always sprinkle new things in. I think it’s important to ask yourself, “Is this something I believe in enough to play in front of other people?” That is my threshold, “Is this good enough to share?” Then you know what you’re most excited about. 

There are definitely terrifying elements in what you’ve just said, though I understand that for many people, it’s absolutely essential. Have you ever tested a song out live, and thought, “Oh no, this one is a ‘No’”?

There have been plenty of times that I have played songs that I was very excited about and the audience was not excited about. There’s a song I still love and play to this day, but it’s a long, three-verse storytelling narrative, with not much going on musically for the audience. One time I was opening at The Paradise in Boston and played that song. Everything else was going great, but when I did this long Country-Folk narrative song, it did not go over well. That was more just learning about audiences and what to play when than about, “Do I believe in this song?”

It must depend so much on the venue, the audience, and other bands that night. But there must also be songs that are very much viable on an album but don’t convert well to live performance. 

That reminds me of an Arthur Russell video I saw on Youtube where he’s playing the cello for an interminably long time and singing the same things over and over. It’s absolutely beautiful, and watching it on Youtube is mesmerizing, but in live performance, it would have to be a specific audience. That’s not every audience. Learning to read audiences is a life-long process.

When I look at this collection, I see a lot of energy. Several of the songs have an arc that moves from a quieter place into movement. A lot of the songs are quite fast and some of them shift between faster and slower tempos internally. Was that a goal on this work, particularly?

Absolutely, that’s true. It was not a goal, exactly, to do that, but it’s something that I was mindful of in terms of the structures of the songs. I wanted the songs structures to better express the emotional aspects of the lyrics. I wanted the song structures to support the music and the lyrics, and though there’s a little bit of that on Corporal Spirits, where some of the songs are like “mini-plays”, but this album has much more of that. 

Discovering those moments was something we were all excited about in the process. I was excited about when writing, but really when the three of us, including Chuck Staab and Devon Greenwood, started doing the basic tracks, it was really apparent what the potential would be for the songs. It just kept expanding. 

I’m aware that for some of these songs, there were several stages even in the writing process, like for “First in Flight”. Did that help introduce layers or changes? 

A couple of these songs have been in live repertoire and I’m constantly singing the versions of them that are relevant to my life at that time. “First in Flight” had chords and melody from an earlier version, but that underwent a big change, while still inspiring the sound and the vibe of the record. “I IV V” used to be kind of a Punk song that I would play on the electric guitar with just a drummer. It sounded more like Social Distortion or something. It had a furious tempo. But once we started down the path of recording “First in Flight”, “Dre”, and “I Feel The Sunrise”, it started becoming more apparent how these songs related to each other, so “I IV V” came more into that world. There was more of a marriage of the sonic palette and the rhythms of the other songs. 

I was really interested by “I IV V”, and noticed that the album title is there in the lyrics. I actually listened to that one last, and only then realized I should have listened to it first. I think that “First in Flight” sets the sound direction for the album, but “I IV V” pulls the ideas together. 

You’re correct in that assessment. It’s strange how songs take on different meanings. I was grappling with the question, “What are the things in life worth living for, worth celebrating, and worth expressing and playing?” I was already in a place, personally, where I was grappling with that, pre-pandemic. Coming up with what the record is, it’s about valuing and celebrating things in my life, and the act of creating music in itself is part of what’s worth singing about. Then when the pandemic came, it felt like all of humanity was going through this question, “What are the core principles that are worth living your life for?” So the song then felt very much of the moment. 

It’s like Western Civilization, particularly, is going through a mid-life crisis. 

Yes! So the songs were written at different times but the way we’re expressing it right now might feel more relevant. 

A number of these songs also contain elements of a relationship drama, though it’s not always the dominant thing. Were you thinking that way, or does that just tend to be something you write about?

Certainly, I find that in the songwriting process, drawing from things that are going on in my life drives me to write and create. Then I come to accept that songs might not be directly about that. The process is that my relationships, circumstances, and situations in my life are inspiring me to write, but then where it takes me becomes more open-ended. I tend to create songcraft from that.

Does that process positively impact you to work through ideas and relationships you might be facing?

It’s almost essential to me. I recommend it for everyone to work through stuff. It’s an act of self-actualization. It helps you hone what you believe and who you are. There’s also a lot of freedom and joy in turning that into something that hopefully helps other people as well or that they can relate to. Then sharing it, and having anyone come back and say that they understand what you’re saying is an incredible feeling. The end result is to connect with other people who are grappling with the same things.

There have been some big reactions to the singles released from the album. Have you felt that so far?

Yes, absolutely. This is kind of the first time I’ve paid much attention to digital distribution and social media. I’ve been doing this analog and offline for most of my career. In sharing music before, I’ve always had that feeling of connection with the audience. This is a situation where I don’t know as much about who it’s connecting with, but it’s really cool to see. People who don’t know my music are clearly connecting with it, and that’s something new for me.

I feel like this album is pretty extroverted in that it really reaches out to audiences and is accessible.

I grew up listening to music that is communal, meant to be played with people, for people. Not all of my songs are necessarily that, but I love those songs, and I think that’s a through line with at least half of this record.

How seriously should I take a quote from you that I saw that this album is kind of like a novel?

I don’t know that you should take it too seriously. I’d say it’s more like a collection of short stories with the same protagonist. It’s not strictly narrative. The song order is more constructed around feeling. I do tend to obsess about song order on albums, since I love listening to records from beginning to end. I love it when that’s a cohesive experience and I feel very good about this record from that perspective. A song like “I Feel The Sunrise” has chapters within it and the album itself may function that way as well. 

You seem to be doing something really purposeful with the album cover artwork, and with the artwork for the singles. Can we talk about the religious and cultural imagery that’s coming up? 

It was something that occurred to me more after the fact, but all the things that I needed, and wanted, and got, from religious practice early in my life are still meaningful in my life. For instance, faith in moving forward. You need faith that there is something moving forward for in life. I’ve grappled with that outside of organized religion, and that’s part of this record as well. It does feel like a lot of secular Catholicism is part of this record, and you can see that in the artwork as well. 

Did these ideas come up in conversation with the cover artist, Geof Lynn? 

Yes, it was a process. When I was thinking about the themes of the album and how they’d be expressed visually, I felt like there were a lot of contrasts of dark and light, bleak situations, but moments of joy and light in a stark environment. I looked at references like the artist Caravaggio with the really extreme contrasts of light and dark. An artist friend encouraged me to make a comp, a mock-up of what I saw in my head. I did one on Photoshop and my friend said, “That’s the album cover.” It had a Monty Python vibe to it. 

That became the basis of the album artwork, and I later showed it all to Jeff. He created the image for “First in Flight”. His gifts for color and composition are unmatched. He’s fantastic. When we did one for “Unbecoming”, we worked with different themes and adapted them. When we did “Oh Holy Night”, we were taking a religious song from that tradition and changing it into a secular, R&B love song. We had gone through a process of using the original comp to create all the singles artwork, including “I Feel the Sunrise”. It all came full circle when we did the final album artwork.

That one’s a little different, with some Egyptian iconography.

That one ties to a lyric about a high priestess. I was looking around for where imagery about a high priestess comes from, and in the tarot, one of the most famous illustrator’s work, Rider-Waite, became a reference. The other references were blacklight posters of my youth, and psychedelic sunrise and psychedelic beach vibes. It’s kind of unfair how Jeff nailed it. 

But regarding the final cover, when we were done with all the singles artwork, the comp that I had made looked horrific compared to Jeff Lynn’s other artwork, so I asked him to do the “real” version in the same visual aesthetic. So the album artwork that you see is the maximalist, grand-finale of that whole process. 

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