sometimes i feel / like my feet get caught beneath the wheel
My last post was a pretty intense window into my mental state of the past six months or so — the main conclusion being that I’ve taken a temporary (somewhat involuntary) hiatus from the absurd task of waving my arms at the world and trying to attract people’s attention to my music. IT’S RIGHT HERE ———> jaredsaltiel.bandcamp.com.
But I ended with a cryptic reference to my millions of creative projects.
Here’s what I have been doing with my energy and my brain all this time that I haven’t been relentlessly pushing my most recent album onto the cultural landscape.
Biased though I may be, I’m fully convinced that my brother Jason is one of the best and most satisfying songwriters on the planet right now, and co-producing his albums has been my number two task for quite some time. The record that took the most time, as one might infer from its title, is Jason’s new full-length album Late Bloomer. If you enjoy late 60s and early 70s folk, pop and psychedelia (think Nick Drake, the Zombies, and Van Morrison), this album is for you.
I’ve also been working on an album with my friend Lee Reitelman. It’s been in the works for a little less than a year, and we’re nearing the end of the process. We’ve been taking these songs back and forth between a studio in Bushwick and my “home studio” (bedroom), where we’ve developed and arranged the album with guitars, keyboards and spare orchestrations. As the arrangements have come together, Lee’s music has been really coming into its own and settling into a very interesting sound, or rather, collection of sounds. Recording this way has been a major learning process for me, particularly in scaling back my kitchen-sink production style to suit Lee’s considerably subtler taste. It’s also been a completely different style of collaboration than what I’m used to. It’s challenged me to write parts more deliberately, rather than relying on improvisation in the studio, and yet, this record has also encouraged me to open up the arrangements and dive into the details a little more collaboratively. I’m very much looking forward to sharing this record with you when it’s done; it’ll be very different from the other recordings that I’ve been involved, but there will be a familiarity for those who’ve gotten to know my style. Plus, as with everything else I get my hands on, Rich Hinman plays beautiful pedal steel on this record, so that’s something everybody should be excited to hear.
2. Writing (music)
The last time I had an extended period of writer’s block was when I first moved to New York, after the insanity of recording the Dirty Birds album and moving across the country. I broke that streak by writing “Solitaire,” and once I finally learned to embrace the unusual songs which have become my grand series of concept albums, I’ve had my head buried in the sand of songwriting ever since. As far as that project is concerned, I’ve more or less completed writing the next album in the series, and I’m currently very deep in the third album. The second album, which will be called Out of Clay, is generally very pretty and nostalgic, but these songs take on a sense of seriousness and emotional sensitivity which is only hinted at toward the end of The Light Within. Right now I don’t have any solid plans to start recording, but I have a pretty clear vision of the sound - it’ll jump between very Brazilian-influenced harmony and more European/classical-sounding material; the thematic influences are more nakedly mythological than ever, with a lot of Greek/Roman imagery woven through the lyrics; and it’ll be a dramatic departure from the last one in the sense that there is essentially zero blues influence, until the very end, that is. The album is about love sought and love thrown away. Whereas the first album was a development of inner worlds and abstractly-associated external symbols, Out of Clay hones in on the process of projection, and the desire to shape the world to match inner symbols. That pursuit is a path with a lot of risk and potential tragedy, and inevitably there is a lot of sorrow bound up in these songs, something that will contrast pretty starkly with The Light Within's relative naivete and playfulness…though I might be the only person in the world who would characterize as light an album which winds up in an apocalyptic wasteland.
The third album, Swimming With the Fishes, will be anything but light. It’s about the inner apocalypse, embracing the shadow-self, diving into the unconscious, chasing after fantasies and ultimately accepting the shattering of one’s illusions. To paint a little bit of the picture, it’s got a song about the inevitable global flood, a Faustian sequel to Holy Grail Blues, and a song based on Orpheus’s descent into the underworld…some of this stuff is still being written, but I’m increasingly incorporating these songs into my live show.
I’ve also been working on an under-the-radar, cynical pop album which may or may not be the debut full-length of my rap/R&B alter ego…currently slated for a press-baiting summer release. Shhhh…please help me remain anonymous when the time comes to blow that shit up.
3. Writing (fiction)
I’ve been batting around a story in my head for a long time, and one night a couple months ago, I finally decided what I wanted to do with it. This is still in the very early stages, but I’m developing an idea for a graphic novel. My goal is to write the script and find somebody else to do the artwork. I have a lot to learn about the comics industry, but right now I’m mostly concerned with the characters and the story that I’ve created. I won’t go into detail right now, but let’s just say it’s a deal-with-the-devil story which involves some ideas that have fascinated me for the past few years: the changing music industry, the intersection of occult imagery and cultural elitism, nihilistic/superman philosophies, secret societies, the concept of “magic” as espoused by Alan Moore and other likable radicals, and the phenomenal book Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann. My goal is to make something with equal parts literary and entertainment value, to tap into the deep, unconscious wellsprings that I believe are self-destructively guiding our culture off a cliff, and to derive something interesting from the paranoid delusions I occasionally entertain while I’m walking around this screwed-up city or perusing the internet. And I think I’ve settled on a title, though I’m not quite sure…currently considering: Marionettes.
I’m generally entering a new phase where I indulge my random fiction ideas, trying to write out stories from start to finish, without necessarily expecting them to be developed or published. But for some reason I’m scared of actually attempting to write prose, so instead I pursue ideas for comics, film, basically anything that doesn’t require a central narrative voice.
4. Writing (theater)
Speaking of which, my friend Toby and I were having dinner one night, and as always we started joking about some ludicrous idea. First it was an idea for a movie, then it was an idea for a musical. And then, in a surprising twist, a half-hour later we were still talking about it. The idea has not left our minds since then, and our attachment to it has only deepened. We’ve got a title, a cast of characters, a couple songs in the works, and the majority of a plot. In the process, I’ve discovered that I have a compositional voice in the aesthetic realm of theater, something that really surprised me, because I’ve had no real interest in theater since high school. I’m approaching this as an absolute outsider, which is probably not a bad thing. Fortunately, Toby actually has a background in the techniques and tricks that help to piece together a show, so we make a good team, particularly because we’re both motivated by a truly spontaneous, shared idea. I can’t divulge you with the storyline, mostly because I think the general conceit is gold and I don’t want anybody to steal it, but it’s going to be violent, cynical, generationally relevant and hilarious (unless we fail to finish it, which is always a possibility, perhaps a likelihood). As of now, it’s still feeling like a liberating outlet, which is a great thing to feel.
5. Reading (books)
Currently wrapping up Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, a series which has really gripped me for the past couple months. Sometimes a book can truly transform a piece of your mind, in a way where you’re unable to remember what life was like before you engaged with that little piece of wisdom which now feels so valuable. That’s how the Phillip Pullman books feel to me right now…I’ll need to do some more research on the author once I’m done, but right now I feel like the hardcore atheist label does not do the man credit. Obviously I trust the man to describe his own philosophy. But he seems to do an amazing job of tackling mystical thought, and if anything his worldview seems more in line with that strain of New Age-y folks who always reach for the vaguest notion of “quantum physics” to support their out-there cosmological viewpoint, particularly in his compelling and surprisingly feasible (I think?) treatment of dark matter as a field of consciousness. I tend to dance around the edge of that scene, but it works a lot better in subversive fiction than earnest mystical activism, and I’ve come to appreciate Pullman’s depiction of religion as a force of evil, even though I don’t fully agree with the practical application of that idea. One thing that’s particularly interesting to me is that he’s partially drawing from William Blake’s subversive philosophy (“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” for instance), but whereas Blake was advocating for Imagination against Enlightenment-era Reason, Pullman’s 1990s fantasy trilogy is taking down Religion. And yet Pullman relies so heavily on a particularly extreme suspension of disbelief and colors his worlds with a fantastical meld of convenient pseudo-science and religious precepts. I’m going to need to finish the third book and digest it a little bit before I can figure out my thoughts on the matter, but it really seems like this is not quite an atheistic trilogy, because he has so many vital things to say about spirituality, and materialistic humanism would simply not cover the ground he’s treading upon. After all, his whole spin on consciousness is close enough to soul and spirit as to verge on religiosity. Though he’s superficially aligned with the Reason-oriented institutions of his day, I think he has more in common with Blake, and thus he inherently has a secondary axe to grind with Science and its anti-imaginary spirit.
My one big complaint about His Dark Materials is that he piles all the religions of the MULTIVERSE together and assumes that they’re all as dogmatic and domineering as the Abrahamic religions. Considering you only have to look as far as Hinduism and Buddhism or any number of more “primitive” religions to address many of his concerns, it seems like he’s reaching a bit far. That said, I suppose the omnipotence of the “Authority” is a necessary piece of his incredibly wide-reaching conceit. And maybe the last hundred or so pages will further justify this decision. Perhaps I’ll follow up on this once I’ve finished The Subtle Knife.
I’ve also been supplementing with graphic novels, such as Swamp Thing volumes 1-3 by Alan Moore (surprisingly great), the final book of Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire (an unbelievable series), and an extremely entertaining but not very substantive book called Templar. For the first time in about 4 years, I’m not reading any non-fiction, except for occasionally dipping into an incredibly weird and debatably nonsensical book called Modern Alchemy and Occult Psychology. A random excerpt: “The Egyptians had manufactured their entire society upon the principles of consciousness’ surviving death. After the final fall of Egyptian civilization, and with the rise of the Ptolemy’s, this ancient science disappeared.” As you can see, it’s all escapist fantasy, all the time, and I’ve got a pile of even more Alan Moore waiting for me!
As we settle into April and spring is no longer a hopeless wish, I feel like I’m emerging, a changed person, from an underground bunker. This was my winter of millennial discontent, an encounter with the universal late-20s crisis, filtered through a generational cliché — here I am, the liberal arts-educated, entitled twenty-something confronting the reality that the machinations of the world will not simply bow to my talent and creativity, and grant me a lifelong hall-pass of success and fulfillment.
Let’s back up a bit. I turned 28 in October, and I honestly didn’t react very much to the fact of getting older, the swaying of the pendulum away from 25, toward 30. True, I feel older…for instance, though I once prided myself on my steel-trap memory, I now find that most non-imperative details slip away to some land of irretrievability. But the fear of approaching thirty is not so strong in me, aside from the occasional nostalgia for my increasingly distant childhood. What happened this winter was less of a reaction to my ticking clock, and more a sense of exhaustion: with my environment, with the nihilistic and lowest-common-denominator culture at large, with my own expectations and my inability to overcome certain failings, the personality quirks which hold me back from pursuing my goals with the necessary gusto.
Last spring I released an album which, in one way or another, I’ve been working on since I was 20 years old. Finishing that record and putting it out into the world was an extraordinary effort of willpower, creative energy and hard work. It’s hard to over-emphasize how detail-oriented I was at that time, and yet I also had an eye on a very big picture which is still unfinished (a series of four interconnected albums I plan to complete at some point in this decade). I took on a number of roles in the making and release of The Light Within: songwriter, singer, bandleader, producer, arranger, publicist, booking agent, promoter, etc. Essentially, everything but recording engineer. Looking back, the overall collection of tasks feels overwhelming. I spent years obsessing over my lyrics, recording demos, rewriting songs, reading dozens of strange books about mythology and psychology and other -logies, working out a sequence with narrative significance, and developing the songs on subsequent albums to get a sense of the themes I was developing in my tetrological master plan. I performed and arranged the vast majority of the instruments on the album, playing guitars, drums, keyboards, percussion, writing strings and other orchestrations, directing players down to the last detail, comping my own vocals, commenting on reverbs and other effects, signing off on the volume of each instrument at each moment, of each syllable of each vocal track. I directed a friend through an enormous and enormously challenging art project: designing a set of cards to be released alongside the music, with a painstakingly detailed esoteric image designed for each song, custom-printed with an unusually-sized booklet and little box…I assembled and rehearsed a 12-piece band featuring a string quartet and backup vocalists, booked a show at a big Brooklyn venue and somehow worked out a date with all these people, put together a lineup for the night, and attempted to promote the show (so of course I had to micro-manage the poster design as well). I booked a short US tour with my band, worked out sleeping arrangements for 5 people in every city, promoted each of those shows single-handedly, drove the rental car every day, played every night, and slept a few hours. Then I flew to Europe and played shows in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague (I didn’t promote those shows at all, but the crowds were comparable and I sold almost all of the merch I brought on the plane). When I got home I quickly got back to work producing my brother’s album Late Bloomer (buy it here), in which I reprised my role as a severe studio control-freak and perfectionist arranger. And then…I completely fucking collapsed.
Now. Here’s what I didn’t do:
- I barely got any music journalists to review or even write about my album
- I didn’t sell many CDs or downloads or cards
- I didn’t license any songs
- I didn’t hire a publicist (though I really did try)
- I didn’t get my music played on the radio as far as I know
- I didn’t get accepted to any music festivals, not even CMJ
- I didn’t build a substantial following in New York or anywhere else
- I didn’t even manage to make a decent press kit
- I didn’t mail my album to anybody and everybody I could think of
When I look at the list of things I didn’t do, some of those items still cause a stirring of anxiety in my gut. How could I let so much time pass without taking care of these basic forms of promotion? How could I ignore so many basic tenets of the music industry at this age, after having done this for so long? On the other hand, if I had mustered more energy, would I have really gotten anywhere?
A few things are clear upon reading these two lists, of what I did and what I didn’t do.
1. I’m willing to sacrifice promotion and marketability for what I consider to be the artistic integrity and long-term value of my music and the consistency of the conceptual content of my songs.
2. The tasks in the first paragraph require a ton of creative energy, but those are tasks that I know I have the skills to complete. And it really is a huge list to take on as a solitary person, requiring an unusual number of skills, even as I share the true burden with no other person. On the other hand, it’s dangerous to conflate an obsession with detail and good work; and there must be a dysfunctional element of ego at work in this feeling that I needed to have a hand in every tiny piece of the puzzle.
3. Even now, when I look at the list of “failures,” I’m overcome with a deep, deep feeling of dread and pessimism. They don’t necessarily feel like things that I can do, just things that I somehow apparently must do, to hope to ever reach a wider audience. The chasm between “can” and “must’ feels irrationally vast, and that feeling is something which I hide from every day of my life.
4. Twenty years ago in this same industry, my behavior in the first paragraph would have put me into a class of obsessive perfectionists, and the second list would not have entered my expectations for myself. I would have played a lot of shows and sent my demos to labels until somebody recognized my abilities and invested in my talent. I would never have self-released a fully produced album like The Light Within. Now, it’s pretty much par for the course that an aspiring artist will be his own manager, publicist and micro record label for at least the first stage of his/her burgeoning career, and it goes without saying that this change in the industry has enormous consequences. (That said, in the music world twenty years ago, I would have inevitably clashed with somebody in the business, due to my stubbornness about tiny, arbitrary details, a quality which my independence allows to flourish, for better or worse.)
5. Obviously, I should have given myself more time between completing the album and releasing it, because my post-partum collapse was inevitable and predictable. There were a few reasons I didn’t do that, but it mostly came down to a deep pessimism about the paths that would open for me if I waited and attempted to shop around the album, especially since many of the songs had already been released on other EPs. After all, it seemed that everywhere I turned in the months before its release, everyone I talked to, the message I received over and over was “come back and talk to me once you’re getting somewhere with all this.” The breakdown of the music industry’s willingness to invest in an artist who hasn’t already established a strong, enthusiastic and measurable following, no matter how high the potential of the music itself…well, that’s another conversation, but let’s just say, I no longer believed in the process as it was (vaguely) described to me, and I felt like I needed to have this album out in the world before I could move forward.
It’s been almost a year since I released The Light Within, and I certainly haven’t given up on it. For one thing, it’s inextricably linked to the music I’ll release in the future, and I have faith that the listening public will find their way to this album eventually, though I know it’ll take a lot more effort on my part to get there. If you’ve read this far and you haven’t heard the album, then take a look at my bandcamp page and consider getting the download or ordering a set of cards. You can also find it on iTunes, Spotify, etc. It’s an enigmatic little collection of songs, and I sense that a lot of people don’t know quite what to make of it, but trust me that there’s a lot of my heart in it. I just wish I had been able to put more of my heart into the release and promotion of the album. I’m not writing this as a search for sympathy and understanding. That said, I do think the public at large has yet to come to terms with the large changes taking place in media industries, and everyone’s complacency with some unsustainable practices and business models, and I plan on writing about that in the future. But consider this post a way for me to simply exonerate myself of that list of failures, and a release of some of the emotional baggage I have tied up in this creation of mine…for whatever reason, I think it will be a little easier to get back to the thankless work of dispassionate promotion once I can let go of these thoughts and feelings. And the truth is, in the midst of all my isolation and self-critical reflection this winter, I’ve been having a creative renaissance, and I have a million music and writing projects underway which I can’t wait to share with you.
Enjoy the springtime. For now I’ll leave you with some music by my good friend Toby, a song that inadvertently tapped into David Brooks’s sociological millenial trend piece about the “Odyssey years,” though its writing was influenced more by our discussions of late-20s malaise and my ramblings on astrological concepts and coping mechanisms. To all my mid-80s brethren, go get your shit together, ‘cause Saturn’s back in Scorpio and he’s about to tear down your ego with his scythe.
Listen to: Odysseus by Toby Singer