NEW SONGS FOR THE 20TH CENTURY:
A Songbook and Two CDs by Chris Stamey
Let me quote from the essay that begins this collection: “Does the 20th Century need more songs, you ask? A good question! And one with an obvious answer: The Great American Songbook has been doing pretty well by itself all along (thank you very much) without any help from me." With this collection, I’m not presuming to be doing any more than humbly acknowledging a debt of inspiration to the canon of Mid-Century Modern works by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and the rest.
But I can honestly say, however, that I’m extremely proud of the "new, old-fashioned" tunes in this song cycle I've been writing for the last three years. And I want to send them out into the world. It’s time for them to be heard, for you to hear them.
And now you can:
Since 2015, I’ve been recording versions of these as interpreted by some amazing singers and players, including Bill Frisell, Branford Marsalis, Django Haskins, Skylar Gudasz, Don Dixon, Millie McGuire, John Brown, Kirsten Lambert, Matt Douglas, Nenna Freelon, Will Campbell, Wes Lachot, Scott Sawyer, Jim Crew, Dan Davis, Jason Foureman, Marshall Crenshaw, Don Dixon, and Peter Holsapple. The performances are gorgeously warm and evocative, sometimes minimal and stark, sometimes orchestral and sweeping. And the sonics are impeccable, from sessions at Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium, Wes Lachot’s Overdub Lane, Brent Lambert’s Kitchen Mastering, and my own Modern Recording.* And with your help for the final final mixing and mastering, I'm going to finish these and then create two CDs, in a color digipak with liner notes and detailed credits, from all these great tracks.
But what came first,
before any recordings, was pen on paper, just melodies and chords and lyrics, the essential ingredients. And in some way, the songs live there, in their essence. I’ve assembled my favorites into this lovely songbook, designed by my friends at the Splinter Group. (And as a bonus, I've included some older songs that you might recognize.) And it’s the songbook—melodies, lyrics, chords--that is at the core of this release. The design is basically done, as is the sheet music and the audio, but I need your help to do a production run of this; it's quite expensive to produce an 80-page large-format book with some full-color pages, and also to carefully finish mixing and mastering the audio and then to manufacture the CDs package. (If there is any money raised beyond our budget, I want to engage ace publicist Cary Baker at Conquero to help get the word out, he's ready and willing. And I'd love to do a limited vinyl run here, too: that's pricey as well, but it'd be a dream come true.)
So, you have options:
You can kick back and listen to the final mixes on the two CDs, with your eyes closed, in gorgeous high fidelity, with the autographed songbook on your coffee table. Or you can thumb through its pages, read the lyrics, and imagine the sounds in your mind’s ear. Or, best of all, you can grab an instrument and play and sing, find your own distinctive way into the melodies, with the print edition in front of you or the Kindle version on your tablet, phone, or laptop.
I’ve spent my life surrounded by music. First as a performer and songwriter, making records with seminal power-pop band the dB’s, and then as a solo artist, releasing critically acclaimed disks on both major and indie labels. Then as a record producer, session player, and string arranger, working with the likes of Ryan Adams, Alejandro Escovedo, Flat Duo Jets, Scott Litt, Skylar Gudasz, Tift Merritt, Le Tigre, and countless others, at great, fabled studios around the world or at my own Modern Recording. As a touring and session musician alongside such players as Alex Chilton, Anton Fier, Jack Bruce, Peter Blegvad, Bernie Worrell, Carla Bley, Michael Stipe, Matthew Sweet, Bob Mould, and more. As musical director and arranger for an international series of concert performances of Big Star’s classic album Third, which have included Jody Stephens (Big Star), Ray Davies, Kronos Quartet, Van Dyke Parks, and members of the Posies, R.E.M., Let's Active, Teenage Fanclub, Wilco, the Bangles, Semisonic, and Yo La Tengo. And as a writer, both as a columnist for Tape Op magazine and as the author of the recent A Spy in the House of Loud (University of Texas Press). And a playwright, of an original “radio musical” called Occasional Shivers, which has been aired nationally on public radio during the holidays.
These have all been great experiences, chances to learn from amazingly talented people. But my earliest musical memories are of the Great American Songbook. This was the music I heard as a child in Winston-Salem, NC. By the time I started playing bass and guitar in high school, however, the culture had shifted toward the electric sounds of the Beatles, Byrds, Cream, and I jumped deep into those currents with fellow enthusiasts Mitch Easter and Peter Holsapple and didn’t look back. I slowly learned to write the kind of rock and pop songs I heard on the radio in the 60s and 70s, and to play in bands, culminating in my contributions to the dB’s first two albums, Stands for deciBels and Repercussion, which are still highly regarded. And over the course of the many solo records that followed, I explored—always with guitar in hand—different folk, Americana, rock, free improvisation, and electronic sounds.
When my childhood piano came back to live with me here in Chapel Hill, in 2015, it brought with it such vivid childhood memories of those classic songs of the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. And, really for the first time, I began to discover what lay inside this kind of writing. It wasn’t easy. I’d only rarely read music since my college days. The piano bench was full of old songbooks, however, and I studied their melodies and chord progressions late into the night, and spent a lot of time at the university and asking questions of great players, finding my way.
Then, somewhat to my surprise, I started writing songs of my own at the ivories, using the denser chords and rhymes I was learning about. It was as if a door I didn’t know existed had swung open. I spent hours every day finding my own language at the bench of the Steinway baby grand, working within harmonic and lyrical restrictions. Thus began both an obsession and a fascinating creative adventure, which is continuing. I’m creating a new catalog of these songs, humbly “standing in the shadow” of the Mid-century masters. I’ve called the first group (with a smile) New Songs for the 20th Century. Let me share it with you.
*PS: If you are familiar with the "radio musical" Occasional Shivers (link to free podcast here), you may recognize some of these. But they appeared there in severely truncated versions, as underscoring for the plot primarily. These are the high-fidelity, full-length, remixed and improved versions, with all the verses and great solos intact, quite a different kettle of fish.
Risks and challenges
There are a few remaining sessions before all the tracks are completed—a few wind overdubs/solos, some new piano tracks, and, for one track, a new rhythm section (drums/piano/acoustic bass). And of course mixing, mastering, and printing are complicated processes with quality-control checks along the way that could delay things. Weather is also more of a wild card then ever: I did a very small run of of a rough-draft version of the songbook for some concerts earlier this year, and was blindsided by a winter storm that shut down FedEx and thus they missed the first concerts. However, it's so close to being done . . . I do expect smooth sailing.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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