Text and Interview: Andy Fenwick
Photo: Rob Malmberg
Live-take recordings rarely yield the solid-gold sounds found on Justin Carter’s debut album, “The Leaves Fall,” out February 24th on Mister Saturday Night records. Carter’s admission to live takes, on a number of songs, doubles as a humble certification of his own instrumental chops, given the musicians he enlisted: Benjamin Tierney, mixing whiz for Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, Bowie’s Blackstar pianist Jason Lindner, cellist Greg Heffernan, and producer Marcos Cabra. Also known as partner to Eamon Harkin in the DJing/listening collective/record label Mister Saturday Night, Carter took five years to shape these songs, digging into his North Carolina roots and electronic leanings with equal measure.
With those roots and leanings in the mix, The Leaves Fall defeats efforts to locate it anywhere in genre. Carter’s simple singing and picked guitar on the timely “What Can You Tell Your Children About Hope,” or the cello-girded “Great Destroyer” (which comes off like Thom Yorke on a back porch) are oddly of a piece with Carter’s soulful harmonizing and clanking electro on “Infinite Peaces,” or the dance-pushing cymbals and perfect falsetto on “Leaves.” This IDM-folk hybrid has never gained an agreed-upon name, despite stretching as far back as Carter’s avowed influence like the unassailable Arthur Russell, or pioneering work by John Martyn, as well as the electronic efforts of Beth Orton, Suzanne Vega, or even Robert Wyatt. Not to mention how it bridges the years between Silver Apples and Active Child.
Carter won’t necessarily be playing the standard type of live shows, but rather will perform (in some form) during Planetarium, a new series alike to the Mister Saturday Night gatherings, where attendees will visit a private residence and experience music in an environment focused on deep listening.
Confession: What joy, to interview someone with the overall goal of asking “How the hell did you do this?”
The new album is beautiful. How was it made, recording-equipment wise? Mobile stuff, etc?
Thanks for saying that. I’ve kept this to myself for such a long time that it was hard for me to imagine what people would think. It’s really nice to hear that you like it.
Regarding recording, there were a few different scenarios. A lot of the programmed stuff – synths and drum machines – was recorded at my friend Marcos Cabral’s apartment, just a nice little home studio in a small room.
The vast majority of the record was done at Outlier Inn up in the Catskills. It’s a beautiful, comfortable studio run by the amazing Josh Druckman, who engineered everything and helped guide me on a few things. (It was his idea to do the harmonic bridge in ‘Know It All’.)
Benjamin Tierney and I mixed it in a weird basement studio right next to Venice Beach on an old, cranky Neve console, and the amazing Matt Colton mastered it in London.
What instrumental equipment did you primarily favor as you recorded?
To write the songs, I mostly just recorded vocal ideas onto my iPhone. Then I’d send them to collaborators, and we’d flesh things out, whether in the home studio with Marcos or at rehearsals before the sessions with Greg Heffernan, the cellist. ‘Know It All’, ‘Great Destroyer’ and ‘What Can You Tell Your Children About Hope?’ were all live takes.
Tracks like “Leaves” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mister Saturday Night project; but who do you think will be most surprised by tracks like “Great Destroyer,” given their (relative) difference with Mister Saturday Night? How much of a secret was your work like that latter track?
I hope that we’ve released a varied enough set of records with the label that the sonic palette won’t come as too much of a surprise for anyone who’s followed us. I think the main thing that’s different about the songs on this record and what we’ve released on the label in the past is that my songs are largely lyric-forward. Except for ‘The Island’, everything is centered around my singing, telling a story. Most of the music we’ve release on MSNR in the past has served the purpose of creating a vibe on a dancefloor, or in a listening environment, where textures and rhythms unfold over time. I mean, I hope my songs have some of those more amorphous elements as well, but there’s definitely a narrative aspect to my music that is new for the label.
I noticed that Archie Pelago’s “Brown Oxford,” included on Mister Saturday Night’s “Brothers and Sisters” collection shares a cello figure with your track “Know It All.” Was yours played live? It’s differently pitched, no? Or same loop?
The similarities probably come from the fact that Greg was the one playing the cello on both songs. What you hear on ‘Know It All’ is live, just Greg and me sitting across from each other and playing.
How much of the sounds collected on of “Brothers and Sisters” would you say influences “The Leaves Fall,” overall?
I wouldn’t say that the tracks on Brothers and Sisters specifically informed The Leaves Fall, but you could group the songs from B&S into the set of textural, mood music for the dancefloor and for listening that I engage with often as a DJ. My existence in the dance universe is certainly what led me to work with Marcos, who’s largely a dance producer. Clearly that informs how a lot of the songs sound.
Soundcloud page mentions Arthur Russell as an influence. Did you encounter his dance music first, or his quieter, more experimental songwriting? (or his rarely-heard country & western music, even?)
You know, I think we listed Arthur Russell as an influence because that’s what people kept saying to me when I played them ‘Know It All’! I, of course, have listened to his music over the years, and I have that great Soul Jazz comp that came out a few years ago, but I’ve never studied his work deeply. “Loose Joints.’ ‘Is It All Over My Face’ is probably the Arthur Russell tune that I love most and have spent the most time with.
Now that this album is done after five years of recording, what’s next, project-wise, or even sound-wise?
You know, one of the main reasons that I wanted to do this album was to begin a feedback loop. One of the great things about being a DJ that’s performing pretty regularly is that it makes a large part of my life about finding new music and seeing how it fits together. So it takes this natural urge that I have, and it turns it into something that I must do, instead of something that’s just fun to do.
I wanted the same thing for my own music, to put it out into the world so that there’s an expectation on me to practice and to write new songs. I love doing that already, but the reason why this took my five years is that there were other expectations pulling me in different directions, and so I had to carve out time to force myself to write and record. Now that this album is coming out, it’s already got me making more space for my own music.