Pull up a chair and kick back with us as we chat with youbloom artist James Houlahan about his new album, Multitudes, which is set to release this October.
“I aim to release the new album in October of this year, and I launched a Kickstarter campaign to help finance the release of the album. Hopefully there will be enough support for a vinyl release. I’d really love to present my music to the world in that format. But we’ll see how it goes…”
Can you tell me more about Multitudes and how it compares to the two previous albums?
“My first album Seven Years Now contains mostly songs that reflect personal experiences. And the second album “misfit hymns” contains songs about characters, some of which were fictional and some who were real, like Janis Joplin. For some reason, I thought there needed to be a line drawn there. Between the personal and the fictional/imagined. But the more I write, the more these two elements are blending together. To the point where I no longer care what is actually true in a historical sense (e.g., whether something actually happened to me personally or not). I find myself getting lost in the stories of other people, of experiences I can only imagine, of dreams where I’m not sure where reality begins and ends…and I’m inextricably bound up within these songs to the point where I’m no longer interested in how they relate to me, personally. I hope that makes sense! In short, I don’t really know who I am anymore, and I absolutely love it.
“I wasn’t sure how to choose songs for the new album until I remembered the lines from Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then. I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” And those lines made perfect sense to me (as well as provided me the album title!) So the new album has songs that combine the personal with the fictional in this multitudinous way. It’s also a little darker, a little more rock than the other two. There’s much less acoustic guitar, and there’s a lot of drum sounds! I was really interested in pursuing multiple textures of percussion. I’ve gotten much better at singing too, but I’ve still got a long way to go there. Anyway, there’s lots of differences, but I think it’s all for the best.”
What does your creative process look like when writing songs/recording an album?
“I tend to hear completed songs in my head. Like from a radio somewhere… Often the signal is not coming in perfectly, and I only get fragments. Sometimes I’ll write those down and work them later into a more complete shape. But the best songs tend to hit me all at once. Usually the chorus first, if I’m lucky. (Choruses are harder to write than verses). Sometimes they just appear in my head at the worst times, like when I’m driving on a crowded freeway or in line at the supermarket. But thankfully my iPhone is usually handy and I record them as voice memos. I find that the songs I end up recording more formally, in the studio, are generally the most insistent. Their presence in my inner ear is not to be denied. If all songs are like children, then the ones I record on an album are those that are crying loudest for my attention.
“When it comes to recording, I want to bring in other musicians and let them get inspired. I do tend to offer some guidance here and there, but I think what we’re really searching for is to capture a moment of magic. Something that sounds both spontaneous and composed at the same time. Lightning in a bottle. It’s really hard to set up the environment in which that happens, but it helps to keep an open mind. And to surround yourself with very talented players who can see your ideas and take them even further than you imagined. It’s good to have a plan or a map, but then be prepared to throw away that map when you no longer need it.”
What is it like to be in the studio with you?
“It’s like we are hunting something, searching for something, everyone together. It’s dark, and we’re not really sure where we’re going. But we’ve been hunting before and we know what it’s like to pick up the scent of something worth pursuing. But sometimes things get really weird and we’re not sure anymore that we are the ones doing the hunting. Maybe after all, we are the ones being pursued! Ha ha… But really, it’s a kind of strange blend of craft and magic, being in the studio. All of your past experience bubbles right back to the surface. But at the same time, it’s challenging and even a little disconcerting. Overall though, I love being in the studio, chasing those sounds. If I have ever experienced anything like a true sense of belonging in this world, it has been during moments in the studio. I know that might sound grand and mystical, but to me it’s just plain fact. I just love making music!”
How long did the album take to create and record? Tell us a bit more about that as well.
“I was writing and planning the record ever since I moved to L.A. from Boston about three years ago. Some of the first few songs actually appeared to me on the trip across the U.S., so it’s been in the works for a while. But late last year (November), I went in to Veneto West studio in Santa Monica with producer Ronan Chris Murphy. We brought in the amazingly talented Mike Gattshall on drums (The Letters Home, Rivermaker, Hot Sauce Holiday) and the musical maven Fernando Perdomo (Dreaming in Stereo, Linda Perhacs, The Dirty Diamond) on bass. We cranked out a bunch of basic tracks and started there. Due to the difficulties of my schedule and the others involved, we had to space out the tracking over many months. We ended up bringing in a whole bunch of other great players like Danny Frankel (Lou Reed, K.D. Lang) on percussion, Kaitlin Wolfberg on violin, and Danny Levin on horns. But now we’re in the mixing process and I hope to have it mastered before September.”
What advice can you give to emerging artists beginning the process of recording an album? What have you picked up along the way through your experience?
“Whether you’re making a whole album, or just recording a few tunes, I think the most important thing is to have good songs. I ended up not attempting a debut album until several years after I had started writing and performing, and I think that made the eventual album a better collection of songs. I was able to kinda process and discard a lot of material along the way…basically I had to write maybe 10 bad songs to get one good one! And then I grew loyal to those tunes and played them for people as much as I could. So I think it’s good to get the songs out there and get audience’s feedback.
“The other thing I would say is that, regardless of budget, it really helps to know how you want the music to sound in terms of production. If you don’t know, then just keep it simple. And be careful with who you work with in terms of engineers, producers, etc. It needs to be a good creative collaboration. When that relationship is not well developed, the music can suffer badly. Where, at the end, one is dissatisfied with all the artistic choices made along the way…it really pays off when you’re working with people who inspire you and who you can trust. Did you ever hear how Leonard Cohen got locked out of the studio during “Death of a Ladies’ Man” by crazed producer Phil Spector? They could not agree on anything and Spector started threatening Cohen with a gun. Eventually, Cohen was shut out of the production of his own album. Yeah, that’s an extreme case, but it highlights the need for that relationship to be productive. Having the right people around you is crucially important.”