Life as a traveling musician can become monotonous. Sleep, eat, perform. Load in, load out, pass out. Repeat. This is your day, and before you realize it, your life. After a decade of the three-step grind James LaVallethe classically trained multi-instrumentalist whose tone poems have been collated as The Album Leaf since 1999decided to get off the well-worn path.
A lot of traveling and time away from home, learning about yourself while losing yourself, thats what has gone into recording for me, says LaValle. Following a year-and-a-half of straight touring I took a break from worrying only about where The Album Leaf was going and instead concentrated on the best parts of what its been this entire time.
If musicians could keep time in a bottle its consumption would likely outpace vodka and bourbon combined within the first year. Next to a comfortable place to sleep, time is the luxury few touring musicians are afforded. Time alone is even more rare. Following stints with instrumental artisans Tristeza, post-hardcore spastics the Locust, contorted punk-funk ritualists GoGoGo Airheart, shadowy conjurers The Black Heart Procession and is often a special guest of Icelands celestial menagerie Sigur Rós, LaValle recognizes this lifestyle and its constraints.
Bottled up on the road long enough, LaValle felt the timing was right to give it a go from a different angle. Using time bought by the success of his Sub Pop debut, 2004s In a Safe Place (which saw songs as the soundtrack to six episodes of The OC, and stints with CBS, NBC and Showtime). LaValle sequestered himself for six months in his San Diego house solely to write. This upswing of downtime resulted in his fourth full-length, Into the Blue Again.
At the core of The Album Leaf (named for a Chopin piece) has always been LaValles melodic daydreams personified. But while 2004s In a Safe Place featured embellishments from members of Sigur Rós and Amina (the Sigur Rós string section), Into the Blue Again sees a return to The Album Leafs conception and LaValle handling virtually all of the instrumental duties. LaValles few collaborators on Into the Blue Again are Josh Eutis of Telefon Tel Aviv, who aided additional drum programming and engineering on choice songs, The Black Heart Processions Pall Jenkins adding vocal harmonies on "Wherever I Go," violinist Matt Resovich (who performs with The Album Leaf live, and also played on In a Safe Place), Drew Andrews adding additional guitar work on select songs (Drew also performs with The Album Leaf live) and Brigir Jon Birgisson, Biggi, engineer at Sigur Rós Sundlaugin studio.
Sundlaugin, also the studio used for In a Safe Place, is a former swimming pool turned into a primarily analogue recording facility. This contoured, textural environment lends itself well to LaValles lustrous, resounding palette. Wanting to employ his own equipment (not possible on the last record, recorded wholly in Iceland), LaValle loaded up a van and held his initial three-week tracking session with Ryan Hadlock at appropriately earthy Bear Creek Studio, a converted turn-of-the-century barn isolated outside Seattle. LaValle then took the concentric billows of feathered keyboards, filmy strings and chiseled drums to Iceland for three weeks of mixing to tape to maintain Brian Eno-informed translucence.
Rough warmth, thats a good description, says Birgisson of LaValles intonation on Into the Blue Again. The goal was to make sure youre not overproducing to keep things live, organic and intimate.
I like drones and keeping notes intact, admits LaValle. A lot of times songs become written around a sound I feel is important and should not be forgotten. But I anchor them in a verse-chorus-verse structure. It helps focus the melodies.
Indeed, personal focus has been LaValles primary objective with Into the Blue Again. The albums 10 tracks exhibit an elegant, ascendant assurance informed by LaValles more settled relationships at home. While still delivering the placidity of a track such as album opener The Light, LaValle has composed even more corporeal, insistent cuts such as Shine and Red-Eye. Into the Blue Again also showcases LaValles increasingly confident, buoyant vocals striking heightened presence on unfeigned selections Always for You, Writings on the Wall and Wherever I Go. There is a greater sense of both the I and eye in the way LaValle lays out the topography of his pivotal past and makes it universally palpable.
The Album Leaf is my little solo endeavor, my little toy, says LaValle in summation. Its something to keep you happy when youre alone and frustrated, and sometimes frustrating in itself when it doesnt do exactly what you want. But still something fascinating.
Having shared so much time and space with others on the road, LaValle proves with the personally charged Into the Blue Again that The Album Leaf resonates most profoundly when he goes it alone.
Look for The Album Leaf's gorgeous live show (it includes a large touring entourage involving projection art and live strings) in upcoming tours!