Kevin Kendall

“I always half-assed doing something in those first seven years,” says Kevin Kendall, reflecting on his time in Nashville prior to relocating to South Western Mexico in 2014. “The Mexico thing was me deciding to do something different, and I wasn’t sure if I was coming back here or not.” Having moved to Nashville from Kansas in 2007 to study Music Business at Belmont, Kendall’s post-grad education included time playing covers in bars for cash, and trying his hand working at a record label. Resigned to figure something out South of the border, his eight months away delivered just that. “That was a big turning point for me. If I can’t do music — what I want to do — if I can’t do that, I don’t want to do someone else’s music. It’s not satisfying. I’d rather just give this a try and see what happens.”

With drums as his first love, and having spent time playing bass in Ranger, Kendall’s self-described musical A.D.D. led him in a scattered artistic direction before eventually turning to electronic music in 2012. First experimenting with turntables in college, Kendall barely just began honing his new musical outlet before coming to a creative standstill. “I got bored,” he says, oversimplifying the point he was at before heading to Oaxaca, where friends of his parents own a Spanish school and welcomed him to work. “I had my laptop and a little MIDI controller, and I brought my bass, too.” For eight months he lived a mile from the ocean with a local family, using this period largely unplugged from the Internet and friends back home as “time to assess,” adding “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep going with music.” When his time in Mexico ended, though, he decided he wasn’t yet ready to give it up.

In returning to Nashville, he wasted little time in getting back on track: releasing “Soothe Me,” with a pair of b-sides in early 2015, before following that up with his first EP, Fire Escape. RACECAR, Ltd, the label which issued the four-song dubstep set in August of that year, billed it as “a stirring journey through the more abstract sounds of techno,” while also calling it “the embodiment of a basement level sound that emanates from the South.” Part of what’s driven his revitalized outlook has been Kendall’s curiosity to bring new sounds into the fold. He’s constantly scouring Craigslist for new pieces of equipment (so much so that his roommate has labeled him “Craigslist Kev”), only to sample them before turning the pieces over to make room for the next great find. “A lot of times I’ll record something on the computer, and then put it on the tape, and bring it back on the computer,” says Kendall, “just ‘cause it degrades the sound a little bit — makes it a little darker.” This speaks to the feel of this year’s three-song Motel release, which served as something of a dark house prologue to the more melodic, progressive sounds of grounded 2 U, which followed in May.

This year’s output is the producer’s first using his middle name, Kendall. Previously releasing music and performing under his given name, Kevin Buster, the new label has allowed him to compartmentalize his electronic music from past projects, while also refining what it is he wants to do with his music going foreword. For instance, having readied grounded 2 U last year under his former title, Kendall retracted the early version of the EP he put online so he could issue a cassette (limited to 40 copies) to supplement the release. While referring to the physical copy as an “obsolete piece of technology,” Kendall says “anything I put out from now I’ll probably toss it on cassette, just for fun.” And maybe that’s the key that was missing in his pre-Mexico years: fun.

In speaking of his time playing covers in a band, the tone in his voice conveys that it was something he should have been doing, not something that was truly satisfying. The music industry job? Same deal. But when speaking of his new release, his voice is much more upbeat and alive, revealing the positive space from which his music currently springs from. “I know it won’t last forever,” says Kendall, still weighing the options of pursuing his music further, or stepping outside the hustle to find a “straight job.” With little contemplation, however, another statement quickly followed, only further strengthening his resolve to continue creating: “I don’t know what else I’d be doing if it wasn’t music.”

Through the Woods and Far Away

The ghost of scarcity plagues this town.

As a child, growing up in Illinois playing music with your family, your vision of success peaked with the concept of being paid to play music. The utmost achievement was a few dollars collected in return for a performance. But our dreams all tend to shift, and in looking out beyond ourselves someone else’s vision can easily undermine our own. With it, the illusion of scarcity begins to encroach. For certain, success is what you choose it to be. But there are problems that accompany assuming someone else’s definition of the word as your own. For some: personality is what first draws attention, but shifting goal-posts signal that the cost of widespread acceptance might be to shed bits and pieces of one’s true self — the core traits that inspire others to take notice in the first place. The music industry was built on this, commercializing uniqueness by way of dimming the lights and sanding smooth any unusual irregularities. Belief changes, and suddenly what you really want isn’t as good as what you think they’re offering.

This is where my imagination places you and your group — and at this place, an evolving vision led to a first hand experience of how external ideals conflict with internal dreams. “What band do you want to sound like and what are we going to do to create that sound?” they demanded of you. This only confused matters: you were already the band you wanted to sound like.

From this side of the table any guess as to what happened is purely speculative based on a story that continues to repeat itself, as if any lesson to be learned from gambling with your creativity is meaningless when weighed against the payoff. The vehicle that transported you from your childhood years to the brink of adulthood attracted industry suitors, and somewhere a contract was signed that promised opportunity. But opportunity for what? Promotion? Features? Was there really a mainstream demand for a wholesome freak-scene country band with a “vibrant, fashion-forward sense of style every bit as head-turning as their music“? What a trip it must be, opening yourself up, creating something from scratch, exposing your vulnerabilities, and that being someone’s take away.

Commercial success was limited and the label pulled the plug on its support, but you kept playing. Of course you kept playing. Because the opportunity they spoke of wasn’t the culmination of all that you had worked for. Nothing ever will be. At times we all fool ourselves into believing that there’s something just out of reach that will make the entire process make sense. The key rests in not quitting when the success they promise you doesn’t materialize. After all, not quitting means more opportunities. And here, within more opportunity a gig in a high-profile “crack touring and recording combo” emerged, where you played fiddle, mandolin, and sang on a stage dwarfing that of Music Row’s promise. An avenue to record a solo 7″ and full-length album followed, the latter a collaboration with tour-mates stemming from yet another unforeseen opportunity. Now, after all of this, Rolling Stone writes of your “debut,” an album produced by a modern-day Legend who called you a “one in a billion“-type talent. This all happened after the idea of success that someone else had sold you on had collapsed.

No doubt, all of this is to invent someone else’s story for them through a spotty narrative, trivializing a life of creativity and unknown struggle for the purpose of convenient storytelling. There’s very little to be gained by merely restating plot points or press-release highlights, but in looking back at the timeline, the aperture expands, and with it the bigger picture takes focus. How much abundance does this world have to offer if only we refuse to accept someone else’s definition of success as our own?

This town tends to haunt those who fail to question that.

Penicillin Baby: Taking It Slow

“It was a big blessing in disguise.” Early in 2012, six songs that had been recorded for Penicillin Baby’s debut LP were mistakenly deleted. Someone got ahead of themselves at the studio and in an attempt to clear up some hard drive space, wiped the session without double-checking to make sure it’d been backed up. “I guarantee you, if we would have released those songs,” says singer Jon Tyler Conant, “they wouldn’t have had an impact like the other ones did, and they wouldn’t have sounded as good either.” Discussing the album in his home studio, distance and time have lent the incident a bit of humor. Laughing a little, he continues, “Bands probably shouldn’t just go record a record right after playing one show, and think it’s gonna be great. I know that now: You gotta play songs quite a bit before they’re perfect.”

Chalking it up to fate, the group took its misfortune in stride and embraced a slower pace in finding its sound. In July of 2012 Penicillin Baby released the Jams: Volume I EP, which was followed by a split cassette release with Megajoos in October, Volume II in December, and Volume III the following March. All told, a dozen tracks were recorded over the four compact releases, each of which helped the band take baby steps musically while Conant honed his technique behind the board at his home studio (which he only began assembling components for after the group’s first album went missing). The process worked as something of a continuation of the slow-growth model of playing and recording that Conant first picked up in grade school, growing up in Oklahoma.

“My family’s super musical,” he says, going all the way back to his first interactions with music. “My dad’s a pastor. I come from a very Christian family, and my family was the church band. So, everybody in my family plays an instrument: I always had a piano, a drum set, a guitar at the house, from the time I was born.” Laughing at the obvious, he adds, “Pretty much, my dad taught me to play instruments so he could put me to work in the church band.” No matter the reason for his introduction, music stuck with him and as Conant grew his music continued to develop. “When I was in high school I played in four church bands. I was traveling, playing somewhere every night. I was just learning how to learn songs really fast, learning how to work with people, you know? It’s good practice. Once I got out of high school I started tinkering with my own recording, making my own music outside of church, obviously, and that’s when I kind of decided I was going to come out here. I really like this recording thing, I like this music thing, and Nashville seemed like the best option.”

Starting in 2006, Conant began recording and releasing music online, slowly developing his direction as he grew into himself. “Favorite Face was actually a name for a project I had when I was still in Oklahoma that never played shows, I just made music at my house and put it up on Myspace.” This experimentation continued for the next three years. “Really, I was doing a lot of partying and drugs during that time. I was like 18, 19, didn’t give a fuck about anything, you know? So, I did a lot of that and a lot of learning how to record, learning how to write songs. It’s definitely a process. It pretty much took me three years to be like, ‘OK, I think I’m good enough at this to where I need to move somewhere else to try it.’” In 2009 he landed in Murfreesboro where he began attending school at MTSU.

The musical web that developed once Conant arrived in Tennessee was tightly knit, with a core group of friends weaving in and out of each other’s bands for the next few years. It was just as well that fate intervened and wiped the first Penicillin Baby album from the record, because up until last year the group had yet to find a firm lineup. When the band first formed in 2011 it included Conant and drummer Anuj Pandeya, who had both been playing together in Magic Veteran, along with guitarist Charlie Davis and bassist Zack Bowden, who had been playing together in the Dirty Truth. After Bowden left the band he was followed by Brennan Walsh, later of Deep Machine and Thief, who now plays in Shy Guy. After a brief stint in the group, Walsh was replaced by Taylor Lowrance, who Conant first connected with when they played together in Electric Teeth. (Lowrance also plays in Shy Guy, whose debut album, Dreams was produced by Conant.) By 2013 things had gotten rocky with Pandeya and he was replaced by Wesley Mitchell (who remains one-half of Megajoos). Says Conant, “I was talking to a mutual friend and I was like, ‘Yeah, I think we might be looking for a new drummer soon, I’m not sure.’ And somehow it got back to Wes and [he] texted me and was like, ‘Hey, are you guys looking for a drummer?’ And I was like, ‘Not really, but if you’re wanting to be the drummer then: Yes, we are looking for a new drummer.’”

As Mitchell says, he first sat in at “the official ‘signing celebration’ show with Jeffery Drag Records. I was pretty stoked and also terrified. It technically was my first time playing both as a ‘signed’ artist and with Penicillin Baby. Kind of killed two birds with one stone.” “I had noticed them for a year or so,” adds Jeffery Drag founder and Bad Cop frontman Adam Moult, “and after I watched ’em live a few times, my entire band got really into them. We were even jamming their songs at practice, so I reached out to Jon about August 2013, and that’s when this all began.” Before the end of the year the label gathered the Jams EPs into a single collection for iTunes and Spotify, and as turnover leveled off the group began to receive some positive press, including nods from Pepsi’s Pulse blog (calling Penicillin Baby one of the “Top 5 Nashville Bands Right Now“) and KCRW (where they were included as one of the “Hottest Bands Breaking Out Of Nashville in 2013“).

Earlier this year Jeffery Drag released the single and music video for “Private School Kids,” which was produced by Lincoln Parish (formerly of Cage the Elephant) and mastered by Bad Cop’s Kevin “Danger” Kilpatrick. Most recently the same team helped produced “Not Getting Any Younger,” which Jeffery Drag released in April as a 7″ single. (The accompanying music video recently premiered on PureVolume.) This month they will begin to record their proper full-length debut at Conant’s studio, with “Danger” helping produce, eyeing an October release date, which will coincide with an anticipated outing to New York where they’ll play CMJ. “I honestly see the band blowing up,” continues Moult, “becoming a DIIV or a Beach Fossils.” A Daytrotter session was just released, and in addition to recording, the band will tour to continue expanding their reach beyond Nashville’s city limits. What happens next — who knows. But after a few years of lessons learned: wisely, they’re in no rush getting there.

Related PhotosPenicillin Baby at The Basement

Just Let Go

In “Just Let Go,” the most raw and emotionally satisfying track from Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, the singer looks within before turning his gaze outward and graduating to a feeling of wholeness. “Woke up today and decided to kill my ego / It ain’t ever done me no good no how / Gonna break through and blast off to the Bardo / In them flowers of light far away from the here and now.” While perhaps not a literal gesture toward intergalactic exploration, the song — and much of the album — paints Sturgill a veteran of the “overview effect” (a term used to describe a phenomenon experienced by astronauts who gain a “profound understanding of the interconnection of all life” after viewing Earth from the fresh perspective that outer space provides). “Just Let Go” continues, “But am I dreaming or am I dying / Either way I don’t mind at all / It feels so good you just can’t help but crying / You have to let go so the soul can fall.”

On the day Metamodern Sounds was released, Sturgill and his band played an in-store at Grimey’s. Before the set, he was sitting behind the building with his bandmates. We’d spoken on the phone a couple weeks prior, and I wanted to say hello, but I made my introduction by interrupting a conversation he was having with guitarist Laur Joamets. I felt like an asshole. He’s only five years older than me, but part of me looks up to him. We’ve both beaten ourselves up pretty bad, and I can identify with many of the conclusions he’s beginning to draw for himself. Not because that’s where I’m at, entirely, but because that’s where I feel I’m heading. I chalk the nervousness up to being a nervous person, but building him up in my head didn’t help my case. Sturgill was gracious.

I asked him if he was overwhelmed. He made reference to his incoming Twitter feed. It’s a lot to take in. I mumbled something about seeing that he’d reached #23 on the iTunes album charts. He replied, asking what that really meant for him. Good question. What it meant was that, at that moment, he was marginally more popular than Sarah McLachlan, though whatever jumbled version of the joke I said flopped before it even left my lips. On the surface, the ranking meant people were listening. Some were probably even getting his message, and that has to count for something. In its first week the album reached #59 on the Billboard 200, and #11 on the Billboard Country chart. Again, that has to count for something. But what it means, I don’t really know.

The I’s here aren’t meant to make this about me, but the more the album sinks in, the more it feels like it is about me. It’s about us all. We all have our own versions of a “15 year psychobabble existentialistic dilemma.” Some take longer. Some never materialize. It’s hard to let go of personal failures and instances that could have been handled better, just as it’s hard to let go of hoping that anyone else still remembers any of the successes or victories along the way. We all have our issues. Moving on isn’t always as easy as physically moving forward. Letting go is tough. Yet here we are.

In an email earlier this week for another article, Daniel Pujol wrote, “I think making something outside myself that explains a thought, argument, or idea to me helps me get a touchstone. A consolidated reference point. Like learning a new word. I can move on from the thought after externalizing it.” That’s what this album feels like, or at least what reacting to the album in public through online comment feels like. It’s a terrible pattern we’re in, reminiscing about a moment that’s barely finished happening. Consider me guilty. But in listening to the music and trying to make sense of it all, I feel like I’m better off for having experienced it. Up 300,000 feet and now safely back down, having seen it all from a new point of view. It’s a lesson I’m learning far too late in life, but: even when you don’t have anything to give, give your gratitude. All I can do now is just say thanks.

Related FeatureThe Metamodern Gospel of Sturgill Simpson

Identity Control

“The old me and the new me are in a fist fight!” As howled in PUJOL’s “Manufactured Crisis Control,” the lyrics help paint an obvious scene of conflict, revealing an individual struggling for an objective view while commentating on an overbearing I against I scenario. While the new album, KLUDGE, “idiosyncratically captures life as it exists in our weird almost future world of flying robots, cancer from food, cell phone wire taps, metadata, $7.25ish minimum wage and $15.50 an hour endless choice buffets,” it more precisely feels like a challenge of self, an attempt to see through the ego and beyond the shell of pollution that now masks whatever may or may not be left inside. “I never know who I am at the moment,” relays guitarist and singer Daniel Pujol via email. “Maybe out of shear stubbornness. Or because I just don’t know. Or because I’ve hit some weird point where I just don’t care anymore.” There’s a tipping point somewhere along the road of self-discovery when — in the battle for separation between the old and new — looking within loses its novelty and a post-introspective future begins to take hold. This is where KLUDGE begins.

“Culturally, we’re encouraged right now to manicure our own identity,” Pujol tells the Nashville Scene, “to value our own identity, to maybe fetishize our own identity, and to try to present this manicured identity like it’s real.” Whether in active battle with it or not, right now we are all in the middle of a war with our surroundings, at once attempting to defend the inner while simultaneously allowing external elements to dictate who we project ourselves as. As Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti recently commented, “Capitalism needs to be constantly producing identities for peoples if the system is to survive.” The lines of who’s on whose side seem as blurred now as they’ve ever been. We are not ultimately our feelings, our songs, or our blog posts, but at the same time, when trying to figure out what is inside, our actions and expressions of self unveil themselves as mere reflections of the bits and pieces of identity that have been sold to us as indicators of uniqueness.

“Years ago,” continues Pujol, “I started noticing a lot of opportunities to grab things from culture, whether brands, viewpoints, associations, and use them to articulate a cohesive identity, and then exercise that identity cohesively in public. I felt like it was encouraged, and I began to wonder who benefits and why. Everybody wants you to be an individual to sell you stuff? A passive individualism? ‘It doesn’t matter I make $7.25 an hour because I can wear whatever I want to work!’ As an artist, that bothered me for a while because I debated whether I was just making media content and not art. That the whole apparatus launders everything created into content.”

At times KLUDGE reflects this perverted feedback loop, with its lyrics attempting to interject understanding into confusion. Despite leaning on an autobiographical tone, Pujol is vocal that the album isn’t as much a self-analysis as a purposeful narration, identifying the struggles of a character abandoning or killing off their past self. “That character wants more than perfecting who they were yesterday,” he says. “The crudest way to put it is watching a narcissistic [person] break up with themselves. He’s been encouraged by the world to decorate himself for other people who decorate themselves for him/her, and he/she just wants more than whatever he/she wants all the time based off what they liked yesterday forever.” The symbolism of recording the album in a suicide prevention center was, Pujol says, “pure poetic coincidence.”

“Obviously,” he continues, “it’s not that hopeless or one dimensional, but I figured if I made a record directly addressing ‘identity as commodity’ I could deal with that dilemma constructively. By trying to take it apart in song. The sticker on KLUDGE says ‘100% Pure Content.’ I think it’s funny. I think I just make things and move on.” What’s next might simply be looking forward for lack of a better option. Where any of this leaves us: who knows. But at least we’re all confused, together. “Whatever lesson I learned through making KLUDGE is where I am now, but I don’t know where that is.”

The Metamodern Gospel of Sturgill Simpson

Does Sturgill Simpson ever consider giving up? “Every fucking day,” he said over the phone, speaking to the internal doubt that haunts his professional direction, emphasizing how the well being of his soon-to-be expanding family rests on his success as a musician. It’s a conflict that breathes through Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and one that he’s already succumb to, when he first walked away from his craft, opting instead for the security of a position with Union Pacific in Utah. “I’ll do this as long as I can,” he continued. “But if there comes a point where I feel like my family is suffering, or I’m putting my own needs in front of that, I’m done. I gotta walk away, and I’ll know that I tried and I can feel good about it.”

With a theme of discovery at its core, the record relates Simpson’s attempts at balancing family, purpose, and self. At its boldest it’s a battle cry to dismantle and shed the veneer of ego. At the very least it shows a man learning to get out of his own way. On first glance just a wink to Ray Charles’ 1962 masterpiece, the album’s title does well to frame this struggle within the context of creative outlet. In their 2010 “Notes on metamodernism” essay, Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker defined the abstract term as “[a sensibility] that negotiates between a yearning for universal truths on the one hand and relativism on the other, between hope and doubt, sincerity and irony, knowingness and naivety, construction and deconstruction.” Here exists a man in the middle of cosmic opposites, their conflicting polarities causing an existential crisis, only further inflated by a self-made dilemma of duty. This is space in which Metamodern Sounds exists.

An invisible force has been tugging at Simpson since forever. Moved to honor the sacrifices made for him by his family, he joined the Navy at age 19, leaving behind his Eastern Kentucky home for Tokyo’s neon glow. He chose not to follow in the footsteps of his father (an undercover narcotics officer) when returning to America however. Instead, a creative drive took over and he formed Sunday Valley in 2004, releasing an EP with the twang-infused rock group before aspiration once again clashed with circumstance, leaving him bound for Salt Lake City.

The railroad job wasn’t bad, but the long hours, weighed further by the added stress of a managerial promotion, pushed Simpson near collapse. A few years into the work and he’d had enough. As the story goes, his wife dusted him off and injected a little sense into him, directing him back toward music so as to keep him from driving them both crazy. Still riding the swinging pendulum between security and satisfaction, the couple sold much of what they owned, packed their car, and headed east, where a retooled Sunday Valley would be reborn.

The band released To the Wind and on to Heaven in 2011, received critically as a “totally bullshitless record” that’s “as good-hearted as it is raucous.” The new songs and renewed sense of direction led the band to Nashville, where it didn’t take long to find a little shine. By October, Sunday Valley was named “Best New Outlaw Band” by the Nashville Scene, with writer Edd Hurt praising the group’s “super-boogie style suggestive of The MC5 with a Bluegrass State-size case of the blues.” Time and change remaining constant however, the new year found another swing in direction. “Out of respect and honor for Billy, Gerald, & Eddie and the sacrifices we all have made for this thing over the years,” wrote Simpson in an early 2012 Facebook post, “I could never under any circumstances feel good about continuing my musical journey under the Sunday Valley name.” Previously billed as John Sturgill Simpson, the singer shortened his name and welcomed the future. “New band, new sound, new album coming very soon,” he continued. “[A]s they say, the next chapter is always better, that’s why we turn the page.”

It wasn’t long before the newly christened Sturgill Simpson and the High Top Mountain Boys was trimmed to just the frontman’s name; the group would instead use the secondary tag — a nod to “the final resting place of many past generations of [Simpson’s] family” — as the title of their next album. “When I did the High Top Mountain record I didn’t know if I’d actually be able to make another record after that,” continued Simpson over the phone. “So I wanted to make a very traditional hard-country album that not only I could feel good about, but my family could hear and be proud of.” Oscillating between the past and the future, last June’s release carried a purposeful “neo-traditional country sound,” with producer Dave Cobb recruiting steel guitarist Robby Turner and Country Music Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins to help shape its form. The music again illustrated a swelling dualism within the songwriter though, Simpson’s lyrics and sound exposing a man attempting to understand who he’s yet to become by living in the past. The album might best be viewed as a relic of transition.

“I always felt like I left a piece of my soul there,” Simpson told last year, reflecting on his time in Japan after returning there to shoot the music video for “Railroad of Sin.” Much of the album, and the High Top period, feels in retrospect like Simpson going back over a trail of breadcrumbs, reclaiming bits of his soul that had been scattered over time. Album opener (and Sunday Valley holdout) “Life Aint Fair and the World is Mean,” for example, revisits the “turn the page” comment in a lampoon of the music industry. “It’s about life, how I came to Nashville with a very naïve perspective and some very quick, hard lessons learned,” he continued. “Without being too specific, it’s my own personal reminder of what I don’t want to do.” As the writing progressed for his next album, Simpson began to develop a keener sense for who he no longer was as a songwriter. “Honestly,” he commented this past March, speaking to WFPK, “I just kinda woke up and felt like I couldn’t write any more songs about broken hearts and drinking.”

“[High Top Mountain] gave me the realization that I had the freedom to write about whatever-the-fuck I wanted to,” he continued in our conversation, speaking to the thematic evolution of Metamodern Sounds. “There’s all these other things I’m interested in, and personal experiences that I’ve never really incorporated into music.” This isn’t to say that he completely abandoned High Top‘s themes with the release, however: “Life of Sin,” for example, goes deep in illuminating past transgressions (“Every morning when I rise I look in the mirror and despise / The sight of everything and all that I’ve become / The level of my medicating some might find intimidating / But that’s alright ’cause it don’t bother me none”). But unlike his last album, the subject matter here appears a springboard for higher-minded thinking, and flirtations with such themes translate as an exorcism of the past: purposeful molting to welcome evolution. With Metamodern Sounds Simpson isn’t moving beyond “broken hearts and drinking” simply for the sake of doing so, or to spit on country music tropes or position his music against contemporaries, but only because that’s just not where he is anymore.

While citing classics from Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder as inspiration, musically, the bulk of Metamodern Sounds lives in a similar space as its predecessor — though it sounds at times even more traditional than High Top, and its detours are unquestionably more ambitious. “I fully anticipated on being the acid-country guy,” he said, presumably speaking to the twisting psychedelia of “It Ain’t All Flowers.” Once again produced by Dave Cobb, the album was recorded live-to-tape in just four days. Simpson continued, “I feel like I’ve sort of cleared my throat and gotten my sound down.” The result is a record as appealing to Williamsburg as it is Lake Wobegon, modern sounding and full of risks while familiar and sentimental at the same time. Much of the credit for the album’s range and consistency belongs to the band, comprised of Simpson’s longtime bassist Kevin Black, drummer Miles Miller, and Estonian guitarist Laur “Little Joe” Joamets. “I wanted to make a record for people that don’t know that it’s possible to like country,” added Simpson. “It’s all really just soul music at the end of the day.”

The album’s opening track, “Turtles All the Way Down,” is further evidence of metamorphosis, finding the singer attempting to confront and abandon his past self by using psychedelics as exploratory vehicles, employed to break down “the self-defense mechanisms that we all don’t even realize we create for ourselves.” (“I don’t do drugs anymore,” he mentioned later in our conversation. “I would love to know what the album sounds like on drugs, but I probably never will.”) This led him to “look for other things that could change the direction of [his] life” – a sort of literary rabbit hole that he followed, digesting Rick Strassman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in the process. “Everybody’s going to get hung up on all the other shit that went into it,” he continued. “But all it was was really like this 15 year psychobabble existentialistic dilemma that led me to writing a record about love that sounds like I’m trippin’ my balls off. But you don’t really need drugs to get there, you know?”

In a Facebook post last week thanking fans, Simpson took a moment to exhale: “It goes without saying that I am about as sick of hearing/talking about me as I have ever been in my entire life.” People wanting a piece of you is a consequence of having something to offer though. Perhaps demonstrative of this (or just evidence of a great publicist), Simpson is currently in high demand: Metamodern Sounds premiered on NPR, Simpson recently performed on BBC2’s Later… with Jools Holland, and he has a Late Show With David Letterman appearance on the books for July. Despite aiming beyond mainstream country, there’s something to be said for the commercial appeal of a thoughtful masculine figure, preaching love and referencing literary influences over a sonically traditional bed of distinctly American music. (As Bill Hicks once mocked, there’s big money in “that anti-marketing dollar,” which might be funny here if authenticity hadn’t become so profitable.) At the very least Metamodern Sounds should resonate with recent country music converts introduced to the genre through Kacey Musgraves’ casual rebellion, now looking beyond her gateway songs in search of a more profound high. Regardless, a successful career appears imminent. Simpson’s motivations, however, remains fuzzy.

As “Notes on metamodernism” concludes, “the ‘destiny’ of the metamodern wo/man [is] to pursue a horizon that is forever receding.” It’s hardly a stretch to re-frame Simpson’s career to this point through such a lens. While few of us know what we’re truly searching for beyond “happiness” or “love,” we’re all looking for the same thing. We all grapple with direction, meaning, and purpose, and so does Simpson, which is why he’s the first person to clarify that he doesn’t pretend to have any answers. That doesn’t mean he isn’t trying to provoke something within us as he discovers more about himself though. As his recent Station Inn set wound down, the singer looked at the floor for a moment and spoke halfway under his breath before playing the show out, “Thank you very much. Don’t give up hope.” Few words carry such weight, but what do they actually mean? Hope for what? Hope that our decisions to breathe as artists don’t prevent us from feeding and housing our families? Hope that we’re able to find a way to make it through another day without hitting the self-destruct button of chemical escapism? Maybe just hope that tomorrow is going to be alright. If Metamodern Sounds says anything, it’s that no matter what exists beyond the horizon, we should never stop trying to reach it.

Related PhotosSturgill Simpson at The Station Inn

A Whole New You

William Tyler‘s Lost Colony isn’t quite a rebirth, but for being only three tracks deep there’s a surprisingly bold message that breathes through the release. “Tailor made for epic, exploratory road trips,” the EP is led by a pair of the guitarist’s catalog songs — now revisited with the support of a band — and closed by a “Kraut country” rendition of Michael Rother’s “Karussell.” Musically, the rounded-out lineup of players on the album follows Tyler’s 2012 Nashville’s Dead single, which stepped away from the solo-focused Behold the Spirit to deliver a full-bellied rock sound. However, now aided by drummer Jamin Orrall (JEFF the Brotherhood), pedal steel guitarist Luke Schneider (Natural Child, Lylas), and bassist Reece Lazarus, the newly revamped songs don’t try to rewrite the past so much as they build upon it.

Its title stemming from an inside joke about consciousness, album opener “Whole New Dude” is a renewal of “Man of Oran,” a sprawling Paper Hats piece from 2009’s Deseret Canyon. Not unlike with the EP’s second cut, “We Can’t Go Home Again,” which was originally issued on last year’s Impossible Truth, the expanded lineup helps fill out the song without abandoning the intricacies of the original. The fan in me wants to strike back at Pitchfork’s Winston Cook-Wilson, who criticizes the latter track in his review, writing “the [new] arrangement transforms the character of the song entirely, but it also doesn’t add anything to it.” Though, sharp as the position might seem, it’s not entirely off the mark. It just misses the point of the exercise, which might be to appreciate the subtle changes in approach when rebuilding something familiar from the ground up with a different set of tools. This music is about craft.

Replicating yesterday’s work delivers consistency, though it doesn’t necessarily lead to personal growth. As Tyler told me in an interview a few years ago, “I think anytime I find myself settling into a pattern of consistency I start panicking. So while, yes, there is a certain framework of tools and methods that you need in order to be able to do linear things like touring or even recording an album, the musicians/writers/humans I most admire are the ones who refuse predictability.” In this sense, the two reworked tracks seem to represent a challenge to his own predictability (a theme amplified by “Karussell,” which Tyler said was released to “explicitly do something that made everyone realize I was a fan of that kind of music“). But when playing The Stone Fox recently he closed the set with a performance of the Clean’s “Point That Thing Somewhere Else,” uncharacteristically stepping up to his microphone and adding vocals to the song while strumming along with a pick. It feels like something different is going on here.

Lost Colony might not be anything more than a temporary creative pivot, or it could lead to a whole new direction from the much beloved guitarist. Either way, it’s hard to draw any conclusions from 27 minutes of music. Regardless of intention, the songs do seem to represent something altogether different though. In revisiting the comforts of yesterday’s creations with an ever-maturing perspective, Lost Colony stands as a rather distinct plot point on Tyler’s evolutionary timeline. The EP demonstrates an ability to confront complacency with a refreshed sense of curiosity. Cliché notwithstanding, spring lends itself as a perfect time for this sort of personal change. And here we are, deep into the season, with a collection of songs that signifies how personal reinvention can begin with each new day.