Somewhere along the way, no matter what you do as an artist, you are going to hit a wall, and there will be no easy way around it.
New York singer-songwriter Aaron David Gleason hit one such wall in his early twenties, after leaving glam-rock band All Hours to forge a new identity as a solo artist. For him, the solution was to take a step back from the artifice of the thing and reconsider what he wanted from music. He started over from scratch and rebuilt himself as a more thoughtful artist, piece-by-piece–and it took 12 years.
Today marks the release of Wry Observer, his first record since the beginning of that process, and it shows plenty of payoff. Its ten tracks are comfortably eclectic, from the roots rock rattle of “The Last to Die in Battle” to the jazz flirtations of “The Favor.” His voice is right at home in the mix, somewhere between the ease of Elvis Costello and the folk-rock charm of Jakob Dylan.
Before the album release, Gleason spoke to The All Scene Eye about his influences, his techniques, and the ongoing process of becoming a more honest songwriter.
What has this last week been like, leading up to your first album release in 12 years?
It’s good! I was saying to my wife last night that as much as I’m trying to be objective, the emotion of this Rip Van Winkle thing of feeling pure sense memory that you haven’t for 12 years is a trip. It’s checking back in with yourself 12 years ago, and in the course of 12 years, a lot transpires. It’s churning up a lot. I was joking with her last night saying, “you know what’s going to be really fun? The next album.” And she laughed that laugh of, “oh, you’ve been putting me through the process of this album, why don’t you just see it through?” But I’m already getting so manic with excitement that I just want to make another one.
What excites you most about having this record out in the world?
It’s exciting to get music out in the world, period, and if somebody listens to it anywhere, I’m excited. If it means something to somebody, I’m even more excited. It would be very nice to have this get out there enough to justify touring, and excite people that way. I’ll be totally honest, I’m an over-poster on social media. I let people know what I fuckin’ eat for lunch, but I think a lot of that is the frustration of not having art in the world. If anybody is reading, I promise I’ll post less if you listen more to my album, you know? I would rather be making art than making pithy instagram posts.
Tell me more about how this hiatus period came about.
I’ll give you the abridged version. I was signed very young to a record deal with Hybrid Music and a publishing deal with Zomba. The band was called All Hours, and we did alright. We made very idiosyncratic–what I call bedroom records, where you haven’t lived enough life or gotten out on the road. Sometimes those records are great, they’re cool, they’re told by somebody living an unsustainable life. In our case, I think it was hit and miss. We were a vestige of the old system. It was a label that was still trying to put out CDs, and we’re talking about 2006. The market was already changing, and it fell flat.
I kept trying, I released an EP after that, but it wasn’t working, and what I realized was that I could keep going and maybe learn how to game the system, but I would rather take the time to become a better artist. I needed a new scene, so I went from LA to New York. I thought I would be welcomed, and the red carpet would be rolled out, but actually I showed up and people–agents and other musicians–started taking my inventory more brutally than I had experienced in my entire life.
I’m going to drop a name, but in this story I’m the butt of a learning experience. It’s not like, “this person thought I was great,” it’s more like “this person called me on my shit,” and that person is Art Garfunkel. I came to New York, and I auditioned for him. We don’t even know what I was auditioning for, we just hung out for a couple days, and he busted my chops pretty brutally. I don’t look back on it with anything but total gratitude. He said, “you have to work on this in your singing, you have to work on this in your lyrics, this in your songcraft, and this in how you present yourself.” It was really detailed, and at the time, it was brutal, like I was re-entering the atmosphere without a heat shield.
That was eight years ago, and I swear to god, I’ve checked all those boxes. I approached every single thing that he pointed out, trying to better myself. That’s going to be a lifelong process–I’m not saying that I’m hot shit now, or will ever be. But I wasn’t humbled–and I wasn’t humble–in my LA life. I was going under a stage name in the band All Hours, and to be myself here and to get my inventory taken was a humbling process to start over again. He was bold enough to do that, and a lot of other people did that too.
While we’re talking about this idea of being honest with yourself, what do you see as dishonest in music?
There are better songwriters out there, but I really love song craft, so I studied it, and that’s something I think I’m fairly decent at. But I can hide behind craft. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve had about 99% overwhelmingly great response to this album, but I got an email from an artist I respect, and he was the first person to be critical. Just to show that it keeps going and it never ends, he actually said about the new album, “you’re talented musically, but I don’t exactly know who you are.” I thought, “that’s a bit ironic because of how far I’ve come, I wonder if he would have thought the old me was more authentic,” or if he would have thought that was more, uh–
I was going to say bullshit. [laughs] It’s just a reminder. I felt like on this album I was more heartfelt, as opposed to trying to be witty or ironic at times, or create a mythology, which I did when I was writing for a glam rock band. At that time, I thought, “oh, that’s giving me license to write glam rock songs where self-mythology is part of it.” But this album is Aaron Gleason, not Gilly Leads singing for All Hours. I have to be honest or else it sounds crazy, plus I’m older and not a kid, so I want to get into it, not on a superficial level.
So what’s inauthentic about music? Oh god, a lot. As a singer, if you hear someone using phrasing that is highly affected, that’s inauthentic, and that happens all the time. But I did that too; on my first album, I’m very affected, vocally. I tried to sing this new album as honestly as possible. When I listen back to it, I feel like I achieved that, and sang it nakedly, without adornment. I tried not to use any tricks that I know.
The same thing happened in the songwriting. I have tricks that I can use as a songwriter, but I made it a point to not use any muscle memory on any of these songs. “Oh, I usually go from here to here.” Well, I wouldn’t allow myself to do that, and that’s why these songs took longer to write. It’s not like they’re complex, or prog rock. It just took a long time to relearn it, like anything. If you were relearning to walk and you said, “you can’t go heel-toe, you have to go toe-heel,” that would take a while. In terms of authenticity, it’s those small things.
When I hear somebody who’s 22 coming out with an album, and I’m 38, first of all I applaud someone who’s putting out a good album that young. And that’s how young I was when I got signed. But of course, you hear them experimenting with personas because usually they haven’t lived through much adversity yet. Some people at 22 have, for sure. But a lot of the time they have to adopt a persona. Sometimes they’re really great at it, or sometimes you say to yourself, “this is a really good start and in ten years their music is going to be incredible.” I needed to go through adversity to get to writing songs with more depth, and I did. I feel like I’m just getting there, and if I get to do the next few albums, I honestly feel like it will be me at my prime.
On a very musical level, I read that you had experimented more with things like open guitar tunings.
The same thing with muscle memory: if you’re playing in a different tuning, you can’t use the same voicings. I think three of the ten songs on this album are in some form of open tuning, which most people will associate with Americana. Songs that came out of Appalachia, those guitars were tuned to a chord most of the time. I had dabbled in Anglophilia so much, and I still love Bowie, and T. Rex, and Roxy Music–
When you said personas, all of that came to mind.
That was what it was, and it’s super attractive. I felt adopted by that, as so many quote unquote outsiders do. So many people tell the story of, “when I got into David Bowie, I felt like I had a home, I felt like somebody was talking to me.” Of course, I felt the exact same way. And actually, David Bowie’s pianist Mike Garson is on one of my songs on this album, called “The Favor.”
It feels kind of full-circle. I can’t deny that I have a similar timbre to Bowie, because I’ve listened to him more than any other artist. But I try not to imitate him. The only thing I try to take from David Bowie is being brave, because he was fearless as an artist, but I don’t try to emulate his songwriting. Anyway, Mike Garson is on this record, and that’s a bucket list thing for me. The same guy that played on Aladdin Sane and Young Americans is on my modest record here.
It’s funny you say that, because “The Favor” definitely stood out to me. There’s a lot of interesting piano–it’s shifting between bluesy and kind of jazzy as well.
That’s a good call, it has kind of a jazz-funk–[laughs] I feel like Spın̈al Tap when I’m saying things like this. They have that scene in the movie where they’re like, “it’s jazz-blues,” and the guy is like, “no, it’s more like blues-jazz.” Musicians can become so pretentious when we’re talking about genre, but if you wanted to look at it from a music theory point of view, it is kind of jazz-blues. [laughs] But that song, to me, is about secrets, and if you’ve ever had to keep a secret for a friend, it’s hard. Secrets don’t stay buried. If you’re watching a mafia show, and people bury the body, somebody always finds it. A dog digs it up, or some off-duty cop finds it. It’s the same with secrets, and I wanted to write a song about that. It became one of the more eccentric songs on the record, and Mike is an eccentric player, so it was very nice to have him.
Let’s talk more about genre influences, particularly R&B. Could you tell me more about “Pops,” which you’ve said is a tribute to the Staple Singers?
I love R&B. “Pops” and “Nevermind the Changing Times” probably have that. “Pops” is about Pops Staples, and it does something, if I can go off on a pretentious jag for one second. It seems to me that every fifth song I write is an exercise–one of my favorite exercises in the world–which is to modernize 1950s rock and roll.
Here’s my crazy theory: every decade since the fifties, a singer-songwriter has said to themselves, man or woman or whatever, “I love the fifties, but I don’t want to write a song that sounds derivative, so I’m going to add a little twist.” So if you hear a song from the sixties, a Beatles song like “In My Life,” it uses a very common four-chord 1950s thing, but it adds elements you would have never heard in the fifties. When you get to the seventies, you have someone like Elvis Costello who is really playing on 1950s pastiche, but he speeds everything up. Then when you get to the eighties, they were like, “we’re going to add this studio sheen to it.” That’s something you never would have heard in the fifties, but the song structure is straight out of there. In the nineties, you have a band like Blur turning the fifties stuff into ironic britpop, you know?
So what can I possibly do in 2017? This is my best bet. I sit down to write where the chords start to emulate something simple, but I add things that weren’t in the vocabulary of rock and roll. Of course, they’ve always been in the vocabulary of jazz, I’m not claiming I’m some kind of trailblazer. But in terms of the exercise I’m describing to you, it’s something I love to do. Can you take something seemingly simple and tweak it just enough so you don’t bring attention to the tweak?
Elvis Costello is one of my biggest influences ever, especially his 1970s output. A song like “No Dancing” really showcases what I’m telling you. It lifts melody and chords directly from the fifties, but then he starts to slide around and show you that he’s just doing that as a point of entry. From there, he’s going to show you his actual mastery. It’s like, if Tom Stoppard writes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in Shakespearean-ese, as it were, you have to know Shakespeare inside and out to be able to play around like that. That’s what I see with Elvis Costello, and that’s what I modestly try to do.
At the same time as you’re doing this experiment, “Nevermind the Changing Times” is pretty anti-nostalgia. What’s happening there?
“Nevermind the Changing Times” is the only song on the album I did not write. It was written by Brad Lindsay, the producer, guitar player, and arranger, who did amazing work with all of those things. He sent me a bunch of options, and that song fit the most, musically and lyrically. It is unsentimental, and that’s why I was attracted to it, but it also has a bit of an Al Green vibe, which is very attractive to me. I think those Al Green records are some of the finest work of all time.
What was it like working with Brad Lindsay on this record?
He and I have known each other for a while, but this is our first major effort together, and I think it’ll be the first of many. We seem to be able to work together, which is great. We had two days of rehearsal and four days in the studio–seven days in all for everything you hear, which is crazy. This is a bit of an un-humble brag, but I look at people who are considered indie. There was just a release of an artist, who I actually really like. I’m not going to name the name, but they’re labelled indie, and I look at their credits, and there are like 15 credits! I couldn’t afford to pay 15 people, you know? We had the smallest, quickest turnaround ever. I mean, not ever, but for nowadays.
Here’s the thing, and I want to give Brad his due. I try to be as expansive as possible when I send him demos. First of all, the demos I send him are just one take of me on guitar and piano. I don’t build up tracks, but I try to go as sideways as possible because I know he’s going to straighten it out. That’s his role here. As long as I keep doing that and bringing in stuff that’s quality, I feel like I can go anywhere and he’s going to make it palatable. [laughs] Which isn’t to say I don’t have a deep love for people who are as anarchic as Ariel Pink, for example. I love what he does. Do I have the balls to do something like that? I don’t know, actually. It takes a supreme amount of guts. I think that’s the new punk, you know, if punk is just a term and not a genre. But if Ariel Pink was working with Brad Lindsay, it would have more pop sensibility and be a little more straightforward.
I try to deliver the weirdest version of the song to Brad, because if I cut off the crust and give him that, it would be even more distilled. It would be too straightforward.
What are the things you’re excited to experiment with on the next record?
To me, it’s just keep working, keep being as expansive as possible. With All Hours, I was writing for an audience that didn’t exist, and I knew finally by this time that the audience did not exist. I’m only writing the songs for me.
Brad turned to his wife when I sent him the demo for the song “Again,” and his wife was laughing, like “this song is so weird!” And Brad was laughing. She was like, “who do you think he made that song for?” Brad didn’t even skip a beat, and said “himself.” He called me a week later, and he had forgotten that. He asked “who are you writing this for,” and I didn’t blink, I was like, “for me, man.” And he couldn’t stop laughing, because he remembered that was his first instinct too. And that’s it. I’m blessed to be in this position now. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like to make a living off music and get an audience, but for now, I want to make a record that I would like to listen to. That’s it.
I don’t want to underestimate my audience, I do that all the time. When I came to New York, I was also an actor when I wasn’t doing music. Getting that training, you learn that if you indicate that you are underestimating the intelligence of the audience, you look like a bad actor. The audience fuckin’ gets it, man! If you’re in a scene and you’re emotional, you don’t have to hold your breath and make your face all red, make your voice all funny, because it reads as fake. Even if you can’t get to the point where you are emotional, if you open yourself up and are honest in that moment, that’s better than faking it.
Constantly, while I’m writing, if I say “oh, I can’t go from here to here,” then I say “well why not? Says who?” I’m not writing a song for top 40–I’ll be lucky if I get on any chart ever in my entire life. Or maybe not lucky! You have to write the song that you want to write, and as long as I do that, the results are more interesting.