Richmond-based singer-songwriter Eli Gardiner went into the studio in 2016 with plans for a five song EP, but in music, as in life, things rarely go as planned.
After a year of personal struggles, including the loss of his brother to a drug overdose, Gardiner emerged in September 2017 with Virginia Rose, a full-length album documenting the tragedy, grief, and ultimately hope that permeated the recording process.
Engineered by Eric Price, the result is Gardiner’s most polished effort to date. His acoustic guitar and voice form the focal points, and his folky flatpicking is more than enough to animate tracks like “Mark V,” an ode to the memory of an artist. When other instruments find their way into the mix, a little goes a long way. Take the mandola that strums through “The River,” or the touch of harmonica that rounds out “Cancer and Faith.”
Through it all, Gardiner remains solemnly soft spoken, approaching questions of mortality with quiet care. A dour aura surrounds his stories, but so does a kind of peace found in their telling.
Months after its release, Gardiner spoke to The All Scene Eye about the catharsis and closure of Virginia Rose, plus the follow-up material just beginning to take shape.
This album was your biggest release yet. You had it professionally mastered, you had physical copies made, the whole shebang. What made you want to go big with this one?
Nowadays it’s really easy to do it on your own. You don’t have to be signed to a label–you can do the distribution yourself. I just did it through CD Baby, and it’s been great. Really, I had these songs that meant a lot to me, and I had gone through a lot of stuff in the year it took to make this album, so I wanted to do it just to see if I could.
How have you felt about the results?
I like the do-it-yourself approach a lot. With me, it’s about getting across the meaning and the emotion of the song. That was the most important thing for me. I think that’s what I value in music, and so a lot of the tracks on this album I just played and sang live. We came back and did overdubs after the fact, but it wasn’t like everything was separated. A lot of the songs, I just sat down and played them.
You definitely get that live feeling on a lot of tracks. “Mark V” has the fake-out intro, where you start, and stop, and go into it for real.
[laughs] Yeah, me and my buddy I recorded with, Eric Price, had a conversation, like, “should we keep that in?” He’s like, “yeah, let’s keep it in.” For me, for music, I like the feel of being in the room with someone. Sometimes I think you can get too separated and too perfect. Some of the songs I wanted to play around with production-wise, but I really wanted to keep that feeling where I’m just playing you these songs, and you’re learning about the stories and stuff through them. To keep that intimacy, that was part of it. It’s a little more upbeat song, it’s not as serious, so it was like, “yeah, we can keep that in.”
It’s a sparsely produced album. Elements like the mandolin, keys, and harmonica get a lot of space to spread out in. Can you tell me more about how you made those arranging choices?
Some of these songs, like “Virginia Rose,” that was just about taking the time to outline the song and what we wanted to bring in for other instruments. Some of them I wanted just to sit down and play, and I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to put on. I knew this wasn’t going to be an album that had drums on it, really just for convenience, to serve the songs. But a lot of times, say we’re doing a live song, I’d sit down, I’d play it through a couple times, and practice it up before we recorded it. Then we were just tracking with a couple different mics and recording the live vocal and acoustic guitar.
Then we’d come in, and my buddy Eric Price is a great musician himself, and he plays all kinds of stuff. He actually played a mandola, which is like a bigger mandolin, on a few songs. He played mandolin, he played keys, he played bass as well. We would just figure out what we wanted to do, so it was a really quick process as far as listening to the song. Usually we took a day or two just to do that, just to record it, then we’d come back and be like, “what do we hear here? What kind of elements do we want to add to support it?”
I like to take the really sparse approach. It’s all about the lyrics, and it’s all about telling the story, and we don’t want to overpower that. So how do we serve that through instrumentation? I think when you’re trying to present a body of work, you want it to flow, you want it to make sense song to song. But you also don’t want to overpower. It’s really being true to what you’re going for in the song, and maybe that works sometimes, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s about getting away from trying to do too much.
Why, in the end, did you want Virginia Rose to be the album title?
I didn’t know initially why I chose that, but thinking about it after the fact, it kind of makes sense. The stuff I was going through at the time of this album, it was a lot of–there’s three songs specifically about mortality and death.
“Virginia Rose” was the first one we recorded. I wrote it after working on a news story, actually, about a little girl named Virginia Rose. We had done stories about her rare form of cancer, and how she was battling it. One of the last stories I had to do was about her passing away, and how her family was dealing with it. When I was doing that story, I was looking through all this old footage, all this old video we had shot of her with her family. Sometimes those things just hit you. I wrote that song just trying to understand that loss of innocent life, and trying to put her name out there in the world.
With that theme of innocence and loss, I think that really plays into the whole album, as far as what I was dealing with personally. My brother passed away, and that was something that inspired these songs, and some emotion. But then also, “Mark V” is about a musician friend of mine from back in Michigan who I randomly found out had passed away from a brain tumor, and he was my same age. So it’s about dealing with your own mortality too.
Whenever you lose someone, I think you always come back to, “could that have been me?” or “why am I still here?” All those questions are brought up. I think that’s why I came to name it Virginia Rose. And a rose, you think of it as a delicate thing, which life can be, a lot of the time.
Has your relationship to the songs changed, and has your relationship with mortality changed, since you made this album?
I think getting those stories out and getting those lyrics down has really helped me to process it. On the hard copies of this album, on the back, I have “for Jacob,” who was my brother. That was really important to me to put that out into the world. It’s about just processing through it, and how I process through things is writing about them, a lot of times.
It’s a whole other thing, once you get it down, to try to share it, record it, and try to be in that headspace. It was a pretty heavy, emotional thing to commit to that, but I think it was something I had to do at the time. There are some songs I probably can’t even play live off this album, just because of the emotion.
You’ve mentioned that for you, so much of music is about that personal connection, being in the room with people. What is it like taking these songs into that setting?
I pick and choose based on the performance. If it’s more of an intimate performance, I’ll more likely play some of these songs, because I think they deserve that kind of attention. If it’s more of a loud bar, I’ll pick more upbeat songs, or ones that aren’t as deeply personal, that I won’t be affected as much by.
Those songs ultimately are for you, and it’s interesting, this idea that there are times and places where they can be shared, and those where they can’t.
I think that’s one reason I wanted to have them in an album. It’s not necessarily a concept album, it’s more like a moment in time album, as far as my personal things. For me, the type of music I like are those songwriters and songs where you really can feel and experience what they’re going through, and through that empathy and sharing the art, you can go through your own things. No matter how individual something we’re going through is, people are going to pick up on that. I think that’s why I like to make music; to share that kind of stuff. If you know someone else is going through it, that might help you through a rough time.
That idea that you’re not alone going through a rough time, that other people have done that.
Yeah, and I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to make it as an album. To have that out there and maybe, through that, let go of it being such a hurtful time for myself. I have a brother and two sisters and a mother too, and so part of this songwriting is to have that for them as well, and have them be able to feel part of something, and work through the grief of losing someone.
“Let It Pass” is a song about working through grief. Can you tell me more about how it developed?
So, this is interesting. I wrote that song probably two years before my brother passed away. Both my brothers have gone through addiction issues, and one of them, my brother Lucas, is now sober. I was writing about it from that aspect, where I couldn’t connect with them anymore, because they were involved with addiction, and it was something I had to let go. They had to work on it themselves.
But when my brother Jacob passed away from a drug overdose, and I was trying to grasp at something to make sense of it, this song that I had written two years before really stood out. I actually played it at his memorial service as well. It’s interesting, there’s a line, “what is death but temporary,” you know? It talks about, “just let it pass, we both know this is temporary.” That’s something I believe in. The people you love that pass from this world, you’re going to see them later on. No matter what you believe about afterlife or whatever, heaven or hell, I think you’re going to catch up with them. That’s really what that song is about. Everything passes, and you’re going to find out what’s in the afterlife.
Which is another thing that’s reckoned with on this album: faith in the face of all of that.
Definitely, and it’s not necessarily a religious faith. It’s more about a spiritual thing. Understanding that there’s something else there, and there’s a deeper connection than just our physical world.
I feel like songwriting is one of the ways we have of accessing that.
Totally, man. That’s one thing I strive for, trying to tie into that when you’re creating something that can connect people, or that people can relate to, and letting go of the self-actualization, the self-critique. You hear songwriters like Neil Young talk about, “yeah, I just had this spark, it wasn’t me writing the song, I just wrote it down. It came through me.” I think there’s something to that as far as being open to a spirit, or open to an impulse, or creative outlet. That deeper connection.
You mentioned your work as a TV photojournalist, and that’s a very different kind of storytelling. Has that impacted the way you think about telling stories in music?
It’s funny, there’s a song on the album, “Cancer and Faith,” and that’s kind of a true story. I took some liberties with it too, but I was inspired because there’s this reporter and this photographer out of Minneapolis, who are amazing at their work. They did an amazing story about this older guy. He was just diagnosed with cancer, and he had lost his wife to cancer. He goes on these long walks every day to clear his mind, and every day he would walk past this old, rundown church, boards falling off it. Because he needed something to occupy his time when he was going through his cancer treatments, he decided to start rebuilding this church. They tie it in with how he’s rebuilding his faith while he’s rebuilding the church, and there are all these metaphors that came up.
When I was writing the song, I had this really visual picture in my mind of him walking on the gravel road, and what he’s thinking about. It flowed from there, but I was also thinking about my dad, who died from cancer as well, and how when you’re diagnosed with something that horrible, that can affect your faith in whatever you believe in.
I think at its best, that kind of TV journalism tries to tell stories in a way that makes you feel connected in a very basic, human way with people in your community.
Yeah, and I that’s a tie-in with songwriting and what I do with journalism. It’s about making people care, making people feel. In journalism, it’s about capturing moments, and showing people through those moments rather than telling them. If you have empathy through those moments for the people in the stories, you’re going to care about the stories. And I think that ties in with songwriting as well. How do you make someone care through a melody, through a lyric, through creating this picture in someone’s head through the song?
I also want to talk about the settings of those stories. “Flatlands” is a song that’s so clearly influenced by Iowa, where it was written. Since you’ve moved to Richmond, has that terrain shown up in your songwriting imagination at all?
Not a lot, not yet. I think it will. I think the geography of where you live definitely plays a part, just by what you see every day. I’ve written songs where I talk about the heat, and stuff. [laughs] That’s a new thing, the humidity, for me. I’m originally from Michigan.
But that song “Flatlands” was very much inspired by tornado-chasing, actually. I was working in TV as well when I was in Iowa. We had to go out and chase tornadoes sometimes, which isn’t the smartest thing to do. But that’s what I remember about living in Iowa, is the storms rolling in through the plains, and the darkness, and the magnitude of the clouds. I lived a little bit outside of Des Moines, in the country, off a dirt road, in this old farmhouse. Just having that picture of the natural storms, and also the flooding that happens there in these rural areas, you’re so overpowered by the nature of it. But also with that story, I had a hard time there. I was really isolated, and I wasn’t happy with the work I was doing, and personal stuff I was going through. It would drive me crazy sometimes, being in these flatlands.
I’ve covered some tornadoes here too, but just the sky, I’ve never seen anything like it. We’re driving on 80 West, the highway that cuts straight through Iowa, and they’re like, “yeah, just go 80 West, and you’ll hit it.” And I’m like, “I don’t think we want to hit it.” [laughs] But you see the sky just start turning black. I’ve never seen anything like it. People start pulling off to the side of the highway, and I’m thinking, “if I see a funnel cloud, what am I going to do here?” You don’t know. A tornado is one of the scarier things in nature because it’s so unpredictable. You can have an idea of where it’s going to hit, but you don’t know for sure.
In that way, it comes back around to this idea of mortality. It’s a known constant, but you can’t predict when and where it’s going to happen.
That’s interesting, I didn’t think about that before.
I was an English major, so any time you give me a list of words in any form, I’m like, “alright, how can I tie them all together?”
No, that’s great, I do the same thing. It’s hard to do when you’re so close to it sometimes, but that’s perfect.
It’s been a while since the album came out–what’s the next move?
Right now I’m really focusing on playing shows. Also, I’m trying to get a small contingent of musicians together to form more of a band. I just got a new electric guitar I want to play, so. [laughs] I want to play a little bit louder. I have a lot of new songs I’m working on too, so I want to start recording a new album this summer. I’m not sure what form it’s going to take. I’d like to have some full-band songs on it; I think that would be fun.
What kind of guitar is the new one?
It’s a handmade tele-style guitar–I have a friend who makes them. It’s called Phat Guitars. They’ve done work for Blackberry Smoke, they’ve done guitars for Sister Hazel, and he was nice enough to make me my own. It’s swamp ash, vaulted maple top, it’s pretty nice. I’ve been wanting to get one for a while, so when this opportunity came up, I jumped on it.
What’s your favorite concert you’ve ever seen?
There have been a couple, so I’m going to pick two. I saw Pearl Jam when they came out with that avocado album. That’s one of my favorites. But also the first time I saw Jason Isbell, which was a couple years ago, when he played here in Richmond. It was a perfect setting. There’s a spot in Richmond called Browns Island. It’s downtown by the river, and there’s a train track that runs right there, and that was one of the best concerts I’ve seen in a long time.
I’ve been a fan of his music for a while, but I never got to see him live until I went to Richmond. I’ve seen him twice now. That was the first time I saw him live, and it was very in-the-moment; a lot of his songs were very emotional to me. It was one of those concerts where you just get lost in the music. It was a perfect setting. The sun’s going down, you’re out by the river, the train’s going by.
It’s also cool to live in a place where lots of people tour.
Oh yeah, it’s been great. Since I moved here, I’ve seen a lot of cool musicians. I’m going to have to pick another one, just because of songwriting. I saw John Moreland up in D.C. at the Rock and Roll Hotel last year. He’s someone I’ve recently discovered through some podcast stuff, and I’ve really latched onto the grittiness, the rawness of his songwriting.
It’s a full room, it’s a really long room, and I’m up near the front, and when he comes out, everyone stops talking in the room. Everyone. You don’t see that at shows a lot. It was just him and another guitar player, but it’s silent, to the point like you’re at church. He sits down and starts playing, but he’s got everyone’s attention wrapped around his finger, just playing these songs. That really was powerful to me, because it really showed what these songs can do. They mean a lot to people. And his songs aren’t happy songs. They’re really rough songs, but people connect with that. I think sometimes they find happiness through those rough songs.
And really any time you hear music, and I don’t know if other people get this, but I’ll get goosebumps when it happens, and you have that chill up your spine. That’s the best, when you listen to live music, and there’s that connection. That electricity in the air.
If I’ve never listened to his stuff, where should I start?
He started more as a punk rocker, but all his acoustic stuff is amazing. High on Tulsa Heat, that’s a good album.