With a Y, the slyly self-titled album from Telyscopes, does an admirable job summarizing the experimental project’s multifaceted personality. Its 11 tracks hold some of Jack Hubbell’s most engaging, outside-the-box ideas yet–an oddball record in a deep catalog of oddball records. But it didn’t start out that way; the band first started working on an entirely different album with the same title back in January of 2018, recording about 25 songs before ultimately scrapping it.
“It’s completely on me,” says frontman Jack Hubbell. “I didn’t think those lyrics or songs were anything special. I guess I was trying too hard to go back to the basics and make a sort of lo-fi, Is This It kind of record, but I just wasn’t into it.”
Stepping back from the project and starting fresh allowed Hubbell to get into a more intuitive groove in writing the second and final batch of tracks. For one thing, he started keeping a daily journal of stream-of-consciousness writings.
“I can’t claim to be a James Joyce or anything,” he says. “None of it was of any real literary value, but it generated some interesting prompts and storylines that ultimately found their way onto the album. I definitely think that when you let your guard down and write from the subconscious, it’s surprisingly cohesive, but more fluid than any forced-out material.”
Some of the storylines that wriggled their way into With a Y came from real experiences, like the record’s first proper song, “Rotten Egg.” It’s stomach-turning romp through the overcrowded, flea-ridden house where Hubbell lived from fall 2016 to fall 2017, during the making of his album High Fidelity Drag.
“I wish I came up with all those characters myself, but everything in that song is completely real, it all happened, and I would be a fool not to write about it now. Looking back it’s just so ridiculous and comical.”
He says all the gory details came back to him in part because earlier this year, he found himself in familiar circumstances. “We had a wonderful living situation in Brewerytown for about a year, but the landlord was negligent. The house had a pretty serious mold issue, the roof started to pool water and literally cave in.”
So come June of 2020, Hubbell had temporarily moved in with his girlfriends’ parents, and the only recording space available was a small room in their split-level home–not quite an attic, and not quite a closet. Counterintuitively, that limitation jump-started the second round of recording sessions.
“It was about the size of an average car interior,” says Hubbell. “Maybe a little more head height. I could sit at a desk to work, stand and sing, or lay on the ground to sleep. That was my office for, like, three months. It wasn’t ideal, but it forced me back into writing out of necessity.”
Not being able to have bandmates come over and track parts changed the way he approached the process entirely.
“I had to work on it more like a modern electronic producer. You know, ‘I can’t have so-and-so play their part, so, looks like the song’s gonna have strings instead.’ Just out of necessity. If you listen closely you’ll hear a lot of pill bottles, coffee mugs, and that sort of thing.”
Still, that workflow wound up pulling in a cornucopia of instrumentalists, with appearances by frequent Telyscopes collaborators like drummers Karl Hovmark and Pablo Cabrera, keyboard player Chris Caulder, multi-instrumentalist Jason Tyler, and producer Shady Monk. There are saxophone parts from Kyle Press and Andrew Kovaleski, plus upright piano by Harold Frederickson. But working as a long-distance producer also opened Hubbell up to a wider range of sounds–following his listening habits, which have increasingly led him to non-western textures.
Through YouTube, Hubbell connected with Asad Ahmed, who he hired to play koto and bolang gu on the single “Cicada Buzz.” As for the rest of the album’s atypical sounds: “I just really didn’t want to make another indie-rock guitar album, that was a priority. There’s a blend of me using awful home-made instruments, paying someone on Fiverr to record, or just downloading loops on Splice. You have to feel it out in the moment and do whatever compliments the song.”
Maybe the best illustration of that is the last track, a transformative cover of “On My Side, On A Hillside,” originally by One’s a Crowd–aka, fellow Northern Virginia DIY veteran Seth Flynn. Flynn’s 2014 album Writing Infinity was a massive influence on Hubbell’s artistic development, and that inspired a tribute that showcases Hubbell’s evolution.
“Some of my favorite recordings and performances are covers. I just love it whenever someone records a classic in their own style. It’s like giving people a demonstration of what you do, what you’re about, in a context that they’re still familiar with.”
The end result is more elaborated and hi-fi than the original–a rich, sprawling piano ballad colored in with saxophones and at least one easter egg for friends and followers of Flynn’s work. As for the specifics of Hubbell’s reimagining–like the album’s original songwriting, those came more or less intuitively.
“I’ve heard it so many times, I didn’t really reference the original or anything. It just came together easily. The production is different, but I think the essence of the original is still there, still fresh from when I first heard it.”
50% of the proceeds from With a Y will go to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a nonprofit run by and for autistic people with the object of expanding rights and opportunities for the autistic community.
“It’s a privilege to have this platform. I’m so incredibly lucky to have had resources to really foster my intense interest in music. So many people don’t have that same opportunity, and I think it’s important to actually use it.” says Hubbell, who is on the spectrum.
He wants the proceeds to help make those resources more available, but he also wants to be more outspoken about his identity for the benefit of kids who, like him, didn’t grow up knowing the full scope of accomplished autistic people in the arts.
“There’s definitely more literature out now than when I was growing up, in the dark pit of the internet circa 2009, and there’s definitely a sense of community and acceptance, especially online, but we still have a long way to go with legislation and accessible resources.”
With a Y is available to stream and download now, and it may be Telyscopes most fully-realized work yet. Before the release, Hubbell spoke to The All Scene Eye in depth about its spontaneous hatching–stay tuned for more from that conversation.