Frogs and toads can lay down a pretty good tune. No, really: The cycles of noise they make can vary from an almost song-like series of calls to rhythmic cycles that start to feel like a percussion figure. And one frog or toad, somewhere on the Eastern Shore, was singing away one midweek evening and caught the attention of Boister's singer/songwriter, Anne Watts, during a recent phone interview.
"There's a frog over here somewhere," she says midway through a sentence about maturing as a songwriter. She was talking about how life provides more experiential fuel as you age and you have the time to refine and hone the craft, but with maturity comes something even more complicated. The subjects that life puts in front of you become more difficult to address, and you start asking more and more from the writing. "You have more access to the ecstasy of actually freaking getting a handle on your craft, and in that freedom, you arrive at a whole new set of issues," she says before pausing, getting quiet, and noticing the rhythmic ribbiting in the background.
"I just want to listen to the sound," she says, "Isn't that crazy? [John] Coltrane said you've got to maintain your connection to the natural world-that's the only thing a musician can do, to feel that you're in accordance with nature's love." She mentions how that awareness of the natural world is part of that whole "maturing as a songwriter" question that started this extemporaneous riff, how the songwriting, for her, has become a more organic process which is taking place during this strange time, our time, the recent past, when we've become more and more obsessed with whatever technological screen is before our eyes.
"I don't know about you, but writing's hard," she says. "It's in opposition to that technological progression. That's not how a musician or a crafter of language can while away their time, checking text messages or reading the news. I mean, who wants to be out freaking out about [John] Boehner-you think Boehner is anything different from the Know-Nothings of the 18th century? It's the same old story, different century. Is that how you want to spend your morning, reading [the news on your phone]? Or do you want to start the morning looking at profound beauty, something that's really going to make you say, 'Yes'?"
That's right: we're going to wade right into the deep end of the ocean here. Watts and Boister recently self-released their seventh album, Your Wound Is Your Crown, and it is and isn't Boister's reliably ebullient amalgam of 1920s Europe and 1960s America. Lovingly recorded with stark warmth by J. Robbins at his Magpie Cage studios in East Baltimore, Wound's 10 songs are riven with the tensions that accompany the psychological whiplash of loss and the emotional ripples of coping with it. Watts sketches this terrain with pointillist lyrics, and the band-guitarist Warren Boes, trombonist Craig Considine, reeds player John Dierker, percussionist Jim Hannah, drummer Lyle Kissack, bassist Chas Marsh, and keyboardist Glenn Workman-responds to such expressive economy in kind. Over Boes' guitar arpeggio and Kissack's steady pulse, Watts exhales a delicate a last breath in "Sycamore": "I feel sorry for what happened, I feel sorry you lost face/ Ah, let go that last possession, Ah, let go your place." Workman's keys and a crackling beat act like the thermals keeping Watts lyrics hang-gliding through the melody of "Swan Dive": "I saw you leave me, leave me behind." And in the devastating "Yellow Sands," which cribs its lyrics from Shakespeare's The Tempest, Boister fills nearly seven minutes, slowly building from an intimate piano figure to an orchestral swell that conveys a widescreen grandeur.
It's an album that sounds and feels like it is wrestling with time's passing and inevitable end, and Watts admits that quality is a simple fact of where life leads. "You start to realize that you're not going to be able to avoid having your heart broken when you find out, hey, Chris Toll died-you didn't get a chance to say goodbye," she says. "He's gone. Blaster Al [Ackerman]'s gone. We're getting to a point where we've been part of a community in Baltimore where people are spinning off. [Late Baltimore urban activist and visionary] Dennis Livingston, who was an icon of awesomeness, I found out he was listening to us when he was dying and that kind of freaked me out. If that's what's happening [with your art], you want to take great care with what you're going to put down.
"That's why I think this record is different," Watts continues, and refers back to what she said about songwriting getting both easier and more difficult. With age, the emotional stakes get raised. And everybody in the band has something to bring to that feeling.
The songs on Wound are "just me jotting down what I'm feeling and hearing but it has involved a lot of turning away from noise and getting still," Watts says. "All I've got is a skeleton, and [the band] bring[s] the marrow and the blood vessels to it. They bring the life force to it. I'm realizing the simpler my idea is, the more room they have to take it. And when they take it, it's like, 'Oh my god.'"
Boister, which released its first album in 1997, has remained almost entirely intact ever since-despite the fact that Watts lives on the Shore, the other musicians live in Baltimore, and the band doesn't do the usual record, tour, repeat cycle. It's an unusual band that every so often records its own unusual sound and hits the stage or provides the score to a silent film or, more recently, Everyman Theatre's The Glass Menagerie. "We're not babies anymore," she says. "We're not freaking 22 and we're not doinking around. When people are giving their Sunday afternoon to you for all these years, and they've got kids and houses and they've got all their other things going on, the level of mutual respect spikes and that sticks to the tape as well."
It's a sentiment that recalls what guitarist/recording engineer/independent-artist oracle Steve Albini told Shut Magazine when talking about how his Shellac, the band he's been in since 1992 and which is releasing its fifth album this year: "We don't think of the band as a vehicle to play songs for people and make records and shit like that, it's a life experience for us. It's what we're doing as a creative outlet and it's what we're doing as a way of living within the relationship between the three of us."
That is such a refreshingly radical old-fashioned notion: Although music means the world to us, we still often talk about it as pieces of information we download for 99 cents or nothing at all. But that sound, those mp3 files and YouTube clips and scratches on a vinyl record are the byproduct of musicians' creative interactions, what happens when they respond to each other when they're dealing with their own lives. And sometimes when they do, we hear, understand, and empathize.
"In your vulnerability, that's where your power is," Watts says. "It creates space. And Artur Schnabel and Miles Davis were the two people that said the exact same thing. The space between the notes is more important than the notes themselves. And you live for 40 years like you don't get that and then all of a sudden you look around and-I lost my dad, and while we were making the record, Craig lost his mom, and when we were making the Moths record, Lyle lost his mom, and how many friends died this year? It's difficult to keep track of. It's getting to the point where you realize space is the place, as the great Sun Ra would say, because you realize that's where the possibilities lie. And if you were stepping all over the space, you're not giving the listener any possibilities to enter it."
Boister plays a CD-release show Nov. 15 at the Avalon Theatre in Easton. Visit avalontheatre.com for more info. Boister plays the Ottobar Nov. 7 with Half Japanese, the Tinklers, and the Dot Wiggin. Visit theottobar.com for more info.