S. Carey: I read John Muir's writing to escape touring

Categories: Q&A
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Photo by Cameron Wittig

Inevitably linked with Bon Iver bandmate and musical mentor Justin Vernon in any press coverage of his music, Sean Carey's managed to build up his own formidable catalog of ethereal folk-pop when he's not busy touring the world as part of the famed Eau-Claire-based ensemble.

The latest installment, Range of Light, serves up lyrically contemplative and musically lush mid-tempo folk-rock ("Glass/Film") alongside totally trippy densely layered ambient explorations ("Fleeting Light"), employing an array of atypical rock instrumentation -- harps, woodwinds, kalimba! -- in service of its beautifully soothing soundscapes. Reached from a tour stop in New Orleans, Carey took time out to chat with Gimme Noise about Range of Light's extended recording timeline, the impact of parenthood on his creative process, and how a long-dead naturalist inspired his latest work, amongst other topics.

See also:
Bon Iver's Sean Carey on Hoyas and why he didn't get a Grammy


Gimme Noise: Range of Light was recorded in short bursts over a long period of time, with months off in between recording sessions. Why the lengthy gestation period?
S. Carey: I originally wanted to put it out a lot earlier, but I had a baby last summer so kind of had to put the record on old for a bit. In the end, that turned out to be a positive thing because some new songs came out of the woodwork inspired by that experience.

I ended up having a couple of songs, "Alpen Glow" and a b-side called "Chrysalis" that we recorded right as we were finishing up the record and mixing everything else. There were two other new ones we recorded as well, but they were just taking the record into too different of a direction, from the beginning my goal was to create a super cohesive listening experience.


That cohesion is definitely evident on the record. Given the current trend towards atomization in music consumption do you ever feel out of step creating albums meant to be consumed whole?
I've always been an "album" guy so to speak. That's the way I enjoy listening to music, and the way I enjoy creating it. It is weird what's going on right now with music in terms of that format sort of disintegrating. I remember finishing up this album and thinking about having to choose what would be the focus tracks released online and really just having no idea. I was sitting in my deer stand while hunting and I had a little notepad and was writing out all the different combinations of cool two or three song groups together and just getting nowhere [laughs]. Everyone seems to have a different favorite song from the record and that really excites me.

Range of Light's liner notes explain that the title of the album is derived from famed 19th century naturalist writer/philosopher John Muir's name for California's Sierra Nevada mountain range You also include a quote from Muir -- "Most people are on the world, not in it" -- that doubles as a sort of mission statement for the nature-themed album. Why did Muir weigh so heavily on your mind while creating the album?
My fascination with California dates back to when I was a kid. We had family reunions out there every summer, and would go camping, fishing, hiking. I really fell in love with the whole Sierra Nevada area. I only started reading Muir's work in the past five years really as a coping mechanism while touring so much. If you want to get away from knowing you're on tour it helps to read something very specific about a place that's very far away [laughs]. I connected with him right away. He writes about his spiritual connection to the wilderness in a way that mirrors my own experience. I can just really feel where he's coming from.

I find him a fascinating person. As I was working on the album I began wondering if we would have been friends if we were alive during the same time period and our paths crossed. Part of me thinks definitely yes, just because we have so much in common. But then another part of me thinks likely not, I mean the guy was a bit crazy, he lived in the wilderness for months on end eating only flour and rice. He was pretty extreme [laughs].

From the sound of it, fatherhood helped reshape Range of Light toward the end of that album making process. Looking ahead do you think becoming a parent will significantly alter your relationship with music moving forward?

That whole saying that having a kid changes everything is both clichéd and true. My wife and I made the mistake of thinking that maybe it wouldn't change our lives that much, but it definitely has [laughs]. Going on tour is obviously a whole different thing, and you do start thinking more critically about things like how being a touring musician is actually going to work while having a family, and questioning whether those challenges are worth it. From a songwriting perspective, so far it does seem to have changed things a bit. The lyrics and vibe of the new songs are more direct than what I was doing before. I'm sure the experience will continue to inform my writing from here on out, I just don't quite know exactly how.


S. Carey performs with opening act White Hinterland on Friday, April 25, at the Cedar Cultural Center. 7 p.m., $15, All Ages

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