Monday, January 24, 2011

Gavin Castleton Album Titles & Artwork Explained

On more than one occasion I have found myself arguing with dear friends about the naming of albums. I have a pet peeve: I hate the idea of a "title track," the naming of an album after a song. Not only do I see it as creative laziness, but also an insult to the other songs that share the record.
With the advent of the digital age, the reasons for publishing a group of songs in one block began to disappear. No longer is the medium designating the length of a release. No longer is the marketing cycle for a release as lengthy or as expensive as it once was---in fact, most labels are starting to embrace releases with shorter shelf-lives and cheaper social marketing efforts, adopting the use of EPs, singles, and remixes as legitimate forms of listener-engagement and revenue. So it stands to reason that nowadays when an artist gathers a group of songs and publishes them, she is doing so because those songs belong together, and not just to consolidate production and marketing costs. Subsequently, if the songs belong together then surely they form a bigger picture: maybe they collectively depict a time in the artist's life, maybe they illustrate a period in the author's creative development, maybe they're just all about the majesty of burritos. When that collection of songs is named after just one of the burrito songs, it suggests that the one song can sum up album's message... so why include any other songs on the release? Are they not integral to the message? Put differently, It think of my songs as children (as many artists do), and my album as a family, why would I name my kid "Castleton Castleton"? Sure it'd probably garner him twice the success with the ladies, but how would my other kids feel about that? And why would I waste your time with more of my clumsy kin when CC already said it all?

I have a similar distaste for the self-titled album. My thought is this: if you as an artist have finally recorded something that sums up everything you've learned about yourself and your craft so definitively that you want it to share your name, then I hope to high heaven you don't intend to release another record, because you've reached the end of the journey. And the rest will be recycling. And there simply isn't room in our ears anymore.

Of course none of these circumstances are usually the motivation for the naming of an album - I suspect they just don't think that hard about it, and so they resort to the old industry standards: title tracks and self-titled albums. Well, I'm not a fan of the lazy approach to anything in regards to music - here are some explanations for some of the albums I've released:

HYPOTENUSE (2004) & DARK AGE (2004)

Album Title: Near the end of my 25th year, I wrote and recorded what would become my first two solo records: Hypotenuse and Dark Age. Originally I intended to make one long album, but soon realized that this collection of songs was better divided into two piles: the angry and bitter rants with the hip hop edge belonged to Dark Age, and the somber, wistful electronica songs comprised Hypotenuse. As is true for many people, 25 was a pivotal year; my familial and business relationships were in a massive state of flux. I was becoming acutely aware that my life had gone completely off-script, and the internet was spray-painting the music industry every shade of revolution, opportunity, and economic confusion. As a human I was eager to reinvent myself and shake off the perceived "yoke" of my parents. These albums signified my transition from a very private, fairly passive aggressive person to a somewhat exhibitionist aggressive-aggressive person. They also ushered in a new era of self-sufficience for me; having fully embraced the gamut of music production software, I would no longer be reliant upon others to create music. Oftentimes clumsily produced and lyrically self-absorbed, the songs on these albums are truly pubescent (though I often think my music career has been---and will continue to be---one long puberty). But they play an important role in the timeline of my releases, cataloging a very dark year for me and paving the way for my creative renaissance. They spoke directly to specific people in my life in terse naked language - no right angles, no circumvention - just the most direct line between two points: an emotional hypotenuse.

Album Artwork: The cover of Hypotenuse is a self-portrait in pen superimposed on an acrylic painting. It's a drawing of me huddled in a blanket on a bed, composed entirely of triangles.
The cover of Dark Age features a vectorized photo of me staring directly at you. It was taken with somebody's point-and-shoot at CMJ (note my facial enthusiasm at this prestigious industry event). I chose it because it was the type of image we would never use in Gruvis Malt artwork, and it was unflatteringly "honest." The text and layout are a nod to that of Propellerhead, the software company that makes Reason (a program I'd used heavily on both records).


Album Title: This record was intended to jump-start a band. Blak and I were unified in our frustrations with our unmotivated groups (One Drop and Gruvis Malt respectively), and we set out to make an EP that we could sell on our encroaching east coast tour.
I flew down to Orlando and wrote four of the five songs with Blak in a weekend. We then brought the rest of One Drop in to a friend's studio to track them. From the first day of that marathon writing session to the tracking, mixing, and final mastering date, the project took two weeks, or one "fortnight." We referred to most of those sessions as "the night shift" since they often began around 2:00pm and ended around 4:00am. Hence, "Fortnightshift."

Album Artwork: The front and back covers are photos of a field taken near the studio in Chuluotta, FL where the EP was tracked.


Album Title: Gary Tivole, the unlikely protagonist of Grace Land, is a huge fan of Paul Simon, "There is a game I like to play where it's me in New York / In front of a small audience of mostly young ladies / playing these songs / answering questions afterwards / like how I came up with 50 Ways / or where Art Gurfunkle and myself went wrong." I liked the idea that he would name his album "Grace Land," an obvious bite, but would insist that it isn't derivative at all because his title is two separate words while Simon's is "Graceland." I also liked the irony of it as a title; suggesting that the ugly, awkward, and often irrelevant rantings of Gary Tivole are in any way associated with "grace" is hilarious to me.

Album Artwork: The album art for Grace Land is a series of self-portraits that Gary did in marker on a wall in his apartment. We were lucky enough to peel blocks of the wallpaper off without damaging the drawings or alerting him.


Album Title: Hospital Hymns was inspired by a six month stint I worked as a temp in a Rhode Island hospital stockroom. My job was to restock the various units. It was remarkable to me how spiritually sterile the environment seemed, despite it being home to some of the most emotionally turbulent events in its inhabitants' lives. I was also interested in the contrast between the non-unionized stockroom workers and the more "presentable" doctors, nurses, and lab techs we kept well stocked. While writing more music for solo performance, I was surprised at how much the Mormon hymns of my youth had influenced my harmonic instincts. I decided to write a narrative across five "modern hymns," each employing some phrasing or melodic tendency from a hymn I'd grown up with. The fictional 76-year old narrator seemed a fitting gauge for the listeners' spirituality: Do you see him as a religious fanatic, completely out of touch with reality and even dangerous, or as a humble follower who can find beauty and God in the places that those who eschew him cannot: the darkest corners of a bustling white-washed building?

The Artwork: The cover of Hospital Hymns is a water color painting I did of the narrator haloed by flowers. The back cover of the promo copies had a floor plan for the hospital I worked in.


Album Title: For the Love of Pete is a collection of songs I wrote for my ex-girlfriend spanning the six years we were together. We  developed our own language, as lovers do. We had a game where we referred to each other as "Pete," but preceded by another "P" word. Like, "Oh, don’t be such a Presumptuous Pete" or "You’ve been a real Prickly Pete lately." My grandfather is fond of saying, "For the love of Pete!" when we exasperate him. Since the album is a collection of love songs I wrote for my Past Pete, the phrase seemed fitting.

Album Artwork: For the Love of Pete features photos of Jenny and I in the backyard and neighboring farm of our Lincoln, RI residence. You wouldn't know it by our expressions, but we'd been broken up for several months at the time of that shoot. She not only took most of the photos, but also did much of the layout and typography.


Album Title: This narrative record, the fictional recounting of my life in reverse chronological order (from a miserable suicide in 2054 to a 2007 live performance), is about little choices with big consequences,  spurned by questionable incentives. The title comes from the book Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, which states, "An incentive is a bullet, a lever, a key: an often tiny object with astonishing power to change a situation... There are three basic flavors of incentive: economic, social and moral."

Album Artwork: The cover of A Bullet, A Lever, A Key was inspired by a Saivite funeral. The photo was taken by Jaime Lowe, and Alex Barton helped arrange flowers around my face after covering it with honest-to-goodness pyre ash.

HOME (2009)

Album Title: I wrote this album in the midst of the biggest storm of my life: my six year relationship was in pieces, my bands were becoming inactive, I was financially unstable, and had fallen out of love with the town I'd lived in for 14 years. I didn't name the album until I was nearly finished recording it, and when I finally did there didn't seem to be any other contenders that made nearly as much sense as "Home." All of the paths I was embarking on were leading me away from comfort, away from the "homes" I'd built for myself throughout the first third of my life. I came to realize through the making of this album that the artistic process itself was my resting place, and that when nothing else was steadfast, my ability to cope through creation remained constant. When I need it, art itself is my home. The final words of the album are, "Home is not the place you dwell, home is where you see yourself." Much like the final events of the Hospital Hymns narrative, this lyric is designed to dissect the listeners based on how they interpret that last line. What kind of artist are you? Do you build your home out of reality, "seeing" yourself for who you actually are and painting unapologetic self-portraits in your chosen medium? Or are you an idealist, rejoicing in limitless potential and seeking solace in the imaginary place you can craft for yourself?

The Artwork: The cover of Home is the result of a lot of work by two experts: photographer/digital lighting pro Ryan Rogers and graphic designer Justin Muir. Through the magic of computers Justin was able to take a beautifully stark portrait from a shoot I did with Ryan and graft molding zombie veins,  socket irritation, and two scenes reflected in my eyeballs: an arial view of a ladybug, and a horizontal view of encroaching zombie hoards.
The cover, often mistaken for that of a nu-metal band, is meant to exhibit the theme of duality that runs throughout the record - red vs. blue (internal vs. external), ladybugs vs. zombies (proactive vs. destructive), fact vs. fiction (reality vs. ideality), etc. The expression on my face suggests that there is no clear solution.


Album Title: This EP was the first and last release borne of political needs rather than artistic. The label felt it would help us promote my next tour to have a new recording to blab about in a press release. Hope is a Drug, Scared Scared Scared, and Shell 2: Nephew of Shell were three very different tracks that I was very happy with but had no particular plan for. The only thing that unites them in my mind (aside from my sensual voice) is that each is anthemic of embracing humility: Hope is a Drug promotes fulfillment through immediate art-making over the success that may or may not result from it, Scared Scared Scared is my acknowledgement and acceptance of the universal fear of being alone, and Shell 2 is an unflinching assessment of my health and aging.

Album Artwork: In keeping with the "random" theme, the cover to this EP is a photo of Lumas at an outdoor basketball court down the street from my apartment. It was taken by Jaime Lowe and I used it because I liked it.


Album Title: This album was tentatively called "Orphans" for its first trimester. After releasing Home, I wanted to make an album without a narrative arc or unified pallet; I wanted to make the opposite of Home. I changed the title to "Won Over Frequency" when I read this article in the NY Times and it occurred to me that perhaps there was a unifying thread here. My music is getting easier to sell to people (though let's be sure to divorce the term "sell" from anything to do with revenue). I no longer struggle through the writing process as I once did; songs cooperate with me during the birthing process. And a rhythmic logic to the chaos of my stylistic interests has emerged. The songs on this album speak to and resonate with a wider audience than anything I've done to date - they are the closest I've come to my "pink noise" (represented in music synthesis as the wave pattern "1/f," or one divided by frequency). I chose the double entendre "Won Over Frequency" because I've arrived at this style of songwriting, and conquered this little patch of grass in this war zone-of-an-industry only through persistence and consistency.

Album Artwork: This may have been the most labor-intensive artwork of any I've done --- not for me really, but for the incredibly talented people that worked on it. The cover depicts my fat face sloshed with pink paint on a black background. I'm staring you in the face (as is also the case with Dark Age and Home), disarmingly and somewhat disarmed. The cover is meant to represent the collision of the two engines of my creative process: emotion and logic. The stark, Pepto-bismo pink is both a nod to the concept of "pink noise" and representative of the dramatic emotional romantic in me that would have the audacity to pose the question "Are you brave enough for my love?" and the judicious black foundation (with Brendan Bell's Matrix-green geometric imprints) is the pragmatic scientist in me that would have the audacity to marry hymnal chords with odd time signatures. The pink strip hurtling towards my face from the left-hand side doesn't completely override the background --- they co-exist, compliment each other even, and then meet in and share my headspace in a nearly 50/50 ratio.


Anonymous said...

I love you.

Anonymous said...

This was an interesting post but I am not at all surprised.

I have a very similar belief. Everything should have a purpose or some connection to something higher. Nothing should be left to chance or lack of attention.


Maren B said...

This is the first time that I have noticed you and your shoes under the cover on the cover of Covers. What a witty pun to have been missing all these years.

Lorna C said...

Very insightful. Sometimes I am so surprised at how much I don't know about your albums considering how much I think I know you. I'm inspired by your creative process.