If you ever find yourself on the phone with Carl Newman and you forget that he’s recently become a father, do not worry: a crying baby in the background will remind you, every twenty seconds or so.
But it isn’t something likely to slip your mind while listening to Shut Down the Streets, the third solo record he’s released under the guise of A.C. Newman: A number of the songs directly address the birth of his son, Stellan, while another – “There’s Money in New Wave” – finds Newman doling out what sage advice he can muster for him down the line. Shut Down the Streets is a surprisingly personal and tender turn for Newman, a songwriter who’s made his name primarily on the cryptic, often jagged power-pop of the New Pornographers, and he applies this newfound directness home throughout record, with songs rooted in his recent relocation to pastoral Woodstock, New York (“You Could Get Lost Out Here”) and, on a more intimate note, the passing of his mother (“They Should Have Shut Down the Streets”). The music, meanwhile, is fittingly muted, a wash of soft colors and, in Newman’s words, “70s touchstones.”
BYT called Newman in early October on the landline of his Woodstock home to talk about Shut Down the Streets, in addition to his month-long tour in support of it, which takes him to the Black Cat tonight.
Has settling down in Woodstock and starting a family changed how you view hitting the road?
Obviously, I don’t want to do it as much. That’s not so bad. I think if you tour less you appreciate touring more. As much as I don’t want to leave my wife and my son for three and a half weeks, I’m looking forward to playing new songs and I really like the band that I’ve put together. I’m thinking, “This is going to be cool.”
What kind of band have you assembled?
Paul Rigby, who plays with Neko [Case], is playing guitar. There’s Nick Kinsey, who plays drums with Elvis Perkins and the Diamond Doves. There are other people, but I don’t know if you’d know them, like this guy Chris Miller, who’s playing flute, clarinet, and saxophone. Meegan from Vancouver, who’s going to play bass and clarinet and do, like, girl singing. And this guy Zach Denario Miller is going to do all the keyboard.
I realize that out of six people in the band, there are four that can play clarinet, which I think is hilarious. We’re trying to figure out a way to capitalize on that. We’re like, “How can we work out a part in the set where four people are playing woodwinds.” The thing is, I know there’s going to be a couple of clarinets, and Meegan is also bringing this thing called a Gibson Maestro, which is like a woodwind synth from the 70s. I’d never even heard of it before, but it’s awesome. The mouthpiece is basically a clarinet, but it hooks into a synthesizer, so you get these synthesizer sounds that have the cadence of being played by a clarinet. It’s pretty crazy.
There have been a handful of records recently – Jens Lekman and Menomena come to mind – that prominently feature the flute. It appears to be making a bit of a comeback.
I’ve always loved the flute. My last album, Get Guilty, had a lot of flute and recorder on it. Maybe not a huge amount. God, there was one song that didn’t make the record that had an absurd amount of flute on it. Like, it had so much flute on it that it almost sounded like that scene in “Anchorman”. It had crazy jazz flute in it. In the end, I thought, “This is hilarious, but nope! No one is going to hear this.”
Were the shots for cover art taken around your place?
Yeah, that’s all my property. I’ve got four and half acres up here. I don’t even recognize it though. The photographer who did those shots made it look so beautiful and huge.
There’s an airy vibe to the album. Things breathe really well. What was your mindset going into recording it?
I definitely wanted to make a different kind of record. I went into it thinking that I wanted to make a very much singer-songwriter sort of record. There were a lot of 70s touchstones that I was using. I feel like I always make my albums very dense, and there’s no way around that, but I thought, “This one’s going to be dense with a lot of light sounds.” There’s a lot more space in it.
Lyrically, it’s more straightforward than The Slow Wonder or Get Guilty. Was that something you were consciously striving for or did it naturally occurred?
It was a combination of the two. Because there were a lot of heavy things going on in my life – losing my mother, which is the sad part, and then my son coming, which is the happy part – I think I realized, “The album has to be about this.” Maybe not at every moment, but the general theme has to be this. When I wrote lyrics, all that came out was basically on that topic, because anything else just seemed like bullshit. I think when you’re going through your life and everything’s normal, that frees you to write about anything in the world, but when you find yourself going through these things that are very intense, it’s hard to just put them aside and say, “I’m going to write about love gone wrong, I think.”
Matador’s tongue-in-cheek press release calls the record “dad rock.”
I understand what they were doing when they wrote that. It’s trying to take the word back, I guess. It’s taking a negative term and owning it, like Obama owning “Obamacare.” Obviously, I literally had a kid, so I’m a dad, and that would make this “dad rock,” but also, like I said, I know that I was consciously trying to do something that was a lot smoother and more easy listening than I’d ever done before. I also know that people don’t go to me for that. I think the average listener might go, “Hey, that’s not what you do, Newman. That’s what I get Wilco and Bon Iver records for! You do something different. I come to you for a specific thing and now you’re changing it.” Sure, I was a little worried that people were going to think I made an easy listening “dad rock” album, but hopefully it still works.
Why did you decide to bring Neko in for some of the tracks?
I think it was because this record seemed different enough from the New Pornographers that I didn’t worry about the overlap. On Slow Wonder and Get Guilty, I was consciously thinking, “Well if Neko sings on these songs, they’re just going to sound like the New Pornographers, so I can’t have Neko sing on them.” But for this one I thought, “No, if she sings on them, they’re not going to sound like the New Pornographers.”
It always feels weird to use a voice like Neko’s for your back-up vocals, because, clearly – and I’m not putting myself down – she’s a better singer than I am. I think some people might go, “Why don’t you just crank her up?” And then I’d answer, “Well, because it’s my album.”
What’s happening with the New Pornographers?
Not really anything. Now that I’ve finished this record and I’m about to tour, I’m thinking about the next record, but I don’t know when it’s going to be done. Ive got some of it written, but I’m still not sure where it’s going to go. I gotta figure out where it’s gonna go.
It seems as if you’re able to make A.C. Newman records at your home studio with relative ease. Is there a part of you that thinks, “I don’t know if wrangling everyone for these New Pornographers record is worth all the effort?”
No, the Pornographers are definitely worth the effort. I mean, that’s my living. Me being a solo artist is just a little side thing for me. If my solo career is all I had, I don’t think I’d make a living off it. It’s a very different thing. This tour I’m actually thinking, “I hope people come to my shows so this tour breaks even!” When you’re in a band, it’s like, “one for all and all for one.” If you go on tour and your band doesn’t make any money, then that’s it: nobody makes any money. But when I go on my solo tour, I have to pay all my band members. If it doesn’t do well, then I lose money or make zero, and if it does amazingly well, well, then I’m the one who makes the most money. You kind of take that risk. I’m not making any huge money on this. [Laughs] Just in case anyone is thinking of not coming to my shows because they think I’m really wealthy, they can just get that thought out of their head.
You mention the 70s singer-songwriter stuff and you’re out in the woods: Are you still connected to music that’s being put out now?
Yeah, I mean, this is 2012: It’s so easy to be locked in. I’m out here in the woods, but I’m always on the computer. I can’t help but just be sort of up on what’s happening. It’s my job, you know? When I drive down the street I listen to Sirius XMU. It’s not like I’m up here in a cabin and I don’t know what’s going on in the world.
There are a lot of musicians that plead ignorance to most anything that’s not their own stuff.
I do to a certain extant. Like, I’ve only heard a few songs by Flying Lotus, but I thought they were awesome. I’m still not an expert on them. I think to myself, “I should get that Flying Lotus record!” There’s a lot of stuff that slips past me. I’m not an expert on EDM, for instance. That’s the stuff where I feel like I’m a relic from another age. I’m a guy putting a band together and I feel like, “What an anachronism.”