An Interview with Son of Laughter
Carrie Givens: One of the things I love about your music as Son of Laughter is what I would call its density. There is a lot happening in every song, both lyrically and melodically (not to mention the complexity of the recorded music). Can you share a little about your writing process?
Son of Laughter: Sure. In terms of my process, I don’t aim for complexity. Instead, I would say I am inspired by synergy. I have trouble developing an idea unless I am connecting it with a lot of other ideas in a way that interests me. I discovered that about my songwriting when I was writing the title track for The Mantis and the Moon. As I was trying to write about the stepsister from the German Cinderella story I realized the line “I don’t want to be someone who does not want to be who they are” reminded me of a lot of other stories, particularly an African folktale about why a praying mantis prays, a story a friend told me about his advice to follow dreams influencing someone leave their family, and my own discontent with who I am and the dangerous ways I deal with it. That last part is key. No matter how many ideas I have simmering in the pot, I have trouble tying it all together without deep personal conviction. “The Fiddler” combined a lot of stories and images, but I couldn’t finish it until I connected it with my own distracted prayer life. On the new record that was a missing ingredient for the longest time with “The Hurricanes.” I wanted the narrator to wrestle with his own destructive internal hurricane and I couldn’t finish it until I informed it with my own.
In terms of sound, Stephen Nichols, the producer of No Story is Over, also values synergy, so we were often referencing so many other songs in the studio with each track. For example, lyrically “Take Me Down” is drawing from The Crucible, The Scarlet Letter, General Petraeus’s press conferences, a scandalous Zumba instructor in Maine, and the Judah and Tamar story from Genesis. So we connected sounds from some masters of the anti-hero or untrustworthy narrator sound. We looked to Tom Waits, Los Lobos, and Joe Henry for noise, percussion, and bass sounds, Randy Newman and My Brightest Diamond for the eerie angelic back-up singers, and David Bowie and Thriller in terms of saxophone, piano, organ, and overall energy and vibe. I’m sure there were more.
Part of what has helped me to value synthesis is having to read great stories over and over again as a high school English teacher. It is so much easier for me now to see now how much The Great Gatsby is a connecting of Fitzgerald’s favorite stories, including The Wizard of Oz, Heart of Darkness, and the stories he’d read in St. Nicholas Magazine as a kid. He’s not make something new so much as he is taking old things and connecting them in interesting ways with things he’s experienced and cares about, just like the authors he soaked in. I think anything that is interesting or complex is like that. Hamilton and Star Wars are two bundles of complex pop synergy that come to mind. Those writers are first good readers, listeners, and viewers. My charge to any songwriter would be: read, listen, experience, connect, and mean it.
CG: What is your process for turning your songs into an album? Your complex melodies get a full-service treatment of instrumentation and production. Do you and your producer work collaboratively or do you come in with a complete vision?
SoL: I do bring a lot of ideas into the studio, but they mainly serve as a launching point. As soon as other people are involved it quickly grows out of my control, or really the control of any one person. Still, a lot of credit should go to Stephen Nichols for how he guided the process with No Story is Over. He had tracked and engineered some of the strings and background vocals when I recorded The Mantis and The Moon with Ben Shive, and I got to see then just how much of a careful listener he is. That’s the main reason I decided to work with him on this record. He is a dedicated listener to the artists he serves, to the songs he’s trying to sonically incarnate, to the wide range of influences he draws from, and to the instrumentalists he pushes relentlessly to find the right note.
So, I would bring in ideas every session, and Stephen and I would use them to direct the instrumentalists we brought into the studio. Once the musicians would try it out, the ideas usually wouldn’t work as well as we had hoped. So we would go back and forth, measure by measure, refining the parts until we all agreed that the part served that particular section of the lyric and melody. So once one instrument track had been completed, it had been the result a conversation between at least three people. Now multiply that by however many tracks and players are on one song. See what I mean?
That doesn’t include the random friends that dropped by while we recording and offered advice, or Lyndsay, my wife, who gave us detailed feedback notes on every track and mix, or all of the people who consulted with me on various mixes. I’ve learned recently that the description of a type six on the enneagram articulates my creative approach pretty well. A type six is constantly asking for opinions from others that they consider “authorities.” I asked for so many opinions on every inch of this project, from many people who didn’t even step foot in the studio. Again, you could say my process comes back to synergy or synthesis. The sound of the record evolved from a complex conversation of so many different people that I couldn’t even begin to map it out. I’ve been relieved to find that some of my favorite records, like Graceland, came together in similar ways.
CG: You’ve mentioned that many of the songs on No Story is Over seem particularly apt for our current cultural context here as we turn the year from 2017 to 2018. However, I know I heard most, if not all, of these songs when I heard you perform in 2014. Can you speak a little to the themes of the songs on the album and perhaps compare the context in which you wrote them to the context in which they “read” today as listeners encounter the finished album?
SoL: The first four tracks are the easiest to connect to 2017. The immediate context of “Voting Day” was inspired by the tension around the 2014 midterm elections during which many people celebrated or despaired as if the world was ending or beginning based on the results. We had read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” on that day, and I was inspired to see how much influence we carry outside of the ballot box. Voting is vital, but political careers depend on voters believing that everything hinges on politics. But when I released it as a single on Election Day 2016, it sounded like a response to the Trump victory.
“Flesh and Bone” was inspired by discussing a selection of Ellison’s Invisible Man with my class, but it sounds like I am speaking to the starkness of the conservative-liberal media divide of 2017. “The Hurricanes” was inspired by Hurricane Katrina, but the song came out right after Hurricane Harvey. Speaking of Harvey, “Take Me Down” was inspired by the scandals I mentioned earlier, but it works even better relating to Harvey Weinstein and all of the fallout of the #MeToo movement.
That being said, one of the reasons Jamin Still and I agreed on the cover art is that the fear that the sky is falling is perennial for reasons like that the ones above. It’s really not a surprise that there are so many direct contemporary stories that connect, because the kinds of pain and darkness these songs wrestle with are unfortunately timeless. It will all keep happening again and again. My hope is that these songs would encourage hope while still looking relentless evil in the eye.
CG: My favorite song on this album is “The Meal We Could Not Make.” I’m struck every time I listen by the images in it of enmity and peace. I remember hearing it in concert in 2014 right after Russia annexed the Crimea from Ukraine and thinking how apt it was. Today I listen and I think of how many neighbors and family members find themselves on opposite sides of polarizing issues. Can you talk about the lens of grace through which you explore the themes in “The Meal We Could Not Make”?
SoL: That song was initially inspired by the idea of imaginative feasting in Dan Allender’s book Sabbath. It has been years since I read that or started writing the song, but I remember the idea of treating the Sabbath as a rehearsal of the seemingly impossible things to come and resting in them. We have resigned ourselves to the inevitability of division, death, and our own inabilities to change. When we practice Sabbath, we are celebrating in and resting in the opposite: Christ has made profound unity, transformation, and endless life in community inevitable. I tried to write a song that would put me in that place whenever I performed it, so that it would be its own practice for me, helping me to live out of that assurance.
CG: As I said, I heard many of these songs three years ago, and you commented to me this fall that the concerts you’ve performed over the past few years supported the creation of this album in a sort of “three-year-long, in-person, Kickstarter.” Tell me about the process of creating and funding this album as an independent musician? Why did you choose the route you chose, and what were the benefits and challenges of that method?
SoL: One reason I approached it that way was the realization that it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to try to pull off a good Kickstarter campaign as long as I am a full time teacher. From what I have seen, Kickstarters involve a lot of work that goes far beyond the music itself. Teaching keeps me at about 150% during the school year, so if I am going to be putting in any time into this vocation then it needs to be writing songs, recording, and playing shows. One day I’d love to have other merchandise and content available, but currently I am maxed out just making the music itself. Because of that, Lyndsay and I decided not to use Son of Laughter money as a source of income so that it could pay for itself. We would play at houses and churches and put out a donation basket to cover our gas and food. Anything beyond that went towards funding No Story is Over.
Also, I played all of the unrecorded songs, like when you heard them, as a way of saying, “If you want to hear this again, please help!” In some cases we were met with abundance and in other cases we lost money. Our needs were always met one way or another and after over seventy gigs like that and several years of traveling in the summer and school breaks, we’d raised enough to go forward with recording. The drawback is that people connected with these songs at shows and then didn’t get to hear them again for several more years. The only thing I plan to change this time around is requiring a base fee so that we don’t lose money and so that we can record the next album more quickly. I didn’t do this the first time because I was mostly begging friends of friends to let me share songs with their friends who were mostly coming to the shows to support their friends and because it was free. I am still kind of there, but I think there are a few more people readily on board this time around.
I am in the process of writing hymns and spiritual songs specifically for the church, and I’ll share those this time around. My hope is to bring lyrics and chord charts to shows and to pass them out to people so that they can play them at home or in their churches. That way they can take the songs home long before the record is ready. I’ll put out some rough records of me playing the songs too to help them remember how they sound. Of course, I’ll still be playing songs from No Story is Over and telling those stories at shows.
CG: I’ve had the privilege to know you and your wife Lyndsay for a few years, and one of my favorite things about you guys is hearing each of you talk about the other in relation to your music. To hear Lyndsay tell it, you’re crazy-talented and she’s excited to be along for the ride. What about your side of the story? How does being Lyndsay’s husband and dad to your kids balance with making music?
SoL: Without Lyndsay I likely would have given up on completing or sharing my songs long ago. From the very beginning of our dating relationship and now into our marriage, over fifteen years total, she has been persistent in showing me the value of both. She insists that she doesn’t get tired of hearing me chip away at a thousand different versions of the same line out loud, and my litmus test for whether or not a song is finished is whether or not I can make her eyes water a little. That’s usually when I am ready to take it out. She’s the one that chases people down to give them a CD or pushes me to keep going when I am ready to stop emailing people to ask if I can please play a show in their living room.
Also, creating and putting my work out there online and on the road can be quite threatening to my idols of security and recognition. She is shows me when I am getting wrapped up in the illusions of my idols and pushes me back to God’s reality which is a place of creative freedom, abundance, and generosity. She helps me create and give more freely without worrying about how my work is received.
In terms of our children, we both see one of our roles as parents as inviting them into a story that is bigger than themselves. Even though I am the only one playing at these shows, most of the time they all still pile in the van and come with me. We love for them to see other families, churches, and communities across the country, so that they can see how many different ways people live lives of worship together. They are also just a lot of fun to have around, and they travel well.
If you would like to book Son of Laughter for a house show this spring or summer you can contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org. No Story is Over is available digitally and on CD at The Rabbit Room.