Northampton, Massachusetts Kevin O'Rourke has been recording his own honest, folk brewed, and homespun folk under the moniker of Lo Fine. For the premiere of “More Better” from Want Is a Great Need, Kevin combines years of travels that dot the map from Truro, MA, Cape Cod to Ireland, and eras of seclusion that can only be captured from song sketches on a Tascam 234 cassette 4-track brought to full life with a little help from his friends.
“More Better” hops along through a kind of existential ambiguity of what happens when needs and wants get blurred by the foggy nature of desire. Guitars, pianos, and stomping tambourines tell the story of a heroine's struggle to move forward and further from sideways-stuck emotional co-dependencies. Tattooed arrows of direction bicycle into the uncertainties and hints of romantic possibilities that can exist when the fronted veils of avoided glances are folded away for eye-met greetings and acknowledgements. The Lo Fine message is a statement against the humdrum perils of complacency, where a world of royal riches await those willing to entertain more profound, and empathetic yearnings that exist in that same blind between needs and wants. “Instead of settling for good, why don't we try more better”. Read on for our lively conversation with Mr. Rourke into the compositions of his current song cycle.
You do a lot with minimalist and effectively sparse musical chambers. How do you make sounds and styles that are more effective than if you went all out?
I've played a lot in bands that were loud and fast and busy, as well, but I guess, with my songs, especially, I found that there could be an impact or intensity to sparse and quiet, too. There's a tension that can be created by setting the tone of the performance as being slow and quiet. Usually people tend to focus and listen more if they have to 'lean in', so to speak, and it makes any louder dynamics that much more effective. The same goes for minimalist arrangement. Originally, I only had four tracks to work with, so there was a built-in minimalism. The trick is keeping it stripped down when you are afforded more options.
The engineer who worked on the first full-length Lo Fine record actually told me one day, out of the blue, after a couple of weeks of recording, that I had a few days to wrap it up, and that I'd have to find someone else to finish and mix the record, so that he could work with someone else who had just called him. Since it was recorded on his Tascam 8-track, taking the reels to someone else was bound to be problematic. I had all these arrangement ideas for the songs that we'd barely done anything on, and we had at least another week of studio time that we were planning for. I was kind of pissed off at the time, but now I look back and realize it probably saved me from layering too much onto the songs. That can be a dangerous temptation in the studio. It's important to know when to take the brush off of the canvas, as they say. Most every song I write starts off on acoustic guitar and vocal, and it's important to recognize when they don't need much more than that. When I only had 4 tracks, or even 8 tracks to work with on tape, choices had to be made, arrangement-wise. Sometimes it's important to remember how those limitations help to reign in misguided desires for adding more stuff. I still hear guitar lines and vocal harmonies that were never added to previous albums, but, almost across the board, I'm glad they never were.
Minimalism, or 'economy' might be a better term, when it comes to my songwriting, is also very important to me. I once had a great late-night songwriting suggestion, which I'm glad I remembered, many years ago, from a really terrific poet named Peter Richards, who was visiting friends of mine in Western Massachusetts who's couch I frequently crashed on, as I probably did that night. I played one of my unfinished songs which was only verse-verse-chorus, at that point. I finished by saying that I need to write another verse and maybe another chorus, and he said that he disagreed and thought it sounded finished. It wasn't a terribly remarkable incident, or a ground-breaking piece of advice, but I always remember the lesson, and it's a good example of how sometimes you can create a different or better impact by not going “all out” (as you say) on words or structure or form, as well. Especially if your audience is subconsciously expecting something more standard, form-wise. I've always enjoyed omitting a bridge whenever possible. 'It needs a bridge..' “–Why?' -or- 'it's too short!' '–Well, I said everything I wanted to…'
What and/or who inspired the “arrow tattooed” affections of “More Better”?
Ah, yes. That. 'She has a tattoo on each arm, of two arrows pointing down, so that the only time they tell her to go forward is when she's reaching for someone.'
I will say that it was inspired by someone, but she didn't have tattoos on her arms, or anything. It was just embellishment on my part to create a vivid image and to make a point, I guess. I also tend to shy away from saying that any of my songs are directly about someone in particular, because I feel like, over time, you find out that it was actually about someone or something else, or even about yourself. Barely any of my songs are about one person, in their entirety.
It's also partly inspired by an image from a book I read in the early 90's, but only slightly, in that the character had arrows tattooed on his arms, pointing forward, reminding him to 'never go back'. I always thought it was a vivid image.
I had completely forgotten just about everything else about that book, besides the image and meaning of the tattoos, until you asked, but I just googled it, and the character was Joe Pike, a sidekick from a series of detective novels by Robert Crais. I should probably go back and read some of them again, so that I know what I'm referencing.
How do you write and compose your folk steeped songs?
I've never consider myself much of a folk artist, but I guess early 20th century American music, folk/blues/etc, are the basis for all popular that came after, so I've probably picked up on that influence no matter who I was listening to, growing up. I guess anyone writing and singing with an acoustic guitar can get pegged as “Folk”. However, I'm bad at providing the requisite “stories” that Folk audiences and artists seem to like to hear and tell, as part of an on-stage persona.
Most of my lyric writing is done independent of any music. I studied English and wrote poetry in college, as well as worked on music, and I always wanted to bring my poetry to the music I was making. I didn't have much success for a few years, but I enjoyed trying. After college I think I started to get better at it, and began to develop a voice in both. I would write and write and write, and then edit it down, as I would my poetry, finding the best lines in the process, and then either put them, via an improvised melody at first, to chord progressions or musical themes I'd written independently on guitar, or try improvising both, melody and chords, while taking a stab at singing the words on the page in front of me at the same time, recording all of this on a little cassette player, then going back to listen/review/edit what I'd come up with. Occasionally the songs just flow and are written in a matter of minutes, but most of the time I have pieces of songs which I think are effective that sit around for years, sometimes, until I come up with another part that fits with it. There is at least one song on the new album that was started, in part, almost 15 years ago. I still have notebooks full of stuff that I mine for material. I think, at this point, I find it can save a song from being too one-dimensional when there are lines included that were written many years apart.
What was the process like of recording your recent full length?
I had burnt out on touring after the last record [2007's Not For Us Two], especially as a solo performer, which was what most of the touring consisted of. I decided that the next record I made was going to be a return to the bedroom recording on my 4-track, or at least approximating the same kind of thing. I wanted to make a record with as many people as possible, in as many places as possible, and not care about whether the sounds were studio perfect, etc. I love so many records that sound weird or 'bad' by some people's standards, but once you fall in love with them, you wouldn't have them any other way. I could list so many here but I hesitate for fear of encapsulating too much. I could repeat the same thing about any of my favorite albums: It sounds perfect because it sounds like it sounds. The songs and the general vibe of the process come first, for me.
It was long, slow, and with no pressure whatsoever. It was a fantastic process for me. I've never been accused of rushing much of anything. I made the record whenever I could in the down times when I wasn't touring, either with my own music, or working for other bands. The start of recording goes back to July of 2007, believe it or not, when Matt Sutton and I recorded at his studio/practice space in Redhook. The bulk of the record was recorded in the house I rent here in Truro, during a number of sessions from 2009-2011 with myself, José Ayerve, and Peyton Pinkerton, but there were some drums recorded in a studio in 2008 for two of the tracks, some more at José's place in Portland, Maine, and there's even a song that was just recorded into one mic, guitar and vocals, in a hotel room when I was on tour a few years ago, I added bass at home. Peyton also recorded some of his parts in his studio at his house, in addition to what he did in Truro. I think we counted five different States, an island, Martha's Vineyard, where we recorded Nina Violet's string parts, and random hotel rooms, in terms of where we recorded tracks that ended up on the final album. None of the tracks on the album took more than a few takes, however. I think the best performances are on the first few takes, if not the first. Once it takes any longer, I say, ‘forget it, let's move on and then go back to it later.’ A big part of recording, for me, is not standing in the way of the subconscious. The conscious mind has a knack for convincing us that it is smarter, and knows best, but the subconscious is ten times smarter, especially in the realm of art and creativity.
I love the ‘happy accidents’ that can become the best parts of certain recordings, so I was always open to keeping things that maybe sounded off at first. We also used Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies constantly. For those who aren't familiar, they are a deck of cards that have short instructions/advice/etc written on them, to help break you out of any creative blocks in the studio. I highly recommend them. My favorite, and the first one I heard, also, I think the first one that he and his partner, who helped write them, came up with, is, ‘honor your mistake as a hidden intention.’ I'm probably not quoting that exactly right. I think my second favorite is “Go outside and shut the door.” We would say, 'OK' and all get up and go outside in the freezing cold and stand there for a few minutes… it usually worked to break us out of whatever rut we were in.
We actually layered more on this record than any previous Lo Fine albums, which I hadn't expected. On certain songs, that is… Others stayed pretty sparse, in their arrangement. The previous records sounded more like a 3, 4, or 5-piece band in a room playing live, a consistent sound throughout, and able to be recreated live. Because I wasn't arranging the songs for live performance when we were making this record, I d play a number of parts on most of them, and had other players do the same. We had a real good time getting inspired and throwing a bunch of stuff at the songs to see what worked. ‘…Hey, you wanna try a keyboard part on this?’ ‘…What about that accordion that's down in the basement?’ ‘I don't play accordion, but sure!’ ‘…Mic up that music box I found at the dump…’ ‘…Why don't I lay down a drum track?’ I can't say how great it is to record in a comfortable space like your own house. No clock ticking, etc. You can roll out of bed and record in your slippers if you want to. The three of us love to cook, so Jose, Peyton and I had some epic meals during the process. Sometimes, I think our meals were as integral a part of the process as anything else.
I would also be remiss if I didn't say that the other players on this record contributed as much to the arrangements as I did. It wouldn't be anywhere near as interesting without them. I'm so lucky to have made music with all of the people who are on the record. I think there are about eleven of us… Other ideas and approaches always help add to it, for me… José Ayerve did most of the engineering and mixing, as well as helped me with arranging decisions, and I have him to thank the most.
Mostly, I'm super excited to have music finally pressed onto vinyl with this new release. I could never afford it in the past, needing the funds for tour support or other expenses, but I hope to now go back and press the previous records, too. I've started my own label with money raised for this release, and that's a long-awaited labor of love, as well. Maybe I'll even be able to put someone else's record out at some point…
I hope to play as much music as possible, and begin work on another album. I also hope to successfully train my dog with a reliable recall command. He's almost a year old, and he's pretty good at it, so far. Also, I would very much like to get back to Europe to tour again, at some point. I don't know how widespread that will be, as an independent artist with limited resources, but I will try my best. Every album order that comes in from over there stokes that fire in me.
Lo Fine's album Want is a Great Need is available now via Bandcamp.