Lou Black - A Long Way From Home
If you were to have a casual conversation with Lou Black, you'd probably never guess he was capable of a CD like City of No Winters.
His speaking voice, while affable and pleasant enough, sounds only a little like the rich, deep-timbred voice behind the songs on the album, while Lou himself comes across as so nonchalant and, dare I say, humble about his music that those around him might be surprised to find that he went so far as take his music into the studio to record.
"I was one of these kids in high school that didn't really have an interest in playing an instrument of being in a band or singing or having an extensive record collection, or anything like that," admits Lou. "It wasn't until I went away to college that I started being interested in music, as in being introduced to a whole world of music that I'd never heard on the radio, and it all seemed really cool.
"But even then, I didn't really have an interest in doing anything musically, or even artistically-on a professional level, that is. I think mainly because coming out of high school my parents didn't want me going into art school and were always pointing to my uncle who was a starving artist. And they said I didn't want to be like him and that it would help if I were to study something serious."
Being the good son that he was, the Peruvian-born Lou decided to major in psychology and statistics, and went on to be a writer for professional publications in the scientific and business communities, doing research, data analysis, and number crunching. Meanwhile, his artistic urges, while blunted and buried, continue to fester in the back of his mind, manifesting itself in Lou's drawing and paintings.
Then one day, he found himself sitting around with a friend who had just learned how to play guitar, "coming up with all sorts of chord progressions every day and calling them songs," and Lou found himself drafted into the world of music.
"He asked if I could help him put together songs around his music, and he asked me to sing along with it," explains Lou matter-of-factly. "I'd never done any singing before that, really, so that kind of piqued my interest, and then we formed a number of bands from there. Truly, I just accidentally got into this," he adds, laughing. "I really just kind of stumbled into the music thing truly by accident."
For a while, Lou continued to play music a little on the side after work, not really taking it very seriously, until one day he ran into the poet Richard Hess - another happy "accident."
"Richard had about 30 years' worth of poetry that he was very, very committed to turning into songs," says Lou. "So I thought, well, this could be kind of an interesting relationship. He encouraged me to become a stronger writer and to really start structuring things in a way that I hadn't before, when it had been definitely more of a hobby. And that for me was the first step, working with somebody, a collaborator who had a vested interest in seeing certain songs finished."
The next step, of course, was polishing up the mostly-acoustic collaborations between the two men. Lou, being the consummate researcher and self-sufficient dabbler he is, buried himself in learning all he could about composing MIDI and synthesizer arrangements to accompany the songs. "And then I figured, well, I've gone this far, now everybody's doing MP3s and everybody's doing home studios, and well, maybe I'm so independent, I could do this myself," says Lou. "And then after a while, I realized it's an enormous amount of work to engineer your own album. I mean, it was so frustrating, to the point where I really appreciated what is involved from a pure engineering perspective."
He laughs ruefully. " I mean, I think I'm fairly book-read in a lot of what they do, but there's no substitute for actually having done it. I figured, yeah, I could go to the ProTools classes and I can upgrade my home PC. But at the end of the day, I still felt I really needed someone who'd been doing it for 20 years, who could do it 100 times faster and 100 times better in terms of the engineering stuff."
Luckily, Lou didn't have to look far to find a producer to help out with the album. A co-worker connected Lou with his producer/musician-brother, Bill Bailey, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and soon Lou flew out to the snow-bound Twin Cities to begin recording. Bailey brought in a bunch of his former bandmates from the Frank-Zappa-ish F*cking Sh*t Biscuits to work on the album, and City of No Winters was soon a thing of reality.
Like I said before, Lou Black's casual acquaintances might not suspect that the quiet, mild-mannered statistician was hiding this kind of music inside his heart. City of No Winters is a soul-baring, mildly disturbing collection of Southwestern-tinged songs about love and love lost. Black's singing voice holds a register and tone reminiscent Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen, while the lyrics, written by Black as well as poets Richard Hess, Enid Holden, and Laura Dean Meek, are incredibly beautiful and wistful looks at the human condition.
In the title track - which, incidentally, is as much about Durban, South Africa, during the period of apartheid as it is about leaving love behind - Black sings, "When I return to roam these halls/I'm still trapped inside these walls/The scented blooms the empty rooms/The love that left me all too soon/I still hear the gentle weeping and quiet screams/Gave away the part I had, I'll never have again," against a melancholy, samba-inspired beat, while in the passionate "I Go Insane," Black perfectly embodies a displaced person in lines like "Neighbor friend, neighbor foe/Careful watch out we will know/We loved together in our youth/Tribal hatred substitute."
"Basically, the album is a collection of songs that are all social commentary and personal anguish," says Black. "There's a lot of contemporary pop music that doesn't have a lot to say to the listener. And I think that there are many opportunities to be able to communicate through pop music that are just wasted, to get interesting ideas and talk about issues in the world, and to do it in a form that is very subtle, without being too preachy."
He adds, "I used to say that the music is all kind of subversive pop songs because for some audiences, they listen to it, and they're just kind of more captured by the melody and the mood and the tone, which is good. And then for others, they listen to it and hear bits and pieces of the lyrics and can identify with certain lines. And then for others, they try to dig very deep into 'what the heck is this song about?'--I'd like to think that there's enough layers to these songs for all three kinds of listeners."
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