Music & Videos
About the Project
I first read Carl Sandburg in the fall of 1998, while I was visiting Chicago (I went to college at Northwestern in nearby Evanston from 1991 to 1995). It was a collection called Harvest Poems, which my mother brought back from the Carl Sandburg Home in Flat Rock, NC when she was there that summer.
As I read from the Chicago Poems section, I liked how the poems were filled with characters brimming with pride and predicaments, much like Randy Newman's record Good Old Boys, which I was listening to a lot at the time. The words seemed like song lyrics to me, and I decided that someday I would set them to music.
Ten years later, taking a break from working on songs for my band Nova Social, I started writing music and melodies for these poems. The first few songs came quicker than I could have imagined. I wrote them either on piano or acoustic guitar. No matter how complex the chord progressions and initial arrangements got, I tried to keep the melodies simple. I had a variety of music in mind: David Ackles, Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Swans, Miles Davis, Steve Reich, Taraf de Haïdouks.
It was in 2014, at which point over half the songs were written, that I realized the centenary of the publication of Chicago Poems was coming up in a couple years. This gave me both a deadline and a plan: finish writing and arranging the songs, and have a record finished and ready for release in 2016.
I knew roughly the instrumentation I wanted: piano, nylon guitar, accordion, strings including double bass, horns, woodwinds, drums & percussion. And I knew many of the people I wanted to work on the project with -- Max Avery Lichtenstein, Jon Natchez, Mike Pride, Therese Cox, and others.
Most of the tracks were recorded in June and July of 2015 at The Magic Shop in Manhattan (where David Bowie had recently recorded the Blackstar album), and other musicians recorded their tracks on their own and sent them to me.
When I wrote the song “Child of the Romans” four or five years earlier, I had the voice of Chicago singer/songwriter Daniel Knox in my head. It occurred to me that maybe I should ask Daniel to sing that song on the recording. And from there, why not have others sing on the record as well? I decided to ask some of my favorite Chicago musicians, many of who were friends as well.
Daniel, Jon Langford, Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan, Gerald Dowd, and Deanna Varagona were all recorded at one of two Chicago studios in August 2015: Reliable Recorders (the former Hi-Style Studios) and the amazing Wilco Loft.
Nora O’Connor and Jim Elkington sent me their tracks individually. Ex-Chicagoan and close friend Chris Mills (who was responsible for my meeting most of these incredible people) recorded his vocals in his newly adopted state of New Jersey.
Robbie Fulks was the only guest who I gave carte blanche to arrange his song however he saw fit. He recorded a stripped-down jazzy version of “Under the Harvest Moon” with Chicago vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, who ended up playing on several other songs on the record.
Finally, I received Jeff Tweedy’s vocal for “Theme in Yellow” the day before the live New York debut of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems at Joe’s Pub on January 6 of 2016 – which also happened to be Sandburg’s birthday.
My vocals were recorded at my co-producer Max Avery Lichtenstein’s studio in Connecticut. The record was mixed – in album order – in Woodstock, NY with my good friend Daniel James Goodwin, and mastered by Nathan James in Phoenix, Arizona.
The project has been a true labor of love. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to set to music poetry that, 100 years later, is still beautiful, powerful, and relevant.
Sunday, January 7 @ 3:00pm - Grayslake Area Public Library, Grayslake, IL