R: Charlie Saufley
Before moving to the East Coast and devoting himself to New York Minimalism, the American artist Don Dudley lived and worked in Los Angeles. There he was one of the Finish Fetishists, bringing pop culture, hyper-glossy materials, and a Californian sensibility to gallery walls. On both coasts, his work tended to be sleek and geometrically pleasing. But one very early painting, from 1964, is stylistically at odds with the rest of his career. It depicts two lovers coiled up, flat on what looks like the desert floor, beneath a brilliant rainbow that cuts through a deep, pink-maroon sunset. It's an uncomfortably calming portrayal of a smog-saturated atmosphere. It's difficult to imagine it coming from anywhere other than LA.
Last year Meg Baird, the folksinger, took her friend Mary Lattimore, the harpist, to an exhibition called Between Two Worlds at the San Francisco MoMA. Lattimore had only been living in Los Angeles for a few months, and she was in the middle of a two-month residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts, a few miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge. Baird, conversely, had been in San Francisco for five years already. She was settled in the state. "There's something about the extreme beauty of being in California," she says. "The beauty and the danger and the dark and the light are so extreme here. It's mind-boggling."
At the MoMA, Baird specifically wanted to show Lattimore "Rainbow Series," Dudley's painting. "She loved it too," Baird says. "The wall techs kind of framed it as these sunsets that were, at that time in Los Angeles, just so smog-ridden that they were blown-up and insanely beautiful."
Baird and Lattimore's first full-length collaboration, Ghost Forests, out November 9 on Three Lobed Recordings, uses that painting as its starting point. It's a stunning six-song album, exploring the space between Baird's eerily clear Appalachian-English folk style and Lattimore's iconoclastic approach to the harp. Written and recorded over four days in Los Angeles with producer Thom Monahan (Devendra Banhart, Wild Nothing), it has Baird and Lattimore experimenting and improvising in real-time over loose structures, responding to one another without overthinking. It's Californian: unsettling and pretty, apocalyptic but hopeful, the sound of an incredible sunset that warns you the air might not be safe to breathe.
It's strange that it's taken Baird and Lattimore this long to work on a project of their own. They've been friends for over a decade, both fixtures of the Philadelphia underground who never completely conformed to its style. Baird made critically acclaimed records with Espers, the psychedelic folk band, before putting out her debut full-length, Dear Companion, in 2007. Lattimore moved to the city around then and played in a sprawling experimental group called The Valerie Project—with some of Baird's bandmates—before releasing her first solo cassette in 2012. They played a few songs together on stage, but nothing much more than that.
Since then, they've both been a little short on time. Baird's wonderful fourth LP, Don't Weigh Down the Light, came out in 2015, and she's since co-founded Heron Oblivion, a noisy folk project in which she sings and plays drums. (She has, she says, been "over-writing and under-recording for the last three years.") Lattimore's monumental, spectral, and endlessly fascinating Hundreds of Days, an instrumental tribute to her memories of Philadelphia, came out earlier this year. Conversations about a collaboration stayed on the back-burner until they both ended up in California.
They started sharing thoughts—chord progressions, basic structures, rough ideas—over email and text threads last spring, but things were vague until they got into the studio with Monahan. They improvised the first track, "Between Two Worlds," which stretches out gently on plucked strings before easing into a disquieting thrum. Then they fleshed out the embryonic tracks they'd been discussing. They quickly had "Damaged Sunset," an air-thin song that billows around Baird's acoustic guitar, and "In Cedars," a seven-minute centerpiece constructed around a music-box harp.
The first single is "Painter of Tygers," premiering below, a song that has Lattimore and Baird's instruments so close together that it's difficult to pull them apart. Baird, on an electric guitar, plucks muddy, overdriven chords, and Lattimore follows along at first before adding more layers of syncopated harp. When Baird's lyrics do ease through (like the bodies in "Rainbow Series," they're not always clear) you can only hear snippets: "If you dream of a radio…" "If you finally see land…" "Bell ringing and alphabets." It's inspired by Eliot Weinberger's essay "Paper Tigers," which hangs together cuts from seemingly unrelated sources and collages its way to a discussion of William Blake and a half-dead tiger. (According to Lattimore, Baird wrote all the lyrics for Ghost Forests in 15 minutes at the studio. Lattimore says she was "flabbergasted" by it.)
"Painter of Tygers" is a perfect route into a record that's lyrically uneasy, sonically confounding, and overwhelming when consumed whole. Baird's voice has (accurately) been labelled "phosphorescent," "radiant," and "celestial" by critics; Lattimore plays the harp, an instrument usually associated with cloud-dwelling angels. But neither of them have ever made straightforwardly heavenly music—there's always been at least a little smog in the sunset. "People tell me that they really meditate to my music a lot, they see it as very New Age-y or very peaceful or whatever," Lattimore says. "In my mind I'm like, "I wrote that song about this dead whale! There's death! This is my broken heart! You're meditating to my broken heart!" Now, in Los Angeles, she hears it so often that she's started to accept it. "I started to see it as a really positive thing where I'm like, man, this is helping people out. Helping them work through their shit the same way it's helping me work through mine. But just in different ways."
Baird understands that relationship between meditative calm and underlying tension. "We're not trying to make people feel anxiety," she says, but she's knows that angst and injustice don't dissolve as soon as a harp starts up. "Rainbow Series" captures that, she says, but it's built into her adopted hometown too. "In San Francisco, every Tuesday at noon, there's a tsunami warning siren that goes off. It's really kind of cool. I mean, it's eerie. It's kind of beautiful too. But it's embedded in the landscape here. It's not reaching for an idea, it's just there. You're just going about your day, running down to the drugstore, and you hear the tsunami warning siren, just to make sure that the sirens are on." She laughs at how terrifying that all sounds. "I think we were hitting more on that sense of what's just there."
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