Knable Gazing: Jasper Lewis and his “1000 Songs” on Yard Deer
I thought I was a prolific songwriter. Then I met Jasper Lewis. Probably not an uncommon experience. At the time, he was in the midst of his year of answering every single weekly song challenge thrown out by Niall Connolly (or his proxies) in the glorious days of Big City Folk Song Club at Fawkner (RIP). On first appearance, Jasper comes across as central casting for “Boy Next Door Secretly Developing a Nuclear Weapon in His Garage.” Quickly, one understands his dry wit and self-possession. He quietly released his 14-song statement of purpose, Yard Deer, in October of 2020. We at Big City Folk have all been listening to it since. I asked Jasper if he would answer some questions for this first column of mine, in which I gaze across the big folking musical landscape of New Amsterdam and report back as needed.
Jim: Do you ever forget about songs you wrote and then hear them in a casual recording you made at some point and have no memory of writing them?
Jasper: That definitely has happened. A couple months ago I was reminded of a song “Space Man” that I wrote for a Sky Captains of Industry EP. I had to relearn it from the recording. I truly did not remember any of it and I had to re-memorize, which was a sort of a funny experience. I’m proud of that song though, it’s a good one.
Jim: Who or what are the Sky Captains of Industry?
Jasper: Sky Captains of Industry is a band I was in with EW Harris and Don Schlotman. You can find our music here https://sci-fidelity.bandcamp.com/.
Jim: You’ve just put out your 14-song solo album Yard Deer. It starts with a lively little tune called “Birdwalking” that invites the listener to try out the title concept.
Jasper: I think it represents the strengths of the album very well. I believe in putting your best foot forward.
Jim: Are you intending to start a dance craze with it or is it just a funny song, or something more sinister?
Jasper: I think it’s pretty self explanatory. I’m open to the idea of it becoming a dance craze, but someone else will have to do the choreography.
Jim: From the ‘70s-style cruise of “Let’s Go for a Drive” through the cabin fever folk of “Cabin in the Woods” your guitar playing leaps out with tunefulness and technique. What’s your training background and how does that play into your composing, do you think?
Jasper: Thanks man. Both my parents are professional musicians. I started piano when I was 3 or something and I started guitar when I was 14ish. I studied jazz guitar performance in my undergrad at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. I also hold a masters in music therapy, so I’m a very highly trained musician, if nothing else. In terms of composing I have a very rapid connection between what I hear in my head and the instrument. That saves a lot of time. I also understand harmonic analysis very well and I have a big bag of tricks – I know lots of ways to get from point A to point B. On top of all that my personal fascination is song structure. I’m hyper aware of all the pieces of a song and how they fit together, and what’s going to sound familiar and what’s going to surprise a listener.
Jim: Speaking of structure and fitting pieces together, “Don’t Lose Your Head” starts as a lovely acoustic jazz folk song and then slips into electric groove territory, on the verge of being jarring except it’s so damn catchy (and I’ve literally had it stuck in my head since the first time I heard it). Did you know where the chorus was going from the moment you started writing it?
Jasper: Basically it was a flash of inspiration. I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and do something really unexpected. So I swung for the fences. When it came time to record I just tried to emphasize the difference between the sections as much as I could with my limited technology and resources. It was a fun challenge to try and make the two parts sonically fit together. I spent a long time mixing that track and it was a pain but I’m happy about how it came out. I have a sort of intentionally suboptimal recording process that made it really difficult to get those two sections happening on one song. The timing isn’t 100% perfect like it would be if I did it all with a computer, but it was more fun that way.
Jim: What exactly was your recording process?
Jasper: I recorded everything in my garage onto an 8-track digital recorder and then took it inside to upload it to a computer and mix. It made it hard to comp takes. Also, the drum machine I used wasn’t synced up to any click track so I had to record it all in one go.
Jim: The line “We’re attention deficit millennials” jumped out at me on “Remains 2 b seen.” What is the promise of your generation? What remains to be seen?
Jasper: That’s funny because I changed that line at the very last moment. Originally it was “we’ve got acrobat millennials” but I felt like it was too judgy and I didn’t want to set myself above and outside. I wanted to be part of it. I dunno about the rest of that question. It’s a good question but I don’t know.
Jim: Would you call that a typical Millennial answer?
Jasper: Another great question. Would you like me to call it that?
Jim: Please. It makes me feel better as an interviewer. Anyway, we listen to new music and compare it to older music by instinct. I was hearing early Bowie like “Memory of a Free Festival“ in “Skipping Stone.” What have people compared your music to and how has that pleased or displeased you?
Jasper: One time I was playing guitar in Central Park and this German tourist guy told me I sounded like John Denver singing reggae. I’ll never get a better comparison than that.
Jim: Somebody at Big City Folk Song Club once told me that I sounded like Mr. Rogers. I’m still both glowing and depressed about that.
Jasper: Mr. Rogers was and is one of my most cherished role models. I think that person was trying to pay you a great compliment.
Jim: You’re making me feel great about myself. It must be your music therapy background. So… Which songs on Yard Deer were built on musical hooks? (“Stranger”?–just a guess) Lyrical verse inspiration? (“Remains 2 b Seen”? –another guess) Chorus concept first? (“Birdwalking?”) Arrangement concept?
Jasper: In terms of arrangement they were all written for solo guitar and voice first. The guiding principle for the arrangements was to do as little as I could, but I feel like a record with only guitar and voice is a little boring so I wanted to liven it up.
I frequently start with a sort of global concept for the song and work backwards from there. What do I want to communicate with this song? What would I like to say? How do I want this to work? What’s going to be cool about this one? What’s different than what I usually do? What song did I wish I had when I was hanging out with my friends and holding a guitar and thinking, “damn, I wish I had a song that went *blop* right here?” When I have an idea I’ll go from there. Sometimes I imagine myself (or someone else) onstage playing and try to copy down what I hear.
But in addition to that spaced out mystical stuff there’s a rigorous process of editing and improvising and thinking and throwing things away and starting over. That process is what hones a neat idea into a finished song.
If there’s one thing that all these songs have in common it’s that the music and lyrics were written simultaneously for all of them. There aren’t any songs here where I had a guitar part first and added lyrics later, or vis-a-versa.
Jim: When did you know “1000 Songs” had to be the album closer and why did you want it to be the least produced-sounding song on the album?
Jasper: I did this thing where I wrote one song every week for the Big City Folk open mic, and I did it for close to 50 weeks. When I started I knew that I wanted to do it for a year, and I knew that the first song and the last song would be connected. The first song is the song of excitement about meeting that idea, which was a potent muse. That song was “Slow Down.” The last song was a goodbye, and it was not an easy goodbye. It was a little painful. By the end, me and that muse had gotten a little tired of each other. That final song was “1000 Songs.” They’re both in the key of E and they both came out of the same guitar pattern, which is this very simple descending 6ths thing that is like the most instinctive thing I reach for on guitar.
I was paralyzed by anxiety by “1000 Songs” because I had an incredible grandiose vision for how the arrangement would go. With timpani sounding drums, and string parts, and all this big stuff. And whenever I thought about how to reduce that down to something I could manage in my little garage studio I would just become stuck. For weeks I couldn’t get started.
I decided that it was not possible for me to make the arrangement I had in my dreams, but I felt that the song was worthy of nothing less. So I wanted the listener to hear the song exactly how I heard it. If the song truly is worthy of the great arrangement that I dreamed of, then when you listen to it, you’ll hear it too. A great song should sound great in any arrangement. I could not make it as large as I wanted, so I made it as small as I could.
Jim: And finally, a question my 6-year-old son asked me recently: If you could choose between being famous all over the world or eating a lifetime supply of the best desserts whenever you wanted, what would you choose and why?
Jasper: I’d rather be famous. Easy choice. Because I’d love to be famous, and for other people to be as obsessed with my music as I am.
Jim Knable is a performing songwriter who recorded two albums in 2020: Songs of Suffrage for Luna Stage and the Andrew Goodman Foundation and Blue Reunion, by Jim Knable and The Randy Bandits, releasing over the holidays 2020-21. He has released two other studio, one live, and one secret album with The Randy Bandits since 2006 as well as performing as The Jewbadour for the Unorthodox Podcast circa 2015-2018 with a matching album of demos for the show. He is a produced and published playwright, currently the Staff Writer for The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and has had articles published in The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet Magazine, The SDC Journal, and other online and print publications.