Nature and music are intimately connected. One of them pertains to the products of the earth, the other is a man-made art form. Both phenomena are transcendent, possessing infinite potential in their ability to create and adapt over the course of time. The essence of nature has long been embedding its way into songs of all kinds, in particular within the realms of folk and ambient music, being a direct source of creativity for endless soundtracks of beauty and serenity.
How On Earth, the new solo EP from Portland-based musician Jeffrey Silverstein is cut from this very cloth. A short collection of moody and atmospheric folk songs, Silverstein’s new project is a fluid representation of the natural world. Written during a stay at an artist residency on the coast of Washington, the five tracks on the release are dominated by the climate of sound they create.
Rich guitar tones drive the music into a hypnotic space, creating a base layer of earthly textures that underlie the sonics on the surface of each track. It’s a slow burning composition that unquestionably reflects the setting which it was created in, but the influences which inform its sound stretch far beyond the Pacific Northwest landscape Silverstein now calls home.
Since starting a career on the east coast, the 31-year old singer and multi-instrumentalist has been a part of a variety of different musical projects, including the since dissembled Baltimore psych-rock outfit Secret Mountains and Brooklyn folk duo Nassau. Since arriving in Portland just over two years ago, Silverstein has gradually worked his way into the heart of the city’s music community.
Despite his material being largely instrumental, sonically, his new songs land in the same ballpark as many of the region’s folky singer-songwriters and guitar bands. The ambience-driven nature of his music can be attributed to his own tastes and inspirations. Among his personal favorites is the self-titled release from revered Detroit musician Ted Lucas, an underground masterpiece which he cites was a major influence on How On Earth for its mix of pretty acoustic songs and ambitious instrumental numbers.
On top of its beautiful soundscapes, How On Earth marks a major artistic step forward for Silverstein. The project not only signifies him taking on the creative responsibilities of crafting an album by himself, but also incorporating more singing into the mix on a regular basis. “It’s been a huge goal of mine to get out in front of people with my own songs,” he says. “I was still undecided of whether or not I wanted to sing at all and if I just wanted to make an instrumental record, but I realized that would be me shying away from something I want to work on and figure out. There’s no need for me to say it has to be one way or another.”
With this release, not only is Silverstein progressing as a solo artist, he is seeking to make an impact that goes much further than building a fanbase. “I’m a huge believer in the power of music and education and kids having access to the arts and what that can do for someone,” he adds. Part of the proceeds from How On Earth will benefit My Voice Music, a Portland nonprofit who provides students and children in underprivileged communities with instruments and access to recording studios to practice the arts.
How On Earth is set for release on January 25 on West Coast label Driftless Recordings. For Silverstein, the project may be a brief taster of more to come, but for now, it’s making a bold statement. Its dark, gentle songs make for a warm and engaging listen, and simultaneously, it is making a difference in the very community that supported its creation.
I recently hopped on a phone call with Jeffrey to talk about his new EP. We spoke about the album’s biggest inspirations, the dynamic of recording solo, his favorite acts around PDX and more. Check out our conversation below.
Q: Give me a little background on yourself. When and how did you start doing music professionally?
Jeffrey: I went to college in Baltimore. That’s where I met Kelly Laughlin who would become the singer of a group I was in for many years called Secret Mountains. It started off just the two of us as kind of a songwriting project and quickly grew into this six piece psych-rock band. We did lots of touring, played festivals all over the place. That was the first city where I felt very involved in the music community and I loved it – booking shows for other people, sleeping on people’s floors on tour and all that. Right as our first record came out that band pretty much imploded (laughs). It took me a minute to recover from that and then I had moved up to New York, where I lived in Brooklyn for six years with my now wife.
Q: Your new EP How On Earth is slated for release at the end of this month. How did you find yourself putting out a record on Driftless Recordings?
Jeffrey: Last March, I did an artist residency on the coast of Washington at this place called the Sou’wester Lodge. They’ve got all these old airstreams that they’ve turned into trailers and one of them they turned into a mini recording studio. I spent like a week there, writing songs and hanging out. I performed a show there at that space and it was my first time performing songs by myself in front of other people in probably ten years.
I was just really happy to get the songs out to the universe in some way, shape or form. I didn’t necessarily feel like this had to be with a label but I already had my eye on Driftless Recordings for a while. I really admire a lot of the artists on the label, I admire the aesthetic, I admire how hard they’re working. I also knew I wanted to work with someone on the West Coast, just from a location standpoint now that I’m out here. Patrick, one of the guys who runs the label and records under the name North Americans – he put out one of my absolute favorite records of 2018 – is really cool, I was just thrilled at how much they were up for it, considering how much I look up to them.
Q: You’ve moved around a bit, spending time and working in Brooklyn and now Portland. How would you describe the artistic communities in both of those places – especially Portland, since that’s where this project was made and because it’s where you’re living now.
Jeffrey: Not that I’ve lived in so many cities, but between Baltimore, New York and here, Portland definitely felt home the quickest, which is a really comforting feeling and something we’re really grateful for. My wife is a freelance illustrator, so we were looking for cities that had artistic scenes for both of us. For me personally, so far the music connections I’ve made have just been really genuine. It doesn’t feel like as much of a competition, which New York can seem like at times. There doesn’t seem to be as many barriers or walls of cliques that you have to break through in order to have a conversation with someone or get a foot in the door.
Q: Refocusing on the EP, you describe this group of tracks as ambient folk music, which I think describes it pretty well. It really does have that isolated, Pacific Northwest, cabin-in-the-woods type feel to it. Is that something you were conscious of when you were creating the songs?
Jeffrey: Some of the songs were written in that idyllic setting – it was raining at the artist residency every day while I was there, you know, dreary and gray. It was more so that I’m trying to figure out how to pull from the things that I currently really love about a song or an album from other musicians and also really think about what kind of sounds and what kind of music I want to be making. I’m definitely more interested in instrumental guitar stuff, ambient music and soundscape kind of stuff. I was really just thinking about all those things and how I could make them my own.
Q: One thing I took away from listening to the album is that the music is really comfortable in it’s pacing. Even though it is a little slower, it’s got a nice rhythm to it in the way the songs flow into one another. The drum machines and the subtle instrumental nuances create a nice sense of intimacy. It gives off the vibe that you were really in the zone. Could you elaborate on how creating this record by yourself impacted your creative process when it came to experimenting and fleshing out certain techniques or song ideas?
Jeffrey: We have an apartment where the basement has some drywall over the cement and I’ve been able to carve out a little nook to start working on recordings. Just having access to space to create that’s not necessarily a separate studio has been really crucial to my practice. Also, knowing that if I make some noise down here I’m not really bothering anyone, that’s been a big part of it.
The drum machine thing, I really have started to dig the sound and look of some of these vintage old machines. I’ve seen a couple sets of friends of mine or other artists here using it and I really like the way that it can blend with the sound of a clean electric guitar tone. When I was in other bands, I liked when the drummer just started with anything – it just kind of got my mind going. Now, I just push a different rhythm or set a different tempo and sometimes that’s all I need to start messing around with a new idea.
Q: Diving further into the thematic inspiration that went into this set of songs, specifically on the track “All Hands Raised,” which is a tribute to children around the country who have voiced support for issues like gun control. How did you resonate with that song when you were making it? What was creating it like?
Jeffrey: I was teaching at a high school last year and got to watch a lot of students their rally around that cause and I was super inspired by that. It was obviously a really horrendous year for that in America… I don’t know, I just had my students on my mind when I was writing that one. When we moved in, I actually saw a sign across the street that said “All Hands Raised.” It was actually an education non-profit, so that was the perfect segway into needing a phrase or needing something to ground the words in.
Q: What band or artist is a big inspiration to you that people might not expect?
A: If you’re talking bands that are opposite of my own sound, there’s a heavy metal band called Graveyard that I think are absolutely incredible. They have more of a classic Black Sabbath kind of sound, but they’re all just such unbelievable musicians. There was this really crazy blizzard in New York a few years ago and I think every venue was shut down. They were playing that night and were like ‘Hey, we’re still playing!’ so I went to the show and saw them with like 20 other people that decided to actually make it out into this snowstorm and they blew me away.
Q: What are some other Portland based acts who you really enjoy and would recommend to people right now?
A: Hmm. That’s a good question. There’s a singer-songwriter named Gillian Frances. There’s a band called The Woolen Men who are fantastic. Another band I just heard about, The Lavender Flu, are really cool. I would definitely also say someone else I’ve been really enjoying from this neck of the woods is actually someone I’ve been lucky enough to hop on a few bills and play with, this guy Evan Way. He plays in a band that’s been around town for a minute called The Parson Red Heads. Evan’s been extremely kind to me since being here.
Q: We just kicked off the new year and I imagine you’ll be running with this new project for a little while. On top of that, what does 2019 look like for you music-wise?
Jeffrey: I’m definitely trying to keep up with writing new music just to have new material to throw into my shows and work towards a full LP. I’m kind of starting to think about what format I want that to take. I’m just so excited to get this project out the door in full and then at the potential of maybe getting down to California to play a few shows, get out of town a little bit, maybe play on the coast in Oregon or even in Montana. Just some more small, out of town touring in this general region.
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All images by Alex Kocher. Listen to ‘How On Earth’ on all digital streaming platforms January 25 and pre-order the EP on digital or cassette via Bandcamp.