Swinging Modern Sounds #76: American Songbag

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David Nagler is one of those guys in Brooklyn who is ubiquitous for his ability to play anything and play with anyone. He plays on a lot of projects not only because he’s enormously effective as a musician, because also he’s extraordinarily likeable, and he’s likeable because he’s adaptive, gentle, kind, and seriously gifted. I first met him while occasionally performing at the Cabinet of Wonders variety show, curated by Wesley Stace. Nagler is the de facto musical director of the Cabinet, where he plays lead guitar and keyboards, depending on what’s required. He sings some too. The Cabinet of Wonders has a decidedly rock/pop set of interests, and it’s a bit old-fashioned that way. The Cabinet is arrested, that is, mostly, in the seventies, in pre-punk, and it loves singer-songwriters, but that in no way tells the complete story about Dave Nagler. He has a pop-electronica group called Nova Social, which feels cut from New Order or Depeche Mode cloth, but with a bit of Prince as a portion of the compound. And he also plays lounge or cabaret music at his Oracle Show (where he covers well-known songs on particular themes, like desire or colors, with guest singers). I have seen him shred an electric guitar solo in a decidedly offhanded way, and then move over to the piano to play a gospel part, without batting an eye. Because of his affability and boundless talent, Nagler has gone from playing liberally with the indie rock crowd to playing with a lot of people who are at the forefront of contemporary American music.

None of this prepares us for his very ambitious new project, Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, which as the title suggests involves musical settings of the poems of Carl Sandburg with a stellar line up of guest singers (though Nagler also sings a fair amount of the project himself), including Sally Timms, Jon Langford, Robbie Fulks, and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, arranged with great style for a sort of chamber pop ensemble with strings and horns. The feeling of the arrangements is not unlike Van Morrison’s amazing Astral Weeks ensemble, but also maybe like Van Dyke Parks, or like Gabriel Kahane, which is to say exquisitely musical, and not like some of those rock and roll albums where a completely mundane composition is given strings to conceal the joins, just because. Nagler’s compositions are lovely, austere, and his voice, which is not a show-tune voice, but a human voice, somehow connects the project to the folk music that Sandburg occasionally made himself.

Let me venture a comparison: one of the very best albums of recent years is The Trackless Woods, by Iris DeMent, in which that singer and songwriter sets Anna Akhmatova to country and gospel melodies. Nagler’s album follows a similar template, if with an art-song ambition at its core. And there’s Natalie Merchant’s double album of songs that set a diverse bunch of American poets, Leave Your Sleep. These albums seem to suggest that there’s a growing appetite for songwriting that includes lyrics of particular merit (and I’d include, if we’re growing a catalogue of such things, Dave Schramm’s settings of Emily Dickinson, or Richard Buckner’s song cycle based on the Spoon River Anthology, Hannah Marcus’s ongoing attempt to set the lectures of Richard Feynman, and so on), songs in which the lyrical register is not simply “words to sing,” or words to rap, but in which the words can really do some of the heavy lifting. Maybe, in these cases, the music automatically becomes more ambitious, as though it needs to rise to the level of the words. Whatever the cause, Nagler’s Chicago Poems, is a first-rate contribution to the subgenre of chamber songs that set important poetry, and it marks an important new way into the work of a great player here in the NYC area. Keep your eye on him.

Nagler and I conducted this interview by email between December 2015, when he first performed some of these songs, and March 2016.

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The Rumpus: So can we begin at the beginning—with how you got interested in Sandburg, your first experiences with his work, etc.?

David Nagler: My mother had given me the Sandburg collection Harvest Poems as a gift after she visited the Carl Sandburg Home in Flat Rock, NC in the summer of 1998. That fall I visited Chicago; I had graduated from Northwestern University in nearby Evanston a few years prior. I read the Chicago Poems excerpts while I was there. It was sixteen poems in total (at the time I thought they were the entirety of the Chicago Poems collection, which is actually closer to 150). One of the poems was “Mag,” in which a desperate narrator expresses his regrets to his wife about getting married, having kids, and their entire relationship. At the time, I was listening to Randy Newman’s album Good Old Boys a lot, and this character reminded me of some of the down-on-their-luck narrators on that record, in songs like “Marie” and “Guilty.” The poem “Mag” seemed like a song lyric that never happened, and so that was where the idea of setting his poetry to music came from.

Rumpus: And how much of that initial connection came from the Chicago-related nature of his work? Did you feel something special about that upon first beholding?

Nagler: The Chicago connection was what led me to him in the first place, and though the spirit of the city was only a part of what struck me about his writing, it is definitely a significant part. Of course there’s the opening poem, “Chicago,” where Sandburg nails all these traits and themes associated with the city itself: labor, crime and corruption, pride, the underdog. I was also taken by how he makes Lake Michigan feel like a character in some of the poems (“Lost,” “Fog”). Even the more autumnal and pastoral poems like “Theme in Yellow” and “Under the Harvest Moon,” which don’t feel particularly urban, have an evocativeness and spaciousness that seems very, dare I say, Midwestern.

I think I’ve gotten a fuller picture of Sandburg’s Chicago over the last couple years as I’ve come nearer to completing the project, by reading the remainder of Chicago Poems as well as other early-to-mid 20th century writers who either hailed from or wrote about Chicago—John Dos Passos, Edgar Lee Masters, Nelson Algren. And also by learning more about Sandburg’s life—his socialist beliefs, his journalism.

Rumpus: What was the first poem you set to music? And how did you go about it?

Nagler: This would have been in 2008 or 2009, and I’m pretty sure it was the poem “Lost.” I printed up the sixteen Chicago Poems from Harvest Poems and started the writing on piano while I was at my parents’ house over the holidays. “Lost” came the quickest, maybe even before I started dissecting the poems: counting the number of syllables in each line, determining where the different section breaks and changes might go, looking for possible musical phrase repetitions. Most of the songwriting I was doing at that time was for my band Nova Social, which was heavily influenced by dance and electronic music, and generally had one consistent tempo throughout. The Sandburg material was closer to being through-composed, a style, which I had little experience in. It was very exciting, and once I was able to tackle the bulk of the poem “Chicago,” I felt confident enough to keep going.

Rumpus: I wanted to ask about the marked difference in idiom from Nova Social, your sort of house/dance/pop band. Why does this material call out for such a different approach? And if this approach (acoustic piano, let’s say), why not go even further and write overtly folk-like material?

Nagler: Those are good questions. To have set these songs to music with beats and synths seemed unnecessarily anachronistic. Plus, I wanted to stay true to the original spark of the idea. Because the text was almost one hundred years old, and somewhat grounded in an historical era, I wanted to draw on different styles of American music, hopefully without everything seeming too disparate.

Another early touchstone during the writing was the album American Gothic by the singer/songwriter David Ackles, who was a contemporary of Randy Newman. The final song on that record, “Montana Song,” helped inspire me to think more cinematically and orchestrally, with strings, horns, and woodwinds. That helped provide a general palette, but I also approached each song individually, and Sandburg’s text was a jumping-off point for styles, moods, and instrumentation.

I thought it was important the project be connected to folk music considering Sandburg’s background—he was a folk musician as well as the compiler of the anthology The American Songbag. I think the melodies of several songs are heavily indebted to folk music, and a few songs—“Theme in Yellow,” “Under the Harvest Moon”—were written in a deliberately folksy style. Otherwise, I knew I didn’t want it to sound too much like traditional folk music. There’s no banjo on the recording or in the live performance, for instance, which was deliberate.

Folk music is also a very broad term, and except for a little Farfisa organ on the recording, all the instruments are acoustic. So perhaps it’s more like folk music than I would readily admit.

Rumpus: I of course wanted to ask about Sandburg’s recordings themselves. Sandburg was a really great singer of folk songs, I think, and I would imagine that his own approaches to melody and arrangement would leave a big stamp if you attended to them too directly. Did you try to steer clear?

Nagler: Not intentionally. It was only after the songs were finally written that I started finding out more about Sandburg, reading more of his poetry and learning about his other creative endeavors, beyond having a basic knowledge of who he was. Prior to that, I only focused on the text of those sixteen poems.

I have listened to them since then, and they are stunning. I’m not sure how much the songs would have influenced the project, considering how freeform his poetry is, and how the rhyming is minimal. That said, I did use them as pre-show music at the New York performances in January, because I think they complement the show nicely.

Rumpus: I was wondering if you have heard Iris DeMent’s The Trackless Woods? (It was my favorite album of last year, actually.) In that case she is setting all Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet, and mostly using gospel and country flavored music and arrangements. Somehow, because Akhmatova was so spiritual (while being singled out for a fair amount of mistreatment by the Soviets), the gospel flavor of DeMent’s tunes feels perfect, almost in the way that hip-hop seems oddly perfect for a recent musical about Alexander Hamilton. Your idiom would seem to be a certain kind of singer-songwriter approach. David Ackles is a good gloss, here. Is there a way that that kind of chamber baroque approach (I was thinking of Gene Clark, a bit, also, and, differently, Gabriel Kahane) feels well-suited, to you, to the poems?

Nagler: I have not heard that record, and it sounds like something I should listen to. (I was reminded to dig deeper into Iris DeMent’s music often in 2015 with “Let the Mystery Be” being the theme to season two of The Leftovers.)

I should mention, I never viewed Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems as a genre exercise. If it seems like the basis of the music is a singer/songwriter style, that’s probably because that is the style I’ve been the most comfortable writing in for the longest amount of time. The arranging probably plays a large part in pushing the music further into a somewhat “baroque pop” idiom, with the inclusion of strings, woodwinds, and horns.

As far as music projects that incorporate certain texts, narratives, stories, etc., I like to make note of how they work in theory and how they work in practice. Take Hamilton, which I have seen. In theory, the idea of creating a hip-hop musical based on an American historical figure whose story was included power struggles, life as an outsider, and extreme hubris, all set during a time of revolutionary change—that sounds good. But then it comes down to whether it works in practice—which, of course, it does because Lin-Manuel Miranda’s writing and performance are so compelling, the cast is terrific, it all feels fresh and exciting, and so many other reasons.

Rather than my first thought after seeing Hamilton being, “they pulled it off,” I just thought it was a great show. It transcends the story, which I think should be the yardstick for a creative work based on, or incorporating, biography, history, or a pre-existing work.

I do think it’s interesting that Miranda chose the story of Hamilton, and DeMent chose the poetry of Akhmatova. There are other American historical figures and Russian poets they could have chosen to adapt, as I could have chosen another early 20th century American poet, other poems by Sandburg, and other poems in the Chicago Poems collection. A lot of this may seem somewhat obvious, but how a creative work becomes what it is fascinates me, and it was something I thought a lot about, particularly over the last couple years.

Rumpus: Does this particular assemblage of Sandburg tell a story for you?

Nagler: I’m not sure it tells a story, but I believe there is a loose narrative to it. Or at least I hope the project evokes something: an era, a setting (or settings), a mood (or a variety of moods).

Once I decided on the order, which is partially based on how the poems appeared in Harvest Poems, I became committed to it. So I believe there is a dramatic arc of some sort. Though a story also exists within each poem/song.

The end result reminds me in some ways of a stage adaptation of Spoon River Anthology I was in when I was in high school. It was created in the early ‘60s by Charles Aidman (who I was familiar with from his appearance in an early Twilight Zone episode), about forty years after Spoon River was first published. It incorporated a number of traditional folk songs, many which probably appeared in Sandburg’s American Songbag collection. In that production, I had the dual role of being one of the performers as well as accompanying the cast on acoustic guitar.

Because Sandburg was starting to solidify his voice as a poet with the Chicago Poems collection, you have several different voices in his poetry: those that seem to come directly from him, those that have him inhabiting characters or inanimate objects, and those that are nebulous and impressionistic. I think this project contains a myriad of voices like Spoon River, which make it seem like, if not a novel, then perhaps a collection of linked short stories and meditations.

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Rumpus: What’s the theme of the whole then, from your point of view? Do you see the disparate styles adding up to one single explicable theme?

Nagler: In the broadest sense, I think of this work as being about the stuff of life: excitement, love, disappointment, pride, nature, cities, war, loneliness, work, class distinction, communication. It’s what I imagine life in the early 20th century to be, but with many of the same issues of today’s world, and containing many of the same emotions of people living today.

Rumpus: I also want to ask about how you did all the arranging. Is there a song that was particularly difficult from an arrangement perspective? I’d love to go through how you did one, bit by bit. Possible?

Nagler: Sure. I started writing the songs in 2009, with most written on piano and a couple written on guitar; I probably finished nine or ten songs within two years. After that, I stopped for a while, because I wasn’t sure how to finish the remaining songs. “Killers” was definitely the one I put off finishing for the longest amount of time, knowing how ambitious it would have to be. The poem contains Sandburg’s reflections on the Great War, it’s very dark and meditative, and the musical setting had to be absolutely right.

I would say I had three main sonic realms I wanted to song to inhabit:

First, I knew I wanted a folk-sounding acoustic guitar to drive the bulk of the lyrical portion. (Early Leonard Cohen may have been what I was going for, in retrospect.) Much of the poem is intimate, as if Sandburg is sharing a secret. The opening line sets up this feel immediately: “I am singing to you / soft as a man with a dead child speaks.” Most of the remainder of the poem is equally as ruminative, plaintive, and melancholy.

Secondly, I knew some of it had to be really intense—in particular, a middle stanza that describes the massive number of individuals creating the incredible amount of bloodshed (“And a red juice runs on the green grass / And a red juice soaks the dark soil / And the sixteen million are killing… and killing / and killing”). I had seen several of the band Swans’ last few New York shows, and I wanted a forceful energy like that.

And finally, I wanted a noisy, abstract section, which could almost act as a bridge between the other two styles. The dissonant noise—all of which was improvised by the musicians on the recording, entirely independent of where it would occur in the song—could sit on top of the intense portions and also be used to transition back into a quiet vocal part.

So “Killers” ended up piecing together five or six parts to create the song, and then adding additional arrangements on top—the counter-melodies by French horn and clarinet, the dissonant strings, the accordion melody in the middle. And there was some nice collaboration as well: Jon Natchez, who helped out with all of the arranging, suggested the tremolo string break towards the end, and Max Avery Lichtenstein, who was involved in the project from the very beginning, helped shape and tighten the vocal line at the end.

 

Rumpus: And how about writing the strings and horns? Did you actually write parts out yourself? I am so interested in how people in rock and roll, for lack of a better way of putting it, grow into being first-class arrangers, and the arrangements sound great on here. So how did you do all your string arranging, etc.?

Nagler: Thanks. Yes, I started arranging strings and horns a little over fifteen years ago, first for Nova Social, and then later for Chris Mills. I had some background in music theory from taking piano lessons when I was younger, but most of what I learned was through trial and error.

I did all the arranging on my laptop in Logic over demo versions of the songs—I’ve been using Logic for most of my own recording since 1999. Jon Natchez acted as a sounding board throughout the arranging process, meeting up a couple times in Brooklyn, and giving notes and suggestions. And Dana Lyn gave me a final once-over for the strings.

These songs gave me a lot of space and stylistic range in which to experiment, particularly for the wind instruments. Much of the arranging involved adding musical voices to the songs, rather than simply texture. I don’t believe I had approached arranging in that manner before. And between Jon and Kelly Pratt, who are also on the recording, they owned and could play virtually every brass and woodwind instrument, so that gave me even more freedom.

Rumpus: Do you have ambitions to set another celebrated poet, having gone through the Carl Sandburg experience now? Should we expect another Nagler album that is ambitious in this particular way? Or: what’s next?

Nagler: Perhaps? One of the things I’ve loved most about this project is how organically it started and evolved. It wasn’t, “I want to find some great poetry to set to music,” as much as, “These poems seem like they could be song lyrics.” But I’ve really enjoyed this process of composing and arranging, along with all its challenges.

I think I’m generally inclined towards creative projects that are, if not ambitious, at least have ideas or elements that I’ve never incorporated before. I have a finished record that has yet to be released (Mortal Enemies), and I’m still doing my monthly themed piano bar show at Sid Gold’s Request Room, The Oracle Show. Otherwise, I have no idea what’s next—which is scary, but also exciting.

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Feature photograph of David Nagler © Allison Michael Orenstein.


Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →