Throughout his career, Josh Garrels has always written songs that are easy to enjoy and hard to label. His acoustic-based, indie-folk foundations have always been bolstered by lush accompaniments such as sampled beats, synthesizer loops, and orchestral ornamentation. The result is a stunning sound that is completely unique to Garrels and one that has garnered him an ardent following of fans and supporters.
Take a listen to Home, the brand new album from Garrels (released this past Tuesday), and you’ll hear that he's added a wonderfully soulful, vintage R&B layer to his already impressive eclectic sonic palette. For our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One, we chatted with Garrels about the writing and recording process for Home, his new backyard studio, and his two cents on the ever-evolving “free music” discussion.
NoiseTrade: You’ve given your new album the deceptively simplistic title of Home, a word that can mean many different things to different people. What specifically does it mean to you?
Josh Garrels: The idea of home, in it’s most idealized sense, would be the place where we’re fully known and accepted. I was fortunate enough to have a pretty solid upbringing. Since I was young, home-space has always felt sacred and safe to me. Yet, I am conscious that home being a safe place has not been the reality for many.
But regardless of whether we come from a good home or broken home, leaving home is a necessary coming of age experience for all of us. Now I’m a man, with a wife, and children, and a home of my own, yet somehow life has begun to feel more chaotic, anxiety-ridden, and out of control than it ever had before. In short, I’ve had the trappings of a home but have felt inwardly homeless (unsafe, scared, unknown). It’s these unsettling feelings that I had to work out with God and in my songwriting. The result is the 11 songs that make up Home.
NT: From a musical perspective, it seems you’ve added an even more soulful layer to your songs than you have on previous records. What inspired that new sonic layer and how did you go about achieving it?
Garrels: I’ve had an abiding love for soul music for years. I grew up listening to hip-hop, which was my gateway into soul music. Most of the hip-hop I listened to was just samples from James Brown, Al Green etc. with a grimy beat layered on top. All my albums have had a little bit of soul influence, but I gave myself permission on this one to really push into it. My dear friends at Mason Jar Music in Brooklyn helped with the production of about two thirds of the album. They heard where I wanted to go with some of the songs, and they did a great job capturing the vibe with string arrangements, horn sections, and their live house band.
NT: I hear shades of vintage R&B records and late 60s-70s Motown/Philly International singers in songs like “Leviathan,” “The Arrow,” and your gorgeous album-opener “Born Again”. Did you have any specific bands or records in mind while writing and recording these new songs?
Garrels: Yeah, I’ve definitely been listening to a lot of older music for the past few years (50s, 60s, and 70s), so I’ve been influenced by the classic production and songwriting from those periods. Ive always been partial to Al Green and Stevie Wonder, but also newer soul singers like D’Angelo and Michael Kiwanuka. On a song like “The Arrow” I was probably harkening more to my love of blues rock bands like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, or The Black Keys.
NT: Songs like “Heaven’s Knife,” “Benediction,” and “At the Table” still carry the layered acoustic-based vibe that your fans have come to expect from you. What all goes into your decision-making process as to whether you keep a song intimate and bare or whether you color in the sonic spaces with other elements such as full band instrumentation, samples, and sequencers?
Garrels: Sometimes I have a definite idea how the song should sound from the start, so choosing production (or lack thereof) is easy. “Heavens Knife” and “Benediction” came together fairly simply, as the acoustic guitar and vocal were obviously the focal point of the song and everything else would just be there to serve those.
“At the Table” was perhaps the hardest song on the album to produce! It was one of the first songs I wrote for the album, and I felt strongly that it was a vital part of the album's arc and storytelling. Yet, when it came to production, I struggled with it. I threw so many ideas, snippets, and sonic textures at the song that at one point my wife Michelle said, “I think it’s beginning to sound schizophrenic”! It was the last song I finished, and it took a lot of discernment to know what to strip away and what to keep. My friend (and mix engineer) Dave Wilton helped me to find the heart of the song and only keep the instrumentation that complimented the focus.
NT: This is the first album you’ve recorded in your new hand-built, backyard studio. What were you feeling during the construction process and how did it evolve once you were able to work in there after it was completed?
Garrels: The studio is great. It’s one of the most substantial mind-blowing gifts I’ve ever been given, yet the construction didn’t come without toil and adversity. Part of the reason I haven’t put out a full length album for 4 years is that it took me a year and a half just to build the studio! Getting it done was a difficult process. The moment it was completed I got moved in and started another long, arduous process of making an album. It was a joy to create the songs in my backyard, appropriately at home.
NT: As someone who has never shied away from the free music platform, what sorts of conversations do you have with fellow artists about frequently giving your creative work away for a season?
Garrels: I think when I gave away Love & War & The Sea In Between four years ago, giving away full albums was a little more of a radical step of faith. In my estimation, over half the artists I’m friends with nationwide give away their work, at least for a season. With millions of people creating songs and uploading them to the web internationally, most artists know they need to dismantle the monetary barrier between themselves and the listener or they simply wont be heard.
I truly believe that generosity begets generosity. You give before you receive. Is it nice when people actually buy my albums? Yes! But if I had to choose between one person buying my album, or 10 people getting it for free, I’d rather have 10 people listening to my songs!