Chris Kasper hasn’t traded in his low-key melodic folk style quite yet, but with his new release “The First Hundred Years Are The Hardest,” he’s, in his words, ‘changed the frame.’ To paraphrase a song off his 2006 release “FlyingBoy,” he’s a bit older and maybe a bit wiser. He definitely seems to be having a bit more fun. He’s traded acoustic ballads examining the mysteries of love for brighter melodies, more complex instrumentation and lyrics bordering on the psychedelic. Maybe Kasper is too close to his process to see “Hundred Years” as a departure, but for those who’ve listened to his previous offerings, it’s hard not to see this album as a growth spurt. Philly Venues spoke with Kasper about his new release.
Philly Venues: What would you say sets your new album, “The First Hundred Years Are The Hardest,” apart from your previous recordings? How do you continue to challenge yourself?
Chris Kasper: I think the frame is different. Like if “FlyingBoy” was a hand-drawn frame, and “Chasing Another Sundown” was a gold and silver frame, this one feels almost like a frameless canvas or a hand-built frame made out of found materials. The sounds were layered instead of recorded live, which gives it more chances for experimentation. I challenge my personal growth more than my music. My music just comes through me, I don’t really go for a challenge, in fact, if something is not flowing easily, I usually abandon it.
PV: What’s changed in your life, since your last recording? Anything that’s really influenced you?
CK: Since recording “Chasing Another Sundown” in ’09, I moved to Ventnor City, N.J. and lived at the shore for a year and a half with my dog. The beach in the winter is very desolate and beautiful and a great place to be alone. I taught myself to cook and had a piano to play. I could also play through all hours of the night, because there were no neighbors, just the ocean. I was reading a lot of Italo Calvino and Jack London, listening to a ton of Tom Waits and driving an hour and a half to Philly 2-3 times a week. Those long straight drives were great place to listen to and conjure up ideas. I had a little tape recorder I kept, and still keep, in the car. All of these things led to the inception of the basement demo that ultimately became “The First Hundred Years are the Hardest”
PV: It seems like a lot of Philly musicians want to work with or share a bill with Chris Kasper. Who have you been collaborating with for this record?
CK: Wow, well, I want to share bills with a lot of Philly musicians as well! For this record, I only collaborated with Andrew Lipke. He has amazing musical abilities, great ideas, and is super easy to get along with. That and I’ve always admired his larger than life approach to his own material. I ran in to him randomly during some show at the Fire, and he showed me pictures of the new studio he built in his basement. I recently heard some stuff he produced for our mutual friend Hezekiah Jones and it clicked, this is the guy I need to work with. I showed him the demo I had of the record and he brought it to life: larger than life.
PV: You fall into the Philly folk category, but do you ever find that limiting? Some songs of yours, like the blown-out blues stomp “Reason To Believe,” completely toss off the shackles of being labeled a ‘folk singer.’
CK: Not really. Not for me anyway. It doesn’t really matter what people categorize me as. I just do what I do. I love all music, everything from the precious and beautiful to the trashy and fierce and would never limit myself to a genre. I want to incorporate all of it as much as my ability will allow and if I can blow out a blues tune or make some circus music, that’s what I’m gonna do. Folk is a strange term, it’s usually associated with light guitar and political poetry, like Peter Paul and Mary, or early Dylan, but I have come to realize it’s much broader than that. Taj Mahal said it best, something along the lines of, ‘Folk music is music for folks, so that means, it’s ALL folk’s music.’ The ‘folk’ scene in Philly really lives up to this statement. I mean, check out the Philly Folk Fest! The last two headliners were Derek Trucks and Levon Helm; blues/New Orleans style rockers.
PV: The level of attention you get in the Philly folk scene is something to be envied and is, I think, envied by many. But any artist knows there’s always a next level to aspire to. While there are up-and-coming songwriters trying to get as much attention as you get, what do you envy? Where do you think your music career should be by now?
CK: Well, that’s pretty flattering, but I don’t see anything I do or the attention I get something to be “envied.” I work hard at what I do and will continue to. I also don’t see it as ‘levels,’ I’m just working hard to be the best I can be, doing my thing. I envy folks like Gene Shay and Levon Helm who stay true to what it is they like to do and keep doing it, well into their older years. They never ‘arrived’ anywhere, they just keep on keeping on and in doing so, become the best at what they do and influence those who chose to recognize. I think my career is right where it’s supposed to be. I’ll always want more, but I feel that if, say, I had broke with a hit single when I was in college or something, I would have been a very different person with very different music. This is the way it’s working, and I’m not going to fight it or wish I was something different but I’ll always want to take it somewhere else.
PV: Are you still listening to new albums? What’s come out recently that you’ve really enjoyed?
CK: I love the new Tom Waits, Black Keys, and Feist. Those are my top three. They can do no wrong in my eyes (ears). But this is an interesting question because, for the most part, I don’t really grab hold of too much new stuff, not sure why? A lot of new stuff sounds generic or lazy to me, even if it’s technically good. I crave originality, but not weird for the sake of weird. It has to be rooted in something pure for me to dig on it.
PV: Is there a venue in Philly where you really feel most at home or, maybe, comfortable debuting new songs?
CK: Over the years my favored venues have changed. Started with the Dawson St. in Manayunk where I would always debut new stuff and do weekend shows. Then moved to The Fire to do month long residencies when more people started showing up. After that, the Tin Angel was my go-to venue and nowadays I’m loving the downstairs room at the World Cafe Live. I debuted the entire new record down there and felt right at home. However, when I’m working out kinks in new material, or just to see how an small audience reacts, I like to go to Fergies Pub or the Dawson St Pub.
PV: Listening to your music I hear influences like Nick Drake, James Taylor, Paul Simon, and Elliott Smith. Are there any major influences on your songwriting that, maybe, people wouldn’t expect?
CK: Hmm, I love so much random stuff. Tom Waits, Jerry Garcia, Townes Van Zandt, Lightning Hopkins, Van Morrison, early Coldplay really hit me hard, and that Rufus Wainwright record “Want 1”, Be Good Tanyas, Billy Bragg/Wilco (Mermaid Avenue), Will Oldham, The Band, this list will go on and on….
PV: What’s next for you? Are you touring?
CK: Oh man, so much happening. Tour plans are currently in the works for late winter all through the spring. I’ve been working with Philadelphonic Management and we have our sights set on college radio and opening for national acts throughout 2012. Andrew Lipke, Hezekiah Jones, and myself are dabbling in a collaboration, a ‘folk opera’ of sorts, expanding on the characters of Hezekiah Jones’ songs. I’m also finishing a series of videos for this record and started demoing material for my next record. I’m playing drums for a garage rock band, The Doublewides, and we have a completed EP we’re waiting to release. My longer-term goals are to finish a book of poetry that’s been in the works for several years and do a country-folk record with local fiddler Kiley Ryan. I also want to get a bike and rescue a dog from the pound.
- Billy Kekevian (Philly Venues Contributor)