After more than a decade of collaboration — first with his NYU roommate in Department of Eagles, and then as a group in the psych-folk harmonic wunderkammer known as Grizzly Bear — Brooklyn's Daniel Rossen has crafted a solo EP, a personal statement lightly dusted with curated contributions and unencumbered by compromise.
"There's nothing shocking about the arrangement here," Rossen tells SPIN, but what carries the traditional singer-songwriter fare of Silent Hour/Golden Mile (imagine Jeff Buckley covering the Randy Newman Songbook) to the present day are very current themes of unease and indeterminacy. With audible breaths and muted brass, the endeavor has the feel of a head-clearing solo road trip, with Rossen taking comfort in the mysterious beauty of dusk, the rusty resonance of resignation, that "there's bliss in this mess — there is madness all around."
Listen to the EP in its entirety while reading Rossen’s breakdown of every track:
"Up on High"
This song was an attempt at making my own version of a blues song or a spiritual. The recording is about two years old now. I was in the middle of a writer's block and a general block in life, and this song was one of a number of attempts to play my way out of it. I was listening to a lot of classic blues — a lot of Little Walter, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell — as well as some folksier stuff from New York in the early '60s: Fred Neil, Dave Van Ronk etc. I wanted to do something that felt universal and open like some of the songs they did without overtly playing a specific idiom like the blues. There's nothing shocking about the arrangement here, nothing really out of the ordinary, but for me it functioned as a simple, honest statement to myself and to anyone in my life that might hear it — sort of a universal cry for something else, something beyond myself. It came out very naturally at the time, and then sat around for a year and a half until I decided one day that it was still good enough to release. It also sums up pretty well the spirit of the entire EP in my opinion: simple arrangements, honest songs, nothing too showy. Also, please note Scott Hirsch's great lap-steel contributions. So crucial. That guy was a joy to work with, such an intuitive player.
I started this one an afternoon last spring after someone I knew passed away unexpectedly, and very young, in his mid-30s. He wasn't someone I was very close to, but the experience of watching his community rally around him, all these great young people that shouldn't have experienced this sudden loss that they did, really stuck to me. It was this odd portrait of a young community totally full of life that was suddenly frozen by loss. I recorded this song in upstate New York a couple weeks later, up on top of a hill surrounded by swamp and woods and a broken-down garden. Spring is mostly just mud season up there, when nothing is really growing and it's just wet and boggy, but there's this incredible life in the air — peepers and frogs making tons of noise in the ponds, green slowly emerging over the course of months. I spent about a week alone up there, working around the muddy garden, digging raised beds, laying stone, listening to that great Kurt Vile record, working on music... "Silent Song" pretty much sums up that whole time for me.
"Return to Form"
I put most of this song down last January, also upstate (aside from the awesome brass arrangement, thanks to Ian Davis). Hard to explain this one. To me it's very visual, and is very much about the experience of looking out on a post-agrarian landscape in the wintertime. I was reading 1491 by Charles Mann and Second Nature by Michael Pollan, and thinking a lot about the gray area between a cultivated landscape and a wilderness and the various ways that we romanticize and project our personality onto the natural world, the ways that we manage to project our personal narratives onto unrelated lives and places, as well as the way that music can project a romance and personality on the world around that can feel transformative. This song deals with that.
This was the last song recorded for the EP. I wrote this is early November 2011 and recorded it the same day. Usually my favorite songs fall out all at once, and this one happened that way. I just sort of sat down at the piano and put it down without really knowing if it was a real song or not, recording the vocals and piano all at once. At that time I was already working with Kris Nolte and Ian Davis on brass ideas for the EP and I sent this to them as soon as it was recorded. Kris took it and with a few vague and probably unhelpful commands on my part ("low trombones, stately sounding, not too fancy...") he came up with this amazing subtle arrangement for the song that totally made it work. I can't really say exactly what it's about. It's a slightly morbid cousin of "Up on High," and addresses elements of my personal life that I'd rather not explain. But there's an obvious spirituality there, an attempt to call out to a spiritual presence but from my point of view, from the point of view of someone that isn't religious and doesn't believe in a god. It might sound hokey and/or pretentious to some people, but to me the most valuable aspect of making music is the way that it creates something like a spiritual experience, and for a nonbeliever like myself it's one of the only ways to get there.
This was done last summer. It's very much a summer song to me. I was still camped out a lot upstate and going a little crazy up there while surrounded by all that out-of-control lushness. I was drinking too much, getting weirder and weirder as it got greener and crazier and more overgrown outside. To me this song is an attempt to capture that feeling. I booked a couple days in August at a great place called Miner Street in Philadelphia to try recording in a studio to see what it felt like and to see if anything cool came of it. I worked with a great engineer there named Jon Lowe, and Eric Slick from Dr. Dog was a buddy of his so he invited him in to play drums on this song. Thanks to Eric for the extra bombastic drums on the choruses. Fun times.