Last week, Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard announced the impending release of Moonlander, the 46-year-old guitarist's first solo outing in over a decade. Comprised of songs that Gossard's been writing and recording since shortly after the 2001 release of Bay Leaf, his debut, the 11-song LP arrives June 25 on Pearl Jam's own Monkeywrench Records. (Two digital EPs, Apollo and Luna, will be released on iTunes on May 7 and June 5, respectively.) "I like to write music," he says, simply. "And I think exploring with lyrics and figuring out how to make complete songs is fun. I think I have a take on it. I don't know if it's great, but it's an interesting take. It's original. I'm not trying to conquer the world — I'm just saying 'Hey, I've got to finish stuff.' As a songwriter — no matter what — I've got to finish some stuff every once in a while."
So the Seattle native began sifting through 60 or 70 ideas he'd kept in demo form — some of them snippets of melody and riffs he'd captured with his iPhone's voice recorder — and began fleshing them out in the studio with the help of producer Peter Droge and several area friends, including Pearl Jam drummers past (Matt Chamberlain) and present (Matt Cameron). The result is a sidewinding, psychedelic smattering of material that, whether it's cycling between left-field folk, gospel, and rock'n'roll, has audible ties to his work as chief songwriter on Pearl Jam's early, career-defining LPs.
"At the heart of it," he says, "the things I was attracted to then are still the same things I'm attracted to now: oddball riffs that strike my ear as being different, wanting anything to be as cool as 'Down on the Street' by the Stooges or some Jimmy Page riff. I feel shockingly the same. But I think that I was focused much less on lyrics then. Now I'm fascinated by how a lyric can really impact a song."
Last week, Gossard shared just that in Moonlander opener "I Need Something Different," a thick slab of wild-eyed garage rock built around a canyon-like bass loop. It was a first listen, but not the last: As he is today with the album's title track, Gossard has decided to make one song available every Tuesday between now and release. "It just made sense," he says of the decision to post each song with his own free-form artwork made alongside his daughter. "Now's the time to experiment with doing something different from what you normally do. I like the idea these days of just letting people hear music really easily to start out with and the thinking behind the artwork was simple: When you're hanging out with a kid and you're looking for something to do, you pull out sheets of paper. She's scribbling and drawing and taping and pasting and using sprinkles and sparkles and crayons and pens. There's a certain freedom that a kid has when they're making art and that's a very rock'n'roll thing. I've always related music to those moments when someone turns you loose on something and they haven't told you how to do it. "
Like the rest of the record, Moonlander's titular song, streaming above and at Pearl Jam's website, was largely shaped by relationships both musical and personal. "The verses are sort of post-apocalyptic, the world is coming to an end," he describes. "But the chorus is about the delicate nature of love, about the odds of love and relating it to single-celled animals developing into humans and later getting a lunar module to land on the moon. I mean, what are the odds of that?"
As much as "Moonlander" is a recording of skyscraping lyrical sentiments, it's also marked by a swelling confidence in Gossard's own, rarely heard voice. (Pearl Jam fans in particular may remember his vocal turn on "Mankind" from 1995's No Code.) "It's been a really interesting journey," he says. "On one hand, I definitely recognize the gulf between what I do and real singers, the people that I've had the honor to play with, guys like Ed [Vedder] and Shawn [Smith] and Chris Cornell. But if you have the right line and you're in the right mood and you feel a confidence or a strength about what you're trying to get across, anyone can have a song that grabs you. The past is filled with people who aren't traditionally thought of as fantastic singers singing these songs that capture people, songs like 'Louie Louie.' I just aim toward that and I think I've gotten better at it. When people hear it they'll hear that it's certainly not without its flaws, but it's more confident. I hope that it doesn't sound forced." It doesn't.