By Michael Atkinson
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"I'm feeling like a true workaholic right now; my life is unmanageable," the Brooklyn-based composer and singer Gabriel Kahane says while nestled in a window seat at DUMBO's ReBar. "But it's exciting."
Kahane, who lives in Ditmas Park, is keeping busy; during our conversation he mentions a slew of projects he's at work on, including a song cycle he's premiering in the spring, a piece about Alcoholics Anonymous that's in its earliest stages of development, and a forthcoming collaboration with his father. The list of works he's already premiered in 2011 is lengthy.
There's also February House, a musical he co-wrote with college friend and collaborator Seth Bockley. Set to go up at the Public Theater in the spring of 2012, it's about a house in Brooklyn Heights where, back in the early 20th century, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, and a host of other artists lived. "It's the story of all these sexually othered people making this oddly nuclear family and trying to live simultaneously this very bohemian and yet, on a familial level, very bourgeois way of being," says Kahane.
How many projects a day do you work on? I ask him. "Hopefully not more than one a day," he says. "Though the last two weeks . . . "
Ah, yes, the last two weeks. Those have, in part, been spent prepping for the release of Where Are The Arms (Second Story Sound), his second album, which he's been recording (in between working on his other projects) since January 2010. "I finished it for the first time in September of last year," he recalls, "and shopped it and had interest from a big label who wanted me to make really significant changes—significant to the point of incorporating material from my first album [2008's Gabriel Kahane]."
"It's funny because if that had happened 10 years ago, I would have been like, 'Sign me the fuck up!'" he recalls. "But now, where you have majors putting out records that sell 2,000 copies, 3,000 copies, 5,000 copies, there's just no guarantee that it's going to be any better, and it's a much worse royalty rate. So I balked."
The new economy of releasing music gave him the opportunity to go back into the studio and hammer out some more material for Arms; the opening track, the driving, string-accented, falsetto'd "Charming Disease," was actually the last song he completed. The album hangs in a space between pop, classical, and new music, with different elements—strings, horns, subtly employed background singers—revealing themselves on each listen. "Parts Of Speech" is a tense update of the moody rock that bands like Aveo and Modest Mouse released in the early '00s; "Last Dance" manages to elegantly unfurl in under four minutes, shifting from a floating spiral of winds and electronics into a taut, pleading track. The final track, "Great Lakes," is more bar-burner than barnburner, a bit of tragic grandeur that sounds like the nightcap for a regret-soaked evening.
Kahane handles piano, guitar, and banjo duties on the album, and his band is rounded out by Casey Foubert (Sufjan Stevens), Rob Moose (also of Bon Iver), and Matt Johnson (Jeff Buckley). "The big difference with this record is that I was trying to get away from being the piano man, I guess," he says. "So I had been playing more guitar and banjo and was writing songs away from the piano. Then also for the first time on this record, I think there were one or two songs where I did the normal rock thing, which was writing by recording."
The "normal rock thing" is the full-time job for many musicians, of course, but Kahane's smooth shifting between genres provides Arms with much of its richness. He can shift from discussing the nuts-and-bolts of classical commissions to fondly discussing the songcraft of Avril Lavigne's "Complicated." (The first time I saw him live, at Rockwood Music Hall, his set included a spirited cover of Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You"; the song had been floating around the Internet for only a few days, putting him ahead of, well, everybody.) Even in the iTunes era, where collections can be shuffled on demand and liking a single genre of music seems like easy line-item fodder for a personal ad, Kahane's simultaneous embrace of pop and more highbrow-seeming music makes Arms seem both intimate and grand.
"Something that's very formative to me is my dad is one of the most respected pianists and conductors in the country, but he grew up playing in rock bands," says Kahane, whose father, Jeffrey, is the music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. "He's an unusual figure in the world of classical music at that level, in that he takes the Duke Ellington attitude, which is, 'There's good music, and the other kind.' When I was growing up, the record that was on the most was Graceland. Then it would turn that off and he would go play Brahms' second piano concerto. It's, 'Is there substance there?' Is there emotional substance, is there spiritual substance? Is it thoughtful? Except for the brief interlude where I was listening to House of Pain and Cypress Hill, there was never a schism vis-a-vis of genre in my house."
Arms' sonic depth demands close listening, which is something that's increasingly difficult in the iTunes era; music is relegated to background noise for firing off e-mails, catching up on Twitter, or being interviewed in a bar. (Two songs on the ReBar sound system manage to break into our conversation: Robyn's plaintive ode to unavailable men "Call Your Girlfriend" and Animal Collective's pop-song-in-disguise "My Girls.") Kahane's demanding schedule, he admits, makes it difficult for him to keep up on new music in an active way.
"I feel like the time that I listen to new records is when I cook, because I really love to cook, and it's the only time where I can actually multitask," he says. "Because I can't listen to music and write and e-mail. It's too distracting for me."
Which might be why he has a public service announcement for overworked listeners—even those people who might be too enmeshed in writing music to take a break and open their ears.
"I just want people to go home and get a glass of scotch and sit down and listen to a record."
Gabriel Kahane plays Littlefield on September 14