How Dave Heumann Made Existential Despair Sound Dreamy on His New Solo Album
Photo by Matt Condon
It's a late-August evening at Club Charles, Baltimore's beloved dive bar. Singer/guitarist Dave Heumann is winding down the evening with a pineapple mocktail that he seasons with a Hawaiian root-based sedative called kava. “It relaxes me, but keeps me alert,” Heumann says, mashing clumps of the powder in his glass with a fork.
The former Arbouretum frontman is out with his first solo record, Here in the Deep. The album is a joyous, lo-fi Americana trip, but Heumann at age 43 is still jittery to tour without his bandmates of the past decade.
“Everyone develops their little peculiar habits on the road,” Heumann says. “I have to brush my teeth before going onstage. It makes me feel like a human and connected to a reality that's within my grasp." When speaking, Heumann casts his eyes downward or to the side and gives thoughtful, exact answers. He adds with a somewhat goofy smile that he can’t stand bell peppers and cold sandwiches.
Heumann has just come from playing a completely improvised show with an electronic musician at the Crown, the city’s new watering hole/incubator for local talent. Abstraction doesn’t intimidate Heumann very easily, considering the range of philosophic and literary influences that signified his work in Arbouretum, from Paul Bowles and Carl Jung to Colin Dickey and Gordon Lightfoot. Live improvisation is like thinking through a philosophic problem, Heumann offers. “Sometimes you find yourself in a rough patch, relying on the same sort of patterns. You have to keep pushing through that, taking chances and trying something out. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but you keep going."
Heumann’s love of creating music in the moment is ingrained in Here in the Deep, which has three instrumental tracks: the experimental “Morning Remnants,” the playful “By Jove,” and the sparse “Leaves Under Foot.” Lower Dens (and former Arbouretum) guitarist Walker Teret assisted on the latter. “It’s just two guys enjoying ourselves, playing guitar,” says Heumann. The acoustic song has a vibrant, Bonnie "Prince" Billy–esque quality. As a Baltimore native having never left, Heumann knows his peer musicians better than anyone else. His musical inclinations are probably closer to ESP.
The thread of improvisation is heard on Deep’s communal songs, like the single “Ides of Summer,” which juxtaposes shrinking islands and scarcity with warm tones, like dancing around a Maypole next to a cliff.
“Ides” and Heumann’s other songs trade plot development and intrigue for meditation and repetition, similar to Seventies folk singer Linda Perhacs. Like Perhacs (and many other musicians from that period), Heumann is fascinated by early American folk, Celtic music, and lyric poetry. You can hear it best on songs like “Switchback,” “Cloud Mind,” and “Holly King on a Hill,” which draw upon the old and the new, smudging pastoral scenes with guitar distortion. Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner lends her airy soprano to a rendition of the folk song “Greenwood Side.”
The album's most appealing lyric is one that describes a man throwing his keys into a lake (“Here in the Deep”). Heumann said he was channeling the late musician Jason Molina, who passed away two years ago from crippling alcoholism. “He just got into my head,” says Heumann. “I just kept thinking about how he died with only his grandmother’s number in his phone.” Heumann’s interpretation of despair comes across as an existential wash. The stoic vocal rests on the instrumentation like a light film of dust settled on a church organ.
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Heumann isn’t a confessional or a political songwriter. He talks about Here in the Deep with an intellectual distance from his subjects that suggests his writing is more like a logic puzzle than a message shouted through a megaphone or torn from a diary page. “I never really set out to write about romance or relationships,” Heumann says. “I guess I just always thought: who’s going to care?”
Dave Heumann plays Union Pool on October 25. For ticket information, click here.
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