This fall, Jimmy LaValle is caught between the past and the future — musically speaking at least. The Los Angeles-based musician and composer, who records and performs under the moniker the Album Leaf, will play CMJ this month, mixing songs from his decade-and-a-half solo career in with new material from his upcoming album, like lead-off single “New Soul,” which was released October 9.
Then, at the end of November, LaValle hops over the Atlantic to Prestatyn, in Wales, for All Tomorrow’s Parties’ annual Nightmare Before Christmas weekender, where he will perform his third album, In a Safe Place, in its entirety. Coincidently or not, Sub Pop, which originally released In a Safe Place in June 2004, just reissued the album on vinyl after it had been out of print since 2007. This is no small event: LaValle completely approves of seeing it back on the black stuff (there’s a limited edition colored vinyl issue, too), not because it’s hip to release vinyl, but because it’s his thing. “All my records are released on vinyl, I’ve always been a vinyl guy,” he says from his home in LA. “Even being involved in music since ’97, ’98, vinyl was always the thing for me. There’s only one EP of mine that was not originally issued on vinyl.”
LaValle began his musical journey in the mathy, jazzy post-rock band Tristeza, and since 1999 has continued with minimal and ethereal explorations solo as the Album Leaf. It was after his piano-led second album, One Day I’ll Be on Time, which was released by Tiger Style in March 2001, that he caught the attention of Sigur Ros, who invited him to open a US tour. His profile increased significantly, and LaValle then recorded In A Safe Place at Sigur Ros’s Icelandic studio, even enlisting some members of the outfit, along with collaborators from Mum and the Black Heart Procession’s Pall Jenkins, to perform on the record.
“There were a couple of different factors,” LaValle recalls of his leg up on the ladder given to him by the release of In A Safe Place. “I was on a bigger label and had a full-force publicity campaign. And Sigur Ros were on everybody’s radar. I hate to say I rode Sigur Ros’s coattails, but I pretty much did in a way. It was lucky me: right time, right place. It’s a relationship that has sustained even through now, though.”
It was certainly a project he cherishes, even though it involved several trips from San Diego, his hometown, where he lived at the time, over to Iceland. “Every song was half-written at my home. Then I’d fly to Iceland to track and finish them. It must have been three or four times back and forth for two weeks at a time,” he says. “It’s a pretty magical place, it’s quite amazing.” LaValle adds that his surroundings in this very different land played a part in shaping the record.
“I always find inspiration in my immediate surroundings. It usually just happens like that — ‘Wow, these birds sound amazing. How can I capture that in music?’”
Just then, there’s an interruption. Someone is calling his attention away. “I’m packing while I’m talking,” he yells to someone who’s obviously trying to hurry him up. He’s off for a weekend camping trip with his family, he explains, and what with a busy schedule and shows on deck, time is generally short.
Since recording In a Safe Place, LaValle has kept up a steady recording output as the Album Leaf, and he also works on film soundtracks, most notably that of the psychological thriller Spring, which also featured some Sigur Ros songs. He also branched out with more collaborative projects, particularly with Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters fame, with whom he recorded 2013’s Perils from the Sea. “In the last four years, having done more collaboration, particularly with Mark, I’ve become much more involved with having my band work with me on the records. The new one even has some collaborative writing,” he says.
“For me, what’s changed over the years the most is the instruments I wanted to play,” he adds. “I found I wanted to play more guitar than piano, and experiment more. At one point, I stripped myself down to three instruments. Through that process I was then doing more sampling, creating synthesized sounds out of natural sounds — just resampling and resampling a sound over and over. It’s meant a lot of time in the studio, but it’s a lot of fun.”
As much as LaValle could book a In A Safe Place back-to-back tour, he’s to stay in the present and concentrate on his next album, his sixth, and his first album since A Chorus of Storytellers, which was released in 2010. He says the record will be called Between Waves. “ATP will be the only whole album show,” he insists. “CMJ will be more of a regular mix, but just as interesting.”
The Album Leaf plays Baby’s Alright and the Cake Shop on October 16, and the Knitting Factory and the Taste of the Seaport on October 17.