“This is fragile stuff,” Brian Carpenter says, his tone equal parts softness and insistence. “These songs are tricky. One false move in the arrangements and it all falls apart.” Carpenter is talking about his latest record, The Far End of the World, which was released this October and marks the recording debut of his new troupe, Brian Carpenter & the Confessions. Splitting time between the underground music scenes in both New York and Boston, the singer and multi-instrumentalist has led Beantown’s theatrical Beat Circus and Brooklyn’s Ghost Train Orchestra, which reimagines lesser-known music from the late Twenties and Thirties. Carpenter’s played with many different artists, from postpunk legends Swans to jazz guitarist Marc Ribot to Gowanus-based musician and producer Martin Bisi.
Just like Carpenter, The Far End of the World has been around, too. A debut it may be, but some of these songs aren’t exactly new. Some have existed since around 2010, and Carpenter and company began honing this record back in 2011. “No, this is not new for us — it started as an offshoot of Beat Circus,” the 43-year-old Florida native says from his home in Arlington, Massachusetts. “I even had some of these songs back in Beat Circus, but it was the wrong personnel to play them.”
So Carpenter split off with Beat Circus drummer Gavin McCarthy (who has also played with Karate, Ted Leo, and Cul de Sac) and guitarist Andrew Stern (who leads his own trio and plays in Telescope and Old Soldiers). The album was slow to develop, and then it stopped completely due to a theater production engagement in the Bay Area last year. That break, however, ultimately booted the project to the finish line. “We took a year away from making this record,” Carpenter says of his sojourn in California. “I needed that because I’d become too close to the songs and I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working out the way I wanted. I came back to them and it was immediately clear what was wrong. I redid some of the arrangements — Beat Circus had very dense arrangements, but these songs were different. They needed more space.”
Much of the inspiration that came to define this noir-ish Americana record was sparked when a woman at a show asked Carpenter if he had seen the movie Paris, Texas. He hadn’t, but she told Carpenter he reminded her of the character in the film played by Harry Dean Stanton and some of the songs she’d heard the band play reminded her of the film. “I tracked it down and watched it — I took it as a compliment: this disheveled, haggard guy. I understood what she meant,” Carpenter laughs. “That movie was the biggest influence on this record. Of course, Ry Cooder’s soundtrack, which takes from Blind Willie Johnson, is amazing. But the movie touches on similar themes as these songs: being isolated, trying to reach someone far away, and trying to reclaim something lost.”
In the center of this country-folk noir is Carpenter’s voice, a cross between Willie Nelson’s dry singsong and Nick Cave’s dark murmurings. While the songs sound spare, they’re full of musical character. On record, that’s courtesy of a band that differs slightly from the touring one and includes violinist Jonathan LaMaster (Cul de Sac), violist David Michael Curry (Thalia Zedek Band), cellist Rachel Barringer (the Wrong Shapes), singers Noell Dorsey (Guillermo Sexo) and Jen Kenneally, and Carla Kihlstedt (Tin Hat, Rabbit Rabbit), who sings and plays violin, viola, and the nyckelharpa, a traditional Swedish harp. “It has this distinct sound,” Carpenter says of the unwieldy instrument. “I really wanted the record to have space where people could bring in different instruments, and also where accidents could happen. At one point Carla’s necklace got caught in the harp, and we left that all in.”
The finishing touch came in the mixing process, which was done in Tucson earlier this year by Craig Schumacher, who gave the record that lonesome desert feeling. “It was Andrew who introduced me to him via the work Craig had done with Calexico and Neko Case’s album Black Listed. I heard that and I knew Craig was the guy.“
Carpenter says that he and Stern “are the main architects of the sound,” but after that the process opens up for collaboration. Playing live and meeting fellow musicians in clubs constantly adds to the well of personnel to draw on: “Being in bands, a lot of it is social. As a songwriter and arranger, I am working alone. But then I get to go out and collaborate, which helps when you get too close to a song. I bring in the arrangement and then everyone contributes. It’s not like being an author, where you’re alone all the time. I have a friend who is an animator and she says it’s the loneliest artistic pursuit. I couldn’t do that.”
Brian Carpenter & the Confessions play on October 30 at Rockwood Music Hall. For ticket information, click here.