The 195-mile drive between Bushwick and Saratoga Springs unveils itself in fits and starts. You begin on Broadway — not the Great White Way, but its shabbier, Brooklyn-bound sister — to the Williamsburg Bridge to Delancey, three choked slabs of rigid concrete stretching across the city like veins. By the time you hit the West Side Highway and the turbid sleeve of the Hudson River and head north to the brown cliffs of the Palisades, it feels like you’ve landed on the leeward side of a concrete valley, the George Washington Bridge cast like a lure across state lines. The I-87 slouches northward past New Paltz and Albany before decoupling from the Hudson and scraping the edge of Saratoga Springs’ downtown.
Benjamin Lazar Davis, 32, took that road home last year to make Nothing Matters, his debut solo album, which was released in May. Davis has been a mainstay in the New York indie scene for nearly a decade, but he’s best-known for his work with the Austin-formed folk-pop outfit Okkervil River. That knack for layered, technically demanding composition followed Davis to his ensemble project Cuddle Magic, a bedroom pop group consisting of Davis, Dave Flaherty, Cole Kamen-Green,Christopher McDonald, Kristin Slipp, and Alec Spiegelman. The band has released several albums, most recently 2017’s Ashes/Axis, an electro-synth heavy record with influences including LCD Soundsystem to Dirty Projectors.
Nothing Matters shares a few chromosomes with Davis’s other projects. It’s still stratified and instrumentally complex bedroom pop, but it’s stripped down in a few places, equal parts Shugo Tokumaru and Sharon Van Etten. “Choosing Sides” could be a single from a lost Shins album, Davis’s voice following a spare acoustic guitar chord as he sings “You got me flowers once for being brave,” before the layers begin to build and more sounds — a steadily exhaling Moog, his own voice in varying pitches — are added to the mix. “Somebody’s Speaking for Me” opens with that same spectral twang before the thump of a drum machine crashes in and low thunder of one of his synths expand the song’s cozy claustrophobia.
The sounds Davis is able to create are a direct product of his recording process. He used money earned from touring with Okkervil River and Cuddle Magic, as well as his collaboration with Joan as Police Woman on the album Let It Be You, to scoop up a trove of obscure instruments — vintage Moogs, hard-to-find Mellotrons, a damn pump organ — only a true gearhead could appreciate. Davis packed a truck full of the stuff headed to Saratoga Springs.https://www.villagevoice.com/wp-admin/edit.php
Saratoga was a welcome homecoming for Davis. “My whole family — my two sisters and my brother were up there. And their children,” he tells the Voice over a cup of herbal tea. “I have a special relationship with my dad because he’s a musician, and my mom was amazing. It was so great to kind of connect with them in a deeper way now that I’m an adult living in the house.” Davis recorded nearly all of Nothing Matters in his childhood bedroom and treated the process like a day job, beginning at 10 a.m. and wrapping up by 8 p.m. so his parents could get some sleep. (Davis’s father is also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist; he led bands in the Sixties and Seventies as well as touring with the Mamas and the Papas.) The room was mostly unchanged from the way he left it for the New England Conservatory of Music at eighteen; Davis transformed it into a makeshift studio, his misfit collection of instruments lining the floor.
Davis has made a career out of collaboration, and his journey home was a way for him to emerge from that comfortable chamber of partnership and explore his own tastes. “There was an energy in me that I felt while I was doing a lot of collaborating, just that I wanted to put my print on things,” he says. “I don’t want to call it ego, but just that I wanted to show the me that was there in the collaborations.”
Freedom comes with its own chains, though, and Davis sometimes struggled with the reality that there was no one to bounce ideas off of, no one to tell him that something was gorgeous or that something needed to be scrapped completely. Save for his mixing engineer, no one heard the album until it was completely mastered, not even his parents, who were sleeping under the same roof. “I really care about what everyone thinks, and when you’re collaborating, you have somebody to talk to about the music to,” he says. “When you’re by yourself, there can be no conversation. That’s the difference. Here I was just doing the record without talking to myself about it. I just worked on it, and then the next day I worked on it.” And so on.
One reason Davis was able to dive into Nothing Matters so fully was that he limited his musical options — though “limited” for him is something of a misnomer. He brought only one acoustic guitar instead of his usual four, and lugged only two basses — an electric and a standup — choosing to leave his collapsible one at home. He indulged his keyboard fetish, however, by bringing a Moog, Mellotron, and, yes, that pump organ as well. (NPR Music has a full run-down of the equipment Davis schlepped home.)
Offstage, Davis is no stranger to the paralysis of choice, and bringing every instrument in his arsenal to recording sessions has done more harm than good in the past. One experience in 2016 at a house in Long Island where Davis moved to record some tracks with Cuddle Magic made an especially memorable impression: “I brought all the instruments that everybody had, that all my friends had, and I took the Steinway upright that I used in my record in a moving truck to this place,” he recalls. He recorded near to thirty songs during that time, but they didn’t gel the way he wanted them to and he had to scrap the project altogether. “It was just a big learning experience,” he says. “For me, when I had a class in college, sometimes the entire course boils down to one sentence that you learned.” His lesson from his time on Long Island? “Restrictions are the best thing.”
By making the trek back to Saratoga, Davis was stripping down part of himself. He was still playing with new sounds, but realized he didn’t need every instrument in the world to make the music in his head a reality. For someone with Davis’s expansive tastes, this was a move inward. He was eighteen again, fooling with whatever guitar or cheap synthesizer he had lying around, trying to create a one-man symphony from spare parts. The sounds of Nothing Matters are of someone finding home just where he left it.
Benjamin Lazar Davis plays Trans-Pecos on Tuesday, July 24.