It doesn’t take much to get Steve Lawson talking about improv, and on the eve of the release of his 27th solo album, Beauty And Desolation, he’s eager to riff on the relationship between improv and the studio.
“Improvising allows me to play music that I’d never be able to remember: music that exists for now, and now alone, that relies heavily on serendipity. Capturing improv in the moment allows for recorded music to be a document of a singular event. It’s not the process of capturing a thing that already exists in some imagined, rarified form. It’s making a singular event repeatable—or at least, the experience of the sound is repeatable.”
This relationship between improvisation and recording has been at the heart of Steve’s musical journey for the last 20 years. The vast majority of his recorded output has been improvised, with precious little post-recording editing or manipulation. “Knowing you can’t edit does something to your focus in the moment,” he observes. “There’s a heightened sense of awareness that what you’re doing matters, and that if you get it right, it will live on.”
This heightened sense of awareness is deeply evident across the seven tracks on Beauty And Desolation. From the ambient opening of the title track—not, as it might appear, a synth, but just a single heavily processed bass part—to the `80s New Wave inflection of “No One Wants Reality Any More,” every track exudes the sound of a performer listening to himself.
And while the instrumentation (bass guitar and an MPC-style MIDI controller called the Quneo for beats and piano parts) often makes it sound like an entire band is playing, the sense that this is a singular journey, the work of one person making decisions about what should happen next, is never that far from the surface. “It’s amazing to me to realise that anyone who has heard any of these pieces more than a few times has a greater idea of what’s coming next than I did as it was being played!’ says Steve. “What you’re hearing is me deciding that the next bit ought to exist; feeling my way into it. None of the music on Beauty And Desolation seems strident or overly confident to me. It’s music that unfolds rather than dropping in fully formed. It’s a series of questions being explored, rather than a polished, rehearsed answer to anything.”
But the absence of polish, as Steve puts it, is hardly apparent in this glistening collection of jazz-inflected instrumentals, moving seamlessly from ambient jazz to hip-hop while drawing on noise rock and electronica, and heavily evidencing a liking for soundtracks. “While I was recording this album, my wife and I were watching Luke Cage Season 2. The soundtrack is one of my favourite things ever, so I think a fair bit of the flavour of that music is on here.”
Indeed, the blend of hip-hop, jazz and the suspenseful harmony of classic film soundtracks is where the storytelling begins. And there is a story:
“It emerged as I began record that this music was about beauty as a prelude to destruction. I recorded it in the middle of a heatwave in the UK. The weather was absolutely beautiful, with record-breaking temperatures. But, of course, it was yet more evidence of just how screwed we are thanks to man-made climate change. The sun is just as much evidence as the destructive floods that have become a feature of the British summer.”
“So I started to explore that journey,” Lawson continues, “from beauty to desolation, things that felt eternal and glorious but were beginning to fracture and decay. I’m not sure how strongly evident that is to the outsider, but I can hear it in pretty much every tune here.”
Beauty And Desolation is out on September 3rd, 2018, available directly from the artist at music.stevelawson.net. It won’t, at least initially, be available from other outlets. Steve explains:
“We’re living in a really paradoxical time for musicians. The grand picture is that of the transition from the recorded media age to the age of digitization and streaming, but we’ve actually gone through a different journey over the last decade, one where a load of amazing tools were built that apparently gave unprecedented control and agency to artists who wanted to connect with an audience. But those tools were very quickly colonised and co-opted by corporate interests. The geeky individuals who built them initially—whether motivated by good or ill—quickly caught a whiff of the extraordinary amounts of money that were floating around and gave up on any wider social mission.“
“That left independent musicians high and dry. It meant that streaming tech solutions were built without any viable economic model for the artists, and the potential windfall for the owners of the massive publishing catalogues of the legacy music industry utterly shat on the needs and viability of new music producers to make enough to even cover costs. And that’s the kind of economic servitude we were hoping the internet would save us from.“
“Anyway, we’re at a place where there are precious few options for independent musicians who don’t want to be swallowed up by the ideology of the streaming economy that requires us to chase huge audiences in the pursuit of very limited financial return. So, thank God for Bandcamp and the tools it offers artists and independent labels. It’s exactly the right place for my music, and my life as a recording artist would be completely unrecognizable from what it is if I didn’t have that platform."
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