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    Saturday, June 15, 2024

    Piano lessons: Pocket Vinyl goes full impovisatory on new album

    Pocket Vinyl (submitted)

    The local fan base that has loved New London’s eclectic piano/painting duo Pocket Vinyl since they began in 2011 has expanded dramatically and in international fashion. And why not?

    The pair — keyboardist/vocalist/songwriter Eric Stevenson and painter/artist Elizabeth Jancewicz — has honeycombed the country playing well over 1,000 shows, released a dozen albums ranging from ebullient indie rock to punk to art-pop, made a film, published a graphic novel, an illustrated memoir and an ongoing webcomic, played 50 states in 45 days, and continue to surf a fantastic, never-static, two-pronged aesthetic. Sometimes a project might seem more Jancewicz-centric; other times one emphasizes Stevenson. But one can’t exist without the other and folks delight in knowing they won’t be surprised by anything Pocket Vinyl does.

    But a recently released album called “Painless, Filled With Candles” is one that, by the duo’s own admission, was the musical equivalent of an unexpected pregnancy.

    “In the grand scheme of things, this is minor in what we do,” Stevenson said in a phone conversation last week. “Five months ago, we had no idea this would happen.”

    “Painless, Filled With Candles” consists of solo instrumental piano songs Stevenson composed and edited from more than 10 hours of improvised performance recorded in the couple’s home studio.

    The project was largely inspired by the German pianist/electronic music composer Nils Frahm and his improvisatory album “The Bells.” Stevenson, a trained pianist who started lessons at 12, forced himself to take a month and devote part of each day to sitting at his keyboard and playing anything that came into his head. Would themes and melodies develop — a sort of freewheeling approach fusing his mind-body connection with years of conscious devotion to pop songcraft and getting better at his instrument? Or would he meander and flounder and find himself breaking into “Great Balls of Fire” or a Ben Folds medley?

    To Stevenson’s increasing satisfaction, the efforts paid off. There was so much good material that he and Jancewicz decided it was a worthy Pocket Vinyl release. The music, imbued with flourishes of minimalism and impressionism, is haunting, lovely, thoughtful and imbued with surprising twists and spins. Stylistically, the only thing similar in the PV catalog might be “Hygge,” an ambient companion disc to the 2020 album “Winter Person.”

    For those not familiar with Frahm, similar composers would include Keith Jarrett, Erik Satie, Lyle Mays, George Winston, Max Richter, Olafur Arnulds, Harold Budd and Claude Debussy.

    Pocket Vinyl released 200 vinyl copies of “Painless, Filled With Candles.” It can be purchased on their Bandcamp page and is also available for streaming on all the usual platforms. Alex Glover mastered the recording, and cover art was painted by the pianist’s brother Kyle Stevenson.

    Stevenson answered questions about “Painless, Filled with Candles.” Answers have been edited for space and clarity.

    Q: Talk a bit about Nils Frahm and how he affected you in this context.

    A: Definitely. I’ve known of Nils and his work for a while and for some reason, in the last year or two, what he was doing clicked. I started listening to a lot to his album “The Bells,” which was taken from improvisatory sessions. That led me to discovering musicians who play a genre of music that’s not quite classical but also not ambient. Nils is a far better pianist, but I was curious to see if maybe I had an album inside me. I wondered if I could write songs on the fly.

    For it to work, there has to be some sort of melody or a pleasing chord progression, and that comes from the pop sensibilities we’ve pursued in Pocket Vinyl all these years. But I couldn’t just fall back on reliable patterns. I wanted all these to be improvised but to also feel like songs. Again, Frahm is very good at that.

    I’d also like to add that (improvisational/psychedelic/electronic New London musician) Michael Slyne has had a lot of influence on me. By himself or with his band Slyne & the Family Stoned, Michael has this great attitude about playing music. Whatever he’s creating, it is what it is. Capture it in the moment. He does this brilliant stuff on the fly, and I wanted to try to do that, too.

    Q: To be clear, you just didn’t sit down and bang out 12 songs. You played freely and extensively, recording everything, and then listened back to find the interesting bits. Is that accurate?

    A: Yes, and let me assure you that, out of 10 hours of improvised material, a LOT didn’t work. Sometimes it was very sloppy because I WAS actively trying to go against my own sensibilities. For example, and not to get too technical, but a trick I use a lot in Pocket Vinyl is to go from a minor sixth chord to the four and then to a one. Things like that are very ingrained, so I had to get out of my own head and let my hands go.

    It’s a lot like improv comedy — which, a long time ago, I tried to do without success (laughs). But the idea is to not think twice about what you’re doing and just keep going forward. And some of my favorite moments on the album are things that I didn’t remember playing at all and completely surprised me.

    Q: Did you impose any rules or parameters? And was it possible to sense when something was starting to happen that would make you throw the rules out the window and follow the creative process in real time?

    A: I often give myself rules; different stuff to keep myself sharp or interested. Like maybe “I won’t use any pedals” or “Today I’ll only play black keys.” Of course, by the time I finish whatever I’m doing, I’ve probably broken those rules many times over — but the rules are most valuable as a starting point. I warm up, just letting my hands go anywhere.

    Listening back to the tapes, often I can go on for a while and nothing is happening. But you start to pick up things. I can tell when I realized I was onto something and was trying to pin it down — but maybe doing it badly. Or I thought, “I kinda like this melody but the performance sucks.”

    But then there were moments when I could hear myself finding the song as they happened. It’s a very cool thing to experience, and it feels a bit magical and mysterious to me in ways you might not get recording a full band in the studio with prepared material. That stuff’s great and fun, but not as magical.

    Q: There’s a decided melancholy to this recording, and an abundance of wistful melodies and minor key structures. Oh, and also, the tracks are book-ended by songs titled “Tyler Has Passed” and “Tyler, Lifted With Candles” — both of which have elegiac titles. Is it OK to ask about Tyler and whether this album is about him or her?

    A: Tyler was a close friend who died in 2003 in a single car accident when I was 17 or 18. He was the first friend of mine who died. There are always lingering questions of “What if?” in situations like that, and of course it’s sad. So those songs are small nods to him, but it’s just one aspect of an album with a lot of themes.

    But as we went through all the recordings — which, again, was a huge challenge — and compiled the songs, they all seemed to tell a story of grief. I realized that it turned out to be an album about me reflecting on grief — my own and just in general. Not exactly a musical examination of the five stages of grief, but definitely an examination of a powerful and pretty wide-ranging emotion.

    Q: Each Pocket Vinyl show is distinct, not just because you vary the set lists but because, by definition, whatever Elizabeth chooses to paint, it’s going to be unique. Given that, have you considered a once-only concert wherein you play “Painless, Filled With Candles” from start to finish and Elizabeth interprets the overall mood of the recording?

    A: No (laughs). I mean, typically, that’s not what we’d do. BUT we have a show at the Golden Owl on May 9. If there are requests for “Candles” songs, I might start with one and find my way to the second in some sort of jam, improv fashion. It would be interesting to bring that spirit to a live show. But it would have to be in the moment.

    How to listen

    Who: Pocket Vinyl

    What: “Painless, Filled With Candles” vinyl and streaming release

    Where: Pocket Vinyl Bandcamp page, all streaming platforms

    How much: $22 vinyl, $7 digital

    For more information: pocketvinyl.com

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