In the opening verse of j.wong’s Statue of Corrupted Endeavour I thought I was hearing a Willie Nelson record. Fitting, since this record will be the other best country record to come out of Seattle this year (see also: Shannon Stephens). The release of a country album seems untimely given the popular music climate as of late, but it’s clear, hearing him, that the choice is not his. He has a vocation as a song writer, and his frank, unvarnished verses betray his tender bass voice that ranges in comparison from old behind the beat Willie to pitch perfect James Taylor with a touch of Harry Chapin to boot.
Like those giants of song, j.wong’s economy with words is what sets him apart from other Seattle singer songwriters. He squeezes the worth out of individual syllables and notes with the pointedness of a poet. His latest release abandons the pop rock maudlin and metaphor traps he occasionally fell into on his last EP j.wong and his popular butchers and settles down into a quiet acceptance of what he’s best at: turning out country songs.
Wong relays worst case relationship scenarios with the clarity of hindsight; in many of his stories he’s giving up ("Leave All This Behind"), describing boundaries he’s somehow unable to cross ("Just Can’t Do It"), or laying down burdens he can no longer carry ("Remembering Nancy"). The songs on SOCE rarely exceed ¾ time, but are no less exciting because of it. The rhythms of his band range from western trots to drunken waltzes, but horns, strings, and backing singers remain a sparse symphony strictly applied in only the loneliest corners of songs for color. By the time the album turns the corner from the surprisingly upbeat "Coming Down", and moves into the homestretch on "Sweet Marie", you’re completely and comfortably alone with Wong and his painfully exquisite words wondering along with human uncertainty: ”How can I be the one you want to love you, when I fall in love one hundred times a night?...” The great songwriting skill of telling a story from the point of powerlessness rather than preaching from the pulpit is something not lost on j.wong.
On an album which is clothed in loss, and love forlorn, Wong skips on the genteel tendency to cop to sad core and creates a Leonard Cohen-esque country atmosphere that is riveting not only for its schadenfreude factor, but also for its timeless themes, or as the person who passed his music on to me said: "It’s sad bastard music at it's finest”. Indeed.
j.wong plays his CD Release show at the Tractor Tavern next week on November 7th with Mark Eitzel, and it promises to be an intimate one. Short interview and required listening after the jump.
Leonard Cohen once said occasionally he’ll spend two years writing a song. Your album was two years in the making, and your use of words seems just as economical to me, how long have you been working on these?
Some of these songs I have been working on for years, others I have only been working on for the last couple. I often get stuck on a word or a phrase and sometime struggle with effectively communicating an idea, so I try set them aside for a while and come back to it with a fresh perspective. It can go on like this for some time.
Songs also evolve, so I like to allow them the space to do so organically both live and in the studio.
The oldest songs are Leave All This Behind and Hiding Behind Microphones. I think I started writing them about a decade ago.
What did you record The Statue Of Corrupted Endeavor on? I can swear I hear the machinations of a tape recorder in my headphones.
We used both pro tools and a 1/4" 4-track tape machine. We also used some aging soundboards in old houses, so there is quite a bit of noise and imperfection in these recordings. I enjoy the texture though. I think it adds some warmth and a little more depth to the sonic landscape. You can also hear people walking around and talking. I think you can even hear a plane at the end of a song.
Where does the title The Statue Of Corrupted Endeavor come from?
It's a line from an Edward Gorey book (The Object-Lesson) that resonated with me.
It seemed to embody much of what I was going through at the time. I was struggling professionally and I kept trying to make a record that seemed to be ultimately doomed. I was stuck in a place that many artists I know go through. Nothing seemed to be working, so it seemed like I was ending up with a whole heap of stuff that didn't amount to anything.
While your music can be intimate I have it on good authority from everyone who’s ever seen you live that your between song banter is the best in the business. What’s up with that?
I try not to take myself too seriously. Some nights are easier than others. It really depends on the audience. I like to interact rather than perform. I like to be myself.
I also want people to enjoy their experience. I try to find ways of lightening the mood as the material can be a little morose at times.
You were the man behind the recent Seattle Singer Songwriter Showcase at the Triple Door that featured great local acts like Shannon Stephens and Tomo Nakayama, and while we all had a good time at those I’m curious: Were there any particular lessons you learned from that?
Oh man, learned a lot. It takes more time and energy to produce a show than I thought it would. I am still very happy with the shows that we were able to present. All of the acts were fantastic. I would really like to continue to put these shows on, I just need to find the time and money to do it.
I think the biggest lesson that I continue to ponder is in marketing. I worked with some great folks on these shows, but without a bigger budget there are some limitations.
I’m looking forward to your show at the Tractor with Mark Eitzel, but I’m already dreading the drunk-people-talking-over-the-singer-songwriter-syndrome that happens in every audience at these things. Does that bother you as an artist as much as it does me as an audience member?
People talking over a set can be very difficult and can deflate you rather quickly, especially when you're solo. Naturally that would bother anyone on stage. I try to take it in stride though.
For this show I will have a band with me, so hopefully it won't be as much of an issue as it would be otherwise. I believe Mark has a band with him as well.
All you can really do is keep playing and hope that folks start listening. Don't let 'em get you down.