Playing With Themselves
Home-Recording Songwriters Austin Stahl and Michael Nestor Showcase their Labels for Musicians Who Share the Urge to go Solo
For singer/songwriter Austin Stahl, home recording is the record industry. "Four-tracks are pretty easy--you have an old cassette tape, put it in there, push record," says Stahl one recent afternoon at a café. Inconspicuous and direct, the 22-year-old recent Maryland Institute College of Art graphic-design grad, who releases albums under his nom de band Private Eleanor, admits to being a bit of a tinkerer, a guy who prefers to learn things on his own at his own pace. And ever since he first started playing drums in high-school bands in Columbia, he's always enjoyed the recording process of music-making, having something to hold in your hands that you made. Doing it on his own was just a way to document the songs he wrote for himself as a drummer-turned-guitarist and tentative vocalist.
"You can bounce stuff together, take stuff from multiple tracks and record it onto another track," Stahl continues. "There's just something kind of magical to me about hearing myself playing with myself. All you need is a cheap, crappy microphone, which is what I had. And that was amazing to me. With a couple of pieces of equipment that cost about 200 bucks you can make a record. It wasn't until later that I found out that there were others doing the same sort of thing."
Small satellites of home-recording songwriters have passed below the radar since "lo-fi" became the catch phrase for this loose cottage industry in the mid-1980s, all starting from an impulse similar to Stahl's: Making music by and for yourself is easier if you've got school or work or just plain life to deal with. You don't have to work around anybody else's schedule, ideas, or issues. It's just you and the record button.
One of those others doing the same sort of thing is 27-year-old Michael Nestor, a neuroscience Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who has been recording as Pupa's Window since the mid-1990s. The two first met in 2000 through mutual friends and quickly learned that not only was their music coming from a similar place, but they complemented each other musically as well, and they started playing on the other's records or for shows. Together, Stahl and Nestor, with their labels OTPRecords and Beechfields, respectively, are trying to find an audience for their eclectic musical endeavors here in Baltimore--starting with this week's label and art showcase.
Nestor started Beechfields as a way for bands to put out albums as they saw fit, modeled after Washington's artist-driven Simple Machines imprint. "The idea for Beechfields originally came about when I was in college," at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Nestor says recently, betraying none of the lack-of-sleep toil that assembling and filing for his first research grant has taken on him. "I really learned how to perform at the UMBC coffee shop, She Plays Bass Café, during their open-mic nights. It was a great place to try things out, and there were all these different kinds of music being played. And I thought it'd be great to be able to present this music in another way."
OTPRecords and Beechfields only have 13 official releases between them, but they're practically all from the past two years. Moreover, Stahl and/or Nestor is involved with each of them in some way, a breathtaking prolificacy considering both are full-time students. Each plays in other bands with albums on their labels--Nestor currently in the indie-pop Seldon Plan and formerly in the shoegazing Lowell, Stahl in the Throwaway Society--and each occasionally sits in with bands (Stahl plays drums on the Beechfields 2003 release This Is Where You Will Be Lost by the Chris and Joylene Show, an album Nestor recorded in an auditorium at the UM School of Medicine.)
Ever more remarkable than this pace is that Nestor and Stahl's batting average is consistently high: Lo-fi music can be a kiddie pool of introspection, and while both Stahl's Private Eleanor and Nestor's Pupa's Window write exceptionally personal midtempo songs that sometimes only thinly veil personal dramas, you never get the feeling that the songs are just another online diary. Nestor's latest, late 2003's Lost Voice, Found Voice, Repeat, is a photo album of relationships in various states of success, but it rarely feels wallowing.
"I'm really afraid of the self-indulgent aspect of this music," Nestor says. "With something like this there's always the danger of being too much like a diary, that every song is about a botched relationship--and, yeah, I say that remembering that my last Pupa's album was a lot about botched relationships. What I try to remember, and what I like about working with Austin, is to keep things in the service of the song, that if something isn't working for the song--the lyrics, a drum loop, whatever--to rethink it. He's willing to put himself out there and try something just to see what happens."
Stahl is a songwriter of seemingly fearless whimsy. His languid guitar and a nonspecific moodiness are the only common elements to Private Eleanor's two 2003 albums. The more polished of the two, OTPRecords' My Pious Friends and Drunken Companions, was recorded in eight months, and its layered textures add ripples of tension beneath Stahls' wallflower vocals. The Beechfields' CDR Blood Maladies was recorded in two weeks, Stahl forcing himself to start and finish songs rather than allow them to ferment in his head. It's expectedly a more raw and stark outing, the sketch to Pious Friends' painting, but Maladies' immediacy is its most bewitching element, and it amplifies the glum undertow in Stahl's songs.
It's a moodiness that doesn't deserve to be called that: Private Eleanor songs exude an attitude of resigned concern, that smile in the face of life that New Zealand indie rock has owned for three decades now, and Stahl pulls it off in just about every song he writes--from the vaguely country "For Your Own Protection" and "Land of the Free" to the jaunty dirge "No Surrender." Now, Stahl is making himself write 50 songs before even considering another Private Eleanor album, just another imposed rule to take him out of his routine and see what comes out of it.
Plus, Stahl prefers songwriting and recording to playing live, which he is only recently getting accustomed to solo. "I'm a recording guy; making records is why I do this," he says. "But I've been getting more comfortable with playing live. It's a lot of pressure, I think. Pressure to get people to show up, pressure to please the venue, pressure to please the people who come to see you, the people you're playing with. It's just, kind of I don't feel that pressure when I record because the only person I have to please is myself, and I've got all the time in the world to do it. If I don't like something, I can go back and record it the next day."