Owen Ashworth is one of our all-time favourite artists. His work as both Casiotone For the Painfully Alone and, more recently, Advance Base is perhaps the most impressive narrative-driven and pathos-rich music of the last few decades. As we described in the intro of our review of his latest album, Animal Companionship:
Providing glances into the lives of an array of characters, Ashworth produces vignettes of moments of loneliness, vulnerability and grief, or else the slow aftermath where the world’s continued spin does little to shake the feeling. And, while heartbreak and separation are key themes in these stories, Ashworth far from limits himself to the genre favourites of death and divorce. There has been bank robbers, unlucky swimmers, adolescent satanists turned killers—a cast of characters united by a common, human tendency for suffering.
Ahead of a UK tour that begins later this week, we took the opportunity to ask Ashworth a few questions and dig a little deeper into his work and influences. Check out a trailer for the tour and the full set of dates below to see is Advance Base is visiting a town near you, then head on down to the interview to read a little more about Ashworth’s creative process.
You’re about to hit the UK on tour so that seems like a good place to start. As a creature of habit drawn to routine and home comforts, I’ve always found the idea of touring vaguely horrific. What’s it like in reality? Have you found your experiences of being on the road changing over time?
I think my favorite part about being on tour, apart from the opportunity to play my songs in front of people, is the experience of being a stranger. I enjoy the small challenges of being an anonymous person in a new place, & just figuring my way around. Driving, walking, seeing what there is to see, the simple routines of seeking food & shelter. It all affords me the opportunity to shut down a lot of my daily anxieties & just engage with my immediate environment. Even if I didn’t get to play all of these shows, I think I’d still enjoy the traveling.
There’s always been a compassion at the heart of your work, an authentic kind that’s hard to achieve. I’ve always seen your songs as fighting cool detachment on one end and mawkish schmaltz on the other, walking this balance beam of genuine feeling and never slipping. Is this something you think about? Do you ever pen songs which feel meaningful at first but end up saccharine?
Well, thanks. I do a lot of editing before I settle on a song’s final verses, trying to decide just how much information to reveal, & where to set the tone. Sometimes, when I have an instrumental arrangement worked out, I’ll go through a few different sets of lyrics until I find the story that best matches the mood of the music. There’s definitely a line that I’m trying to walk, & it isn’t always easy to find. The longer I do this, the more material I throw out. It just takes me a long time to get things right.
From Casiotone For The Painfully Alone right through to Animal Companionship, there’s always been a strong narrative base to your writing. I wondered how much you think about characters, settings etc. outside of the boundaries of the song. Like, do the track arrive and exist as self-contained vignettes in your head? Do you ever sketch out histories or wider arcs to the stories you’re telling?
I typically have a pretty good sense of all of the characters in the songs, far beyond what ends up on the albums. Because I tend to scrap so much material along the way, there are usually many more stories happening between the characters than what the listener ends up hearing. In my mind, each album exists in its own world, with characters within a community moving around in the background of different songs. There’s usually a strong geographic sense to each album; Nephew in the Wild mostly takes place in Michigan, Animal Companionship mostly takes place in Indiana. I spend a lot of time wondering about all of these fake people’s lives. Sometimes I imagine the characters as miniature figures on a model railway. I loved making dioramas as a kid. Making records doesn’t feel so different.
I saw a tweet from someone in the publishing industry recently about the falling sales of fiction. “Perhaps,” it read, “with all the lies we are being fed, the need for authenticity overrides the desire to escape into imagined worlds?” It made me think of you, an artist who writes almost entirely fictious stories that feel far more authentic than most records. I mean, this gets pretty nebulous, but I’m interested if you have any thoughts on the idea of authenticity, and fiction’s ability to achieve it? Do you think fiction can say things that non-fiction cannot?
That’s a hard question for me to answer. I don’t know what place the concept of “authenticity” has in what I write, because I want it all to feel a little artificial, a few steps removed from the real thing. That applies to the music side just as much as the narrative side. I think a lot of what makes good fiction believable or emotionally-resonant is the time & effort that goes into dreaming it up. Whether someone writes fiction or non-fiction well has so much to do with the time they’ve spent living in that world. Good writing gives the reader an opportunity to experience the writer’s obsessions, the things that haunt them.
When it comes to writing my own songs, the line between fiction & non-fiction has always been blurry to me. There’s plenty of real life inspiration that goes into the songs, but what I love about writing is having the freedom to make composites of real people & situations, to confuse & abstract the day-to-day into something dreamlike. The dream version of memory is where all of the feeling & meaning lives. That’s the version I want to sing about.
I saw that you’re putting out a remastered version of your Magnetic Fields cover EP later this year. You’ve put out your fair share of covers over the years, with the Washington Phillips EP and good mix on the Advance Base Battery Life CFTPA release. As someone with zero musical talent, I’ve always wondered how an artist decides a song is one to cover, as opposed to just being a great song? Is there something in the make-up of a track? Are there songs you’ve tried to cover but failed miserably?
I like to learn a lot of my favorite songs just for the pleasure of playing them for myself. Figuring out other people’s songs is how I learned how to play, arrange, & write my own songs, & it’s the way I keep productive when I get tired of my own ideas. I usually won’t bother to record a cover unless I’ve already been playing the song at home for a while, & I think I have something interesting to bring to it. The only time I remember recording a cover that I didn’t end up releasing was when I was working on that EP of Washington Phillips songs. I recorded every Washington Phillips songs that I knew, tried them in a few different styles, & then picked the recordings that I thought would work best together as an EP. Some of those unused recordings were pretty rough, & I’m happy to keep them to myself.
Aside from musical inspiration, are there any other things you would cite as particular influences on your songs? A few movie references pop up through your work, though it’s always difficult to tell how much we’re supposed to read into that sort of thing.
I don’t give enough credit to the visual art that has influenced me. There are certain graphic novels & comics that draw from the same particular kind of nostalgia, melancholy & sentimentality that I’m trying to chase down in my songs. Writers & illustrators like John Porcellino, Daniel Clowes, Edward Gorey & Charles Schulz are all heroes of mine. Something about the simple, linear quality of paneled narratives & the loneliness of line drawings really resonates with me. I can imagine the lines & verses in my songs advancing in a similar way.
Of all mediums, I think I probably love movies best of all. It’s the one that feels closest to life. But what I love about the comic artists I mentioned is the same thing I love about music making. It’s that extra layer abstraction that I find so compelling. The most rewarding challenge for me as a music person is the translation of visual & other sensory information into flat sound, focusing in on the most crucial of details & pixelating them.
I’m not sure how much you’re supposed to read into my movie references, either. I hope that for the listeners already familiar with the movies, the references just give some extra context to the mood of the songs. I guess listeners unfamiliar with the movie references can just take them as recommendations.
Finally, could you name 4-5 acts you think we should know about right now? However old, new, popular or obscure?
Obviously, everyone should go memorize the entire Orindal Records catalog, but I’m going to try to name some people that I haven’t already talked about in other interviews:
Bill Fox is a songwriter I return to again & again, particularly his late 90’s albums Shelter From the Smoke & Tranzit Byzantium. He’s from Cleveland. I like to play his songs on piano.
Alastair Galbraith is from New Zealand. Since the 80s, he’s been making these very intimate & beautiful little sound poems that are a really special mix of delicate & rough. I saw him play two concerts in San Francisco in the late 90s & the thing that impressed me the most was how much kindness I felt in his music. That really had a profound impact on me.
Kali Malone is an American composer living in Sweden. She has a couple of albums of pipe organ dirges, but has also composed for synthesizers & woodwinds. My brother is friends with Kali, but we’ve never met. I just love her albums. They are slow & meditative & tonally rich in ways that barely seem possible.
Julie Doiron is from New Brunswick, Canada. She was in Eric’s Trip, but I know her from her solo albums. She’s just a great singer & songwriter. Recently, she has released a couple EPs of Spanish language versions of her best songs, & even though I don’t speak Spanish, I love listening to these versions. They are currently helping me through my jetlag.
Animal Companionship is out now via Run for Cover Records and you can grab it from the Advance Base Bandcamp page, where you can find all previous releases. As hinted at in the interview, Ashworth also runs Orindal Records, which for our money is one of the most exciting labels out there right now. You can find them at their website or on Bandcamp, and read our pieces on some of the releases here.
Cover photo by Tom Cops, other photography by Jeff Marini, tour poster by Peter Howell