Transcendental Youth is a project leading parallel lives. In one, it’s the new album (listen here) by Durham resident and indie-music luminary John Darnielle, a.k.a. the Mountain Goats, due out tomorrow on Merge Records. In the other, it’s a live collaboration between Darnielle, arranger Owen Pallett, and world-renowned medieval music vocalists Anonymous 4, and it’s coming to Reynolds Theater on October 6 after earning raves at the Ecstatic Music Festival and the Barbican in London. Today, we delve into Transcendental Youth with Darnielle, who discusses crossing the rock/classical divide, locating the elusive souls of songs, and why we are all mentally ill.
The Thread: When you were asked to work with someone on a project for the Ecstatic Music Festival, did any other dream collaborations flash through your mind?
John Darnielle: To me, Anonymous 4 was shooting for the moon. I don’t want to make them uncomfortable, but the regard in which I hold them can’t be overstated. Their records are among the treasures of our age. [Ecstatic] had mentioned some modern composers—I am not anti-modern music, but my heart rests with older music in the classical world. Most rock people collaborating with classical musicians go for as modern a picture as they can. I’m not so interested in that; I think it’s been done to death. What I do is obviously not early music, but it is crude in the sense that some early music is crude. The melodic movement is a simple thing that you can view in a clear light, which I find interesting. In polyphonic singing, there’s a complexity underlying the simplicity that matches what I do, in an elliptical way.
Did it grease the wheels that Anonymous 4 also integrate shape note singing into their music?
Yeah, there are those points of comparison too. We sing “Wayfaring Stranger” at the end of their presentation, which is amazing for me—to stand there and sing with them, doing what they do. They have a couple of programs of American music that are really good, and what’s funny is that I generally have a resistance to that kind of thing. I’m not often wanting to hear Appalachian songs recast in other styles. But their voices are so amazing, they could really sing anything.
Anonymous 4 does plenty of new music collaborations, but they aren’t known for indie-world collaborations. Did you have any uncertainty about approaching them?
I was ridiculously intimidated! The first time I went to rehearsal I was like [nervously muttering] “Oh my God, I’m going to meet Anonymous 4; I’m going to meet Anonymous 4 . . .” They are the most amazing people.
Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do, or was just the idea of working with them compelling?
I didn’t have a clear idea, actually. In the rock world, you don’t often do this building-the-program thing. There’s a real privileging—that I do myself; I’m not calling it out—of just being who you are, writing what you write, playing what you play. In the classical world, you find a presenter who you tell about the idea for the project before you write it: this is totally not how I work at all; I write spontaneously. I don’t say, “Well, I think I’ll write 12 songs about mental illness now.” But that is how you do it in the classical world. So I pitched this idea about the apocalypse and did some work on it. I had a big false start, which I put up for free download on Twitter. These other songs were sort of shoving to the front of line and saying, “This is where you’re at now.” I sent those to Owen Pallett, who really felt it, and said, “No no, this is the right way to go.”
Is it fair to say that Pallett was able to act as a bridge between you and Anonymous 4’s different worlds, having a foot in each?
Yeah, he has more formal training than I do—I have almost none, except in piano. I think if I hadn’t had a bunch of other stuff in my life, I would be interested to try and write vocal arrangements myself. But Owen is an internationally celebrated arranger who had a specialty in school in vocal music. It’s also great in rehearsals with him; he can communicate ideas when I can’t. Plus, when one of [Anonymous 4] couldn’t perform for the first performance, Owen sang in her place.
Can you tell us more about how the piece shaped up through writing and rehearsals?
I wrote the songs and sent them to Owen. Owen would send back MIDI things; he did a couple where he did the vocal parts himself, multi-tracking his voice over my demo. Then we would send sheet music to Anonymous 4, and then I went up to New York for rehearsals. Again, I’m a rock musician, and if I’m excited, I want to play faster or slower. I don’t generally practice with a metronome, though I did a lot before I went up there. But there’s this element of exaggerated spontaneity in what I do that is harder to maintain the more people you add. I can’t be speeding up or slowing down or changing the melody, which I tend to do a lot on the fly, when we’re trying to stack five notes in harmony.
Have you gotten comfortable working in this more formal world?
It’s not entirely comfortable, but that’s good—comfort is not a terribly desirable quality in doing new work. You don’t always want to be uncomfortable, but a degree of discomfort is super-healthy as an artist. It takes you to new places, and for sure that was true for me. I was very scared, but the second I heard them come in on the first song we did together, “Until I Am Whole,” the arrangement and the sounds of their voices expressed the song perfectly, in a way I can’t lyrically. I can only do so much with lyrics and music, but there’s this next level that their purity of tone, having worked together for so long, brings to the surface.
Do the songs sound naked to you on the album now, without the vocal arrangements?
No, because the album arrangements are so different. That’s the other reason I wanted to do these multiple arrangements: a song is a very flexible thing, bigger than just one recording. If you listen to the album version of “Night Light” and the one with Anonymous 4, it’s like night and day, and yet the mood and meaning persist, which is super-interesting. What holds it? Is it the melody, the lyrics? Is it something sort of spectral? It’s hard to say. But it’s really fun to find that there’s some spirit that persists across vastly different arrangements. Like “Counterfeit Florida Plates”—when we sing that one, it’s a formal song in D with a nice vocal arrangement, and then on the record, it’s sort of half-reggae, with a real bouncy feel. Yet the feeling of the melody seems to climb through.
That’s really interesting—the question of where the song actually resides.
Yeah, does a song have a soul? So that no matter how you do it, you’re still going to get the basic sense of it? It’s interesting stuff.
You mentioned mental illness earlier, which I believe relates to the album’s themes?
I feel like there is a kind of cartoonish representation of mental illness in the world that is exaggerated and unhelpful. So I started to think of the vastness of experience; how a lot of people carry a festering wound of some kind that can open from time to time. If you don’t manage to take care of it, it can become a scar that you bear. I thought about it when Amy Winehouse died—the first song on the record is about, “This is a person who never got well.” She got rich and successful and was very talented, but she didn’t get well. It made me really sad to think that the mental or spiritual illnesses that you maybe are born with can override the very strategies you come up with to help yourself. I wanted to give that feeling a voice.
Everybody in the world has that kind of motivating wound to some degree, right?
I think so, and this means that the term “mental illness” is meaningless; that in fact, it is normal to some extent. I think some people would say, “That’s not true; I don’t hear voices.” But there’s a continuum. You may not hear voices, but you may have some ideas you don’t share with people because you know they’re a little off. The concept of normalcy has been pretty harmful to people, though in the practice of medicine, it’s good to know what the parameters are. People wind up saying, “The problem is with hospitals or doctors,” but I don’t think that’s entirely true. You need to know what parameters of normalcy are for people’s own comfort. You know you’re ill if you feel very bad.
Can you tell us about the different parts of the show we’ll see at Duke Performances?
I do a set of songs, some new and from the back catalog, that seem to intersect with those themes of alienation and being alone and feeling unwell and isolated. Anonymous 4 do a set that I half-curated and they fine tuned. Then we all play a selection of songs from Transcendental Youth together and it’s really fun.