Carl Broemel: Heaven Knows

By: Dennis Cook

Some albums seem illuminated by twinkling, magic catching light, birthed in quietude and redolent of domesticity and other simple pleasures that sustain us amidst the hustle 'n' bustle. This is the atmosphere of the solo debut from My Morning Jacket lead guitarist Carl Broemel, whose work outside MMJ has the shimmering, comforting timelessness of Big Star's Chris Bell, Gary Higgins and other cult adored, warm, vinyl-spirited singer-songwriter fare. All Birds Say (released August 31 on ATO) ushers the listener into soundscapes full of bittersweet musing and hand holding sensitivity. It's a far cry from the roar and epic heights he traverses in MMJ, but in its way, about as charming as his main gig, perhaps especially because of the wider lens it offers on this extremely talented & humble musician.

Carl Broemel
JamBase: All Birds Say is one of the loveliest records to come along in a while, and I don't say that lightly. The opening instrumental is so cinematic that it's as if we're being welcomed into a cool indie film. Coming out of Morning Jacket, it certainly wasn't what I expected, and I mean that entirely as a compliment. How did this album evolve?

Carl: I'm glad you had that reaction. It's kind of like what I end up doing when I'm not touring with [MMJ] and I'm home just jamming with friends in Nashville. Right when I moved to Nashville I met Teddy Morgan, who's a producer & songwriter, and a drummer friend of his and we started goofing around and making noise experiments. We'd just record ourselves making crazy noises on drums and keyboards and steel guitar. We call that band Winthrop, but nobody really likes it live so it's really a studio thing. So, we'd goof around and drink wine and do Winthrop things, and eventually I played them a few songs and they said, "Well, let's record one of your songs." That's how [All Birds Say] started, right there in Teddy's garage, where we captured 4-5 songs in between everybody's busy schedules. Then last year when [MMJ] was off most of 2009, I decided I had time and I just finished the rest of it.

JamBase: That's cool that it evolved in that relaxed way. So many people want to do solo work and resent their day job, so to speak. You seem pretty happy being part of My Morning Jacket and this evolved simply because it wanted to come into being.

Carl: Exactly! There's nothing I'd rather be doing than being in the band. It's really a perfect situation for me. I feel complete by it. But it's also a good situation where everybody in the band wants you to work on your family life or whatever else interests you simultaneously, thereby making the band a healthier being. This kind of activity is encouraged.

Time off and time away seem part of the architecture of All Birds Say. There's a contemplative quality that runs through the entire thing. It's a very thoughtful record. It's a space it's hard to get into these days, with phone-computers in our pockets and seemingly 24-hour input and access to everyone and everything. This record is an invitation to step back and look at life with a capital "L."

That's kind of where I'm at when I'm sitting alone with my guitar late at night, mumbling into a microphone. This is just what came out. With some of my earlier songs I felt they were almost too personal, and I wondered if anybody would even want to hear them [laughs].

You're a strikingly different lyricist than Jim [James], more forthright in a way, where Jim is often a wonderful puzzle box to unlock.

I don't go home from tour and listen to loud, crazy rock music very much. I tend to go home and listen to Big Star, Nick Drake or Simon & Garfunkel. Or if I'm on a plane, I'll listen to Galaxie 500 and just drift away. I love the mellowness of this music. It's some of my favorite stuff to listen to. I still love to rock, too, but when I'm sitting at home late at night and everyone's asleep, there's an energy level where thoughtfulness is at a high. And that's when I wrote most of the record.

Was it fun to explore all the things you can do as a musician on this album, which lets you get into dobro, autoharp, baritone sax and all sort of instruments outside your role in MMJ?

Carl Broemel
I'd love to get one of EVERY stringed instrument because I think I could sort of play it. And it's not like I can't experiment with these sorts of instruments on a Jacket record. Basically, I use whatever's around. I ended up buying an autoharp and a dobro during that year off. And I had a violin in the closet but I can barely play! Still, I managed to play it on the record.

My dad played a ton of woodwind stuff on the record, too, like clarinet and bassoon, and he plays viola, too. It's a really special part of listening to the record, hearing him play. He spent his career as a bassoon player in the Minneapolis Symphony, and he did that for almost 30 years. He's retired now and I coaxed him into working on this album since he doesn't play everyday anymore like he used to. We kind of combined our ways of making music and made it work. He's used to reading music and I'm used to making it up on the spot.

That's a nice intersection. A little friction in music never hurts.


As you worked on this album, were there themes or ideas that began to surface for you as a lyricist?

The lyrics are the hardest part for me. The music kind of comes easy, and I love doing all the background vocals and just layering things, probably because I feel confident doing that. But the lyrics took a while, except for "Retired" and "Carried Away," which happened fast. Most of it was tons of pages with scribbles and alterations. But since I've always dabbled in songwriting, I didn't have to create an entirely new persona.

Do you think this experience will carry over into the next Jacket record?

Everything you do informs the next thing you do. The big thing for me doing this is getting past fear. I always get nervous before I do a show, particularly a solo show. I wonder, "Should I be doing this? What's the point?" Afterwards I'm always excited and glad I did it. I feel like I'm getting better at it. So, maybe I'll feel a little more confident being up there [on stage] and doing my thing as well as the Jacket stuff.

Are there any musical ideas you came across that you want to bring back to the guys and say, "Hey look at what I found! What can we do with it?"

Carl Broemel by Dave Vann
Maybe [laughs]. The mode of working with the band is not entirely one-directional, but it starts with Jim coming to us with his ideas. I'm not gonna do my solo record and come in like, "I got these songs and we've got to do them! [laughs]"

My Morning Jacket is synonymous with Jim. Everyone involved serves his vision, or at least that's my take.

I love doing that, but when I say that it makes it seem like it's not an open forum and it is. It's just like whatever's working is working; it's never discussed much.

It seems like the time off did you guys good. I saw you at Outside Lands and was again blown away by MMJ's ability to step up in front of a massive crowd like that and just knock it out in a way that's both stadium ready and quite personal.

That show sticks out for me as one of my favorites on this last tour. We hadn't been out to San Francisco in a while and I felt the moment we stepped onstage, "This is the crowd we should be playing for. We should have been back here sooner!" It just felt right.

You guys can certainly do a pure rock show but it seems like you're aiming for something bigger.

It's nice to put all the pieces in place that should make a show good, but there's something intangible that you can't plan for but you hope happens. We're thinking about that even as we've got the lights together, picked a good setlist, etc. But we're still hoping that something extra shows up and you forget about everything you're playing and it just feels right. If we don't feel that we're kinda bummed.

Carl Broemel will perform his last hometown show of 2010 in Nashville on December 9 at The Bluebird Café. Carl will be performing alongside Abigail Washburn and Kai Welch. Tickets on sale here.

Carl Broemel "Heaven Knows" from Tugboat Productions on Vimeo.

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[Published on: 11/18/10]

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