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Alec Ounsworth is a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter from Philadelphia. You may also know him as the face of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. The band has been around for twelve years and The Tourist (out now) is their fifth album. As an artist, Ounsworth is constantly building on things. As a band, exploration and having freedom for things to evolve is at their core. With this new record, Ounsworth has evolved both musically and personally. Most of the songs came together during a time of reflection, primarily in his personal life and any correlation with the grand scheme of things is coincidental.
In the past couple of years, Ounsworth experienced certain things that he never experienced before. While his previous albums are personal, as well, this one’s a bit more introspective. Everything ultimately comes from the same place, but this record is a doozy. “I wasn’t really reaching for anything to write about on this one; this is a little more immediate,” says Ounsworth. And that’s why the songs come across so organically.
There is a certain musical lightness and almost dreamy nature to the songs, despite their emotional undertone. “There is subtle desperation,” says Ounsworth. Part of this balance has to do with the way he sings. The color instruments, and really majority of the instruments, are written and played in major. To reduce the composition to its simplest and purest form, he wrote music that typically would have counter melodies in major keys. But it’s the lyrics and back-up vocals that really set everything off.
With this album, Ounsworth experimented with atypical lyrical structures. Inspired by Elvis Costello and Paul Simon, he wanted to see what it would be like to run lyrics against a changing chord structure. It was a conscious experiment and he packed in as many thoughts as he could, not just one line, and let the music run for a while. Experimenting with ‘packing lyrics’ was an ever-evolving process which allowed him to have a mental running list of thoughts.
In terms of word choice and tense, Ounsworth focused on the one thing that prompted him to write in the present. He wrote towards the present and wrote up to the present because that one thing was still affecting him. He wrote and re-wrote because his story is ever evolving. Despite each song being deeply personal, he is able to connect with people through his musicality. The delivery of the lyrics and vocal melody effectively carry the songs and allow people to relate to something so big on a personal level.
All the tracks on The Tourist are distinct but have underlying similarities. While all of them are equally beautiful, the clear standout is “Fireproof,” where everything floats together. The first 17 seconds of the song consists of vocals with a plucking bass line. As other elements are introduced, the song evolves and becomes swirly and elevated with floating vocals. There is a strong kaleidoscope-like vibe. The style in which Ounsworth sings, and the distinct timbre of his voice, adds that special something to the mix.
Ounsworth spent about four weeks recording The Tourist in a Philadelphia-based studio with a drummer, bassist and guitarist. They had some practice time, got to the foundation of the song and went over chord changes. This album definitely has more of a band feel that some previous Clap Your Hands releases, primarily because Ounsworth allowed his musical partners to put their own stamp on the tracks. As the time in the studio progressed, the songs were reimagined, but the heart of them stayed the same.
From his studio time, he learned that there are going to be surprises with every song but it’s up to the artist to determine what a good or bad surprise is. While he went into recording thinking that he wanted a song to sound a certain way, some things ended up being totally different than he imagined they ever could. A space for freedom and exploration resulted in an album that has a balance between staying true to a core artistic vision and allowing the song to be what it is.
The primary difference with this album compared to prior Clap Your Hands LPs is that Ounsworth had more time to tinker with everything. After recording, he and engineer Nick Krill spent a few months tightening everything up and adding backup vocals, keyboards, guitars and more percussion. Everything was done deliberately. While they had different perspectives on things, Ounsworth viewed this as a positive relationship because they pushed each other, creatively. After the engineering process, he worked with Dave Fridmann to mix the album. Ounsworth notes that Fridmann pointed out things that he never would have heard because he was so deep in it. “Doing twelve-to-fifteen variations a day, you need someone on the side to say, ‘Yes, no, maybe’ and take a direction,” says Ounsworth.
“If you can put everyone on stage in a small theater, the audience can react to it in an intimate way; that’s the goal,” says Ounsworth on touring. He notes that he always gets nervous before performing live but it has nothing to do with people watching; it’s more his expectation of how he’ll play. Ounsworth notes, “After the first song I’m okay and can shake it off. I’m not comfortable with people looking at me; I don’t really like attention that much, which makes me an unlikely performer.”
Shaking off the nerves happens fairly quickly once he’s performing because he truly wants to connect with people. “On stage, I have a sense of fulfillment. If I go too long without it, I notice it,” says Ounsworth. Creating a mood at a live performance is essential, and Ounsworth typically plays with soft lighting – perhaps that’s because he wants to go unnoticed and let the music shine through. At the end of the day “it’s not about throwing lyrics against the wall and seeing what sticks. It about what’s behind it,” says Ounsworth.
Standout Track: “Fireproof”
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Photos by Michael Regan