Music for the Masses: Owen Ashworth

Can I get all self-referential for a minute? During an American Library Association conference in Chicago a couple of years back, I stumbled into a Casiotone for the Painfully Alone concert and was mesmerized by Owen Ashworth’s onstage channeling of both Morrissey and Kraftwerk, surrounded by a table full of cheap keyboards and effects pedals. After the show, I duly bugged him for a few minutes, bought some vinyl, end of story. Except that I’m paging through this month’s MOJO and a fulsome review of the new album (A Shut-In’s Prayer) by Ashworth’s new project (Advance Base) casually mentions that the album was recorded at the Chicago Public Library (CPL)!

I get him on the horn immediately for the scoop. As one last aside: this is the kind of thing that needs to be happening in libraries. Not only should we collect and curate local content, but we can be a hub and incubator for creativity. Kudos to CPL for making the space available. Kudos to Owen Ashworth for breaking our collective hearts with another sonic primer on melancholy.

MM: Tell me about transitioning from Casiotone for the Painfully Alone to Advance Base. What’s it like playing with an ensemble?

OA: By design, the Casiotone for the Painfully Alone recordings always had a claustrophobic, uncomfortably intimate sort of quality. Even when I had the opportunity to record with other musicians then, most of their parts would be overdubbed on top of my basic tracks, and then a lot of editing, sampling, and processing went into building up the arrangements. I wanted unnatural sounds, and I ended up with some very uncomfortable-sounding albums. There was a charm to that sort of artificiality, but I wanted to take a more naturalistic approach to the Advance Base recordings. I tried to get an airier, more expansive sort of sound this time around. Many of the new songs were recorded live in a room full of musicians, all playing together, without any editing or sampling. Just natural room sound.

How many of the songs were workshopped in CPL’s rehearsal rooms?

It was [Edward Crouse’s] idea to record at the Harold Washington Library. He didn’t have his own piano at home, so he’d go to the library to rehearse. I don’t have a real piano, either, so the library seemed like our best option. Those rehearsal rooms ended up being great for recording. The rooms were maybe six feet by six feet, with just a piano, a couple of chairs, a music stand, and some shelves…there might have been a little cassette or CD player in there, too.

And you recorded the piano tracks on the library’s piano?

Yeah. Ed just played along with the same drum machine tracks that the band had recorded back at my apartment, and I recorded his performances on a little digital field recorder with built-in stereo mics. Ed recorded piano for four songs on the album, and then I did another one on my own. All of the acoustic piano on the album was recorded at the library, except for the last track, which was something I’d recorded a year earlier, using a fake upright piano patch from a Nord synthesizer. The Nord didn’t sound as nice as the library piano.

You mentioned that one of the musicians whom you worked with on this album is actually a librarian?

Nick Ammerman, who plays auto­harp in the band, is the library services coordinator at the Donors Forum, an association of nonprofit organizations and grantmakers across Illinois. More generally, he’s a special librarian focused on the nonprofit and philanthropic sector.

Has the library been a factor in your creative life, or did it expose you to new ideas or artists in your youth?

Back in my mid-twenties, I had some extended periods of aimless unemployment in between Casiotone tours. I spent a lot of time at the library, reading email and checking out CDs and VHS tapes. I was sleeping on a lot of couches in those days, and the library was as much of a home as any place else. I’ve had a phobia of checking out books from the library ever since the time in grade school when I dropped my local library’s only paperback copy of [Michael Ende’s] The Neverending Story into a bathtub, but my phobia doesn’t apply to other forms of media. The first Andrei Tarkovsky movie I ever saw and the first Arvo Pärt CD I ever heard came from the same trip to the library, and they both were big influences on me. So much of my favorite stuff came to me by way of the library.

Besides this new album and the Advance Base Battery Life singles collection, if you wanted to recommend one of your previous works to a library wanting to dip its toes into the Casiotone for the Painfully Alone oeuvre, which one would it be?

I’m very proud of the last Casiotone for the Painfully Alone album, Vs. Children. I’d say it’s a tie between that one and A Shut-In’s Prayer. You can buy all of my records direct from me.

About Matthew Moyer