On his new album, Magnificent Bird, composer/singer/songwriter Gabriel Kahane chronicles the final month of a year spent off the internet. The album features more than a dozen collaborators, every one of whom, he says, "I love as a person as much as I do as a musician." Here, he shares the story of how those relationships began.
Composer/singer/songwriter Gabriel Kahane's new album, Magnificent Bird, is out today. The album, his fifth solo LP and second for Nonesuch Records, chronicles the final month of a year spent off the internet. In his most personal album since 2011's Where are the Arms, Kahane revels in the tension between quiet, domestic concerns, and the roiling chaos of a nation and planet in crisis. The album features more than a dozen collaborators, every one of whom, he says, "I love as a person as much as I do as a musician." Here, he shares the story of how those relationships began:
In the aftermath of a year off the internet, I’ve become low-key obsessed with Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift, in which he argues that the movement of a gift—or a work of art—from one individual to another helps to define the community in which the gift or artwork circulates.
Today, my fifth album, Magnificent Bird, is released into the world, and it is, for me, most fundamentally, an expression of my community. There are no hired guns: only musicians whom I cherish as much for their humanity and friendship as I do for their artistry. So I thought it would be appropriate to mark the unveiling of this project with a little oral history & chronology of a dozen-and-a-half musical relationships that have made this record possible.
1989 - At our respective homes in Rochester, New York, Ted Poor and I play boogie-woogie duets: me on piano, Ted on drums. We’re also on the same Little League team; he often plays first-base, I’m over at shortstop for a quick 6-3 on a ground ball to the left side of the infield. Twenty-five years later, he plays drums in The Ambassador, my first piece for the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Ted was so incredibly generous on this project, recording 3,287 versions of “Hot Pink Raingear” before we arrived at the approach heard on the album. His sense of rhythm lights a room, and he is my oldest friend—not just on this LP, but in life.
2006 - The Nickel Creek bus drops Chris Thile (as well as Sean and Sara Watkins) at my parents’ house in Santa Rosa, California. We start playing music at around 1am. Fifteen years, hundreds of cups of coffee, and dozens of alcohol-fueled arguments about the “correct” approach to rhythm in the music of J.S. Bach later, Chris is one of my closest friends, and also a hero. We all know what a monster, once-in-a-generation talent he is. What is maybe less well-known is what an insane work ethic he has that undergirds his seemingly effortless command of his instrument, an ethic I got to witness up close while opening some 60 shows for Punch Brothers. The only person whose approach to rhythm is as continually mind-boggling as Ted Poor’s is Chris’, hence the mando-drums on “To Be American.”
2007 - I meet Alex Sopp through her new music ensemble, yMusic. I will forever be spoiled by the fact that she’s the first flutist I work with: her tone singing, her sense of phrase totally intuitive and poetic. Over the course of fifteen years, we share with each other many, many, many photographs of our cats. Her collaborative spirit was evident in her work on this album: for “Hot Pink Raingear,” I asked if she could play a synth riff on some “messed up whistles and flutes,” and she sent back, thirty-six hours later, fourteen different tracks of various antique wind instruments. I wish I had kept all of it for you to hear, but sometimes less is more.
2008 (part one) - I hear Elizabeth Ziman sing at a tiny cafe in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I am instantly in love with her voice and songwriting. I would happily listen to her sing tax returns or technical manuals or the transcripts of municipal water supply hearings; she is magic. Somehow, after an almost fifteen year friendship, this is the first time we’ve worked together on record; her singing on “Sit Shiva” is, for me, what makes the song.
2008 (part two) - Outside a rural elementary school in Switzerland, I am approached by a young man, who, seeing my banjo case, announces that he “plays folk music, too.” It’s Paul Kowert, who that autumn would join Punch Brothers as its bassist. Years later, we travel around the country while I’m opening for his band, playing chess over coffee, getting lost on long walks in unfamiliar cities, talking endlessly about music. He is a one of the most supremely gifted bass players of our time.
2009 - Holcombe Waller and I are set up on a West Coast co-bill tour by a friend who warns me that Holcombe is extremely flamboyant. I write to Holcombe, and in a postscript, mention—sort of in jest, sort of not—that I’m 18% gay. He writes back, “I’ve worked with less.” A friendship is born. Need help understanding obscure financial instruments or fledgling cryptocurrencies? Ask Holcombe. Need a quick tutorial on the history of energy policy in the Northwest? Ask Holcombe. Need the most sublime falsetto (but also booming bass-baritone) you’ve ever heard? Ask Holcombe. Happily, we now live less than a mile from one another in Northeast Portland. Holcombe, can I borrow some sugar??
2010 (part one) - I’m playing a gig in upstate New York accompanied by a string quartet. At soundcheck, one of the violinists mentions that she “writes a little music, too.” Next thing I know, that kind and quiet musician—Caroline Shaw—has won the Pulitzer Prize. Over the years, we email with eccentric frequency about Lunchables (can’t remember how that one started), and have occasionally appeared together in concert. What I admire most about Caroline is the absolute honesty of her music. Many of us work for years building up artifice, then taking it down. Not Caro: she knows, and seems always to have known, who she is. When I first heard her overdubs for the record, I cried.
2010 (part two) - Casey Foubert and I have known each other for a few years when he begins to mix my second album, Where are the Arms. Working on that record reveals to me the uncanny depth of Casey’s musical knowledge, spanning, as it does, obscure 60’s piano-driven folk-pop to free jazz. One of the most versatile and multivalent artists I’ve ever encountered, Casey is the only musician who has played on all of my records (with the exception of Book of Travelers, which is just me). He’s also a profoundly curious person, and a super generous spirit. He now lives with his family in rural Illinois, and I love that there’s a bit of that energy on this album.
2011 - It’s a dark and dreary evening in Peterborough, NH, when I find myself sitting at the piano in a little cabin, singing standards with a young woman named Amelia Meath. We keep in touch here and there, and then a few years later, I hear a band called Sylvan Esso and think, that voice sounds familiar! Over the last few years, Amelia and I have had long, deep phone calls about everything from literature to TikTok to systemic racism to the music biz. She encouraged me, while we were working on “Linda & Stuart,” to embrace the cognitive dissonance between the cheerful groove and the sense of grief that pervades the lyric.
2014 (part one) - Driving from the Denver Airport, Chris Morrissey tells me that he does a great BBC newscaster impression. I immediately try to one-up him. (Mine is better.) Every year on his birthday, to commemorate my small victory of superior British dialect, I leave Chris a three-minute voicemail in a preposterous BBC voice. Chris is a complete musician, and a complete human. One of the things that drew me to him when we first met was how emotionally available he was. So glad he’s on this joint.
2014 (part two) - A recording studio in New Jersey. yMusic has a new cellist on the session. We get through one take of my arrangement of Beck’s “Mutilation Rag,” for the Song Reader album, and Gabriel Cabezas, maybe 22 years old, says, without a trace of attitude or ostentation, “oh, this is a twelve-tone row, right?” What a punk! One memorable night years later ends drunkenly at my house, where we cook both carbonara and cacio e pepe after a long conversation about how the best pasta sauces are emulsified using the cooking water.
2014 (part three) - I’m not sure that the classroom at the fancy private school in Laguna Beach, California, was where I first met Joseph Lorge, but it sticks out in my memory for some reason. He’s there with a friend of his, a songwriter, who performs two beautiful songs as part of a master class that I was giving. By 2017, Joseph has become indispensable to my process as a studio artist. He records and mixes Book of Travelers, and acts as mix engineer and house psychologist during this project. He is tall and shy, quietly hilarious, with a heart of gold. His ears and imagination are astonishing; without him, this record would not exist.
2015 - In the lobby of the newly opened Ordway Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, I am accosted by a blonde man with a cheerful face and intense eyes. “I have a question to ask you,” he says, betraying the slightest hint of a Northern European accent. “On your song ‘Charming Disease,’ from your album Where are the Arms, is it three clarinets or one claviola that appear suddenly in the second verse?” This was Pekka Kuusisto, a true magician of the violin, and one of my dearest friends. I have fond memories from 2019 (“the before times”) of walking down to the water—his house in Finland sits against the Baltic Sea—in nothing but towels, freezing our asses off before retreating to the warmth of his wood sauna, which I guess is what Finns do in February? When his violin enters halfway through the tune, I feel the chill of that numinous, Scandinavian wind insinuate itself into the harmonic field.
2016 (part one) - St. Paul, again! Sam Amidon and I have known each other for a decade by this point, but it’s over burritos at Chipotle that we bond for real, talking about our shared love of Herman Melville and obscure jazz records. If I’m reading a great book, Sam is often the first person I want to tell. In a world brimming with highly individualized voices, Sam’s artistry—from his singing voice to his banjo and fiddle playing—stands out for its idiosyncrasies and emotional depth.
2016 (part two) - On a tour bus somewhere in Montana, Andrew Bird and I get to talking about how folk and orchestral music can coexist. A few years later, we work closely on Time Is A Crooked Bow, a cycle I orchestrated comprising six of his songs. Getting to hear him sing every night was a real master class. Andrew has magnetic rock star energy, but he is also a kind, gentle, quiet and deeply thoughtful soul. And no one plucks the violin quite the way he does. When I wrote the riff he plays on “To Be American,” I knew it had to be him.
2017 - From time to time, I head uptown to hear the NY Philharmonic. One evening, I’m hypnotized by a sound—serene, expressive, otherworldly— emanating from from the principal clarinet chair. Eventually I muster the nerve to write to Anthony McGill and tell him what I huge fan I am. It’s thrilling when he tells me that he knows my music and would love to do something together. And now, at last, we have.
2019 - Nathalie Joachim sends me mixes of her album Fanm D’ayiti. It is so damn gorgeous. We’ve been casual acquaintances for five years at this point, but now I am *a fan*. Over the course of the pandemic, we talk more frequently, counseling each other about the various challenges of being an artist in these confounding times. She joins the Creative Alliance with the Oregon Symphony, where I serve as Creative Chair. This June, the Oregon Symphony will present the world premiere of an orchestral song cycle drawn from Nathalie’s album that made such an impression. The combination of Nathalie & Alex on the title track, along with Holcombe’s vocal feature, has me feeling that my cup truly runneth over.
Tony Berg is a joyous contrarian whom I’ve known for a dozen years, during which time he has shown me only generosity of spirit, resources, and wisdom. He co-produced Book of Travelers (which we recorded at his old home studio in LA), and was an indispensable early sounding board for the songs on this album. And now he’s got a dog named Bing-Bong. How about that?