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  • Wednesday, April 3, 2019
    The Story Behind William Brittelle's "Spiritual America"

    Composer William Brittelle's Spiritual America, due May 3 on New Amsterdam / Nonesuch Records, is, at its heart, a bedroom recording—intimate, ruminative, highly personal—but one of decidedly monumental proportions. The album features singer Jenn Wasner and drummer-percussionist Andy Stack, who perform as the American rock duo Wye Oak; the New York City–based contemporary chamber orchestra Metropolis Ensemble; and the Grammy Award–winning Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Spiritual America is, as Brittelle likes to put it, "genre-fluid music," where dissonant electric guitars and haunting electronics are as integral as orchestra and choir.

    This cycle of seven songs (plus one final piece composed by Wye Oak and arranged by Brittelle) is the soundtrack to an emotional journey Brittelle undertook to reconcile his youth in a conservative Christian North Carolina household with his adult life as an "agnostic Buddhist" living in Brooklyn, and to address his questions about the nature of faith. David Hajdu of the Nation has praised Spiritual America for its "utter fearlessness" and "quirky beauty" and Brittelle himself for producing "silo-bombing music that is at once free-ranging, formally adventurous, unconventionally beautiful, and a joyful thrill to experience."

    The arc of Brittelle's career is itself something of a remarkable odyssey, from aspiring post-punk musician in the New York City rock scene of the early aughts to co-founder of the highly regarded Brooklyn–based non-profit label, New Amsterdam Records, "built for the diverse musical landscape of our time." He and his band the Blondes had released a debut album produced by legendary Television guitarist Richard Lloyd, but serious vocal injury suffered during a 2004 gig dashed any dreams of rock stardom Brittelle may have harbored. Physically and emotionally devastating, though perhaps somehow serendipitous in retrospect, this onstage accident pushed him toward a very different path as composer, label owner, and concert presenter, who has been sought after by symphonies and performing arts groups around the country.

    After his son's birth Brittelle began to develop his ideas for Spiritual America. His son had to spend time in the NICU and Brittelle instinctively found himself praying to God as he watched over him. "Reflecting on that instinctual response to trauma," Brittelle explains, "I realized there was something happening deep down below the surface in me that I needed to reckon with. That sense was paired with the nagging feeling that my music had lost a bit of its emotional directness and guts."

    He continues, "It dawned on me that I had essentially walled off the first sixteen years of my life completely, walled off all the people I'd known. I'd never returned, mentally or physically, to where I'd grown up. I'd never let the music or the culture of my youth factor into anything I was doing. So I dove head first into reading about religion and ritual. I was already interested in Buddhism but started to consider aspects of my thinking that were culturally Christian. For those of us raised in a "dome" mentality with a clear moral code, a conceptual framework for how the world works becomes solidified on a very deep level and it's extremely hard to reset."

    In the wake of these realizations, Brittelle tentatively began his work on Spiritual America—the first music that emerged was a simple verse and chord progression from what became the title track: "It was at a time when I was writing gnarly, angular, aggressive music, but out came this very basic melody and lyric, and I didn't really know how to engage with it.

    "There have been only one or two times in my life when musical ideas have emerged fully formed, really quickly, and I tend to instinctually not trust them. But this germ of an idea felt extremely cathartic, like a door opening to another realm of music-making. I had been struggling with issues of identity and religion for a while, but it took this simple phrase to truly bring them to the surface. From there, the album progressed very gradually over a period of seven years. It was one step at time, almost with an invisible hand guiding me, gaining a little more clarity with each step. A loose narrative emerged serving to anchor the piece: the last year I spent in my hometown I fell in love with a young woman a few years older than me, the best friend of a girl in my church. She was brilliant and beautiful but her father was an abusive alcoholic and kicked her out of the house at age sixteen and she was forced to find refuge in less than ideal circumstances—first by dating the town drug dealer, and then by impulsively marrying an ROTC candidate. Even after I left for college, I harbored fantasies of earning money, buying a Camaro, and going back to 'rescue' her. Spiritual America is in some sense an alternate personal history, the story of my life had I returned (or never left) and started a life with her."

    Getting to know Jenn Wasner was a particularly big step in the evolution of Spiritual America. Wasner piqued Brittelle's curiosity after he heard that she accepted a touring gig with the Dirty Projectors and swiftly memorized the complicated songs of the band's founder David Longstreth: "If she can do that, I thought, she can sing anything I can throw at her. It turns out she has perfect relative pitch and a very nimble and flexible musical mind. We worked on a couple of early Spiritual America songs together for a show with the Baltimore Symphony, and then I wrote the single 'Dream Has No Sacrifice' to kind of test her limits. It modulates all over the place and has crazy time signature changes. And she just nailed it—which freed me to proceed with Spiritual America without having to edit any melodic ideas. Like Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver], her voice is an emotional vessel, you feel things deeply when you hear it."

    He continues, "While making this record I was obsessed with Frank Ocean's Blonde, in part by his ability to bring in collaborators to further his unique and highly personal vision. I think having Jenn's voice tell this story is part of what, hopefully, makes the project meaningful and relatable, despite the somewhat collage-like nature of my compositional language. Andy Stack's (Wye Oak's multi-instrumentalist) sensibility and sonic guidance not only with the percussion but the overall mix was certainly invaluable as well. And having access to orchestral musicians of Metropolis' caliber was extremely freeing— I felt no restraints in composing for orchestra because I knew they had the skill level and dedication to bring anything I could dream up to life."

    Wasner and Brooklyn Youth Chorus are often engaged in an impassioned call and response. Brittelle says, "I wanted to have this youthful Greek chorus, the voice of innocence. There is a beautifully wizened quality to Jenn's voice and I thought it would be nice to juxtapose that with the choir."

    As Brittelle garnered commissions from orchestras around the country who were looking for "genre-fluid" composers to contribute to their concert series, he would tell them about the nascent Spiritual America, and that allowed Brittelle the opportunity to further develop and road test the piece with Wye Oak and these regional ensembles.

    But Spiritual America wouldn't be fully realized until Brittelle returned to his childhood home and the sanctuary of his old bedroom, where he'd first experimented semi-secretly with music as a teenager: "I spent a tremendous amount of time making art growing up, but I didn't tell anyone about it until the very end of high school. I built this little 'studio' in my closet: a keyboard, a computer, a safe space to create text and music. It was a place to escape, to process, to make fake album covers, to essentially construct a new reality for myself. It was a mode of creation that stood in direct opposition to the world of academic music I later encountered. Making art was and is simply essential to my emotional well-being, a way to navigate through the world, to make sense of what I'm feeling, and to morph my reality through world-building."

    The lyrics throughout Spiritual America are spare, dream-like—and Wasner, echoed by the choir, gives the words an incantatory quality. There is the occasional detail, a sudden sharp memory—"We find no need to speak/Drinking Zima from a NASCAR cup"—but most of it is fuzzy, abstract, more reverie than recollection, with allusions to factories, fields, the shopping mall. The recurring, piercing sound of electric guitars is a nod to the metal bands that the teenage Brittelle admired for their transgressive looks, pagan imagery, and heavy sound. He refers to them in "Forbidden Colors:" "Men with makeup dressed like little girls/in the stadium framed by pentagrams."

    His family had left the church when Brittelle was fourteen, so Brittelle had to summon back that archly conservative Christian world that he both belonged to and rebelled against, one divided clearly into rights and wrongs, where religion wasn't faith, but certainty, even if it could feel like bigotry to an outsider.

    Brittelle says, "I found my childhood bedroom was the only place where I could get into the zone of instinctual, deep creation with this album. I had my yearbook, my Bible, and some old photos. I cleared out everything else. It was essential for me to stay in the right headspace, courting madness in a sense, for extended stretches, because of the epic nature of the project. That's why it took such a long time to complete. I would come back to New York and the work was almost inaccessible to me because it involved going to such a deep, hidden place. It's not a series of disparate songs: it's one large world. I needed to have everything in my head the whole time."

    Finally, seven years into its making, Brittelle could discern the shape, the nature, of the entire piece. "You really, really struggle over every decision and then you get closer and closer to this thing that comes alive. There are songs on the record with more than 100 alternate versions. It's almost like the stuffed animal you believe in so much that one day it just starts talking back to you. You put so much in to every moment and at some point it takes on a life of its own and it starts directing you a little."

    The final step in Spiritual America's development was an extremely arduous but rewarding stretch of mixing at April Base, a Wisconsin–based studio founded by Justin Vernon, under the guiding hand of co-producer/mixer Zach Hanson, who was known for his work on Bon Iver's 22, A Million and records by S. Carey, The Staves, and others. Hanson and Brittelle mixed for more than 250 hours, with invaluable input from Wye Oak and Andrew Cyr, director of Metropolis. "The first three days were spent simply trying to wrangle the countless files we had into a malleable form."

    On "Forbidden Colors," Wasner ominously declares, "Nostalgia is a drug, nostalgia is poison." Spiritual America is hardly nostalgic; it's more like a reckoning with the past to create a work very much in the present— beautiful, unsettling, and cathartic for composer and listener alike. The experience has led Brittelle to explore his North Carolina roots well outside his former bedroom. He is currently collaborating with North Carolina Symphony and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee on multi-year project entitled Si Otsedoha (We're Still Here). For Brittelle, the journey continues: "I feel like my identity is so often marked by irresolvable internal conflict. Music-making is for me above all a method for integrating oppositional forces in search of personal truth—a truth that hopefully resonates in a meaningful way beyond my own imagination."

    —Michael Hill

    Journal Articles:Artist News

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The Story Behind William Brittelle's "Spiritual America"

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on April 3, 2019 - 9:00am
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Publish date: 
Wednesday, April 3, 2019 - 09:00
Excerpt: 

Composer William Brittelle’s Spiritual America, due May 3, is, at its heart, a bedroom recording—intimate, ruminative, highly personal—but one of decidedly monumental proportions. Here, Brittelle speaks with writer Michael Hill about Spiritual America, on which electric guitars and haunting electronics are as integral as orchestra and choir.

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Composer William Brittelle's Spiritual America, due May 3 on New Amsterdam / Nonesuch Records, is, at its heart, a bedroom recording—intimate, ruminative, highly personal—but one of decidedly monumental proportions. The album features singer Jenn Wasner and drummer-percussionist Andy Stack, who perform as the American rock duo Wye Oak; the New York City–based contemporary chamber orchestra Metropolis Ensemble; and the Grammy Award–winning Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Spiritual America is, as Brittelle likes to put it, "genre-fluid music," where dissonant electric guitars and haunting electronics are as integral as orchestra and choir.

This cycle of seven songs (plus one final piece composed by Wye Oak and arranged by Brittelle) is the soundtrack to an emotional journey Brittelle undertook to reconcile his youth in a conservative Christian North Carolina household with his adult life as an "agnostic Buddhist" living in Brooklyn, and to address his questions about the nature of faith. David Hajdu of the Nation has praised Spiritual America for its "utter fearlessness" and "quirky beauty" and Brittelle himself for producing "silo-bombing music that is at once free-ranging, formally adventurous, unconventionally beautiful, and a joyful thrill to experience."

The arc of Brittelle's career is itself something of a remarkable odyssey, from aspiring post-punk musician in the New York City rock scene of the early aughts to co-founder of the highly regarded Brooklyn–based non-profit label, New Amsterdam Records, "built for the diverse musical landscape of our time." He and his band the Blondes had released a debut album produced by legendary Television guitarist Richard Lloyd, but serious vocal injury suffered during a 2004 gig dashed any dreams of rock stardom Brittelle may have harbored. Physically and emotionally devastating, though perhaps somehow serendipitous in retrospect, this onstage accident pushed him toward a very different path as composer, label owner, and concert presenter, who has been sought after by symphonies and performing arts groups around the country.

After his son's birth Brittelle began to develop his ideas for Spiritual America. His son had to spend time in the NICU and Brittelle instinctively found himself praying to God as he watched over him. "Reflecting on that instinctual response to trauma," Brittelle explains, "I realized there was something happening deep down below the surface in me that I needed to reckon with. That sense was paired with the nagging feeling that my music had lost a bit of its emotional directness and guts."

He continues, "It dawned on me that I had essentially walled off the first sixteen years of my life completely, walled off all the people I'd known. I'd never returned, mentally or physically, to where I'd grown up. I'd never let the music or the culture of my youth factor into anything I was doing. So I dove head first into reading about religion and ritual. I was already interested in Buddhism but started to consider aspects of my thinking that were culturally Christian. For those of us raised in a "dome" mentality with a clear moral code, a conceptual framework for how the world works becomes solidified on a very deep level and it's extremely hard to reset."

In the wake of these realizations, Brittelle tentatively began his work on Spiritual America—the first music that emerged was a simple verse and chord progression from what became the title track: "It was at a time when I was writing gnarly, angular, aggressive music, but out came this very basic melody and lyric, and I didn't really know how to engage with it.

"There have been only one or two times in my life when musical ideas have emerged fully formed, really quickly, and I tend to instinctually not trust them. But this germ of an idea felt extremely cathartic, like a door opening to another realm of music-making. I had been struggling with issues of identity and religion for a while, but it took this simple phrase to truly bring them to the surface. From there, the album progressed very gradually over a period of seven years. It was one step at time, almost with an invisible hand guiding me, gaining a little more clarity with each step. A loose narrative emerged serving to anchor the piece: the last year I spent in my hometown I fell in love with a young woman a few years older than me, the best friend of a girl in my church. She was brilliant and beautiful but her father was an abusive alcoholic and kicked her out of the house at age sixteen and she was forced to find refuge in less than ideal circumstances—first by dating the town drug dealer, and then by impulsively marrying an ROTC candidate. Even after I left for college, I harbored fantasies of earning money, buying a Camaro, and going back to 'rescue' her. Spiritual America is in some sense an alternate personal history, the story of my life had I returned (or never left) and started a life with her."

Getting to know Jenn Wasner was a particularly big step in the evolution of Spiritual America. Wasner piqued Brittelle's curiosity after he heard that she accepted a touring gig with the Dirty Projectors and swiftly memorized the complicated songs of the band's founder David Longstreth: "If she can do that, I thought, she can sing anything I can throw at her. It turns out she has perfect relative pitch and a very nimble and flexible musical mind. We worked on a couple of early Spiritual America songs together for a show with the Baltimore Symphony, and then I wrote the single 'Dream Has No Sacrifice' to kind of test her limits. It modulates all over the place and has crazy time signature changes. And she just nailed it—which freed me to proceed with Spiritual America without having to edit any melodic ideas. Like Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver], her voice is an emotional vessel, you feel things deeply when you hear it."

He continues, "While making this record I was obsessed with Frank Ocean's Blonde, in part by his ability to bring in collaborators to further his unique and highly personal vision. I think having Jenn's voice tell this story is part of what, hopefully, makes the project meaningful and relatable, despite the somewhat collage-like nature of my compositional language. Andy Stack's (Wye Oak's multi-instrumentalist) sensibility and sonic guidance not only with the percussion but the overall mix was certainly invaluable as well. And having access to orchestral musicians of Metropolis' caliber was extremely freeing— I felt no restraints in composing for orchestra because I knew they had the skill level and dedication to bring anything I could dream up to life."

Wasner and Brooklyn Youth Chorus are often engaged in an impassioned call and response. Brittelle says, "I wanted to have this youthful Greek chorus, the voice of innocence. There is a beautifully wizened quality to Jenn's voice and I thought it would be nice to juxtapose that with the choir."

As Brittelle garnered commissions from orchestras around the country who were looking for "genre-fluid" composers to contribute to their concert series, he would tell them about the nascent Spiritual America, and that allowed Brittelle the opportunity to further develop and road test the piece with Wye Oak and these regional ensembles.

But Spiritual America wouldn't be fully realized until Brittelle returned to his childhood home and the sanctuary of his old bedroom, where he'd first experimented semi-secretly with music as a teenager: "I spent a tremendous amount of time making art growing up, but I didn't tell anyone about it until the very end of high school. I built this little 'studio' in my closet: a keyboard, a computer, a safe space to create text and music. It was a place to escape, to process, to make fake album covers, to essentially construct a new reality for myself. It was a mode of creation that stood in direct opposition to the world of academic music I later encountered. Making art was and is simply essential to my emotional well-being, a way to navigate through the world, to make sense of what I'm feeling, and to morph my reality through world-building."

The lyrics throughout Spiritual America are spare, dream-like—and Wasner, echoed by the choir, gives the words an incantatory quality. There is the occasional detail, a sudden sharp memory—"We find no need to speak/Drinking Zima from a NASCAR cup"—but most of it is fuzzy, abstract, more reverie than recollection, with allusions to factories, fields, the shopping mall. The recurring, piercing sound of electric guitars is a nod to the metal bands that the teenage Brittelle admired for their transgressive looks, pagan imagery, and heavy sound. He refers to them in "Forbidden Colors:" "Men with makeup dressed like little girls/in the stadium framed by pentagrams."

His family had left the church when Brittelle was fourteen, so Brittelle had to summon back that archly conservative Christian world that he both belonged to and rebelled against, one divided clearly into rights and wrongs, where religion wasn't faith, but certainty, even if it could feel like bigotry to an outsider.

Brittelle says, "I found my childhood bedroom was the only place where I could get into the zone of instinctual, deep creation with this album. I had my yearbook, my Bible, and some old photos. I cleared out everything else. It was essential for me to stay in the right headspace, courting madness in a sense, for extended stretches, because of the epic nature of the project. That's why it took such a long time to complete. I would come back to New York and the work was almost inaccessible to me because it involved going to such a deep, hidden place. It's not a series of disparate songs: it's one large world. I needed to have everything in my head the whole time."

Finally, seven years into its making, Brittelle could discern the shape, the nature, of the entire piece. "You really, really struggle over every decision and then you get closer and closer to this thing that comes alive. There are songs on the record with more than 100 alternate versions. It's almost like the stuffed animal you believe in so much that one day it just starts talking back to you. You put so much in to every moment and at some point it takes on a life of its own and it starts directing you a little."

The final step in Spiritual America's development was an extremely arduous but rewarding stretch of mixing at April Base, a Wisconsin–based studio founded by Justin Vernon, under the guiding hand of co-producer/mixer Zach Hanson, who was known for his work on Bon Iver's 22, A Million and records by S. Carey, The Staves, and others. Hanson and Brittelle mixed for more than 250 hours, with invaluable input from Wye Oak and Andrew Cyr, director of Metropolis. "The first three days were spent simply trying to wrangle the countless files we had into a malleable form."

On "Forbidden Colors," Wasner ominously declares, "Nostalgia is a drug, nostalgia is poison." Spiritual America is hardly nostalgic; it's more like a reckoning with the past to create a work very much in the present— beautiful, unsettling, and cathartic for composer and listener alike. The experience has led Brittelle to explore his North Carolina roots well outside his former bedroom. He is currently collaborating with North Carolina Symphony and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee on multi-year project entitled Si Otsedoha (We're Still Here). For Brittelle, the journey continues: "I feel like my identity is so often marked by irresolvable internal conflict. Music-making is for me above all a method for integrating oppositional forces in search of personal truth—a truth that hopefully resonates in a meaningful way beyond my own imagination."

—Michael Hill

featuredimage: 
William Brittelle: "Spiritual America" [cover]

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