By Shannon Carlin
For S. Carey, nature is like a religion. As a kid, the Eau Claire, Wis. native took family vacations out in the wilderness, spending time in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and Yosemite National Park. He learned about John Muir, the 19th century naturalist and writer who helped expand Yosemite and lay the groundwork for the entire national park’s system in the United States.
It was Muir’s work as a preservationists — he founded the nature preservation society, the Sierra Club — that inspired Carey to write his latest album, which pays tribute to the natural beauty he had seen as a child. More importantly though, Carey’s love of nature allowed him to create the album he always wanted to make.
His first solo record, 2010’s All We Grow, was released by accident, pieced together using songs Carey had written over a span of two years while on the road with Bon Iver. Even his place in that band was happenstance. The classically trained percussionist learned how to play all of Bon Iver’s songs in two weeks and was able to show off his hard work for the band’s leader and fellow Wisconsinite, Justin Vernon at a local show. After hearing him play all of the percussion parts and the vocal harmonies, Vernon couldn’t say no to him, signing him to the band that very same day.
As a Midwesterner, Carey says he works at his own pace, which is a nice way of saying he works slowly, giving himself time to take things in. Carey often spent his breaks while recording at Vernon’s Eau Claire studio in the woods fly fishing. “It calms you, puts you in a relaxed space to make better music,” he explained. Carey’s laid back attitude is part of the reason why the album’s content spans such a large period of time — from the singer’s childhood excursions in Arizona to becoming a husband and father. Carey’s debut came out nearly five years ago, and he’s slowly, but surely been working on the follow-up ever since.
Range of Light, like its name implies, covers a wide range of emotions, both good and bad. The album’s opening track, which just so happens to be the record’s oldest song, “Glass/Film,” is about the beauty of the attic in the first house he bought with his wife a few years ago. It’s actually where he wrote this particular song that set this album in motion. While “Fire-Scene” uses the scene of a devastating forest fire as the setting of his desperate pleas for nothing but honesty.
Carey prefers not to get too specific about any of his songs, hoping fans will listen closely and find ways to relate them to their own lives. “It’s personal and it’s difficult to define,” he said of his music, before noting with a laugh, “I know that’s not very helpful to a writer.”
But fans have been listening closely enough to find person connections within the material, coming up to him at shows to share their guesses at what the songs are really about. Carey often finds these other people’s takes on the album much more interesting. Choosing to let them believe what they want, never correcting them no matter how far off the reservation they may be.
While specific subject matter might be off-limits, Carey is more than willing to talk about the making of the album, which had him working out some of the kinks of his previous release. “For a percussionist’s album, there wasn’t much percussion,” he said laughing. He remedied this by once again looking to nature for inspiration. If you listen closely to final track “Neverending Fountain,” a guided tour of what Carey’s idea of utopia is, you’ll notice the track’s crunching beats were actually made by layering footsteps through the snow. On other tracks he used the pitter patter of raindrops on the studio’s roof to keep time.
Carey even managed to stumble upon a new way of singing, which he refers to as “the whispery thing.” On Range of Light, Carey, who has referred to himself as a “closet singer” before Vernon forced him to do it in public, softly delivers lines about proposing to his wife and baptizing his baby on “Alpenglow” and sweetly questions if his children will ever get to see the trees on “Crown The Pines.” This new vocal delivery was something that impressed Vernon, who lends his own voice to songs like “Crown The Pines.”
On his first solo go-round, Carey dealt with constant comparisons to Bon Iver, but with Range of Light, he’s managed to step out of his shadow. “We don’t do the same thing,” he said. “But what [Justin Vernon] does is special. He’s such a great songwriter.”
Carey says he’s still learning, but, in his opinion (and most critics seem to agree), he has improved by leaps and bounds since his last release. “Sometimes I would listen and almost feel embarrassed,” he said of his debut, “or just question what I was doing. This time around it feels like me, like something I’ll be proud of in the years to come.” We imagine, just in time to release his third record.
S. Carey just kicked off his North American headlining tour, which will have him on the road until October 10.