Sean Carey's tracks spin out from their centers light as feathers. His voice, high and clear, is framed with flutters and harps; his songs build in lovely slow ways. Recorded at his Bon Iver bandmate Justin Vernon's April Base studio in Fall Creek, Wis., Range of Light is an outside record in name (taken from John Muir's musings on beauty of the Sierra Nevadas) and lyric. Observe stanza one of "Crown the Pines":
I am in love with this place
But I fear for its grace
Shoot the sky
Opens up like the sea
And the resinous high
Bloodlines and divines
Will my kids see the trees?
Will the glen fall on me?
Carey has said in interviews this album is inspired by time spent in the outdoors and time spent reading about it. Before his show at the Hi-Fi this weekend, NUVO chatted with him about another writer obsessed with the outdoors: John Muir.
And for the rabid Bon Iver fans amongst our readership, we diligently asked about the status of Carey's other project. He had no real updates for us, saying, "There's nothing going on. It's all up in the air, basically." Vernon did contribute a vocal feature to Range of Light, however.
NUVO: You've mentioned that the work of John Muir influenced your recent musical output. What specific writings of Muir's were you referencing?
Sean Carey: The main one was called The Yosemite. I can't remember where I picked it up. I think somewhere on tour somewhere, and it just kind of stuck with me since like 2010. On the first S. Carey tour, I remember hanging out in the back of the van and reading it. And his writing's not super captivating, but it's so calming. It just kind of took me out of the van for a second and brought me back to the couple times that I had gone to Yosemite as a kid, and some other places that I've been in the Sierra Nevadas.
That book was always in my tour bag. I would take little notes here and there. I really like his writing style, his descriptions and his way to make everything beautiful and simple. I thought, that's pretty much what I'm going for in my music. I saw a lot of similarities there. When I started writing the new album Range of Light, I didn't really know what to call it. By the time I had all the songs mapped out and could tell what they were going to be about – I don't think they were all recorded at that point, but maybe some of them were skeletons – I saw this range of emotion in the songs. Some being pretty joyful, or just kind of being like, "This is who I am, this is this part of me." Others were darker, too. It occurred to me one day that Range of Light [Muir's phrase for the Sierra Nevadas] could be a cool way to represent that; that range of emotions in the songs. I was thinking about those experiences in the Sierra Nevada, and how nature and wilderness is something that keeps popping into my writing, and are things I'm kind of constantly inspired by. That's where that whole thing came to be. I don't feel like I'm an expert in John Muir at all, but I've always connected with his aesthetic and his writing. His spiritual take on nature is something I can really connect with. Just everything about him is kind of like, "Wow." I kind of think he was nuts, but at the same time amazing. [He said], "Okay, yeah! I'm going to go live in the mountains with a bag of rice for five months.
NUVO: Do you have much of an opportunity to get out into many national parks, forests, other various beautiful landscapes on your tours?
Carey: Sometimes! It's pretty hard to do on tour, but it has happened, that you have a day off or something and you're not traveling on that day off, that you can do some cool stuff. This summer we got to spend an hour in Jasper National Park in Canada, and that was pretty nuts. We've gotten to spend time in Big Sur, because we've played there a couple times. That's just really beautiful. With Bon Iver, we toured New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand is probably the best place in the world, I think. We had time there to do some hiking and we drove around a little bit. We had a friend of a friend that lent us a car.
NUVO: How do you adapt your intricate sonic layers to the more organic live setting? What's the instrumentation on this tour?
Carey: For the most part, I think we're able to capture the song and perform it. It's pretty close to the record, a little different here and there. I think the live performance is more dynamic, and we get a lot louder in certain places. That's always a fun challenge to try and figure out. We do have a lot of stuff onstage. I have a couple keyboards and a little percussion station, then there's a guitarist that always plays this mini vibraphone that we built. There's a pedal steel player that also plays keyboards. There's a bass player and a drummer. We all have a couple different things that we do. I think the one thing that I sometimes miss, or would like, is some strings of violin. That would sound awesome. But we work with what we have, and our van is absolutely packed to the brim. We're pretty maxed out on instruments.
NUVO: What does a successful and productive day of writing look like for you?
Carey: I don't know! My writing is so sporadic. A successful day for me is if I get an idea that I can take to a point where I can see what it's supposed to sound like in the end. I'm not doing a ton of writing right now, but I have one song that I fiddled with the idea for a couple days. I take little voice memos of me messing around, then, a few days later I would listen to the voice memo and I'm at a point that I can picture what it's supposed to sound like in the end. To me, it's like, "Okay, that one is done," even though I don't have any of the lyrics and we probably won't record it for a long time. I think that if you can see the end result really clearly, then you're going to find a way to get there. I keep thinking of a painter who has a huge canvas and he can vividly see what he wants to do. Maybe the canvas is blank, but if you can see it, I think you can figure out how to attain it. To me, that's a success. My writing is so sporadic, especially with lyrics, that I'll write one lyric a day and be like, "Yeah, that's cool." And then I'll sit on it for a while and come back to it.
NUVO: You're a new dad. How has becoming a father changed your artistic output?
Carey: I think it changes your perspective on a lot of things. For me, I think I can write from a different place. Not every song, but I can write from that different perspective, a little bit more mature. Also, in a way, it makes the song less precious. It doesn't matter, because I have this beautiful baby, you know? Yeah, I want to write good songs, but I have something that's a lot bigger and better than the song to worry about. It's freeing, in that way.