For Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, the last few years have been a process of opening up. His 2015 album A Year With 13 Moons is an evocative masterwork, but also a hermetic one. He recorded it alone in the woods of Northern California during a three-month artist’s residency, and its dense, smeared sonics reflect a tough period that included a divorce. Last year’s In Summer, based around a sojourn to Maine, hinted at a more expansive direction, with a brighter feel to match its title.
Cantu-Ledesma’s newest album, On the Echoing Green, finds him moving further outwards. To create it, he invited other musicians into the studio of his label, Mexican Summer—including guitarists Byron Westbrook and Evan Caminiti—and later added guest vocals from Sobrenadar, aka Argentinean singer/songwriter Paula Garcia. Improvising on Cantu-Ledesma’s riffs, the unit crafted songs that soar high as if they could touch the sun. Chiming guitars loop over majestic beats, leaving shiny trails of reverb in their wake. There’s still abstraction and noise in Cantu-Ledesma’s music, but On the Echoing Green, as he admits, is his most optimistic-sounding effort to date.
Working with other musicians is nothing new for Cantu-Ledesma. He began in the Bay Area in the mid ’90s with Tarentel and he has since worked with many groups and collaborators. His duo Raum, with Liz Harris of Grouper, is currently crafting a follow-up to their 2013 debut; he plans a second collaboration with French sound artist Felicia Atkinson after their 2016 release Comme Un Seul Narcisse. Cantu-Ledesma also founded and co-runs the Root Strata label, releasing a wide swath of experimental music for over a decade, including Westbrook’s 2015 excellent Precipice.
Ledesma recently spoke to us from his home in New York about making On the Echoing Green, how poet William Blake influenced the album, and whether it’s OK to call his music shoegaze.
How did you first get into making music?
Growing up in Houston, I had friends who were into music and we turned each other onto tons of it, but none of us were really playing. Instead we were skateboarding and just being punks. But when I moved to San Francisco for art school, every third person I met was a musician. There was a point in the early 2000s when there was so much great music going on in the Bay Area. Liz Harris, Yellow Swans, the Skaters, Axolotl were all there. During college, Tarentel started, and we were together for about 15 years.
Did your experience in visual art shape how you think about making music?
Yeah, when I think about records, I think about the sequence of the record in a visual way. Like, ‘This song peaks like a mountain, and the next song needs to drop like a valley.’ Or, ‘This song is pink and orange and the next song needs to be kind of brown.’ It has to have some continuity, almost like a film, that same kind of rhythm. I had an art teacher tell me once that an artist edits. I’m not sure I knew what that meant at the time, but now I think that’s true. I create way more material than I’m going to use, and I find a lot of comfort in that because I love the process of producing. I can just do that forever. But at some point you’re like, ‘OK, I have to start cutting this down.’
Much of your recent work has been made on your own. What made you want to work with other musicians for On the Echoing Green?
Well, I’m around the 20-year mark in terms of making music, and the majority of that has been with other people. After A Year With 13 Moons, I was at a point where I missed the vibrancy that happens when you get people in a room together. I was at work and someone had put on Miles Davis’s live stuff from the ‘70s, and it just struck me, ‘Wow, this music is so alive-sounding.’ I think part of that’s because it’s a bunch of people on the stage together, and it’s totally chaotic. Maybe that was the germ of the idea. Of course, once you get on a path, it becomes its own thing.
Did you have any concrete ideas for the record before you went in the studio?
I knew that I wanted it to be more melodic and more pop, more clear and direct. A Year With 13 Moons is so clouded and so dense. I wanted something almost simple. But every record has a point where I feel like I’m completely lost in the whole process, and this one did as well.
Why did you choose to go into the studio without set songs?
I’m not a songwriter. All my work starts from improvisation that turns into something, and that’s how I learned how to play music. So that didn’t seem like such a leap for me, and I think everyone was pretty much on board with that. The most I would come in with is some chord patterns to set the mood. I would just start playing those, and the songs would take off from there. Byron’s guitar is the dominant guitar on the record, and I didn’t realize that that would happen. I didn’t realize that he would write all these melodies that would end up creating these beautiful, pastoral tracks.
How much material did you record?
After three days in the studio, I ended up with two or three hours’ worth of material from each day. This was in the winter of 2015, and I didn’t turn the record in until October of 2016. You have to take time to figure out what sticks with you, and then you start sculpting pieces. Byron and I went back into the studio to add more guitar and do some editing, and I added stuff at home: guitar, modular synthesizer, tapes. It’s akin to painting; I just keep adding layers.
The record makes itself, in a way. You think, ‘No, I want it to be this way,’ and then the record’s like, ‘No, I’m not going that way at all.’ The second song, ‘A Song of Summer,’ is really pop and full, and I didn’t know if the whole record wanted to be that way or be more idiosyncratic. I just needed to let it settle. At some point, things just feel right. Actually, with this record, I still think, ‘Oh, I should have done this other thing on that track.’ Maybe part of that is that I feel so exposed because the songs are just so there. All my previous material is so smeared in distortion and haze.
How did you come to include vocals by Sobrenadar?
I heard a track of hers on the Internet and bookmarked it. As the record was getting closer to being finished, I started thinking about vocals for a couple tracks, and I wrote her and she was super receptive. So I sent her the tracks and told her to respond to them in a way that felt like what she would do normally. She very quickly gave me enough to be able to do what I wanted. I actually don’t think I even ended up editing her vocals at all.
She sings in Spanish, and I haven’t asked her what she’s saying yet. I think that instead of making things more clear, in a way it makes it more mysterious. Because you know that something explicit is being said but you don’t know what it is, so it adds this layer of mystery, but it also makes it intimate and personal in a way. Since I was trying to write songs that were more clear, maybe that was about adding another layer of humanness to it.
Her tracks have a Cocteau Twins vibe, and I’ve seen people mention shoegaze when talking about your work. Do you agree with that comparison?
It doesn’t bother me. To some degree it’s functional, and I think that’s OK. It’s not a part of my process though. Especially with this record—I’m sure I’m going to get shoegaze comparisons, but the record is pretty idiosyncratic and definitely ventures into other territory. If I think about shoegaze, the records all tend to be monochromatic, in a good way. This record feels to me like it has a lot of different colors going on.
With a lot of stuff I hear, I feel like the artist started off thinking, ‘I want to make a record that sounds like this other record.’ Sometimes that can totally work, and I think having those ideas in the beginning is helpful because it gets you on the path. But once you’re on the path, things change. I can be like, ‘Yeah, I want to make a shoegaze-y pop record,’ and maybe one song is like that—but then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Wait, hang on a second. I want to make a weird kraut record that has a pop song on one side and then another side is 20 minutes of synth noise.’ Like a Can record has a pop song on one side and then Side B is 20 minutes of synth noise. Or Faust or Neu!—they have these amazing pop songs, and then the next song is, like, running water with someone talking over it. How did they get there? I think part of that is just trusting your process, and going down your own little rabbit hole.
Brian Eno has had a lot of influence on me for that reason, particularly his pop records because they just seem so absurd in some way. No one who considers themselves a pop musician would do that. Why would you make Another Green World? It has some incredible pop songs on it, but then there’s all of this great ambient music too.
Did you notice any themes emerging as you completed On the Echoing Green?
Well, I had just started to feel settled in New York, and my partner and I knew we were pregnant and going to have a baby. So there’s no way that that’s not somehow a part of it. I think the record feels more optimistic than anything that I’ve ever done before It’s hard because when you’re not a songwriter, it’s not like you’re sitting down to say, ‘Oh, I want to write this song about X.’ You can talk about the process, you can talk about what the elements were, but then the work itself is a total mystery in some way. But since I took so long to do it, obviously my life is in there. I’m not sure exactly how, but I’m okay with that.
You’ve been in New York for four years, so it seems natural that the city would influence your music by now.
It would be naive to think that my environment doesn’t have some effect on what I’m doing. But I made A Year with 13 Moons while I was in Northern California in the woods surrounded by the ocean—it was all just absolutely beautiful—and yet that record is so caustic and fucked up. So I think it’s more my internal landscape that comes through. New York must be in there somewhere on this new record, but I don’t know where, because the record just feels so optimistic to me. Though there is an extra CD that’s going to come with the LP, and that’s the dark side of the record. I did it all on tape, and everything’s slowed down. The songs are still somewhat catchy, but it’s much more dirty and kind of fucked up.
Is there a story behind the title On the Echoing Green?
Yeah, it’s from a William Blake poem. It’s about a park where kids are playing and there are some old guys on a bench, and they’re talking about when they were kids playing in the park, and how the kids one day will also be old men like them, sitting on the bench looking at other kids. The ‘echoing green’ is the park. When I came across that Blake poem, I thought, ‘Oh, this is too good. I have to use it.’