Wisdom Pop: Andrew Mars of Settled Arrows on making the personal world universal with Public Privacy

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Andrew Mars of Settled Arrows | Photo by Dustyn Christofes | courtesy of the artist
Andrew Mars of Settled Arrows | Photo by Dustyn Christofes | courtesy of the artist

When Andrew Mars went into his grandparents’ basement to record during the winter of 2015, it was an act of catharsis.

The Philadelphia singer, songwriter and composer had been going through a rough patch in his life; a long-term relationship was ending, loved ones were dying. And he turned to something that had always been there as a source of comfort: music.

The wonderful thing about Public Privacy, the resulting album under his stage name Settled Arrows, is that it doesn’t wallow in grief-driven melancholia like so many records born out of similar circumstances. It’s got feeling, no doubt, but it’s nuanced, delicate, poetic – and quite beautiful.

Mars’ prior work had veered more in an experimental songwriting direction; this album, decidedly, was his more pop-oriented affair, though pop as filtered through an artful prism. Moments on the record recall songwriters like Scott Walker, John Grant and last year’s Mercury Prize winner Benjamin Clementine – artists who begin from a more traditional starting point and then re-imagine the possibilities of where it can lead them.

Public Privacy has atmospheric piano ballads, but it also has soaring chamber rock anthems in the vein of early Ra Ra Riot (“Roads That Haven’t Been Finished Yet”) and moments akin to Perfume Genius, where moving string arrangements are juxtaposed with dissonant ambient textures (“L.O.V.E.”).

Beyond the music, Mars’ lyrical outlook on the record tells stories of everyday 21st century interaction – characters who slip into a gin and tonic-fueled reverie at bar, characters who hook up with people they meet online – in very vivid lyrical descriptions. From the horn-laden, Beirut-esque song “Jimmie Desert”:

Jimmie’s favorite night of the week is poetry on Tuesday nights.
His most recent love affair lasted briefly but without any fights.
His poems are based on fantasies about his next door neighbors’ lives.
He says: “The more you think you’ve found clarity, the less you seem to get it right.”

In one regard, Mars’ words have a loose timelessness to them. But it’s very much similar to Regina Spektor (another simpatico songwriter of his), where he’s not shy about injecting them with postmodern references to the world we interact with every day. As “Jimmie” moves on, the lyrics continue “He says: ‘Karma’s not a thing I endure,’ then he Googles different kinds of tea.”

All those disparate elements are wrapped in ribbons of field recordings documenting Mars’ day to day life made on a smart phone – from the South Philly neighborhood where he lives to his occasional day job at The Tavern on Camac, where he’s been working a fill-in piano player gig of late. In that sense Settled Arrows’ Public Privacy is a handy time capsule of modern life and modern love.

But keeping true to the emotional concerns that drove the songs in the first place, Mars is re-recording Public Privacy this weekend in front of a live audience at Buckeye Studio in South Philadelphia. It will be him and a piano, the lush arrangements stripped away to allow focus on his melodies and lyrics. But at the same time, he promises much banter between songs. After all, the music might feel heavy at points, but Mars in person is jovial and chatty, as I discovered when we caught up via phone last week.

The Key: What’s it like working in a piano bar? How does that shape your approach as a performer?

Andrew Mars: Well, I have been working at a piano bar but it’s a temporary job. I’m filling in for a friend who’s been injured, and it also coincided with a time where I found myself unemployed – so thank goodness for the piano bar! But I’ve kind of always kept myself one foot in one foot out there, because my main focus is writing songs and creating sounds. And it’s a different kind of job – you’re there to serve the people that show up, you take requests mostly, although I do have a lot of songs – I play The Pixies, I play The Smiths, I play Bat for Lashes, The Blow, like things you wouldn’t expect to hear in a piano bar setting and occasionally there are only four or five people sitting around listening and it’s amazing.

And the experience of playing there has been really good for my songwriting because I had to learn the American Songbook and all of these things that I hadn’t previously been exploring. Or maybe I was even a little snobby about them, particularly Broadway. Like “oh I’m never going to play Broadway.” But you learn a lot about chord progression and structures doing it.

And then I had a lot of time on my hands and lot of crazy shit was going on in my life. People were dying, I was going through legal battles, it was just really intense and kind of crazy. I was in a band that broke up, I just felt like everything I had built up over the past four years fell so it was like a starting point. But I’m also an anthropologist, I’m a cultural anthropologist, so in a weird way the nugget of inspiration for the Public Privacy record was an anthropological study of a piano bar. That was like the seed of the idea. It grew into more as I started to create it and record it but that was the loose concept that I began writing with. It did kind of re-inspire my songwriting process, which is cool.

The Key: Your music exists in a few different ways – the recording, the iPhone source material and the way it’s played live. Can you talk about those contrasts?

AM: Well part of it was that I was indecisive about who I wanted to record the songs, and I had worked with Peter Richan at Buckeye Studios before, he had recorded the ballet project that I did with Rosie Langabeer, so he’s a great dude, he’s really great to work with, he’s there to be helpful, but it just wasn’t the right time to record with him. So I had in the back of my mind that I knew I wanted to make a record with Peter, and I also knew I wanted to make a live record of these songs, that piano bar atmosphere.

So in the back of my head I was thinking I’m going to make this record [on my own]…and it’s not even an iPhone it’s an android [laughs]. It’s like not a good phone, the screen is really cracked, it’s just not good. And I was just making field recordings because I started to become really obsessed with sound, like ambient sound, and I have a lot of recordings that ended up not being used, of me going on walks in philly, like I would start at my door, and I would walk from the Italian market to West Philly, and record the whole thing because I like field recordings.

Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel did a series of field recordings in india that are really cool to listen to. And I think he employed the same approach where he would just walk, so you’re hearing a lot of changing scenes, evolving scenes. Some of those things ended up on Public Privacy.

 

Andrew Mars of Settled Arrows | Photo by Dustyn Christofes | courtesy of the artist
Andrew Mars of Settled Arrows | Photo by Dustyn Christofes | courtesy of the artist

TK: How did you translate that to performing live?

AM: I was playing a lot of shows where it was just me and a piano and, yeah the record is really lush, so it was a really rewarding process psychologically because when I sit and play the piano, especially my own stuff, you can hear in your head these things, right? I’m working with the engineer Michael Hollier and I trusted him a lot to just let me have my vision. I would tell him “this is what we’re going to achieve” and then we would work on it together –it’s surprisingly rare, when you collaborate with people, to be given that kind of reign, so I finally have a record that is what I hear in my head when im just playing solo.

But the songs are really intimate, they’re stories, and a different kind of aspect comes out when there’s someone there listening and reacting. They become more conversational and less kind of abstract ideas. Like when you’re alone in a room you kind of have an idea of what they’re going to be but they come alive in the live context. So I knew I wanted to do both. And I also knew I wanted to work with Peter so it just kind of lined up, I convinced him that we should do this and he said yes.

The Key: Let’s talk about piano for a second. How did that become your instrument?

AM: Well I wouldn’t say it’s “my instrument,” I would say it’s my instrument for this project. I mean, who knows – I have some ideas about the next project – but I expect I’ll be singing more than anything. I think my primary instrument is my voice. And I taught myself how to play piano, so because I know so many musicians who are really good and trained, I almost feel like I shouldn’t say, it’s not my instrument really. It’s my therapeutic device. My grandmother had a piano when we were kids growing up, my family is kind of chaotic and weird so if I could lock myself in the room where the piano was I would. And the best feature, it’s like early reverb, the sustain pedal on the piano was my favorite.

TK: Oh god, totally, I used to lay into it in my house. Sometimes I would play songs, and sometimes I would just bang notes and listen to the sound.

AM: Exactly. It’s great to sing into the piano too, you hold the sustain pedal down and sing inside. Something about the resonance, there’s nothing else like it. Some engineers would say you could digitally recreate that, but I don’t know. There’s something about the piano resonating that’s really good.

So I’ve been using that as sound therapy since I was a kid, before I knew what that was. But I love the piano, it gives me images. A lot of people these days like to pretend they have synesthesia, but when I play piano in particular I get images in my head. And that’s how a lot of the Public Privacy songs happened. Like “White Carpet / Swimming Pool Light,” I was playing this piano riff over and over and I got this image of this woman who was chugging gin martinis and being mean to someone at a party. Being mean to her guests. And it’s a loose image, but I explored that more and that sort of became a song confronting my alcoholism essentially.

TK: The themes of the record feel very personal and specific but in a way that, you know, it’s not just about you. It could be even not about you at all, it could just be fictitious. They’re personal but in a way that rings true, that’s universal and relatable. I guess what I’m saying is you’re describing music as a therapeutic device, but you’re doing it in a way where you don’t have to just be you for people to listen to and respond.

AM: Yeah! It’s escapism, too – first and foremost, it’s escapism. But I, uh – I didn’t know if I was going to talk about this [laughs] – but do you know about astrology much?

TK: I don’t.

AM: I can’t believe that I do, I’m kind of embarrassed that I do, but so I’m a Scorpio, and my rising sign is Aquarius, and Aquarius is kind of like objectivity, unemotional objectivity, and Scorpio is pure emotion. And when I was 15 I read all this stuff about astrology and I’ve been kind of trying to get it out of my head ever since. I try to dive into really emotional stuff from a place of either humor or keeping your intellect intact.

And the songwriting process for this was like that. I’m trying to describe something that’s really tough, like dating someone for six years and realizing you hate them, and how do you deal with that process, like what is that like? Or people dying, I don’t know. So these kinds of things, I was just trying to explore them from an outside perspective. You have to keep your intellect intact when you’re going through this stuff to keep your sanity.

So it’s in the songs, and “Public Privacy” says it all kind of, in that I am being very open about my own life and I’m telling stories about my life, but the whole point is that I think that a lot of these things are really universal. And I think we’re in a place where we all have to think about how we communicate with each other, in general, it’s so much easier than it’s ever been but in ways it’s harder.

And also I think with social media, you can share whatever you want, and we are punishing each other for things we share on social media. But how do you talk about difficult things? In some ways there’s more instant community, because you can share something and people can respond and either they respond with “oh my god I’ve been through that too, I know what you’re going through” and they can share too. Or your sharing kind of threatens them somehow, like they have to silence you, or they have a differing opinion and they get to share it. And then that turns into either a really productive conversation or it becomes this strange kind of battle, and I think all of us have experienced this or do it on a regular basis. And I felt like it was time to address a lot of, ooohh, what’s going on here. Like “Why are we doing this?”

TK: Looking beyond the current album and the gig this weekend, you mentioned already looking ahead to the next project, what do you foresee that being?

AM: Rosie Langabeer has offered to be in my band, and I was like “yes, do that.” She’s one of my best friends, she’s one of the best musicians I know, she has a very fine ear, she’s hardworking, she’s amazing she’s a multi-instrumentalist.

And then my friend Jesse Sparhawk also just volunteered, like “hey can I be in your band.” He plays harp, he plays electric guitar. So I’m looking at the overlap between the three of us, like what we have as musical interests.

And then the next project, it’s kind of soon to talk about it, but with the things that are coming in I’m jokingly calling it “wisdom pop.” It’s similar to the Public Privacy stuff in general in that I want my lyrics to be accessible but really complex. I think they’ll be a little less conversational, I’m more interested in moving back in the direction I’ve been in for the past five years, like below the radar, doing more surrealist kind of things, something like Patti Smith meets Captain Beefheart.

But yeah, songs about tenderness, songs about clarity, the working title right now is Nectar, the nectar of the gods, and I’ve been studying a lot of plants, and how plants grow. There’s a lot of good metaphors for emotional life in plants and how they develop and how they take over territories.

But I have a background in classical music, I’m a conservatory dropout and I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about classical music because I’m kind of stubborn, and I taught myself, but I was paying all this money to people to try to learn things and then I’m realizing they’re teaching me stuff I already know, and I don’t really see the difference between an Erykah Badu song and like Hugo Colt or Gabriel Faure. I don’t see the difference. It’s tone to me, it’s tone and words, but the project coming up next is going be like how to do you plant baroque in R&B. So a little more playful.

And I think we’re going to improvise a lot too, because I miss improvising. Public Privacy was so structured, and so kind of like 1-4-5 in the chords, like very simple chords, so I’m more interested in pushing sonic stuff next, like what’s going on in your ear, more experimental. And I’d like to lighten up a little bit, because it’s been a rough patch for sure. I’d like my creative process to be more about fun.

Settled Arrows performs live this Friday, February 20th, at Buckeye Studios near 8th and Wharton in South Philadelphia. The show will be recorded for a live album, and ticket buyers will be messaged with the address; more information can be found at the show’s Facebook event page.

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