Carsie Blanton spent eight years in Philadelphia – the longest, the Virginia-born songwriter says, that she’s lived in one place as an adult. She arrived here as a teenager, forged strong and lasting connections with the local songwriting community, played a key role in developing the city’s swing & blues dancing scene, and just generally won our hearts with her captivating warble, her sprightly metaphors and her signature flower-adorned curls.
But to anyone who knows the woman or her music, it’s far from a surprise that we would eventually lose her – as we did about five years back – to New Orleans: the unofficial national capital of pleasure, hedonism and liberated, vibrantly creative living. Blanton is a longstanding and outspoken champion for all of the above – her blog contains many compelling, passionately argued essays on these and similar subjects (sex, art, feminism, etc.) – but perhaps never more emphatically (or more tunefully) than on her crackerjack new record, So Ferocious.
Not so much a concept album as a vivid, unabashed musical manifesto, it is, as she encapsulates it: “about pleasure and play, and also the feeling of liberation from expectations: being who you are, doing what brings you pleasure, and not being held back by peoples’ expectations or requirements of you.” That point of view informs not only the songs themselves – the tender, pro-casual love anthem “Lovin’ is Easy”; the frisky, feel-good sexual empowerment stomper “Ravenous”; the teasing, childlike kiss-off “Fat and Happy” – but also the process of making the record.
Instead of cramming the sessions into a few days at “a high-end studio with all the bells and whistles,” as she’s done in the past, Blanton and her band set up shop in the Haddonfield, NJ basement studio of the Figgs’ Pete Donnelly for close to a month – “a real luxury: plenty of time.” She was inspired by what she calls the “creative abandon” of the Supremes and, especially, the Beatles, whose discography she’d recently revisited while on tour. “It didn’t sound like they were trying to make hits, or even trying to be really deep. They’re just playing, and I think that really affected my approach: I wanted to go into the studio and play; to be really focused and really lighthearted at the same time.” Heading into the sessions, she says, “I wanted to get a certain emotional tone, but I didn’t focus on trying to get certain sounds. I was more open in the studio than I have ever been before. I wasn’t attached to any particular instrumentation, but I was attached to creating this sense of pleasure and play – whatever I’m enjoying and whatever sounds really pleasurable to me, that’s what I want to follow.”
The result is an album she says is the fullest expression yet of her own particular musical voice – as well as the album she’s had the most fun making. She describes it as “a happy synthesis” of all that she’s done before: the sweetly jazzy folk-pop and Americana of her early records, the harder-rocking Idiot Heart (2012) and 2014’s Not Old, Not New, a surprisingly straight-ahead set of jazz standards. Like much of Blanton’s music (not to mention her vintage-leaning fashion sense), the album has a sort of generalized throwback feel – you can hear echoes of Motown, Dixieland jazz, ‘50s pop and R&B, even a touch of ‘80s new wave – without hearkening to any one era too specifically. Blanton’s lyrics involve some similarly retro-styled playacting: the swaggering woman-power strut “Vim and Vigor,” notably, declares “this ain’t 1954“ before proceeding to resurrect such old-fangled phraseology as ”moxie,” “doxy” and “foxy.” Another song’s reference to the “dirty south,” meanwhile, is jarring at first blush, but then makes perfect sense.)
Besides the Big Easy’s clear spiritual and musical influences (and its presence as an explicit character in several of the songs), Ferocious is also a New Orleans album in a very literal sense: the first and last sounds you hear on it (and several others in between) are ambient field recordings Blanton made in her new hometown. “I live in the Treme neighborhood, which is a really noisy, great-sounding neighborhood. I set up a mike in my backyard for like a week, and if I heard anything interesting I’d turn it on. You can hear steamboats and traffic and chickens and birds and dogs barking – all of that is just my neighbors.” And then there are the parades. “On Mardi Gras, I walked around the city with a mic in my pocket and captured a lot of Mardi Gras sounds, and I layered all those sounds together. I ended up getting a recording of Rebirth [Brass Band] playing down the block from my house in a parade. I didn’t even know it was Rebirth, I just ran and turned the mike on because the band sounded really good, and then I had to call a bunch of neighbors to figure out who was playing in that parade.”
That fortuitous (and ingeniously incorporated) sample turns up in “Hot Night”, the opening track and one of the first songs written for the album. A vivid representation of a certain fragrant, feverish, in-tune-with-the-world summertime mind-state, it sketches the scene – sticky, sleepless, solitary – before swelling into a resounding rallying cry for (as she likes to say) “muffin-hearted libertines”: “Ain’t nobody gonna live it for ya/You’ve gotta feel it.” An airy, delectably swinging counterpoint to the oppressive steamy heat it so nimbly depicts, the song is both an ideal accompaniment and antidote to the kind of summer we’ve been having here in Philly, to say nothing of points south. Fingers crossed the heatwaves will have finally broken by the time Carsie comes back home for her Boot and Saddle gig on Saturday – if not, though, her songs should help remind us to glean some pleasure from the swelter.
Article & Interview by: Ross Hoffman
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