Primary Instrument: Guitar
Trey Anastasio likes to take measures into his own hands. The renowned singer/songwriter and genre defining guitarist took out his dissatisfaction with the major record label system by turning his passionate creativity into a platform for a business: Rubber Jungle Records, a record label built by Anastasio for Anastasio.
Rubber Jungle's maiden release is BAR 17, an album that continues his evolution as guitarist, songwriter and improvisationalist by creating a kaleidoscopic yet cohesive listening experience. Without the pressure of a multi-national conglomerate peeking over his shoulder, Anastasio was able to be completely himself on BAR 17: hard working, spontaneous and adventurous.
I felt completely unleashed for the first time while recording, he admits. For example, the song Dragonfly was completely done in real time; it was written and recorded that night as you hear it. Vocals were done from a stream of consciousness. I had nothing written down. I just grabbed the mike and started singing.
Anastasio also cites the album's title track as an example of new sense of freedom in the studio. Awhile back I did the original version on piano, laughs the guitarist. Then it disappeared when I recorded SHINE (Anastasio's 2005 release) but it stuck with me as it was and is really the music I wanted to make.
The genesis for what eventually became BAR 17 began three summers ago at The Barn, the former Vermont studio of Anastasio's former band, Phish. Anastasio along with producer Bryce Googin convened at the rustic hilltop retreat shortly after his legendary band's farewell performance. Said Anastasio of the experience, With a bunch of mikes set up, I just started singing and writing. Alone. For me, since I record a lot, I don't feel like I am making THE album but AN album, it's all a snapshot of what's taking place in my life, says Anastasio.
But unlike looking back at snapshots or reading an old diary, a song continues to create new memories, which lead Anastasio to look back and reflect on his not so distant past for inspiration-- in particular an experience in 2003 with Don Hart of the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Hart and Anastasio put together the movements for his orchestral Seis de Mayo set at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, an experience Anastasio considered a leap forward for himself as an artist.
I always figure you gotta go for it. You can't control the way things turn out but when you have an experience like that, you learn little tricks and skills that manifest themselves in much simpler ways in your life later on. This was one of those experiences for me and it definitely influenced this record.
Anastasios approach to lyrics on the release allows the rich harmonies of his guitar playing to breathe and in turn thrive. When you have those textures and harmonies, you have the possibility of conveying deeper emotions, which is the whole point of the album.
Over forty musicians lent their talents to BAR 17. Joining Trey in the studio were artists from all eras of his career including members of Phish and various incarnations of Trey's solo band, longtime collaborators John Medeski, percussionist Cyro Baptista and string arranger Don Hart, along with new friends Benevento/Russo Duo, singer Carmen Keegan (I Nine) and Joan Wasser (Dambuilders). Many had not recorded with Phish nor were they familiar with Anastasio's work. Working with musicians who weren't familiar with his music or history was a special experience.
It was great for me. They came in, we'd meet and then just play. It was freeing for me, because they didn't come into it with any pre-conceptions of what they thought I would want to hear or how I would want them to play.
Another track on the album that is special to Anastasio is Goodbye Head. His song writing collaborator on the track knows him better than any of the musicians on BAR 17 and in some ways perhaps better than Anastasio knows himself: his ten year old daughter Eliza.
Goodbye Head is what I am always trying to do: get out of my head and keep some perspective on life, says Anastasio. I explained that to Eliza, then she hit me with her line: Don't you know the stars in the sky /Might not even still be there/Cause it takes a thousand years, For the light to reach your eyes/From way up there in the big blue sky.
Like her father, the master-task-master and perfectionist, Eliza had to let her father know he was adding too much to her work. I was sitting there at the kitchen table with all these papers and she came by on her roller skates and points at me and said, 'Dad, you are singing it wrong.' I was putting an extra to beats in and she kept saying, 'That's not it. It should go like this!' he laughs.
Anastasio's take on the song is a familiar one, but he hears a different tune. Goodbye Head is a good example of the writing I used to do with Phish, but there's an emotional and storytelling quality to it. The melodies on the end and the lyrics tie into where I am now, as opposed to when I was twenty years old. It's stepping away from being complicated for the sake of being cool and or being different. It's using the available tools of harmony and texture, which convey deeper emotions.
Sometimes all it takes is to step outside of one's self to see where you are going and on BAR 17 Anastasio has reached higher ground with his artistic and human soul intact.
Sometimes it takes a ten year old to remind you of this and help appreciate, not only that you are here on this planet, but everything it has offer.