Primary Instrument: Piano
At the tail end of Winter Cycle, the stark and melancholy 2010 solo piano EP by My Shadow and I a unique sonic concept developed by multi-talented musician and songwriter Brad Podraythere is a brief burst of sweeping orchestral optimism called “Bliss (End of the Winter Cycle).” This whimsical minute and a half piece is the perfect segue into the latest season of My Shadow and I: the melodic, richly textured, film score lush Summer Cycle, a full length recording released on Podray’s uniquely monikered independent label, Nonexistent Recordings.
Podray penned the eclectic ten track collection as a chronicle of the powerful transitions and emotional breakthroughs that come months after the heartbreaking but necessary end of a relationship. Summer Cycle’s overriding theme of emergence matches that of Podray’s increasing presence as a force in contemporary instrumental music after years of eclectic performing and recording experiences in numerous other genresamong them, industrial metal, “Pirate rap,” alt rock and down tempo trip hop. While the Florida born, Philadelphia based musician’s rock influences range from Beethoven to Nine Inch Nails, his chief inspirations for his solo piano and electronic/symphonic works are Brian Eno, Danny Elfman and famed new age pianist David Lanz, whose encouraging words about the Eno-influenced self titled My Shadow and I debut led Podray to further develop his vision in this genre.
“That conversation with David played a key part of my decision to continue on this path,” says Podray, who began playing the piano at age 10. “In some ways, I began composing this style of music as a subtle way to pay homage to David, whose piano compositions I played as a child. I even won a youth talent competition playing his song ‘Dark Horse.’ A lot of the music I play in the other groups I have been with is pessimistic, snarky and based a lot on humor. Composing on piano and texturing with orchestral, percussion, ethnic instruments and other sounds allows me to express a deeper sense of emotion and a more optimistic side of myself. It allows me to reach audiences who may find my other music too odd, abrasive and peculiar.”
The pianist/composer has several takes on why he calls this side of his artistry My Shadow and I: “I always liked being in bands with other guys, and when I compose this music, I feel like I’m still collaborating, only the partner is my shadow; The idea is that I’m writing with myself. As I’ve become exposed to new music, there are so many artists and composers who have touched me that their impact is almost like having another band member. They’re part of the shadow as well. Another aspect of the shadow is the echo of myself as a little kid who told everyone that I was going to be a musician. I’d tell any adult that I wanted to someday be a crazy concert musician playing Carnegie Hall. A pivotal moment happened when I was about 12 and my parents sent me to the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. For the first time, I saw kids who could play circles around me. It was a humbling experience that shadows and motivates me to this day.”
Podray had his hands full academically and creatively when sat down at his keyboard in 2009 to create the first My Shadow and I project. Having just graduated from dental school at the University of Pennsylvania, his days were consumed with his orthodontic residency at Temple University in his adopted home town of Philadelphia. At night, he let loose in two very unique bands, the pirate rap group Captain Dan and the Scurvy Crew and the downtempo trip-hop ensemble Echo Slightlyboth with his best friend from high school and longtime musical collaborator Daniel Dolan. Podray had recorded numerous albums with those and other groups over the past few years (15 in all!), and even released three discs by the indie band Finding Jupiter on his label. But looking ahead, he spent his rare down time creating music he could one day use to soothe patients when he launched his own practice as an orthodontistwhich he did in late 2010.
By that time, he had independently released Winter Cycle, most of whose pieces were composed about the impending end and then the aftermath of a relationship. Its piano-heavy focus reflects what he calls a sad time in his life. While the piano is still a dominant melodic voice of Summer Cycle, the project’s deeper, more evolved production textures are one of the ways Podray creates a healing, optimistic counterpoint to the stark heartbreak of winter.
“There is a definite mood transition from where I was when I wrote Winter Cycle and now,” he says. “The final track ‘Bliss’ is definitely out of character from the rest of that EP, but I was feeling great by then and wanted to add a short, happy orchestral coda as something of a promise as to what was to come. The overall concept is one of emergence and each song is like a snapshot of a good day. I would always start with a single instrument as a foundation, say the piano or cello or random string from an ethnic instrument and build from there. I liked to use these world music touches to convey a sense of traveling. I would play that beginning sound on my keyboard until I found a melodic line I really liked and from there would experiment to see what would sound good layered over it.”
“The texturing elements depend completely on the specific mood of the song,” Podray adds. “So on one of those ‘travel’ pieces, ‘Taken Higher Up,’ for instance, I wanted an over the top, uplifting vibe with drums and lush strings to capture a sense of transcendence. Other songs that needed a more serene setting required simpler piano and a single percussive line. On certain tunes, several different drum lines complement one another. I might pick up a conga at mid range and introduce the symphony element at low range, and then modulate from there.”
The arrangement of the songs and their titles on Summer Cycle convey the pianist’s desire to create an emotional arc. The summer starts out in a vibrant way, full of life and exciting possibilities and as the season progresses, just a bit of cynicism creeps back in. The set launches with the classical influenced, soaring filmic splendor of “Taken Higher Up,” introduces a hypnotic piano melody, dense percussion and mystical effects on “More Optimism” and engages in elegant, dreamy and increasingly dramatic orchestral “Conversations” offset at certain points by a touch of acoustic guitar. Podray captures more of the travel aspect on “Wavecrest” with the blend of exotic percussion, tabla, sitar and wordless vocals fronting a soaring orchestral vibe, which takes the listener “To The Great,” which features swirling dark piano chords, marching percussion and more film score-like string flair.
After that emotional pinnacle, the mood s swings down towards “A Sour Sweet,” which blends mysterious synth footprints, sparse exotic percussion and a hypnotic piano motif into an infectious new age fusion. “We Suppose,” a wistful piano driven number, is followed by a tremendous “Din” of haunting strings with a violin solo, piano harmony and deep percussion textures. “Unwither” is a haunting piano piece featuring a high toned melody contrasted with low tone harmony, while “Costly” wraps the set with a touch of drama and whimsy via a swirl of piano, synth and hypnotic percussion.
Even as Summer Cycle begins rolling out, Podray is working on another ambitious project under the name Maximalism a concept he calls the more aggressive version of My Shadow and I, with high energy distorted guitars and even more synthesizers. His is a constantly flowing creative musical mind that has no boundaries or simple genres to get entangled in for long. “My Shadow and I and Maximalism are solo projects that show a different side of my personality,” he says. “One is calm yoga-type music while the other finds me going as crazy as I can get. With both projects, I love being able to fill a sonic space without having to figure out where to fit the words in.”
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