There’s a certain kind of delicate music that quickly divides listeners into distinct camps; we’re either enthralled by its ethereal melodies or utterly bored by the appalling infrequency of extended drum solos and full stacks of Marshall amplifiers. I happen to love acoustic music for its simplicity, candor, and occasional brilliance. But, I can see where the other guys are coming from and usually refrain from forcing the latest Neil Halstead solo project or Sufjan Stevens solo banjo tape on my friends and colleagues that favor music with a bit more oomph. Only occasionally does an artist come along that so perfectly transcends the framework of expectations for acoustic music that I feel moved (compelled, actually) to share his full catalog with everyone I meet on the street, regardless of their musical inclinations. This happened with DIY savant Damien DeRose, known as Peasant.
I get the sense, listening to Peasant’s songs, that he’s experienced life more completely than I have, and that my best hope at redemption is to absorb his music so thoroughly that I vicariously benefit from the flood of emotional wisdom that pours out from every word he sings. Then again, to say that Damien DeRose took “the road less traveled” in this life would be a gross understatement. He began his education at an experimental school that embraced a profoundly unorthodox style of education. He and his classmates spent their days going for walks, taking care of farm animals, and fashioning their own pens from feather quills. Fortunately for us, this unconventional curriculum included enormous amounts of group singing, with a repertoire that consisted primarily of traditional folk songs (I knew I heard traces of that “high lonesome sound”). During his adolescent years DeRose compiled an arsenal of instruments, beginning with piano and violin, then moving to drums, guitar, bass, banjo, and harmonica. He spent his high school years, like many budding musicians of our fine generation, playing Weezer covers in shitty rock bands. Then, in what must have seemed like a crushing blow at the time, he was kicked out of school and cut loose to forge his own path. This unexpected and unsought freedom very likely served as the greatest possible boon to his development as a songwriter. The period that followed was a rough one, wrought with what in retrospect might be construed as adventure. He moved to California and bought a sailboat with a friend, but the boat sunk (was sunk, actually, by sea lions) before it ever saw open ocean. So he traveled around the US and Europe, collecting whatever inspiration the world had to offer. De Rose came out on the other side of this adventure seasoned, but also very much affected by the daily grind of forging one’s own existence at an age when the majority of his peers were most concerned with what to wear at the next college social–so much so that he gave himself the humble stage name Peasant. Having been on the receiving end of too many $7/hr day jobs, broken relationships, and chance encounters, Peasant bears the weight of the world on his shoulders, and his songs are perfect capsules of emotion, contained and conveyed by a musical impulse that’s nothing short of brilliant.
When we spoke on the phone, Peasant said he writes “songs about feelings that produce those feelings.” Songs to inspire love, to incite hatred, to send a confident man to the depths of self-loathing and then draw him back again. This is one of the greatest accomplishments of high art, and while many an artist might make this claim, Peasant undoubtedly succeeds. The songs on this 7-inch are both home-recording ventures, forged over many months in an attic in DeRose’s home town of Doyleston, PA. They’re recorded with the kind of compulsive attention that’s impossible in a formal recording studio. Every sound is meticulously captured, adjusted, re-recorded, mixed, re-mixed, and scrutinized. The soundscape’s layered without being lush; the end result is both decidedly unique and perfectly suitable to the dreamy melancholy of Peasant’s music. I’m tempted to make comparisons to Elliot Smith and Brian Wilson, but Peasant’s music isn’t so easily reduced to the sum of its influences.
A-side “The Distance” evokes the same world of aimlessness and isolation as Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”. It’s the perfect snapshot of your long lost older brother, sitting alone on the back seat of a bus like a still frame from some unmade Wes Anderson remake of Into The Wild. It’s about losing people–not to death or depravity, but to the simple distractions and the natural dispersion of a normal life. He sings,
“I’ve been walking in the city and wandering far away. I’ve been falling through the fields and hiding every day. I’ve been holding onto everything, all that I have. I’m hoping I can come out the other side. Been sleeping in the moonlight, and running through the days. Been waiting for the troubles to go away.
Where have you been my lover? Where have you gone, my friends? Fading through the distance of each other. What have we done, my brother? Have we all gone away? I’m listening to the distance of the past.”
A simple two chord progression sends the song on a steady trajectory from the onset, each change propelling listeners one step further on some gradually unfolding journey. Like DeRose said, it’s a song about distance that induces the perception of distance in anyone within earshot. What a trick. The arrangement is complex but so delicately balanced that it’s possible to listen through the song without fully hearing the dozens of overdubbed parts that DeRose weaves through the basic framework of guitar and vocals. There are multiple keyboards, layered vocal harmonies, and even some figures that sound a bit like backwards tape loops (around 1:45). It all blends into a sonic stew, with DeRose’s voice in the forefront as the most prominent ingredient. It’s delicate but not fragile, sensitive but not overly expressive. It’s earnest. This isn’t a song written by someone so overly-conscious of songwriting as to do anything to deliberately subvert the tradition. That said, he isn’t merely following in tow either; it’s a refreshing mixture of truly original composition and deeply personal expression.
A hollow piano and relaxed snare usher in B-side “Well Alright,” another tune based on a repeated two chord progression. It doesn’t do much to start, but just as I’d normally began to reach towards that skip button, DeRose enters with the line, “You tell me that I look like I’m gone when I’m around” and the song launches into an anthem for dissatisfied couples (if dissatisfied couples even have anthems…I guess it’s like having “our song” but instead of nuzzling you just sit in cold silence). Like on “The Distance,” “Well Alright”’s main hook is achieved by introducing new harmonic movement to the mix in conjunction with a higher vocal melody. To the extent that it’s a formula, it’s a formula for success. At one point DeRose sings, “I’m trying to find the answers in myself, I’m trying to find the reasons in my head, I don’t wanna drift away the days.” There’s a resonance here with “The Distance” in so much as Peasant is very clearly on a search. Though he’s settled down since his post-high school excursions, he’s embarked upon a new exploration–more mature perhaps, but more difficult to complete. It’s the inevitable dichotomy between living a stationary life while making creative and intellectual progress, all the while sustaining those vital personal connections forged in the preceding decades. It ain’t easy, but if the broader search for that perfect balance does indeed continue for Damien DeRose, he can rest assured that he’s created something special in the music presented on this 7-inch. If you’re looking for more Peasant, his latest LP Shady Retreat is out March 2nd on Paper Garden Records.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem071/01 The Distance.mp3
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem071/02 Well Alright.mp3