In what now seems like another life, I used to manage the Postcrypt Coffeehouse in the basement of St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University. The venue has a storied history of performers, including Simon & Garfunkel, Suzanne Vega, and Jeff Buckley, but its real flair is making the everyday singer-songwriters that drift in and out seem as magical as these legendary musicians. Its bare rock walls, peeling wooden tables, and sturdy candelabras dripping with wax create an atmosphere of intense intimacy. No amplification or electricity of any kind is allowed. A small plaque on the wall reads “Maximum Capacity: 35,” which may have even been an optimistic assessment. It was, and remains, a truly special place, one of those increasingly rare nooks that provide New Yorkers with a complete escape from the chaos of upper Manhattan. It’s there that I first met Zeb Gould.
When you’ve spent the last two years listening to folk music every Friday and Saturday, you come to expect that a certain percentage of the performances are fueled largely by strong emotions and good intentions. Every once in a while someone arrives with decent chops, but by and large it’s a silent competition to see who can make the most of three chords and recycled folk motifs. Then one evening Zeb Gould showed up with his 12 string guitar, and changed my perception of what I even thought possible for a performance of this magnitude. I felt as though John Fahey and Neil Young, in an effort to simultaneously squeeze through the door of our minuscule club, had somehow fused into a single inimitable force of virtuosic playing and nuanced composition. Zeb Gould seemed to have come from nowhere, and I was completely floored. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Years later, his albums are still in regular rotation at Ampeater HQ, and I’m only now unraveling the mystery of what’s gone into Gould’s development as a musician. Mostly self taught, he apparently honed his chops in college on Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges, and the aforementioned John Fahey, and went on to work as an archivist for Philip Glass. If I were making a musical recipe for Zeb Gould, I might have forgot to add a dash of Philip Glass, but it now seems to obvious and so essential to Gould’s approach to composition, that I’m almost embarrassed to have missed it. His explorations in Glass’s studio produced his solo album “All of the Morningbirds,” and earned Gould opening spots with Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Kim Ritchie, and Sue Garner. His follow-up album “Stalk That Myth” was released under the name Bowery Boy Blue, and this became Gould’s permanent vessel for touring and further releases. His side projects include work with the Monika Jalili Persian music ensemble, and compositions for the White Wave Dance Company in Brooklyn, New York.
I’m not one to argue for the purity of folk music–it’s supposed to represent the confluence of influences in any given culture, and the American mixing pot provides an incredible range of inspiration. It’s not surprising to learn that Gould has collaborated on projects with choreographers–his sense of soundscape, of creating a self-contained emotional space within each song, is extraordinary, and recommends itself in combination with other media, be it dance, cinema or visual art. I’m reminded of Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters) and Neil Halstead (Mojave 3) in his delicate approach to songwriting. A-Side “A Day at the Firelakes” is a magnificent introduction Gould’s art. There’s a space to it, even an emptiness. Originally written as the title track for an unpublished album, this is its first official release. Sam Crawford and Megan Gould join Zeb on piano and violin, and float atop the song with restrained melodic figures that quietly enforce harmonic ideas outlined by Gould’s vocals. His style of singing is characteristically fragile, and its pleasantly nasal tone achieves in a single voice the kind of balance between strength and quietude that’s normally achieved by a male/female duo singing in harmony. I’ve been told that music has the ability to “transport” the listener in an almost literal sense, but I’ve never fully felt this to be true until I heard “A Day at the Firelakes”. It’s impossible for me to get past the first piano note without being sucked into the world of song that Gould’s meticulously constructed. I find myself going back, again and again, just to enter this space and revel in it. It gives me a kind of peace above and beyond any rational musical explanation.
Side B “The Theft of Light” was written specifically for this 7-inch, with the thought in mind that it should both contrast with and compliment “A Day at the Firelakes”. Gould pulled the title from a Tsimshian Indian tale explaining the origins of daylight. He recalls, “I was struck by the phrase and it seemed, in some intangible way, to fit with the music, so I put the two together.” As much as Gould owes a debt of influence to the various fingerstyle guitarsmiths that have come before him, his approach to the genre is entirely refreshing. Though he’s kind enough to orient listeners with an open bass note every 8 beats or so, his picking pattern on “The Theft of Light” is deftly syncopated, and gives one the feeling of being propelled through the song, carried atop a wave of sound. While his predecessors have drawn largely on the American tradition of blues and folk for compositional inspiration, Gould’s songs are inflected with an almost Balkan harmonic influence, which I suspect might actually be Persian, drawn from his work with the Monika Jalili ensemble. The syncopation reminds me of an Irish reel that’s been cut adrift without its foor-on-the-floor backbeat, and there are undoubtedly further global influences at work here that I can’t even begin to grasp. Meanwhile, the 12 string guitar is producing so much sound, and with such a rich intensity, that as a listener I’m inclined to ignore the usual considerations of melody, harmony, and rhythm in favor of a broad appreciation of the song’s intricate texture.
Gould’s music has universal appeal. That’s not to say that it’s universally liked, but rather that it’s universally likable. There’s something about it that wholly transcends its roots in American traditional genres and communicates successfully in a language that need not be translated into any other for one to immediately grasp its poignant and beautiful essence. Ampeater’s readers include citizens of Iran, New Zealand, Malaysia, Albania, Iceland, Estonia, and Turkey. To all of you around the globe, I’m honored to serve as the musical ambassador to Zeb Gould. I hope his music works its way into your thoughts the way it did mine, and brings you the same lasting joy.
A Day at the Firelakes
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem132/01 A Day at the Firelakes.mp3
The Theft of Light
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem132/02 The Theft of Light.mp3