Petworth is more than porches, it's an amazing diversity of background, skills, age and talent. One of the people who help shape the cultural fabric of Petworth is Bill Crandall. Bill has lived in Petworth for over a decade, and has long thought of ways to help encourage the creativity in our neighborhood. That effort starts at his home, with his own art.
An award-winning photographer, a writer, a teacher and a long-time musician, Bill is no stranger to creative work. Bill created the original Petworth News blog years ago, and has been involved in countless projects to promote communication and creativity. He played guitar with Dot Dash, a DC indie band, on three albums, and is friends with some other rather large bands in DC. As an artist, he wanted to do his own music project, and the band Místochord was born. The band is primarily Bill and it's an expression of his photography and his music, on a new album called New World Voyage.
The album is Bill's creative vision, and was created in collaboration with his friend Sean Winters, who plays a variety of instruments on the music and visual concept project.
The album tangentially tells the story of an astronaut crew headed to another planet, and the journey they experience. Yet the concept is much larger than a "space voyage," it's the inner turmoil each feels on the unknown journey. It's more about the mystery of the experience than any of the details.
"People have to be able to project their own thoughts and imaginings into it," Bill said, in talking with me about the album.
Beyond Elon Musk's assertion that we need to be on multiple planets to save ourselves from extinction, the story is the question of why go to Mars? Why not here... and what happens to a person's mind on the long trip to the red planet?
“Are we really so irredeemable,” Bill said to WAMU in a June interview, “that we are reduced to putting our hopes in a planet that offers literally nothing of what we need?”
"To me, a lot of the talk about space, and Mars in particular, is nihilism masquerading as idealism," Bill said when we spoke. "It's people saying we better make a Plan B. But the paradise is here. Yes we have a lot of problems, but we can't give up on Plan A. Inching towards that kind of resignation that things are going badly -- let's fix it. Here is so much better!"
New World Voyage does not have to be experienced as a complete story as you progress through the album, the songs stand alone. Together, along with the large digital booklet of photographs and text that accompanies it, the album is reachable both from a song-to-song approach, or sitting down and listening from start to finish.
That 43-page booklet is an important part of the story of New World Voyage. As much as the album is about music, it's about the full visual and aural experience, about putting yourself into the mind of the characters.
Bill described the album on his Facebook page recently, "The music can be imagined as the songs of the crew, a kind of real-time soundtrack to their experience. It’s my music, though there are a few ‘redux’ versions by my collaborator Sean Winters, who certainly took me up on my offer to do what he wanted with the material, to sabotage, to go as far as he wanted in re-imagining things. (Sean's 'For ZP Redux' is one of my favorite moments of the whole album.)"
New World Voyage is not yet on iTunes, but you can buy it from Bandcamp.
"It will be, but I wanted to plant the 'DIY flag' on Bandcamp first. It's a cooler platform, and in principle, they're indy-minded and a no-nonsense platform. iTunes is sort of a hot mess right now, I think. The main problem is the digital booklet, it's pretty sizable. They'll take it, but many of the companies that help you get on iTunes don't like dealing with digital booklets. iTunes requires one specific size of digital booklet, which would mean I'd have to redesign it. And I wanted to put it out the way I originally wanted it to look. But I am, slowly, redesigning it for iTunes."
The name Místochord is a word Bill made up to represent his new creative endeavors, both photographic and musical; it wasn't only for the band or music project.
"I saw something about made up words, and came across the word petrichor, or 'the smell of rain after a dry-spell.' Someone made up this word to mean that smell, and I thought it was cool. It was right about the time I was coming up a business entity for all my creative work, whether it's music or photography. I tried to think of a compound word that would have something to do with the work I'm doing, reflecting what it has in common -- a sensitivity and connection to place. I think a lot of my work has an element of that in different forms. I spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe and I spoke some Czech, used the Czech word, místo ("meesto"), which means place, so it's kind of like 'place-chord' or place with resonance."
When not making music, being with his family or exploring the world around him, Bill teaches black and white darkroom photography to high schoolers at the Maret School (Woodley Park, 3000 Cathedral Ave NW). Old school film is how he started in photography years ago. He worked as a freelance photo for 15 years, doing documentary and photojournalism work for outlets like the Washington Post, the New York Times and European media.
"I've always done my own personal projects on the side, like my book on Belarus, The Waiting Room; no one paid me to go do that. Now, I'm working on a second photography book on DC neighborhoods. Surrealistic vignettes on the neighborhoods, a documentary of DC in a fairy-tale, semi-abstract way. They're pictures of the city, but little more of a poetic approach." (The Waiting Room is available at Upshur Street Books.)
"It's symbolic that the New World Voyage project has a music and photo component," Bill said. "A lot of the work I'm doing is coming from the same place. They used to be very separate things, and I felt like I had to choose between them. I put music aside completely for many years, and even when I played with Dot Dash, it was separate. In a lot of ways, this album comes from the same creative touch stones as almost anything I do. The sound is very different than anything I've done before, the pictures are very different, but in a lot of ways they're from the same creative source. And the way they interrelate and play with each other is really interesting and exciting for me to work on."
"In some ways, this is the most fully formed, creative thing I've ever done."
The collaboration with Sean Winters was done over Dropbox, with Bill and Sean sharing music files back and forth as Sean added tracks and mixes, and Bill added layers of music and vocals. The vocal tracks, something that Bill at first felt unsure about, are a unique sound and were something of a revelation for Bill, who had more experience as a backup or harmony singer, and not the lead singer. Yet on New World Voyage, his voice, sung at a higher pitch than his speaking voice, works so well. It adds to the ethereal feel of the album, giving the album a depth that supports the futuristic tale of voyagers lost and found.
Bill plays most of the instruments on the album, with Sean collaborating on the mixing and playing some of the other instruments, such as the flugelhorn. While using reverb and different effects to give the album the resonance Bill was seeking, the album's sound feels natural (in a Bon Iver way) and unforced. Bill has taken Místochord to a few other venues since the album launched this summer, and has created a visual and sound experience for audiences to connect to the music and imagery.
> Experience the voyage for free at the Third Floor
Místochord is having a listening party at the Third Floor this Sunday, November 20th at 7pm as a free show (4200 9th St NW). Bill will play the album while images from the book will be projected onto the wall, giving a cinematic feel for the audience to experience.
Bill Crandall - vocals, guitars, midi, synth pads, bass, ukulele
- keyboards, trumpet, flugelhorn, Ableton/MaxForLive
- redux versions of Say Goodbye, Sea, For ZP, Old Time
Mike Fanuele - percussion elements
Will Breytspraak - keyboard on Feel
Michelle Escumbise - clarinet on Sea
Joe Kelly - bass on Love Again
Produced and mixed by Mike Fanuele
Lavabed Recording, Mt Rainier MD
Mastering by Kim Rosen, Knack Mastering
Drawings by Sofia Crandall