In this installment of “One Song” I talk to Joshua Britt and Zach Bevill of The Farewell Drifters about their song Modern Age, the opening track from their new album Tomorrow Forever, which is being released January 28, 2014. The Farewell Drifters play intricately crafted, melodically memorable songs that feature lush layers of vocal harmonies and mostly acoustic instruments, along with electric guitar. The resulting sound is natural but polished, a seamless blend of folk and pop. I got a chance to talk to Joshua and Zach before their show at The Evening Muse in Charlotte a couple weeks before the release of the album.
Joshua Britt, who plays mandolin and sings backup vocals for the band, wrote Modern Age, and Zach Bevill, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, helped to finish it. The other full-time members of The Farewell Drifters are lead guitarist Clayton Britt and bassist Dean Marold.
The song Modern Age is set on New Year’s Day, and Joshua actually started writing it on New Year’s Day two years ago, but it took a long time to complete.
“I’m a really slow writer. It takes a long time to call something finished. We work together on songs and kind of finish them together. This is one of those that sort of took a long time. I keep the recordings and I have something like 200 recordings of this song that are slightly varied.”
I ask them what kind of things change during that process. Do they add things and take them away?
“More just kind of screwing around with the arrangement, I think,” Joshua says, “We do that a lot.”
Zach says, “He showed me the song and I remember being like ‘Well I really think the bridge should be the chorus and the chorus should be the bridge.’ We flipped it around. What you know as the chorus was the bridge the first time he played it for me. It’s just little things like that.”
The bridge comes near the end, with the lyrics: This year’s our year. Not a soul can take it away. This year’s our year. Thank God it’s here to stay.
Joshua says, “(The bridge) is my favorite part. I was pretty much trying it every way in the world and couldn’t get over the fact that I liked it the best. I thought it was cool to make it the big moment at the end. It’s building up to that.”
“The bridge is where you lay it all out there and say what the song’s actually about. That’s what a bridge is to me,” Zach adds.
Lyrically and musically the song reflects both the barrenness of winter and the hope of a new year. The first thing we hear as the song starts is a sort of “whoosh” sound, like wind sweeping across the land, followed by chimes.
Joshua says, “We were kind of going for the feel of the winter.”
Zach tells how the sound was found by accident, and then enhanced in the studio.
“I was in my house after the first day of recording. I was home doing laundry and I heard this sound and there were four glass jars on my dryer rattling. They were up against each other rattling because the dryer was shaking when it was on. And I was like ‘that sounds cool.’ So I used my iPhone, just the standard voice recorder on the iPhone, and recorded it. And then took it into the studio the next day and added the chimes to it and made the pitch do the thing where it makes that whooshing sound.
“That was something we definitely knew we wanted to do on this song. It set the stage for the writing of the record but it also set the stage for the recording of a lot of the record too, as far as using the studio as a creative tool, getting in there and doing some fun stuff.”
Listen to Modern Age as well as two other songs, and download them for free from Noisetrade:
A careful listener can hear more of the studio creativity later in the song as well.
Zach continues, “We did a thing on the second verse of the song where we recorded Josh playing a mandolin part that was not in the song. It was just sort of a made up figure that went with the tonality of the song. And then ran it through a bunch of effects like tape echo and delay and reversed it, and it was like all this stuff piling on top of each other. It creates an ambient bed of, it’s not noise, but of music. A high-pitched ambient sound you can hear in the second verse. We were interested in exploring that kind of stuff, like how to take a mandolin and make it something that you can’t even distinguish what it is, but that works in a song.”
Joshua says, “That’s something that people (usually) would do on keyboards electronically, but we wanted to do it very organically. And you can tell in the sound that someone’s playing that with their hands. We also put some mandolins in it so you can tell you’re listening to the mandolin. It’s behind the mandolins. There’s a lot of that stuff on the whole record. There’s some bizarre messing around and exploring on the whole record. A lot of it didn’t make it but a lot of it did.”
I ask them if they had experimented like this in the studio for their other albums or if this was a change.
Zach says, “This was definitely the first time that we embraced it in that strong of a way. Before, we’d always gone a little more of the documentation route. You record the band as they played the song and that’s the bulk of what you hear. And then, we worked with Neilson Hubbard on our last record, Echo Boom, and he had a few ideas to add. A few little things that we ended up really liking, but they were really minor.”
Joshua says, “Those became our favorite parts.”
“It opened a door,” Zach says. They decided that for the next record they’d just “get in there and do some really fun stuff and do whatever we want.”
Set against the backdrop of the barren winter, lyrically the song makes a case for hope. It starts: In the month of January / We can live in the modern age / Wake up and clear our conscience / Leave it all on New Year’s day.
I tell them that the general vibe I get from the song is one of hope and optimism.
Joshua says, “That was our goal. Sort of the theme of the album has been brokenness and trying to find hope. The album cover itself, I don’t know if you’ve seen it. Our bass player’s brother did this big art project in Iceland. He put LED windmills on the side of a mountain.”
Zach explains, “The windmills spin around when the wind blows. The faster it goes the brighter it gets. So you can see the wind sweep across this huge valley. He does all these big installations across the world but this was the first one with the windmills and the whole concept was bringing light into dark places.”
“Iceland’s dark like eight months of the year and he was bringing light to the darkness and for some reason that just hits me. As a writer that’s the idea. That’s what I want to do,” Joshua says.
For more images of Patrick Marold’s art installations, visit patrickmarold.com
Joshua describes Modern Age as the song that serves as inspiration, both in sound and theme, for the rest of the album. It’s about searching for hope.
“Especially as a band where you’re putting art out there and you really don’t know if anyone cares. You always have to create your own hope and create your own excitement. For musicians it’s easy to get jaded and not have any hope and feel super-dark, and that’s never been appealing to me as a musician. I’ve always wanted to be super-pumped, to be excited about every single thing.”
Zach says, “But you don’t want to pretend like everything’s great if it’s not. Our hope is just to be real. And I think ultimately we’re hopeful people but we’re not trying to ignore the crap too.”
“This song is kind of like an attempt to say you can’t change the world but you can at least be hopeful,” Joshua says.
I say, “You have a line that’s like ‘the world is spinning but you’re going with it.’”
Joshua quotes the line. “This year we’re gonna turn with it. “
“Instead of turning against it,” I say.
Can you feel that the world is turning / Moving out from beneath our feet / This year we’re gonna turn with it / The modern age to a whole new beat
Joshua says, “You feel like everybody’s got something figured out that I don’t. That’s the feeling I had at the time and I’m just gonna spin with it.”
I ask Joshua in what sense he’s thinking of the modern age.
“At the time I was thinking I was not caught up to everybody, everyone was living too fast. “
“Fast in what respect?”
“Just finding their goals met and getting to where they wanted to be in love and in relationships. I felt like I was doing the same things that people were doing but I wasn’t having the feelings that everyone was having about it. It sort of bothered me about this Facebook culture. You experience something and then you put a picture up online and now you’ve proved that you did it, and now you can move on. I want to live in this world but I don’t want to take a picture. And that’s what that whole ‘Our lives are more than photos in boxes’ is about. (Which is kind of funny because I still have photos in a bunch of boxes. I still print off stuff a lot.) I want to experience it and live the life and feel it, rather than just document it. But I want to do it now in the modern age. That’s kind of the idea. We’re gonna live in the modern age and do that too. Live, and not let living just be taking pictures and saving them for someone to one day discover in the future, like in a time capsule or something.”
Zach says, “I feel like Josh is the kind of person who is always on a serious quest for a more deep and more meaningful experience. “
I ask Joshua if he agrees with that.
“Yeah. It’s a flaw.”
Zach says, “It can cripple you and it can motivate you, depending on the circumstances. We all have those kinds of things.”
“There’s a lot of songs that come out of that,” Joshua says. “There’s a song on the record called Motions. It’s a love song that I stayed up all night writing, literally, until solid daylight. I just had to get it out. It was just this feeling of looking for love, but I’m in a relationship. This is one of many songs where I’m like ‘Hey Zach, check out this song’ and he’s like ‘Is there something wrong?’”
Zach remembers asking, “Are you ok?”
Joshua says, “Oh yeah, I guess I didn’t think about what it’s saying…”
“How it can come across,” Zach says. “It’s part of just being honest when you’re writing songs. How not everybody’s happy all the time.”
Joshua talks about the difference between his reflective approach to writing and what he sees a lot in Nashville.
“We live in Nashville, which is a songwriter’s town. Some of me loves that and some of me absolutely hates it. The part that I hate is that most people sort of make up stories. They just sit around all day and come up with something like ‘Today we’re gonna write a song on the docket of business about love.’ And they just make up a person and make up a story and they have this song and it’s like ‘maybe this person falls in love at a rodeo.’”
“Rodeo Love,” Zach says.
“Maybe there’s a truck involved,” Joshua adds.
“Then it’s a country song,” I say.
Josh agrees. “Most of Nashville is.”
Zach says, “It’s all hypothetical songs.”
Joshua says, “And they write like two songs a day. And for me I’m like one a month maybe. Or maybe I’m doing like 17 at a time but one might get finished in a month. And I think this kind of thing comes out of that kind of writing. Where you’re really analyzing yourself and a certain part of how you feel. That might not represent you as a whole but it might represent one feeling you have, part of your psyche. It’s a dark spot, you know what I mean? Then the next song might be this…there’s a song Tennessee Girl on the record that Zach wrote. He brought it to me and I’m like ‘Man, that’s like a happy, glorious song.’ It’s an awesome song, one of my favorite songs on there. You think of it both ways. ‘You must be super happy and pumped about love right now because you just wrote this great song that’s happy.’ Or the opposite, when talking about some other song you wrote, which was super-dark.”
“And it could just be a moment,” I say.
“Yeah, that’s the word,” Zach says. “A moment. Songs come out of moments for me. I can trace things back to that one moment that I had that feeling and then explored it. And that’s really what it is.”
Joshua says, “For me it’s emotion. It’s like I’ll wake up in the morning and get pumped, drink caffeine all day and then I can write a fast song. Like a happy rock song. Or I’ll stay up late at night and be lonely. I can get myself into those emotions to write those songs.”
Joshua puts the song in the context of the whole album. “The album starts with the hope of ‘this is going to be the best year of our life’ and then it ends with a song ‘I want to start over.’ It’s called Starting Over.
Zach sums up what the song Modern Age means to him. “Just to put it in one sentence, the way I always imagine this song, it’s about the first day of the best year of your life. That’s what this song is to me if I had to whittle it down. At least what you’re imagining is going to be the best year of your life.”
“You might as well,” I say.
“What good does imagining the opposite do?” Zach asks. “Not much.”
Listen to Joshua discuss his songwriting process a little more and hear Joshua and Zach play the song Neighborhoods Apart.