By Adam McKibbin, Entertainment Today, July 2004
Ken Stringfellow gets around. When he’s not touring and playing as a sometime-member of R.E.M. or Big Star or the Minus 5, and when he’s not resurrecting the Posies with fellow founding member Jon Auer, Stringfellow also has made time for a vibrant solo career. More recently, he’s also made time to become a husband, then a father. And, oh yes, in his spare time, he likes to travel.
Fittingly, the liner notes for Stringfellow’s new album, Soft Commands, include not just where each track was recorded, but where each track was written. We get visions, then, of the singer holed up in the Roosevelt Hotel here in Hollywood (“Known Diamond”) and inspired in Athens, in Senegal, and at his dual homes (Seattle and Paris).
“I wanted to give a little bit of glimpse as to how much movement there has been in my life,” Stringfellow says. “I think that gives me the ability to look at my life and other people’s lives from a number of different perspectives.”
“Being in Africa was really enlightening,” he continues. “We’re the same but different, different but the same. Especially among musicians, there’s so much common ground that the cultural differences between the States and Senegal didn’t really matter. They had a lot of the same reasons for writing and a lot of the same dreams about music and dreams about what they wanted to accomplish as people as I did.”
And although two of the biggest movements in life—marriage and fatherhood—hadn’t yet occurred while he was writing Soft Commands, they made an early impact nonetheless.
“When a lot of this music was written, that was all theoretical at best,” he says. “But in some weird way, the writing anticipated taking some of those steps of completion.”
While these varied life experiences have been fuel for songs, they never seem to make literal or overt crossovers into the lyrics, which manage to give just enough information to set a tone without dictating a storyline. In this, Stringfellow bears resemblance to a pair of his cohorts: Michael Stipe and John Roderick (of the Long Winters, who Stringfellow has produced and played with in the past).
“I revel in lyrical ambiguity, having loved some ambiguous lyricists,” Stringfellow says. “Michael Stipe is probably the prototypical reference, but there are many others. I like when something suggests something else, but it isn’t beating you to death with a heavy-handed, moralistic answer. It has meaning to me and it suggests things that have happened, but it becomes more universal if everyone can participate in it.”
Yet there are some recurring lyrical themes in his songwriting. “I find myself saying the same things underneath a lot of the songs, which is to learn how to accept more people and more situations and to fight less. That’s not saying that I’m not principled or that I don’t want to change things that I believe in, but I’m fighting against less things. Fighting is a waste of energy.”
For someone who in the past has referred to his work as a “suicide note” (1997’s solo debut This Sounds Like Goodbye) and has referred to himself as an asshole (there is nothing but evidence to the contrary during this interview), this seems to be a healthier worldview. Yet it’s not a naïve or untroubled one. In the current global climate, one warning—or plea—was found to be relevant to repeat. In “Je Vous En Prie,” Stringfellow likens the need for religion to a child’s weeping need for a mother to sing a lullaby. It’s a powerful indictment, made all the more memorable by what follows (the singer pledging his own faith to a lover’s lips).
“Religion is a strange thing to me,” he says. “We’ve all, in our favorite college bar, discussed how religion has peace as one of its principles and ends up standing for war in so many cases. I’m still mystified. I think a lot of people who are ignorant are easily manipulated. That’s nothing new, we all know that, but nothing seems to change, so it’s worth mentioning again.”
On the record, Stringfellow is joined by a large cast of fellow musicians, but for the tour he’s going solo. His initial concerns about playing “less-interesting” versions of the album tracks—which are fleshed out with lush arrangements of strings and horns and harmonies—were quelled by fans at the early shows who were excited to hear the most intimate, stripped-down versions (closer, of course, to how the songs originated).
One contributor especially worth singling out is Larry Knechtel, who contributes piano and organ to “You Drew,” the opening track. Knechtel played with Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew, and Stringfellow says that “You Drew” was largely built around the legendary session player. As for Spector, his shimmering influence was most prevalent on “When U Find Someone,” although most listeners will first be struck by the Beach Boys, thanks to background vocals in the chorus that sound so Wilson-y that they seem lifted from that era.
A less noticeable parallel comes on “For Your Sake,” the verses of which sound, I swear, just a little bit like Tool’s Maynard James Keenan.
“Verrrrry interesting,” Stringfellow says. “I’m always listening to tons of music. There’s a lot of dandruff from other people’s heads.”