On her first record in nearly five years, Aimée Argote’s ruthless brand of songwriting shines through. To reach that goal, though, she had to do some letting go and allow the instincts of some other musicians to assist.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
The same adjectives show up in every story about Aimée Argote’s Des Ark – “raw,” “emotional,” “honest” — and they’re going to appear in this one, too, make no mistake. Raw truths (see?) are such a part of what Argote does in song that their presence is not just requested, but required. That’s down to her music, of course. Over the course of a decade-plus now, few songwriters have proven as adept and willing as Argote to fillet open the human heart in such excruciatingly honest detail, and then take those examinations to such quiet, lonely corners and cathartic heights.
Her latest release, the jovially titled Everything Dies, is out officially Oct. 2 on Graveface Records. If this were the pre-digital days when labels could afford the occasional apropos promotion, this one would come with its own pack of Kleenex. In track after gorgeously luscious track, through the turmoil of electric guitars and percussion or the plangent chords of her forest cabin piano, Argote opens her heart and by doing so takes dead aim at ours.
And she wastes no time with the bloodletting. Lead track “Peace to You, Motherfucker” is ripe with the contradictions that Argote, a sexual assault survivor, feels towards relationships of any kind. Over funereal acoustic guitar patterns and haunting piano, she sings, “If i ever have a lover who finds my pain/oh i will leave his ass in the fire & the rain/because a man who knows & still he stays…/that ain’t no man who you’d want around.”
Even on the LP’s brightest track, above, the sunny yet wistful “Don Taco & His Hot Sauce Toss,” issues of trust, anger and abandonment flit in and out of the banjo picking and sing-along choruses. And on “French Fries Are Magical,” over heartbreaking eBow sustain and finger-picked acoustic, trust transforms into oxygen—“why can’t i believe until you believe in me, why can i not breathe until you breathe into me?”—as Argote’s vocals evolve from suggestive whisper to desperate demand.
But at the end of “Ties,” a richly textured rocker excoriating abusers no matter their chemical excuses, Argote concedes, “i wish i didn’t give a fuck about the ties that bind /the blood, the guts, even little paper cuts/these are the ones we love.” And it’s that willingness to delve into these contradictions with ruthless honesty that stokes Argote’s songwriting.
But Everything Dies, coming nearly five years after Des Ark’s last one, the fiery Don’t Rock the Boat, Sink the Fucker, nearly fulfilled its title by never seeing the light of day. As she’s done whenever she’s had a batch of songs ready for recording, the North Carolina native test drives them solo on WXDU, the eclectic Duke University owned non-commercial radio station. Most of this record’s nine songs have been floating around since 2013 on Live at WXDU Vol. 3 (her third volume of these super-demos) available at her Bandcamp page.
Argote’s plan was, as per, to flesh them out shortly afterward in the studio with Des Ark—a band made up of essentially whomever is available to play and chip in. But this time the songs’ journey to tape was far more circuitous than in the past. First, Argote’s parents were diagnosed with cancer one after the other, sidetracking music entirely for a year. Then followed an abortive attempt to record everything herself, before the songs eventually wandered through seven different studios, from her Triangle home base to Richmond, Atlanta, New Orleans and Austin. At the latter, a fecund week-long session with Jordan Geiger (Shearwater/Hospital Ships), Taylor Holenbeck (The Appleseed Cast) and Thor Harris (Bill Callahan/Swans) fleshed out the LP’s enveloping textures with everything from bowed vibes and clarinet to lap steel and synths.
Blurt chatted with a gracious and clearly relieved Argote over the phone from her Pittsboro, N.C. home on the eve of the LP’s official release. She gave us the 411 on the trials and tribulations Everything Dies went through, as well as what she’d learned between albums about collaboration, patience and priorities.
BLURT: Congratulations on a beautiful record. This really is an emotional rollercoaster, I’ve wound up wiping away a tear or two over the course of listening to it the last few weeks. But it’s got to be cathartic for you, too, right? Or do you ever think, ‘screw it, dance number!’
ARGOTE: Oh, that’s great! Sometimes you have to push people to do that. I’ll let you know when I have a Weezer cover band just for that purpose.
Some of these songs have been around a while in various iterations, like the WXDU versions; how come this one took a while?
I do those, they’re like demos, live on the radio, just me and acoustic guitar. But it’s funny, with this record I did one of those but wasn’t in a place in my life where I could really make a record for three or four years. And so those songs have just sat there. The intention is always to just kind of bookmark them on that radio recording, and then come back later because things really kind of open up and take on new meanings when you put them in the studio. So I always want to do that with my songs, but it’s been a little bit funny with this record because a lot of them I recorded on that last ‘XDU thing with the full intention of going into the studio soon after and making full studio versions. But then they just sat there. I just didn’t have time, really.
This record was really difficult just because both my parents had cancer in the last few years, like back-to-back, so I moved back to North Carolina to help out with that, and music took a real back seat for me just because my family was my priority and I didn’t really want to put a time limit on how long I’d be here or what kind of support I could give them. So there was no band that knew the songs, everything was just up in the air. So when I decided to make the record, I thought I’ll just go to (producer for Wilco, Beck) Brian Paulson’s house and just do everything myself; I’ll start with these little acoustic things and just build atop them, little by little, all on my own. And we tried doing a couple things, but it was a total disaster for me. I realized I would never, ever, ever get this done if it was just me and my own brain trying to push myself forward.
So my friends had a studio just in their bedroom in Austin, and I knew a bunch of people that lived there, or near there, like in New Orleans and stuff, and I was like, ‘let’s all just meet in Austin for a week and try and knock out as much as possible in this bedroom.’ And so that’s what we did—we all met there for a week in Austin and though our friend Thor (Harris) played drums on a lot of it we didn’t have a way to record a full drum set, so even that was really complicated—like trying to record one drum at a time: ‘Let’s do the kick-drum track, okay, now the snare drum.’ It didn’t really work out, but I have a friend in Richmond with a studio and he is an amazing drummer, Jonathan Fuller, so we went and recorded more drum tracks with him and then some friends of mine went out of town and they had a studio in their house so I did my background vocals while I was pet-sitting for them.
So I think there ended being seven studios. I listed six, but there was one studio I even forgot to put in the credits. I didn’t exactly have a budget, and I left my label in the middle, so everything was recorded on favors and ‘I’ll pay you when I figure out what I’m doing’ kind of thing. But it all worked out in the end, it just took forever. It’s kind of like, ‘yeah, I want a glass of water.’ And you think, ‘sure, a glass of water, that seems super easy.’ But you’ve got to put it in a glass that’s completely shattered in pieces all over your yard, and you’ve got to go find all those pieces and then glue them all together and then the very last step is getting the glass of water, which you thought would be the first step—it was sort of like that! I always felt I started, so I had to finish, but every time I started a new part of it, I felt like, ‘aw, shit, there’s so much more to do!’ But I just kept going. Little by little I just chipped away at it, and it’s finally done and I kind of can’t believe it!
And yet you end up with this record that’s lush and rich and doesn’t show any of the shards…
I am a little worried about it because when I listen to it, I hear that—I hear all this anxiety. And our records have always been like that, we’ve always had to kind of piece them together because there not really a band, but never to that extent. So I don’t hear it as a finished product, I hear it as a 100 different stages. So it’s nice to hear that from you—I’m glad that it’s coherent to other people. I’m not there yet.
Since those demos typically signal you’re going in the studio, and this time they didn’t, did the songs change meaning for you over that time?
Absolutely. Totally. When you’re facing death of the people who raised you, and there were some other deaths of people I was really close to or sicknesses, and I was really sick for a whole year—I think in some ways I finally experienced some of the things that I had sung about but hadn’t gone through. I think a lot of people in this world would choose not to play music in those circumstances because there is too much shit going on in their lives—they just can’t leave it. And I always felt it was my job to tell those stories, sure, for a lot of what’s happened to me, but a lot times for people who didn’t have an outlet to communicate those stories to a larger community. And I think I ended up going through a lot of those things, and again, when you’re facing the death of two people who created your world for you—the scale of importance and where you place certain things gets completely jumbled up, and it’s very different at the end of this record than it was at the beginning.
It’s funny—I also had time to let go. I typically don’t write songs until I’m through the other side of whatever the experience was: I experience it, then I go through the stages of grief or anger or whatever I have about it, and then a couple years later I get a song about it. And I just sort of wait for them, and they come. It’s never while it’s happening, though. And I wrote those songs after a lot of those things had happened, then gave it another few years before I recorded them—it allowed me to approach the song in a less sensitive state, and that allowed me to experiment with them more because I wasn’t as sensitive about where they would go.
It was funny, there’s this one song on there about something that I hadn’t felt emotional about for years, I just had really let it go, it didn’t affect me. And then I got in that vocal booth, and it was one of the very last songs we did, and I started bawling. It was crazy! I’ve never experienced that before in my life. It just triggered something, and I wasn’t even thinking about that person, I wasn’t sad about that person that the song was about—I just got so sad about what it feels to go through a break-up (laughing, nervously), and it wasn’t even about the person I was singing about. Just remembering – aw, man, going through break-ups SUCKS! And I got really sad in the vocal booth just over the experience of a break-up in general.
It’s called “Snake Stuff.” It was so funny to have this totally emotional reaction to my song, but it wasn’t about the experience I was singing about. It was just how I think anybody else might feel emotional when they listen to a Des Ark song—they’re just putting something else in it, it’s not what I’m writing about. And it happened to me on my song—it was so bizarre, and I had to take like 20 minutes to recover, like, ‘I have no idea why I’m crying right now, I’m not thinking about the lyrics as they happened in my own life, but I’m just really sad right now.’ [Below, listen to a live version of “Snake Stuff”]
That’s kind of what music’s supposed to do, though, right? When it’s heartfelt and done well, make that connection to us?
Yeah, well, I kicked my own ass there. Usually when I’m writing a song and I know it’s done, I’ll just burst out crying. It hits some emotional nerve and it becomes this really physical reaction. And then I know, ‘cool, it’s done, I know it’s good, I got it.’ It’s going where it needs to go. But it’s because I’m really connecting with the thing I’m…it’s a lot like licking a battery, you’re like, ‘okay, I know this is going to hurt—blurgh—okay, that hurt.’ Looking for that feeling and when you get there you know you’ve got there. And that happens to me every single song I write: If I don’t cry at the end, if I don’t have that physical—ack!, you know it’s gotta get out kind of thing—then it’s not done unless it makes me really bummed. And it wasn’t that at all—it was completely different.
What did you learn different in the interim about the arrangements? Because this record sounds different than Don’t Rock the Boat…
A lot of it is that I played with incredible musicians, and there were half of those songs with a rock band and then the other half it was me kind of piecing stuff together with somebody here and there helping out. Like, I don’t play drums, so I don’t have a drummer. This one, that week in Austin was really amazing. I’d never had an experience where I sit around with a group of people and listen to some skeleton of a song and just talk about it—like, what do we want it to feel like? I always am typically guiding that process. I know that I want it to make you feel like your babysitter just quit, or whatever. I mean, I know the emotional phase, but I’d never really got to sit down and talk about my songs with other musicians. I do that in a live setting, but I’d never really done that to that extent in a recording setting.
And they’d all heard them before, right? The demos of them?
Yeah, I sent them the radio demos, ‘hey, this is what we’re doing, and I want it to get crazy in this area’ or whatever. So that was really cool, I think when your songs are a lot of times so personal. I think I’ve always made bands with a really large sense of control over how it works sonically. Like writing all the guitar parts that everyone plays, and really kind of directing things to, well, maybe like to an annoying level to the people in the band. But I had to let go. I had to trust other musicians to really do their thing.
And I had never done that to that extent before, and so I think that that’s a lot of it. I went through that experience at the beginning where I tried to do it all myself and I couldn’t, and I really had to face that. And that was really hard – I always thought, ‘oh, I can take on that project, sure, no problem.’ And then I definitely couldn’t, and in order to finish the record, I had to trust these wonderful musicians.
Des Ark plays Mercury Lounge , NYC, on October 8th. More dates tba—check the official website.
Photo credit: Marc Krause