Michael Chorney of Hollar General 16 December 2015 on Rocket Shop
WORDS BY TOM PROCTOR, PHOTO by JAMES LOCKRIDGE
Michael Chorney is a man whose presence reflects his art. He appears dreamy, complex and mysterious, and yet comes across with a harmonious simplicity. His music is the embodyment of his personality, delivering hauntingly beautiful tones, deep with complexity and thought. Music to accompany a walk in the wilderness, music to dwell on life’s larger ideas, music to reconnect with the world’s natural rhythm.
In the Big Heavy World studio to discuss his new album 'Shameless Light', crafted with his hand picked band Hollar General, he spends a quiet few speaking to us of identity, environment and the necessity of keeping music a tactile experience:
Tom Proctor: The image chosen for the sleeve of your new album is fantastic. Is there a story behind the picture?
Michael Chorney: I was adopted and a few years ago I found out about my birth parents, not their identities, but my heritage. That inspired some of my work, and the music and songs involved are meditations on family identity. Family and identity. In no way is it literal depictions but that became a thematic centerpiece of the record. It’s also featured in other songs, but in abstract ways. Nothing is ever linear, at least in the way I work. When we started working on the album I started going through some old photographs, that is actually my adopted mother on the right. It’s a stunning photograph.
TP: It really is, and it captures this fantastic moment, very Americana. Talking of nonlinear song creation. How do you go about creating your tracks, they’re awfully complex and at the same time very minimalist. How do you create these sounds?
MC: The songs will come in different ways from different places. Sometimes it will a simple melodic motif, I’ll just play my guitar and find something I want to play again. Sometimes it'll be a line of a lyric that will unfold. It can be two notes, or a cord or just a single line and then the patience comes in. The patience is learning and being open to what that line is suggesting, to not push it, to listen closely and given enough time it generally unfolds.
TP: You were originally self taught, how has that shaped the way you have evolved?
MC: I think i've avoided a certain degree of musical trends, the sort of movements that may be more inevitable in a formal learning situation. For example, I have tried using software to create music but I found really quickly it was changing the very way that I work. The creative ideas themselves were being changed by that medium. For me the actual physical quality of using a pen and paper has a real profound affect on the choices made. That tactile sense is really important.
TP: You tend to come out as a leader when collaborating with other artists. Have you ever encountered any problems with that direct approach.
MC: Well I also work as a side man quite often, so for me it was important to be clear about what the roles are. When I put my first band together as a young man I learnt a lot of lessons regarding what's affective and what isn't. Not just for myself, but for the endeavour in general and for all the people involved. That's ultimately what i wish for. I’m not a dictator, well, maybe a benevolent one (Laughs.) If it’s made clear and laid out at the beginning, then everyone is relieved as everyone knows how they fit in. Communication, that's all there is to it.
TP: You’re music has changed a lot over the years as you've worked with several different bands. How has your audience changed, what’s the profile of your average listener these days?
MC: In my own mind, the music from Viperhouse, Orchid or Hollar General are not that different, but I realise to the “average listener” they’re extremely different. Its funny, being around Vermont, there are people that have followed my music through its different permutations and enjoy all of it. So I don’t know, especially these days, the whole music scene is shifting so radically, I don't know if i could even describe a typical audience members.
TP: Has digital media has opened up your audience profile?
MC: I suppose by default. I have really mixed feelings about digital media, nothing is rare anymore. It’s one of the reasons we put this record onto vinyl, it sounds extraordinary on the vinyl and the only way you’ll be able to hear that is if you listen to it in that medium. Digital media can offer so many incredible resources, artists that haven't been picked up by major record labels, or don't have access to distribution, they can go online and it's all right there. But then musically what’s all right there is everything, so there’s a lot of white noise. I feel its shifting again though.
TP: Where do you see it shifting to?
MC: Well the resurgence of vinyl is a great thing, more and more people I talk to appreciate the tactile sense of vinyl, the fact you can just hold onto something. It goes back to the same principle of when I use pencil and paper, you physically interact with something. Simply just taking the record out and putting it on, the fact your body has touched something has a whole different effect on the experience.
TP: You seem very interconnected with what you do, the pencil on the paper, the vinyl on the record. How does that affect the way you record your songs with your band?
MC: The first two cuts on this record we didn't even have on the list to bring to the studio. We had been working on other material and I just said hey let's try Moline, a song we’ve only played once before, and what you hear is the one and only take we made. We just hit it and it’s beautiful. It’s just being responsive to the environment. I think that ties into the idea of touching and holding something.
TP: Is there a particular studio that you favour?
MC: No, not really. I do a lot of recording in my house but I didn't want to do that with this project. People love coming to my house to record because it's on a dead end road, you're recording in a room with natural light, there's big huge windows and a stream running through the garden. The vibe of it is so low key. I don't have fancy gear, but I have a couple of mics and i know how to use them, and I know where the good sound sare in the room. Having the space is more than half the battle, you get the musicians in a good space and the magic happens.
TP: Is there a time of day that you like to write and record your songs?
MC: Writing can happen any time. As I said it’s often just a single line that will sit sometimes for a week or a year. Then when it comes down to the song really showing itself, then I like to write in the afternoon, work right up to dinner, always thinking that after dinner that I'll get back to it. Never do (Laughs.) As far as recording it's kind of the same, understanding the biorhythms are really important, you just pay attention to that. Blood sugar levels are key, you have lunch, spend an hour after digesting and then people come into it. Just simple stuff like that (Laughs) I sound like a Yoga Teacher.