Front Page Reviews & AIR
Feature Interview - Josh Caress of Come on Pilgrim!
Josh Caress is the frontman and songwriter behind Come On Pilgrim! whose self-titled debut hits the airwaves on August 25. We sat down at an Irish bar in Boston, with background music over which we had no control. “Hotel California” by The Eagles is playing as we begin our conversation.
PF: Let’ talk about this new album and new band, Come On Pilgrim! But let’s contextualize it in the long and storied history of Josh Caress’ music making career. The first band I remember that you were in was called Rusty Couch, back in like 1999.
JC: Rusty Couch was officially a side project.
PF: Side project to what?
JC: To anything. Rusty Couch never played a show—in traditional side project fashion. And had a 4-track recording that was a legend in our own minds.
PF: That might be the only Josh Caress recording that I don’t own. So was Waltzing Matilda your first real band?
JC: Pretty much. I played with a band in High School and we mostly played Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins songs. We eventually called ourselves Parts. But yeah Waltzing Matilda had a good, but short run.
PF: And then you joined your brother Adam’s band The Troubadours for a great stretch of years. What was it like to go from fronting your own band to playing lead guitar in someone else’s band?
JC: It was great. I think it worked because there was no ambiguity about who was the song writer for the band. Adam brought the songs. I kept writing songs but not for the Troubadours. So it allowed for two different creative capacities.
PF: And you turned out some solo recording in those years, right?
JC: Yeah, Sparkler was the first. Then Summer Friend, which I never really properly released. Then I got the idea to try making a concept album—not in the weird pretentious way, I hope. But more like commissioning myself to focus my creative energies around a single thing.
PF: Like a single theme, or idea, or feeling?
JC: Well yeah. The first one I did was called Letting Go of a Dream. It had the most general sort of concept. It was just focused on romantic love—and letting go of that heavy set of expectations surrounding various romantic attachments that I had formed from adolescence on and which continued to effect the way I related to love in the present.
PF: The conceptual focus honed your creativity?
JC: Yeah, it was the idea of crafting a whole album at once—or seeing it as a whole. It let me move beyond the pressure of making every song sound like a classic. It freed me to write songs that were meant to be album tracks or interludes.
PF: Josh Caress Goes on An Adventure came next, right?
JC: Yeah, that was based on a road trip. It was right after the Troubadours broke up in 2005 and I booked myself a solo acoustic tour around the country, with the intention of just going and who knows when I will come back. And I would book more shows as I went.
PF: What were you driving?
JC: The same car I am still driving now. A 2004 Grand Am. I just finished paying it off and turned 200,000 miles last week.
PF: Have you had to put much money into it.
JC: Amazingly the engine has had no problems.
New Song in the background: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – The Rolling Stones
PF: So, you are driving this car around the country, playing shows, and I imagine listening to Sufjan Stevens. Knowing your music, I feel that he had a big impact on you at that time.
JC: Yeah, like I said, I had started doing these concept albums, so when I heard his concept albums, which also happened to be about Michigan and Illinois, the two states that I grew up in, it was big. To this day I don’t know how much of my love for those albums is based on my own projections and how much is really there. Come on Feel the Illinois just sounds like Illinois to me. Like vivid memories.
PF: How did this impact your next album The Rockford Files, which is about the town where you grew up in Illinois?
JC: Sufjan gave me a sense that it was ok to do this. I felt that The Rockford Files was something in me that I was always waiting to find the right way to write about, and approaching it in this way freed me up; it started out as being more about Rockford and then became more personal. But at the heart I still wanted to locate it in a particular time and place. You know, to give a feeling of what it was like in suburban Midwest in America in the 80s. Because I think it’s something that we don’t—I don’t know—I feel like here’s this huge demographic who grew up as suburban white kids, but we treat it like this thing that we aren’t proud of, and for me it’s not even a question of being proud of it, it’s that this context shaped the lives of so many of us, it’s how we grew up, and no one is focused on it.
PF: Or they think: why would you make art work about that?
JC: Yeah, that’s why I was so interested in the Arcade Fire’s Suburbs and why my favorite TV show of all time is the Wonder Years. Because, yes, all the houses are the same but inside each house is a family, and inside that house is my family. All those little moments that shape you growing up happen in those houses, and it all matters.
PF: Nostalgia is a theme that carries through all of your work, right up to the present album with Come On Pilgrim! For whatever reason it seems like the creative element in your being is ignited when it comes in contact with thoughts of childhood, youth, lost innocence. That’s not true for everybody.
JC: Right. And I think about that. Part of it is going back to that suburbs thing. And I know that not everybody had a good experience in the suburbs. But I did. I had a really great childhood. And somehow I want to embrace that in my writing. There is such a prevalent idea that for songwriting you need suffering. And of course my childhood wasn’t perfect. There was suffering. But for me I guess I want to show that joy can be a source of creativity. That when you grow up in a house that is safe, and its safe for love and imagination and being encouraged to embrace the things about you that are good—and that these things are true. For me that informs so much of who I am and that becomes the measuring stick against which all the rest of my life is held.
PF: That comes through in your music.
JC: So much of my music is reminding myself of these things. I hope that my music isn’t trying to preach these things, but to remind myself.
PF: Well I have to say that there is a lot of sadness in your music. Despite what you say about the happy memories of youth being the wellspring of your music, there is a lot of sorrow. You definitely explore beautiful memories—of family, brothers and sisters, and going to the ball park, and biking around, and the parent that is there to pick you up when you fall and skin your knee, but there is a sorrow that pervades your music. Is that because the rest of your life can never live up to that happiness, that security?
JC: Well, yeah, I don’t think there is any way that that can’t be the case for me. Because it’s not just the world that becomes more hostile when you leave the nest or that you just encounter people who treat you badly or all that stuff, but that we change too.
PF: We discover darker parts of ourselves.
JC: Sure. And you have to deal with it. But for me it’s the conviction that the deepest truth of the universe is closer to that joyful home space—but at the same time all of the pain and sorrow and disappointment is real. I never feel like the goal is to deny that but to embrace it and transform it.
PF: So you are saying that the childlike vision is the vision of deepest reality? I can grasp the idea that children can see and say things that are sometimes more true than what adults can see and say. But isn’t it also the case that children are blind to many aspects of reality—and that each of us has to grow up? Isn’t there a danger in idealizing the child’s perspective?
JC: Well I would say that the strength to endure what we endure comes from childhood. It’s very helpful to remember that you were loved. And that’s never lost. I could be disappointed in not being the person I envisioned myself being when I was ten years old. But the answer is that you knew something then and know something now that remains the same. And it’s an ennobling thing. In one sense it’s easy to just stop thinking about these things—more than repressing them. We start thinking about paying the bills and getting by. And to me the great lie is to say that is growing up. Because for me, then it’s like what’s the point of that—if you just become this person who just worries all the time and thinks that joy is just for kids.
PF: That’s interesting. I think you are convinced of the things you are saying but I think in your music I get this sense that you are trying to convince yourself.
PF: And maybe it’s that tension that makes your music compelling.
JC: I don’t know.
Clapton’s “Layla” plays (original electric version)
PF: Let me just say this…to write songs and to put out a top notch album with serious production and to go through that process is a tremendous amount of work. It’s not an easy thing to do. So there has to be a real and deep driving need to put that music out there. There are so many needs this could be fulfilling but on some basic level I think art and music signal a deep need for communication—with a public. It’s an indication that the artist or musician is not content to just communicate these things in private. Art has this public dimension. And you for some reason for years have felt this need to put albums out there—and on this new album you’ve probably worked harder than ever, especially with the whole Kickstarter campaign and all the band members and the excellent production and mixing and mastering. Most meticulously produced. So, do you ever think about this in yourself—why this deep need? Lots of people have powerful feeling and deep conviction but they don’t feel the need to communicate these in public. Why do you?
JC: Ha. Well yeah. That’s the question. What’s wrong with us—with me?
PF: Yeah, well is it an indication of something wrong—that you can’t just be content with keeping your convictions to yourself? You have to create this public artifact.
JC: I think about that, and I don’t have a complete answer, but I know when I go back and sometimes listen to the music I have made—like the Rockford Files—I feel so glad that it exists, that it’s there. I think a lot of artists forget—and I think it’s the most important thing for an artist to remember—that no one else is you. If somebody tells me, I don’t think my song writing brings anything new, I say to them, only you can say what you need to say. Nobody else can do it. If you are honest and put it out there, that voice will never be heard in any other way. So many songwriters are trying to be something other than who they are. I used to go to open mics a lot and 95% of the people up there are trying to be someone else—and then one guy gets up there, and they are really shy, and you can tell that the reason they wrote the song was that they had to speak some truth unique to themselves—and maybe they couldn’t turn a phrase like whoever, but you could tell when they started singing that it was an honest thing and that it was them. And nobody else could do it.
PF: It’s that strange thing that when someone is totally true to the singularity of their experience that it has the greatest universal quality.
JC: It does. Because it’s what we want. What we connect to is not that someone’s story is exactly like ours but that it is honest. And you can feel that. So many of the songs that I love, it’s a real stretch to make it feel like it’s MY Life, but you feel it all the same.
PF: Where did the name for the new band come from? Come On Pilgrim!. I notice there is an exclamation point on there.
JC: Well the exclamation point, yeah, the Pixies didn’t have that did they? But I also just like the idea of the pilgrim—if you can get beyond the Thanksgiving images.
PF: From the cornucopia to the Way of the Pilgrim.
JC: Yeah, this sense of searching and being far from home.
PF: You feel that way—far from home?
JC: Yeah, what’s that line from Garden State? “Maybe a family is nothing more than a bunch of people who all remember the same imaginary place.” But I think that’s true of all human beings. A yearning for something that we think we remember. That may or may not have actually happened. But the fact that we have this thing in our minds, makes it exist.
PF: It’s like Plato’s idea that all new understanding is just remembering.
JC: I am a believer in the allegory of the cave—and I believe in the forms and all that. The archetype. There is a song on the new album about archetypes.
PF: Which one?
JC: It’s called “The Secret Songs”. You can’t miss it; it takes up half the album.
PF: Even the song on there, “True New Fire”.
JC: Yes, thank you Jacques Maritain.
PF: There are a lot of literary and theological references on this album. What have you been reading lately?
JC: Well, yeah, I wanted to make it more lyrically dense. “Region of the Summer Stars” is a Charles Williams reference—to an epic poem that he wrote, which is now out of print. Yeah, read Charles Williams! Nobody like him. One of the only people I have ever read that I feel is this total kindred spirit. That may be because he just kept writing even though no one was reading. T.S. Eliot said that Williams kept trying because he could never quite say what he was trying to say.
PF: It’s like that idea that when you are trying to describe ineffable things, you need to talk a lot.
PF: The theologians’ excuse for long books.
JC: Yeah we don’t want to be able to figure out what the artist is saying. I always love it when I write a song that I don’t understand. “The Secret Songs” is like that for me.
Mellancamp’s “Small Town” plays, fittingly.
PF: So what’s the plan going forward? You guys are gonna release this album. Album release party coming up. Where is it at?
JC: The Rhumbline in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
PF: The Rhumbline—talk about nostaligia. I saw you play there 12 years ago.
PF: Then what?
JC: I don’t know. That’s the most natural question. But who knows what to do in this day and age? We’ve got some shows lined up: playing September 15 down at Church in Boston. And we’ll just try to get the music out there. I am just so glad that the songs hold up to me after working on this for two years.
PF: You been writing new stuff?
JC: No. Not really. But I’m starting to feel a certain confidence that I can and will continue to write songs. Not over-confident, I hope. But like they will keep coming to me. I know a lot of song writers who start to get really anxious about these things. But I am not feeling that, which is good. I mean, this album might be the last time that I really try to put a professionally produced album out there—to feel like I had put my best foot forward and standing or falling on that. But I think I will always keep writing.