The oceanic vocals, ambient sound, and insistent percussion of “Missoula,” the first single off of Chris Bartels’ forthcoming Myths and Mold, might immediately make you think of Bon Iver.
Though this is only his second solo album (his debut, Morning’s Gold, dropped in 2011), Bartels is no newbie to the Minneapolis music scene. He’s the man behind indie-pop band Bora York (with his wife Rebekah) as well as the electronica project Hi-Fi Cali. A prolific producer, he also runs Anthem Falls Music, a hybrid record label and production house.
And that’s just what he does in his spare time. By day, Bartels writes music for commercials; by night, he’s a family man. Like many creative people, he struggles to find a balance between his responsibilities and what nourishes him artistically.
Myths and Mold was created after the birth of his first son and the beginning of a new job, when Bartels didn’t have much time to dedicate to personal projects. “If I’m describing the songwriting and recording process of these songs to someone, I often will use the term ‘escape,’” he says. “They were an escape from a certain sound or template, whether that was a sound of a previous album I’ve written or what I think something should sound like.”
In the past, he tended to over-think his music, contemplated if his songs were “license-able,” and tried to make them fit the radio-ready mold. This new album, which he refers to as “an accident almost,” represents a return to his natural instincts as a musician. During the creative process, Bartels wrote what felt good and experimented with sonic effects: distant room miking, layers of room recordings, and organic and sampled sounds.
“I’m really embracing different types of ‘unwanted’ noise and musical imperfections,” he says. “These days, we have access to all sorts of software that make it easy to get rid of and edit out whatever we want, but with this batch of songs, I think I really rediscovered some of the life of my music that can get lost with perfect, clean recordings and precise edits.”
Bartels, who writes from first-hand experience as well as from the viewpoints of family members, friends, or fictional characters, says the songs on Myths and Mold “are personal, albeit abstract, and were birthed during a season of life that merged gratitude and trial, solitude and struggle.”
Now a father of two, Bartels says life is “pretty crazy, but having a family and having kids doesn’t get in the way or hinder my pursuit of my dreams at all. It enhances them because I’m even more inspired. It gives me greater motivation and passion to pursue what I love doing.”
Even his day job doesn’t drain him like some might assume. When he first started working as a composer and audio engineer at Echoboys, he wondered if creative burnout would be an occupational hazard. “Surprisingly, it’s actually made me want to do my own music even more,” he says. “The projects we do at work are pretty cool. I couldn’t ask for a better day job. But it’s separate. It’s music for a project, a client, or a commercial. It’s fun to try different things there with instrumentation or samples or sounds and then go back and apply a certain technique, instrument, or effect to my own music.”
If anything, the biggest challenge for production-savvy Bartels is declaring a song done. “I’ve been in the middle of a Hi-Fi Cali song that I’ve been writing for a long, long time, and it’s still not there. There’s something missing,” he says. “I feel like my problem, production-wise, is I keep adding stuff and adding stuff and it’s not necessarily helpful. A lot of times I’ll send the song to other musicians/songwriters/producers and get their opinion on it, like, ‘Hey, tell me what’s awesome about this song and tell me what sucks.’ We’re really open about it and we’re asking for criticism. I think that’s been a really helpful thing for me.”
While working on the tracks that would comprise Myths and Mold, Bartels realized they didn’t fit either the Bora York or Hi-Fi Cali aesthetics. Though he had no intention of releasing another solo album, he wasn’t up for starting a new project from scratch, either. “These are songs I’m pretty proud of, so why not have another EP in my name?” he figured. While he still likes Morning’s Gold, and considers the songs true to his life at that time, “production-wise, it hurts me a little bit to listen to them,” he says. The new album “is quite a step up from that. It was nice to have that six-year separation of where my songwriting was then and where it is now and see that difference.”
Up next is the promotional period for the Myths and Mold release. Though Bartels hit a saturation point with social media six months ago and stepped back to reconfigure how much effort and time he wanted to invest in it, he feels like “you have to play that game, at least a little bit. You can’t just disappear and expect people to hear your music. I’m trying to find ways I can enjoy it and not feel like it’s a chore.”
Email blasts to blogs and radio stations as well as social media posts will suffice, and he’s keeping his expectations modest. “Once the release has been out there, you can only do so much,” he says. “But that’s why it’s kind of freeing. Like writing a song, you could try and promote your release forever and to everybody, but that would just be so depressing and draining. For me, there’s a season for every project or single that I release. I try to make an effort to get it out there. Once that’s over, I can get back to writing. That’s what I really love to do: get back in the studio.”
With: Grand Courriers and A Piano in Every Home
Where: Turf Club
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 28
Tickets: 21+ $8 - $10; more info here