Glenn Jones “As you get older, the past becomes bigger and bigger.”

Fleeting is Glenn Jones’s latest album of solo guitar compositions, and as on his previous releases, he stands in contrast to the rest of a crowded field. Jones doesn’t create moods or meditations; his pieces are brief narratives, tied thematically to titles like “Portrait of Basho as a Young Dragon” and “Across the Tappan Zee” that stake specific personal, historical, or geographic claims. His music is a dialogue with departed friends and inspirations like John Fahey and Jack Rose; it’s also a process of discovery, as Jones picks his way through new guitar and banjo tunings he invents for each record. His long career, which includes his tenure with Boston experimental rock outfit Cul de Sac and six of his own releases, has resulted in music that demands engagement not only with the present moment, but with the disparate past moments that comprise it.

Jones’s last record, 2013’s My Garden State, was written largely while he was caring for his ailing mother in New Jersey; Fleeting was written before and after her death. In each, Jones imbues the moments he revisits and inhabits with careful wistfulness, sorrow, and reflection. “Mother’s Day” seems to recall an indolent spring day, and the calm that washes over an afternoon when every breathe feels like significant ad elemental. “Spokane River Falls” is like watching the distant drama of water tumble over rocks, of intense movement contained within a fundamental stillness. Jones’s pieces are an effort to capture these moments and contain them.

We spoke with Jones about music, memory, and the making of Fleeting.

The structure of Fleeting is bookended by two banjo pieces, “Cleó Awake” and “Cleó Asleep,” which basically share the same melody. Who is Cleó?

The piece was for the newborn baby of some friends of mine up in Montreal. When I was writing it, I was playing it with a mute just to kind of keep the volume down. When I performed it at the show that Cleó’s parents were at, I decided to perform it with the mute on, the conceit being that I didn’t want to wake Cleó up — but she was up in Montreal, and we were down in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So, it was just about not waking her up psychically. Now when I play it, I always play it with the mute on, because I really like the way it sounds like a distorted music box or something.

The way that melody is represented at the beginning of Fleeting and near the end sort of grounds the album. Did you have a conceptual idea there? Was it meant to be a bookend?

I don’t know if I had that idea in mind before I recorded the record. I don’t know if you play yourself, but something I’ve discovered is that playing your music and listening to your own music are really two different things. What you’re thinking about when you’re playing is really different than what you’re thinking about when you’re listening, in terms of the way you evaluate yourself. A lot of times, my albums don’t take shape until I’m recording them, because I don’t really totally understand my pieces sometimes until I listen to them as though someone else were playing them. Sometimes I’ll listen to something and say, “What is with this song? I don’t know why I did that.” And I’ll end up dropping it. Other times I’ll hear something and think I could include two versions of it and bookend the album with it. I don’t go in and say, “This is going to be the third track.”

Listening back, the Cleó melody seemed to unite the album in some way?

Yeah, and that was a thought that occurred as I was doing the sequencing of the album, many weeks after it was actually recorded. The albums only take shape as albums after I record them — you start thinking about what logically begins and ends the record. You start to think of it as a voyage or something, beginning in one place and going somewhere else. You look for similarities and contrasts. It’s one of my favorite parts of making a record actually, when all the recording is done and you start thinking, “OK, how is this collection of recently written pieces an actual album?” I think back on records I bought as a teenager or young man where after a few listens it’s like, of course this song follows that one, it’s almost inevitable. You can almost hear that next song beginning in the space between tracks.

How do melodies come about for you? Do you find them as you’re playing? Do you hear them in your head?

I never hear them in my head. They really come about through trial and error. It takes me about a year-and-a-half to write enough material for an album, and a lot of pieces come and go. There are pieces I start and don’t finish, and there are pieces I finish and then decide I don’t like. Sometimes, I’ll have a new piece I’ll start playing on a tour, because that’s a good way for a piece to grow and become more familiar, and there have been pieces that I’ve played on a tour that when I got home, I never wanted to play again. Some pieces, by the end of the tour, are different pieces than they were when I started. It really comes out of the open tunings I come up with. If I have writer’s block or if I feel like I’m repeating myself, I know it’s time to come up with a new tuning, or throw the partial capo on some oddball fret and figure something else out. So often, the writing of a new piece is just learning the terrain of a new tuning. Some players want to know everything about each tuning, where every note is, and the theory behind the chords they play. I never think about that stuff at all, for me it’s a completely intuitive process. Writing pieces, I prefer not to know what I’m doing sometimes, rather than knowing where every note is going to fall under my fingers, or where every chord is going to be on the fretboard. I like the idea of discovery, and renewal through that discovery.

Do you play every day?

Oh yeah, definitely.

How much of that, if any, is regimented, and how much is you exploring intuitively?

When I’m working on a new piece, I’ll often focus on that piece obsessively. I’ll play while I’m watching an old movie, on Turner Classic Movies or something like that, where I can turn the subtitles on. My mind is divided between the new piece I’m working on and something I’m focusing on television. I kind of got that from Fahey. John Fahey used to say that he liked to write where he was dividing his attention. He’d say [affects John Fahey voice], “Your subconscious will come up with some really interesting things!” [Laughs.] And it does. Sometimes, because you’re not paying attention, you hit the wrong note or the wrong fret, but sometimes you come up with some interesting things that way.

On the first piece on the record, “Flower Turned Inside Out,” the melody comes in after the alternating bass line is set up — that was something I played accidentally one time, and I was like, “Whoa, what did I just play?” I was so suddenly focused on trying to figure out what I just did by accident, and worried I’d lose it if I didn’t grab it quick. That’s one way to do it. And then there are other times where I’m playing and just totally focused on the playing. But for me, I have to play every day. Not as a regimented form of practice, but just pleasure — it gives me a sense of who I am. Conversely, if I’m playing poorly, I can feel like shit at the end of the day. Like, “Man, I just can’t do what I’m trying to do.”

Your pieces are often described as “narrative,” particularly in the way the melodies unfold patiently and deliberately, like speech. Is that something you’re conscious of when you’re writing?

One of the things that occurred to me when I was recording my last record was that with my instrumental pieces — and this must be true of everyone who writes music, whether it’s lyrical or instrumental — you remember things like where you were when you wrote it, what you were thinking and what you were feeling, and who you were with. On My Garden State, I decided to say more [with the song titles] about what I was thinking about or where I was on that album versus others. The narrative quality you’re talking about is something I’m keenly aware of. It’s not like I try to force that quality upon the music itself, but the music that I care about, like John Fahey, or Jack Rose, or Robbie Basho, or any of the guitarists whose music I really love, there is this quality of voyaging. From a very young age, I began to distinguish between guitarists who were playing guitar to show off and be slick and impressive, or I don’t know, fast and facile with their playing, and guitarists who really had something to say. Because Fahey had that take-you-somewhere-else quality to his playing, I think that’s something I picked up from him, and it’s something I hear in other guitarists I admire. To me, music is about something. I want to reveal my cards a little bit about what my pieces mean to me, but I don’t want to be too overt about it, because I want people to develop their own relationship with the music. But I do want to give them a window into my emotional processes, if they’re interested. Those kind of things interest me when I listen to other people’s records, and that’s why it became important to me to include that in my albums.

Glenn Jones
Photo: Jesse Sheppard

What were you thinking about when you were writing Fleeting? What kind of concerns were transmuted into this record?

Well, the record is dedicated to my mom, who died while I was writing the pieces on this album. There was an awareness while I was recording this album that it was the first album I knew my mom would never hear. All that is kind of sad, and I didn’t want to come out and bum people out with the sorrow of losing the only mom you’ll ever have, you know? But that was part of it. A lot of My Garden State was written while I was living down in New Jersey for months at a time, looking after my mom, who had Alzheimer’s. So, there was a bit of a sense of loss.

Something I’ve noticed, and you’ve probably noticed, is that as you get older, the past becomes bigger and bigger. Then, take someone like Cleó, who I think was less than a year old when I wrote “Cleó Awake” and “Cleó Asleep.” Here’s someone for whom there’s nothing but the future. She doesn’t have any past she understands. Every day is something new for her. So, I wanted to have something that was pointed firmly at the future, and that was “Cleó Awake” and “Cleó Asleep.” But the past is with us more and more as we get older, so it is kind of a reflective record. The piece “Portrait of Basho as a Young Dragon” is dedicated to Robbie Basho but doesn’t really attempt to imitate his playing style or what he does. But the guitarists I knew, Fahey and Basho and Jake Rose, they’re with me every day.

Is “Spokane River Falls” about a specific moment in the past?

It was the first song I wrote after My Garden State, and I always thought of it as a water song. Sometimes you have pieces and you think, “This is a train song,” or whatever. And this felt like a water song. I played it live a number of times, and told people, “I really have no idea what this song is about, but I feel like it’s my water song.” I didn’t have a title for it, and it wasn’t until a friend of mine in Seattle named Ryan Leaf set up several shows for me in Washington and Oregon that I came up with a title. One of the places he wanted to have a show was in Spokane, where his parents live and where he grew up. That’s where I was born; my father was in the Air Force. I have my earliest memories of Spokane, Washington, but we moved from there when I was two, so I have this one memory of it, and it’s my earliest memory. I’d never been back to Spokane since I was two years old. When I was there, Ryan took me to the Spokane River falls, which is a waterfall right in the middle of the city. I realized looking at the waterfall that whatever else my mom and dad did when my dad was stationed here in the Air Force, they must have seen the waterfall. And it’s possible they even saw it when my mom was carrying me around. Neither of them are around for me to ask about it, but when we visited the waterfall, we were there just at dusk, and I was like, “Here is my water song.”

There’s a sense in Fleeting of living inside of specific moments — either living the current moment by inhabiting the music, or revisiting some past moment cataloged by the song’s title.

That’s a great observation, because I’ve seen guitarists and folk singer-songwriters play where I get the feeling that they’ve played the songs so many times, they don’t mean anything to them anymore. I watch and just think, “Dude, if this song doesn’t mean anything to you anymore, why should I care about it?” I get the sense that they’re tossing it off, playing it in their sleep. If I lose interest in a piece of music, I drop it from my set. I want to play music that still engages me, and my hope is that if it engages me, it’ll engage my audience. When I play “Spokane River Falls,” I have in my mind Spokane and visiting the falls at dusk. The connection I have to that piece is a total conceit — I could have named it anything, but having the idea in my mind helps keep the piece fresh to me. I think what you’re saying is a good observation, and it’s true for me. You’ve probably had the experience where you’ve seen someone play a song and thought, “Well, he probably played it the same last night, and he’ll probably play it that way tomorrow night, too.”

I have, especially with this resurgence of fingerstyle guitar. There are a lot of artists now who I love, but I do see some who I think don’t really play with the heart it takes to make a piece of music work on an emotional level.

It’s almost appalling how many guitarists there are today, and actually it’s appalling to me personally how many good ones there are. But I sometimes feel that the younger players, I’m impressed how well they have the how of it down, but they’re going to need some years under their belts before they get the why. And that’s something that often only comes with time. Some people get it early on — it’s amazing to listen to some players and say, “This guy’s got a really amazing worldview for a 24-year-old,” or whatever he is. For me, I don’t think it was until I was into my 30s that I thought, “OK, this piece is mine. It doesn’t feel like it owes very much to John Fahey or Robbie Basho,” or whoever the guitarists were that I’d been listening to for all these years. I could finally lay claim to it, it felt personal to me and my own style and aesthetic. But it took a long time to get to that point. We’re all influenced by what we listen to, and we kind of steer our course by those influences. It’s hard to learn and absorb that technique, but it’s also really hard to get out from under the shadows cast by these giants like Fahey and Basho, to get out and into your own beam of sunlight, and think, “This is me. I’m standing by myself here.”

I read an interview with you where you talked about how you admired the way John Fahey confronted the ugly aspects of himself in his music. Did you have an analogous path — something that sort of informed your relationship with your writing?

For John, more than anybody else I’ve ever met, music was a kind of catharsis. It was a way to understand himself. Playing was a way for him to get through feelings of despair or anger or jealousy or loneliness, but also to express joy and elation. Listening to John, you can feel two emotions at the same time — a certain sorrow or melancholy, but also this other thing, rooted in the sheer drive and syncopation of his playing. He’s never so melancholy that he’s not rising above it at the same time he’s expressing it. I don’t think music for me is the kind of catharsis it was for John. I mean, the worst thing in the world would be to imitate catharsis. There are people who wear that emotion on their sleeve, but that feels alien to me, just so false and fake and contrived. But it is some of those things for me, too. I do play every day, regardless of how I feel. Sometimes music will lift me up, or just carry me on with how I feel, or, I don’t know, give me the sense that life is worth living. And it’s also a way to visit the past, or experience emotions I may have felt at one time or another.

I have to say, I love the idea of music as a way of cataloging your own experiences.

Well, there’s the other side of it, too. I don’t know if you know this album, but a record I was thinking about a lot over the past year or so is the record Duos for Doris that Keith Rowe recorded. Keith Rowe was the guitar player for AMM, and he has a bunch of solo records out. And Rowe is basically a Fred Frith-style guitarist, where he plays the guitar laying flat on its back on a table with a variety of devices through effects boxes. And every time a reviewer or an interviewer will say, “Hey, that’s a really beautiful record,” he almost gets hostile. He hates it when people apply emotional qualities to his music. He says whatever you hear in it, you’re bringing it, he didn’t put it there. Yet, he wrote this album for his mom after his mom died. Whatever his claims to the contrary, I do kind of hear that as a hymn to his mother. And there is certainly a feeling of loss. And maybe I am putting it there, but I do find it there. There are two approaches you can take. I love Keith Rowe’s playing and I love his approach to music too, the almost anti-emotion that he takes to it. That piece says a lot about the kind of person he is and the way he thinks, and yet there’s a great deal of beauty and engagement in his music, and I love the details and the textural qualities. And there’s also the quality in his music that you’re on some kind of voyage and you’re going somewhere.

Are there any musicians lately who have given you a different perspective on your music, or music in general?

I’ve been so into music ever since I was a teenager. In my house here, I probably have 10,000 albums. Out of all those records, there are a number, but it’s probably a very small number, that changed the way I think about music. And it’s not just guitar playing. I think of the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, which was a giant window that opened up for me, when I discovered pre-war music. At the same time, I discovered Fahey, and he was pulling from country blues and hillbilly music, and that was all on the Anthology of American Folk Music. Those kind of epiphanies are few and far between, and they really get fewer and farther between the older you get.

I’d say the musician who changed a lot for me, as much as the music of Robbie Basho or John Fahey did, was Jack Rose. Jack came along when he did, and hearing Jack, I realized, here’s a young kid — he was 18 years younger than me, I think — who has been eating and sleeping and breathing the same records I’ve been eating and sleeping and breathing all these years. And he was just so committed to that muse. It was like he jumped right out into the middle of the stream, without asking how deep the water was or how cold it was or where it was going to take him. He knew it was where he wanted to be, and wherever it went, that’s where he wanted to go. His commitment to that was totally inspiring to me. I got more into my music listening to Jack’s music. For the few years we had together, Jack was my best friend. We talked to each other at least once a week, every week. We toured a lot together. Jack was the first person I played a new song for, and likewise — I have old phone messages from him saying, “OK, here it is,” and playing the theme of some new piece he was working on. Jack was a big deal for me, and his loss is awful. I still think of him all the time. It’s so terrible that he died so young.

I saw Ryley Walker recently and I thought, “Man, this guy’s got it.” Beautiful voice, beautiful guitar player. I saw Tim Buckley live in 1974, and he’s got the same kind of power. He can really affect you, he’s one of those really good ones. So yeah, there are times you go to a show and see someone and think, “Yeah, here it is.” You remember what it’s like to have your socks knocked off. So, it happens, but it happens less often. And it is hard to replicate that first experience. I remember when Mudhoney did their first tour, and everyone was saying, “Man, you gotta check out Mudhoney.” I went to see them, and I thought they were pretty good, but I heard the Stooges influence, and I’ve seen the Stooges. I realized that every generation needs their own Stooges. I can be jaded about Mudhoney, but a generation of people who never saw the Stooges can go get their sonic blast this way. We all have those moments, those groups, those artists who open up a certain pathway — who say a certain thing you need to hear at a certain time in your life.

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