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Ryan Potts laughs easily. That disarmingly agreeable laughter is one of the first things you notice in conversation with him: It radiates a companionable warmth, demonstrates that he doesn't take himself too seriously, invites tangential drift, and stands in marked contrast to the quiet, carefully arranged records the St. Paul-based musician makes under the Aquarelle name. In a late September telephone interview, the 24-year-old Potts comes across as exceptionally chatty and amiable, as willing to drift into conversational tangents about Atlas Sound's Logos or his freelance writing work for Skyscraper Magazine as he is to discuss his recording processes, his day job—"I work a horrid job at Barnes & Noble, I'm a manager there"—and Slow Circles, his first new album in three years.
"My original vision really did not come to fruition until it was done. I thought it was 'done' multiple times, but it was never quite right," Potts says of Circles' long gestation period, during which he moved from Milwaukee to St. Paul and got married. "I focused on channeling it to be exactly what I wanted it to be; I really wanted it to be fully complete and fully realized."
Of Memory and Momentum, Aquarelle's self-released 2006 debut, was an opal, minimalist fantasia, a luxury suite of barely-there drones stitched with subtle field recorded samples. Crepe-thin and nearly opaque, Momentum quietly forewent the often obtrusive nature of most ambient platters; more than a mere headphones adventure, the album demanded and rewarded the listener's complete attention.
Rest + Noise
Circles, by contrast, boasts a more fulsome sound: synthetic sleigh bells, hypnotic circular motifs, and—particularly on thoughtfully throbbing opener "Brill"—reverberating flamenco guitar flourishes. The record, inspired by "a lot of photography and a lot of artistic techniques," has a very painterly feel, which befits Potts's French-word-for-water-color-painting sobriquet, and is being released on burgeoning local imprint Rest + Noise, which Potts co-owns with local musician Bobby Maher.
"[With Momentum] I was feeling nostalgic—I was interested in how experience and memory stay with you, but are always changing in significance. I put Momentum together in considerably less time than Slow Circles. I wanted to bring a broader palette to what I do, which is hard because I'm not technically proficient in much besides effects pedals!" Potts laughs. "I definitely wanted a thicker sound, a more balanced sound—to bring more aspects to the music. More instruments, more percussion, a lot more circular ideas that are introduced early on in a piece and come back later. That's really where the title Slow Circles comes from."
While Circles doesn't assault the ear, it does confront and stealthily engulf it. "Everything Changes into Itself" opens with a shimmery, shivering hum that rustles and ruminates even as it cascades and expands in volume and depth. Thermal, incubator slosh and wonder characterize "A Good Egg," while the pitch-shifted tiptoe and awestruck keyboard twinkles of "Clementine" are nothing short of breathtaking. With Soft Circles, Potts invests his songwriting with a stronger sense of presence without sacrificing the dreamy, creamy vibe that led Pitchfork writer Grayson Currin to feature—and praise—Momentum track "In Florence" on the site back in 2006.
Though his focus was different this time around, Potts's compositional technique hasn't changed.
"A lot of songs start with experimenting with pedals, keyboards, and field recordings—manipulating them," he explains. "Before, it was more free-form, but now I really know what I want to do. I use guitar as a sound to mold and get what I want from it."
Potts grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which he describes as a "small, normal town." After a stint in Milwaukee, he moved to St. Paul to live with the woman whom he would later marry. A longtime music fan especially fond of girl-group producer Phil Spector, minimalist hero Steve Reich, and shoegaze legends My Bloody Valentine, he stumbled into his aural vocation six years ago while experimenting with guitars and effects pedals with a friend, a revelatory experience he describes as "mind-blowing."
Potts hopes to blow minds in live settings, though he's no fan of the bar touring circuit. Fittingly, he's more interested in performing in "gallery spaces" where an artist can expect stillness, attentive listeners, and a lack of cigarette smoke.
"Honestly, I've had some horrible experiences with shows," Potts says, an exasperated sigh shape-shifting to a chuckle. "Either I get entirely ignored or, kind of, some antagonism happens; that is always interesting. I generally get a few people who really listen and talk to me afterwards, but it's a struggle."