Somewhere in St. Paul, there’s an unassuming 1,500 square-foot building known as the Alamo. Formerly a skate park, an auto body shop, and a pottery studio, it now houses the studio space of A Piano in Every Home, a folk-rock act founded by Travis Erickson and Jacob Pavek.
The Alamo is part speakeasy, part transportation hub, part country club. “Most of is submerged underground, which makes for great sound control and absorption. It’s built like a war bunker,” Erickson says. Its location is top secret, and it’s where songwriter-guitarist Erickson, pianist-guitarist Pavek, bassist Mark Kartarik, and drummer Jake Wallenius have spent the last two-and-a-half years recording the band’s new album Ephemera.
This was the first time Erickson and Pavek took control of an entire album, from start to finish. They recorded, engineered, and mixed every lovely and languorous track in-house. “We have literally touched every single piece and every single part of the process,” Erickson says.
He believes recording at the Alamo made for a more intimate listener experience. “It goes from a nice meal in a nice restaurant to a home-cooked meal from Mom,” he says. “That payoff was worth it to have this kind of control over the process. It was rewarding. Do I think we’ll do it again next time? I don’t know. It’s a hell of a lot of work. But it was sure fun to do it at least once.”
If the process on Ephemera speaks to a step toward mature musicianship, the content does, too. While the band’s 2013 debut, Meridian, was “a bitter, backward-looking album” on relationships gone wrong, Ephemera looks forward and explores commitment, something Erickson has grappled with firsthand as he’s now engaged.
“All love is tough. It becomes even more so when it's good love,” he says. “Ephemera explores the other kind of tough love, and the doubt that accompanies it. Having been on both sides of it in relationships, I think the uncertainty and doubt that comes with not wanting to mess up a good thing is more powerful than ending something that isn't working.”
In his 20s, Erickson lived in a state of “full-on freedom.” He eschewed committed relationships and did what he wanted, when he wanted; he’d fly out to California and bum around the Coast for a couple of weeks if he felt like it. “I was kind of a tourist in my own life,” he says. “Responsible to nobody but myself, I traveled a lot, I tried a different restaurant every day, I invested through the great bull market of 2010s, but in the end, it was kind of lonely. Who you do it with is more important than what you choose to do.”
As he contemplated commitment, he realized that the cost-benefit analysis was heavily weighted toward the latter. “There are wonderful things that come with commitment but you certainly have to give up pieces of you, pieces of your life as you walk towards that end of the spectrum and that’s not always easy,” he says.
This shift naturally arose in Erickson’s music. “Phoenix,” the first song on Ephemera, is about his fiancée, though he didn’t know it until halfway through the writing process. “When I’m writing a song, it’s never a top-down process. It’s never saying, ‘Here’s what I want it to be about,’ and then writing a song about that,” he says. The song develops of its own accord, and it isn’t until he’s finished that he can step back and see the creation for what it really is. “For me, it’s more of a discovery process.” Writing such a personal song was a challenge. “You can’t just say it’s a song about drinking beer and driving on the highway and having a good time in the summer,” he says.
The songs on Ephemera do have a summer-night-under-the-stars vibe, though; they’re wide expanses of sound caressed by Erickson’s deep, echoing vocals. The album is sweet and sad and evokes those things too beautiful to last. “I’m an energetic, optimistic guy who likes to have a lot of fun, but I think when it comes to songs, I’ve always tended to have an affinity for sad songs and love songs and resting somewhere in that melancholy,” Erickson says.
For the band, songs are like people; they evolve and age and change, so Erickson and Pavek resurrected and reimagined two tracks from Meridian, “Re: Sleepyhead” and “Re: Meridian.” “These songs are kind of like our babies, they’re kind of our children,” Erickson says. “As we continue to play songs in different venues and different formats, you change things about them.” Those little alterations added up, until they were like new again and they wanted a new “portrait” of them in the form of a recording.
Being overly familiar with a song, however, has its downsides. With repetition, “you become so close to it, it becomes hard to tell what’s working, what’s not working, what’s blatantly wrong, or what’s missing,” Erickson says. So on Ephemera, they brought in the Laurels String Quartet to give the songs a fresh perspective. “I’m a big believer in figuring out what you’re good at and just focusing on that. I’m a good, simple, songwriter but I’m not a master musician. So we bring in the experts,” Erickson says.
Despite the added players, however, the band is still rooted in Erickson and Pavek’s enduring friendship and musical kinship. They met in middle school in Hudson, Wisconsin, in the early 2000s. Pavek was a skateboarder and Erickson played guitar; each wanted to learn what the other excelled at. Pavek went on to get a degree in composition and piano performance and “he’s turned into be a heck of a better musician than I ever was,” Erickson says. “To use a painting metaphor, he’s a master painter. I’m a pretty good draftsman. I think that combination has served us well.”
A Piano in Every Home
With: Ben Lubeck and Turbo Pastel
Where: The Alamo
When: 7:30 p.m. Sat. June 15
Tickets: $15 suggested donation; RSVP at [email protected] and be sure to include +1 or group size if applicable. Location details will be provided after confirmation.