Chris Bartels talks Morning's Gold and DIY recording

Kudos to any artist that is courageous enough to release an album in December when it might get lost amongst all the end-of-year lists. Thus, kudos to Chris Bartels for releasing his new EP, Morning's Gold, a poignant collection of songs simply inspired by life. 

At 23, Bartels may be young, but he has the maturity of someone who has lived a thousand lifetimes. Each precisely-placed instrument within Morning's Gold delivers a distinctive slice of sound, and we, as listeners, are merely conduits for its storytelling -- absorbing, communicating, and waiting for the rest.

Gimme Noise spoke with Chris before his CD-release show this Friday at the 331 Club.

Band Members:  Chris Bartels, Rebekah Bartels, Charlie Wirth

Gimme Noise: You used to be in the indie band Letter and Lines. What prompted you to go solo? 

Initially, my solo work was just a side project to Letter and Lines before we split up as a band. We're still the best of friends and continue to play music together, but priorities with school, work, and life took over. So it never really replaced Letter and Lines. I just had a bunch of acoustic songs I had written, and I chose a few that I wanted to put out as an EP. 

What are the ups and downs of being a solo artist versus being in a band?

In my own experience, I haven't found a lot of differences yet between being a solo artist and being in a band. I miss playing with all the guys every week and having that collaborative creative input on songs. I've been practicing with my wife Rebekah and my friend Charlie for my solo work, so for live shows, it'll still be with a small band. The biggest difference has probably been the recording process. Recording Morning's Gold was much more of an introverted process. With Letter and Lines, I was still the engineer, but we were together more in the studio as a band, all giving creative input at different times. It's definitely exciting to see a project through from start to finish no matter what, but there's something special about going through it together with good friends. That's why I really enjoy playing Morning's Gold songs with Rebekah and Charlie, because I still get to have a taste of that.

You are self-taught on so many instruments. What influenced you when you were younger to experiment so much?   

I started playing guitar in high school only because I was bored one day, and immediately it became more than a casual interest. I taught myself for a few years before I started taking private lessons, and I used the theory I learned from guitar to teach myself other instruments. Although, I have to admit, on most instruments besides guitar and piano I would say I do a lot more dabbling than legitimately playing. I have solid rhythm, but me playing a full drumset usually ends up being more of a comedy sketch than anything. But I love experimenting with and recording a variety of instruments on different songs and projects.

Any favorite instrument?

I can't say I really have one favorite instrument. There's so much potential with nearly any instrument to create something beautiful or inspiring, and it's really the overall feel of a song or album that gets me. If I had to choose, I'd say strings in general, be it violin, cello, viola, etc. Strings are timeless, and for me, they work with nearly every style of music.

What did you grow up listening to?

In high school I listened to a lot of garage rock, punk rock, hard rock, pop - you name it. I remember Jimmy Eat World's Clarity and Weezer's Pinkerton were always playing, and I couldn't get enough of The Strokes. It actually wasn't till a few years after I started playing music that I really developed my musical interests and tastes to where they are today, and I wouldn't even know where to start in listing off who I've listened to and been influenced by the past six or seven years. Sigur Ros, Radiohead, Bon Iver, Beach House, Iron & Wine, and Jeremy Messersmith have longtime been some of my favorites.

What was the writing process for Morning's Gold like? How did you approach this differently than any other project?

I believe it was early 2010 when I went on a songwriting spree that lasted a couple months, during which I decided it would be fun to put out a solo album. Two of the songs were written a few years earlier, but the rest were written around that time. At first I was planning on basic acoustic folk songs, with nothing much beyond vocals and acoustic guitar.  That idea didn't last too long. Of course, all the songs are still mainly acoustic-driven, but when I started recording, I would add more and more layers as I went on with the process. I did a lot of the arranging in the studio. Typically, I had the acoustic tracks recorded and started adding from there, always trying to think of ideas of what instruments or textures would work well with each song. 

It was different than other projects I've done mainly in that I only had the fundamental chords and melody of each song when I started recording the album. Most everything else was developed as I went, as opposed to knowing the bulk of what each song will eventually sound like before going into the studio. It was fun to think of layers and new ideas as I went, but the key is knowing when to stop. Sometimes I would get so caught up in adding more and more that it became a mess, and I would lose some of the integrity of the song itself. For some of the songs I had to just cut myself off and call it good with what I've got at that moment.

You say that you were/are inspired by road trips, Minnesota winters, faith, heartbreak, and love. Can you elaborate on this a little more? 

These are just some of the things that inspired specific songs from the album. There is a broad range of emotions and ideas covered with these six songs, but I thought they still fit well with each other. The last song, "Moving In Circles," sort of encompasses the overarching theme with these songs, which is the idea of always moving forward. Life can be incredibly beautiful and life can be incredibly painful. But no matter what, we have to keep moving. With "Moving In Circles," I wanted to use the picture of a memorable road trip and use it as a metaphor for this.

My wife Rebekah and I were married in June and so love is of course a key component to a couple of the songs. She sings on the album and plays live with me, and that's been exciting. My faith has always been a huge influence for me with my music. God changed my life and he's truly the reason I've continued in pursuing my passion with music and creativity. 

Chris Bartels talks Morning's Gold and DIY recording

It looks like you are very much a DIY artist. Why did you decide to go this route versus looking into signing with a management company and/or record label? Any plans to do so?

It's just sort of what's worked out so far with the music I've done. I definitely enjoy more than just the musical process of putting out an album, whether it's learning different things with design or promotion or whatever else. I'm currently a music production student at McNally Smith College of Music, and I've learned a lot about recording and have access to great equipment and studio space there. Sometimes I enjoy the recording and mixing process as much as, if not more than, the songwriting process.

From the get go, my intention was that Morning's Gold would be completely DIY, to hopefully gain experience in different areas of an album process. That being said, I definitely hope to be working more with other artists, managers, or companies in the future. Collaborating on projects is fun and rewarding, and I know there's so many people who are more talented and experienced than me in lots of areas. I'm quickly learning the DIY route is exciting, frustrating, rewarding, and tedious all at the same time. I'm doing all I can now and enjoying it, but if it was a good mutual fit, signing with a management company and/or record label would absolutely be a possibility.

How have you utilized the internet to help you in this process?

I've tried to use the internet as much as I can for sharing my work. You have to nowadays.  There's so many great sites that are a potential stage for sharing and promoting music, but the tough part is standing out from the crowd. I haven't come up with any secret formulas yet.  I just try to avoid separating my personal voice from my music. I want to use social media to connect with people who are interested in my music, and avoid being "spammy."

Specifically, I try to focus on the typical social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and I've been utilizing Bandcamp and Soundcloud to share my music. I'll be posting Morning's Gold on my Bandcamp for free digital download on December 9. I like the aesthetic and ease of using as an official website, and I use Tumblr to blog about other music and art that I'm interested in.

What can we expect from the show at the 331 Club?

Good music and great people at a cool venue. We're super excited to share the stage with Josiah Erickson, Foreston, and Good Diction. They're all so talented.

Chris Bartels will release Morning's Gold with Joshiah Erickson, Foreston and Good Diction on Friday, December 9, 2011 at the 331 Club.  21+, Free 10 pm

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