WILMINGTON – A year of isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic had local musician Tres Altman confined to his home and family, but producing his band The Paper Star’s new EP ‘Far Away’ hasn’t been without collaboration.
It just came about in a non-traditional way: the exchange of audio files between musicians who lived far from each other – some in Mexico City, others in Costa Rica. Tracks were constructed in pieces and fused together in the studio over the course of a year.
READ MORE: In photos: My morning jacket at Live Oak Bank Pavilion
“Far Away” is steeped in Americana through and through, backed by dreamy soundscapes, howling steel pedal guitars, textured strings and grounded with driving guitar rhythms. It will make its official live debut on Live at Ted’s on Saturday night.
“Some of the songs have been around for a while, little ideas were sketched out,” Altman said of his six tracks. “I hadn’t written for a while so during Covid I started picking up the guitar.”
The EP is introspective, a bit more whimsical than the previous eight releases of the band’s two iterations. The Paper Stars have seen a rotation of about eight musicians during their 17-year lifespan. Altman was the constant, the main songwriter.
He began framing “Far Away” at home, often late at night, throughout 2020. His family — wife and three children, including a newborn — slept comfortably in adjoining rooms while he stumbled away in a powder room.
“The acoustics are good there,” he said. “I just played softly, like lullabies, always at the end of the day, in the back corner of my rather small house.”
When it came time to flesh out the instrumentation further, he called together his Paper Stars bandmates—drummer Kevin Rhodes, guitarist Coleman Corzine, guitarist Sam Kennedy, and vocalist Amanda King—as well as musician friends around the world.
Eric Deutsch in Mexico City played keys while Jeb Bows, who has performed with Brandi Carlisle, added the Costa Rican violin. They recorded their parts and uploaded files to a shared folder that Altman had access to.
Altman’s Paper Stars bandmate Kennedy also produced the EP.
“It’s the first time I’ve hired someone else to make some sonic decisions for the band,” Altman said. “He was in my Covid bubble so we played together a bit during the pandemic.”
Kennedy helped refine the EP’s gentle demeanor by taking it back to “old-school paper stars,” Altman said. “The outfit was initially guitar, cello, pedal steel.”
The singer-songwriter formed the band in 2005 in Boulder, Colorado, whose roots are firmly anchored in blues, soul and folk. Altman was playing in the Denver-Boulder scene around the time two of its biggest names were getting started: Nathaniel Ratliff before he formed the Night Sweats, and South African-born musician and Grammy nominee Gregory Isakof.
“It was cool to see her rise,” Altman said.
During the pandemic, Altman said he listened to a lot of folk, including “Red Rocks 2020” by Nathaniel Rateliff the Night Sweats, which was recorded at the famous outdoor amphitheater built into a rock structure in Morrison, Colorado.
“It’s the songwriting stuff that I love that Nathaniel is coming back to here,” Altman said, “and it’s just so cool because it’s so symbolic of the pandemic. They recorded it with perfect mic placement and gear, to a completely silent Red Rocks, so the acoustics are incredible.”
Altman also delved into a “wormhole” of old roots music, reviving the classics Bob Dylan and Wilco.
These influences can be heard on “Far Away,” among others, which crosses multiple genres. The EP begins with experimental shoegaze folk on “The Wind, The Sea” and evolves into old country a la Waylon Jennings on “This Time Around”. It ends with a stripped down “Naturally” featuring only Altman and his acoustic guitar, slightly evoking the spirit of Townes Van Zandt.
“Those songs are definitely bedroom songs,” Altman said. “Like a tonic, little comfort capsules.”
As Covid rules eased and life settled down amid the pandemic, Altman was able to mix and master the record at Plugpoint Studio, owned by anesthetist Holt Evans, who developed Far Away. Evans has been in the Wilmington music scene for three decades, formerly as a member of Hungry Mind Review in the late ’90s and early ’90s, and has since produced records by local acts such as Astro Cowboy. (Evans’ sons are part of the local band Lauds.) He also helped play Keys on The Wind, the Sea.
“The studio had old reel-to-reel tape machines that they used to record early REM records that were produced by Mitch Easter,” Altman said. “Holt learned from Mitch. The whole process was just a relaxed experience, really a lot of fun. Holt is a music lover and knows a lot about technical production.”
In a 15 x 20 room with an isolated vocal booth amidst a wall of guitars, basses, amps and pedals, “Far Away” came to life.
Port City Daily interviewed Altman earlier in the spring as the EP was getting its finishing touches ahead of its April release. The Paper Stars will make the EP’s official debut on Live at Ted’s on October 1st at 8pm; Admission tickets are $12. Far Away is available on Bandcamp.
Here are excerpts from PCD’s conversation with Altman about the making of Far Away.
On the construction of the sound for “Far Away”
I did the instrumentation first and passed it on to a musician without directing too much. I wanted them to let the part they were feeling come through.
I’ve been playing with all these people for a long time and I just trust their instincts. I’m excited because I hear what they’re doing and I’m like, “Yeah, you just made it so much better — this is going places I wasn’t expecting.”
There’s a song called “Easier to Find” that I thought was more of a guitar-centric song, but when I sent it to my friend Eric in Mexico, he added all these cool electric pianos and weird keyboard parts. Suddenly it became a floating, ethereal song.
We used the mellotron, which is a really interesting instrument – the first sampled sound with recordings of a flute or a violin on a tape loop. The most famous mellotron flute sound is on The Beatles “Strawberry Fields Forever”.
Now there’s a digital version of it that Kevin Rhodes has played on almost every song – because it’s just gorgeous. He also added the Wurlitzer electric piano.
My friend Phil Parker, who actually mastered the record, played pedal steel.
There’s also a cello to give it a thread-like feel. I played drums and guitar and wanted a female singer so I approached Amanda King of Tumbleweed who did another project with me called Human Kind. She added harmony to the vocals.
This was a heart project. Everyone involved did it because they love music.
About music as an escape route during Covid-19
Covid has slowed everything down. And it felt good to slow down, to be at home with my kids and my wife – to have nothing to do and places to go and things to see.
So that really is a Covid record. There’s no getting up and moving on with this record; It’s like slow songs for fast times.
And for better or worse, I wrote these songs as a meditative exercise, at night after a day with the kids as a father and husband. It was my own kind of coping mechanism, with all the anxiety that comes with it.
I felt the need to just be in the music to calm down and center myself. Just playing, strumming did me so good – and just letting things come out. With the restrictions and fear around Covid, I feel like I need calming songs.
Thematically, many of the lyrics reflect on friends in different life situations – love interests or relationships that don’t work out the way you imagined. And what that means, especially as you get older, is that things don’t end up the way you expected.
Then I thought about my grandfather, my elders, people who have already passed away and how they still influence us from outside of this realm, if that is happening at all.
I guess you could say I also wrote songs for my kids to give insights – not so much like lessons but things to think about.
I just caught myself thinking about friends and family that I haven’t seen in years and who are very close to my heart. I think that’s a good way of putting it: this was a way of contacting people without being able to physically contact them.
Do you have any comments or tips? Email email@example.com
Want to read more from PCD? Subscribe to now and then subscribe to our newsletter, Wilmington wireand get the headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.