"I just want to talk less and less," says Holcombe Waller. "It's like, conversations walk by and I have all these ideas of things to say, and I just sit there and let them go because I'm like, I don't really need to say that. And the same thing's been happening with music."
Despite this, Waller engaged in a long exchange last week via phone and email (during his vacation in Hawaii), and finally, in person Saturday afternoon at an East Burnside coffeehouse. Happily, his mindset hasn't kept Waller from at last releasing Into the Dark Unknown, the long-anticipated follow-up album to 2005's masterful Troubled Times.
Waller's not exactly been idle in the interim. The Portland songwriter has been busy staging the show Into the Dark Unknown: The Hope Chest, which created most of the material collected on the new CD. He performed the show not only in Portland and Seattle (it was a joint commission of PICA and Seattle's On the Boards), but New York, Anchorage, San Francisco and foreign locales like Zagreb and Croatia (he plays exotic Bozeman, Mont., next month). Before that was another multimedia production, Patty (Heart) Townes, featuring Waller as an inebriated angel performing surprising, string-laden arrangements of songs by Townes Van Zandt and Patty Griffin.
Making a record was a more difficult process. Early passes at recording the new material featured a sparser instrumental approach than the lush sound of Waller's present release. A delicate early version of the title song posted online (recorded on my own KBOO radio show, thank you very much) drew unexpected interest from celebrated singer Antony Hegarty, who hipped others to Waller's work and even offered to help come up with a running order. "And I don't know what the hell my problem is," confesses Waller, "'cause, looking back, oh my god—what an opportunity that would have been to have him sequence the record."
But Waller's aforementioned ambivalence about bringing another collection to market—fueled by a skepticism of (and distaste for) the music industry—intervened. "I worked really hard making Troubled Times and then trying to self-release and promote it, and it got really good reviews, but sold maybe 2,000 copies. So I wasn't itching to jump into another vastly money-losing enterprise. And I was really excited by all the support I was getting and how much fun I was having, frankly, with other projects."
Waller digs in and lets loose: "It's like, here's this one world that's completely embracing me—not only embracing me, but funding me. I'd get these grants, I'd execute the work, I'd perform the work, promoters would promote it, audiences got to see it. Whereas in the music world, I make these albums, no labels express any interest, no one really avails themselves to show up to help do anything...There's this whole world of performing arts that's like, 'Yes, yes, come over here,' and then there's the music world which is, like, a bunch of assholes who I don't like anyway, and they drink and smoke and they're out of shape and just, like, reject me. And I thought, well, that's dumb, I don't want to sleep with these people anyway."
Eventually, though, with the help of his simpatico ensemble, the Healers—anchored by longtime friend and collaborator Ben Landsverk—Waller saw his way through to finishing Troubled Times' troubled follow-up. Audible on the record is the personal and musical growth that took place during the time it took to complete the project. The minimal but effective production touches of Times—tape manipulation, treated sounds and a soupcon of electronica that subtly evoke the lyrics' often bleak outlook, suggesting a porous boundary between the singer and the world outside him. By contrast, the new disc features a warmer, natural, live sound. (Indeed, four tracks are concert recordings, including two from the Doug Fir.) The voice, both literal and literary, is not as fragile. It sounds as though those boundaries have been repaired, and the healed artist can now focus his compassion—and his Healers—outward. Even if he doesn't feel like saying much.
SEE IT: Holcombe Waller releases Into the Dark Unknown on Sunday, Feb. 20, at Alberta Rose Theater. 7:30 pm. $20. All ages (minors must be accompanied by parent).