"I was living in Rhode Island, at a friends' house in the middle of the country. I was spending a lot of time at the ocean, in the morning and in the evening."
Rebecca Gates is explaining the origin of "Slowed Lowed Lowered," the final track on her latest full-length, The Float. The album is her first release in more than 10 years. The song is a subtle anomaly, a quietly jarring moment on a record filled with the type of off-kilter and undeniable pop hooks that Gates crafted as the primary member of Sub Pop band the Spinanes throughout the '90s. She recorded two acclaimed Spinanes records in Portland before moving to Chicago to record the band's swan song, Arches and Aisles, and her 2001 solo debut, Ruby Series. Then she seemingly disappeared, leaving her recording career behind and escaping to the Eastern seaboard.
"One of the reasons why I stopped playing music was because I had a few friends pass away in quick succession," Gates says. "I was kind of reeling from that and lost my mooring a little bit. That song was something that I needed to make that was super fucked up, but also calming and meditating."
Over a consistent blipping electronic soundscape, Gates sings, in her distinctive smoky alto, "You can lose them any time," before the song descends into an alternately soothing and discordant sound collage. It was written for friends long past, among them Gates' fellow Portland songwriter, and sometimes collaborator, Elliott Smith, who died in 2003 of an apparent suicide. The sorrowful anger is still fresh due to the fact that Gates actually recorded the song in 2004. Built in a Chicago studio with pop experimentalist John McEntire, "Slowed Lowed Lowered" was the first of a long, uncharted writing and recording process with no clear ending. For the next six years, the unmoored musician shied away from pop music while establishing a new identity in the world of visual and audio arts, becoming a sought-after curator.
"I definitely got to the point with music where I was kind of sick of myself," Gates says on a rainy afternoon in her Portland home. "It was nice to listen to other people and learn about other things. I spent 80 hours a week doing things that didn't have anything to do with music. When I was out and about and someone might say, 'Are you the woman who was in the Spinanes?' But it wasn't the same."
Still, Gates couldn't resist making music. In those six years, she squirreled away song ideas and found time to escape to studios across the country. She recorded songs in six different locations, including Portland, Montreal and Dallas, with dozens of musicians and eight different engineers. Despite the fractured orchestra of players, the songs Gates created in those years had a consistent vision wielded by a confident conductor unafraid to make demands of her players. The new collaborations also allowed Gates to reimagine her established style. Star turns by the Cribs' singer Gary Jarman on the first single, "&&&," as well as Wild Flag keyboardist Rebecca Cole and Los Lobos horn player Steve Berlin on the funk-lite track "Lease and Flame," expanded the possibilities of Gates' pop songcraft, giving her inimitable vocals and simple, bright guitar lines new places to play.
Three years ago, after wrapping up a gig curating a sound art installation in Marfa, Texas, Gates decided it was time to finish what she had started. She drove to Portland, the city she had left in 1997, and entered the studio with Larry Crane, refreshing the songs of the past years with overdubs and mixing the album. Then something unexpected happened. She didn't leave.
"I had actually just planned on being in Portland for six months, and that was about three years ago," she says. "I think one of the things that is important for me is that Portland is a very different town than it was when I left. I am kind of enamored with what is going on here, in terms of art and in terms of sustainability. And Portland allows me time to think and to work on a lot of different things. Things that, when I was in other cities, I didn't necessarily have the energy for and when I was in Portland before I didnât necessarily have the vocabulary for.â
SEE IT: Rebecca Gates plays Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., on Wednesday, June 13, with Perhapst and Jon Raymond. 8:30 pm. $10. 21+.