This past week I began a sober journey down a rabbit hole of sound and composition that I haven’t experienced in quite awhile. Being iced-in at a one-bedroom apartment will do that to you. One afternoon my solitude was virtually inhabited by Stelth Ulvang, who appeared on my computer screen from Denver, dressed in a kimono and knit hat and glasses and probably unprepared for how much I wanted to talk about with him. Having listened to him, both as a solo musician and as a member of Dovekins and The Lumineers, I knew that he was musically savvy and gifted, a multi-instrumentalist in the truest, most literal sense. He was unabashed and charismatic and aware. And as we talked just days before the release of his solo album, And, As Always; The Infinite Cosmos, Stelth circulated the word and this idea of “community” throughout our entire conversation, triggering a substance-like response in my mind that lead me to a conclusion that this album is the embodiment of compositional community.
“It was about the annoyance of travel. And hearing people say that it’s such a small world,” said Stelth when I inquired about the album title. While on tour in 2012 with Shenandoah Davis in New Zealand, he experienced an alien culture, inspiring him to write a majority of this 2015 release. “It comes as such a shock to some people, like ‘oh my gosh it is such a small world.’ And I guess it is a small world, but that seems too conclusive,” he detailed. So he decided to elaborate on the world around him on And, As Always. But before this release Stelth had seen already (and poorly) attempted piracy on the Pacific aboard The Dove, which only gave way to a band name rather than an oceanic adventure, established a circuit of house shows in Colorado, toured across the country and outside of it and collaborated with numerous acts, most notably, The Lumineers.
I couldn’t help but be a bit jealous of the stories Stelth has collected, of the kind of life he has lead, and continues to, as it seems to have a never-ending soundtrack and an encompassing community that awaits him at every momentary destination. But during my sonic emersion, I recognized a truism: community is not found, but created. Which is exactly Stelth’s pursuit. Not only did he create the communal experience of collaboration, shape shifting from his place in Dovekins to The Lumineers, but also, he whole-heartedly desired it. Though he detoured with Shenandoah, he returned as The Lumineers’ pianist (and eleven other instrumental titles) and toured with them for two years, yet again perpetuating human and audible synergy. Just watch him stand on the piano or throw another instrument into the mix while still maneuvering the keys.
Portland seemed the most suitable place to record his solo debut, especially considering his nature. “I didn’t take anybody that I knew. I just took the songs,” he coolly said. Bold move. He met Richie Greene in Portland, who arranged and composed the bulk of the orchestration, and Nick Jaina, a fellow collaborator who produced the album, and found all 22 of his musicians in Oregon’s beloved city. “All of the songs were shaped by the people I was playing with, which was to be determined the day I was recording them,” Stelth continued. “The drummers changed, the bass players changed, the string players changed. But each of them had a different sound…and I think musically, it’s important to remember that it’s a small community. But the combinations of one violin player and one viola player will be totally different from another combination,” he explained.
He cited Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, assisted by his roommate who sang the opening track from another room, noting that a similar “just play without instruction or structure” method was employed in the making of his own album, especially with the strings. Yann Tiersen’s Amelie score was a catalyst for his piano and accordion songwriting, and I sat listening to it, aimlessly searching for harmonic parallels. Having studied opera and come from a classical background, I approached Stelth’s music in the same listening manner. I watched a video of him playing “Carl Sagan; About the Orbits of Others,” noting the repeated motif in his left hand at the piano, striking the ascending scale with his thumb only, creating an audible sense of persistence. The four-note pattern is played for almost the entire song, with a whirlwind of strings and blasts of brass and vocals filling the hollowness of perfect intervals. He utilizes polytonality, tricking you into resolution, when the reality of the piece collides in a cataclysmic tremolo accompanied by vocals that leave you stunned. He admitted, “This song is my favorite. It is the most sincere, even now, when I play it.” What he defines as “orchestral folk” is unbarred and given definition through its lack thereof. “You get so excited to be doing this thing on your own, that you have trouble reining it in. And I don’t think I reined it in, and I love that,” Stelth affirmed.
Even though he whispered the idea, “rock opera,” into the conversation, he allows And, As Always to reside as a concept album, collecting eighteen different instruments onto ten tracks, naturally forming another community through captivating noises and sounds. The album expresses thematic and atmospheric ideas of impressionism, fusing minimalist qualities with soulful and still contemporary sounds. “If I did anything else, it would be worthless in the attempt, because nothing has seemed to work out for me. Nothing has worked out better than throwing myself into the thick of it and being open to anything,” said Stelth. The album is compiled of individualized songs, each representing a member of the musical community that is And, As Always. And just like any other community, you might favor one member over another, and you might not even like every singular piece. But collectively it forms something undeniably whole. From the instrumental opening of “Wake Up,” to the temporarily sunny disposition of “Springtime,” to the spectrum of “Carl Sagan,” to the sex appeal of the bluesy “Clocktower,” it is perfectly unified, no two songs sounding alike, and rightfully so.
“So is it a small world?” I asked, half-smiling at the thought. Stelth replied, “It is a small and finite world. But the combinations and possibilities are endless, and let’s not limit that to the scenes and communities that we are already in. But let’s keep expanding them, beyond those scenes and those communities, so that we are no longer shocked anymore.” Even after an indulgent conversation with the musician, I still don’t totally know what to expect at his live performance. But I know that I want to be a part of this community.
Join Stelth Ulvang’s scene at The Basement tonight.