May 15, 2013
Whatever your mind conjures up when you hear the words "traditional folk songs" is about to get turned on its head with Songs For A Traveler, a genre-bending collection of vintage folk standards, 50's country gems and random lullaby and 19th-century logging song tossed in for good measure. The man behind the remarkable project is Todd Carter, a New York-based singer (phenomenal, actually) multi-instrumentalist and arranger who goes by the pseudonym The Looking. The concept of reinterpreting folk standards is nothing new but Carter's dramatic, occasionally operatic and densely orchestrated approach gives songs like "Wayfaring Stranger," "Long Black Veil" and Hank Williams' "Angel of Death" a powerful, goose-bump-inducing force. One of the album's best tracks is "River in the Pines", a Wisconsin logging song (and duet with Sasha Dobson) that Carter describes as "a wonderful old ballad" adding, "I kept hearing this REM-esque guitar lick that became the opening of the song." It's that kind of imaginative rethinking that makes Songs For A Traveler one of the most rewarding left-field surprises of the year.
“Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.”
Carter grew up in Carmel, a suburb just north of Indianapolis. Like almost all kids growing up in America, his earliest musical memories came drifting through the airwaves in the back seat of his parent’s car.
“It was the heyday of classic 70s radio, with bands like Wings and Bread and America,” Carter remembers. “It wasn’t long before I was clipping those dodgy Columbia House music club ads out of magazines and secretly sending away for cassette tapes of Iron Maiden and Foreigner. I loved hiding this activity from the rest of my family, smuggling the precious contraband from mailbox to bedroom. There’s just something magical about listening to music on the sly… it was like finding messages in a bottle, but instead they arrived in little plastic cases.”
His fate sealed in shrink-wrap, Carter eventually traded his football helmet for a microphone. “With some friends we formed a local rock band in Carmel,” Carter says. “We won the battle of the bands during my senior year in high school, and that was it — I was absolutely consumed with music.
“I focused my studies on philosophy and music and played in all kinds of bands in college, and it was there that I began to study voice,” Carter says. “My first voice teacher said, ‘Why aren’t you in the opera program? You have an operatic voice.’ My response was a tough, ‘Really? I sing punk rock, man.’”
Yet it became those two seemingly disparate worlds that Carter melded together to form The Looking. Carter’s soaring vocals on indie epics like “Revolt, I Do” (Tin Can Head, 2005) and “Causeway” (Cabinet of Curiosities, 2009) imbue the songs with an individual edge. It’s heady stuff, especially for fans of Carter’s beloved jangly ‘80s and ‘90s British-by-way-of-the-Byrds rock, and though perhaps more delicate, that unique blend of elements glistens on the latest record as well.
“There’s a familiar sound in the guitars that’s comforting, and a psychedelic presence in songs like “River of Pines.” It’s reminiscent of Pop, even though it’s an old 19th century Wisconsin logger song,” Carter explains.
Therein lies the twist of Songs for a Traveler, a story discovered by way of the journey. The album is adventurous tour through unexpected cover songs from far afield. Listeners will undoubtedly be familiar with some, with others refreshingly unexpected. All of them bear the distinct imprint of The Looking.
“The arrangement of the song list is organic in terms of intensity and feel, with each song seductively moving into the next,” Carter says. “I thought about it as more of a complete document instead of each song being an individual journey, though by listening you’ll discover that in fact they are standing quite tall on their own. The first song (“All the Pretty Horses”) is a lullaby made famous by Odetta. “I kept hearing an up beat drum part under the basic melody. The originality of this version really comes from the intensity of the drums, the guitar parts and the vocal delivery. The second song, ‘900 Miles,’ was challenging because there are some incredible versions of that song out there. ‘River of Pines, is a wonderful old ballad and I kept hearing this REM-esque guitar lick that became the opening of the song.
Carter has taken some bold moves in his interpretation of these timeless songs. “‘Wayfaring Stranger’ has been made famous by so many people, but I think we did it justice. That and ‘Long Black Veil’ are a little more rocking than people are used to,” Carter says. “‘Long Black Veil’ loses a bit of the sadness at the heart of the song, but we wanted to make our version distinct. There is there’s some happiness to be found in the story of death in this song, a sweet kind of release in knowing that this woman is still crying for him. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record and it was born during a rehearsal. I knew the chord progression and I knew the harmony, but it was just jamming with the guys that took it where the song wanted to go. You may notice that the drummer never plays a crash cymbal, staying instead on the hi-hat the whole time, resulting in a beautiful grounding.”
Carter produced Songs for a Traveler. He selected the material, road tested it and either arranged or co-arranged every single track. Yet one of the album’s undeniable delights is the keen interplay between the musicians. “The basic tracks were recorded live off the floor,” Carter says. On ‘Sail Around,’ for example, the vocal is completely live. That’s what we got out of the studio from the whole band jamming through it. The chemistry and the alchemy of us being together is truly what makes it work.”
Many of these same top-notch musicians will comprise the Looking when Carter takes the album on the road, with planned dates along the East Coast through the Midwest and possibly even across the Atlantic.
Carter, though a proficient multi-instrumentalist, plans to move forward with his voice more than anything else. “I’m starting to put the instruments down,” he says. “I just want to sing, and this desire is opening up a spectrum of performance unavailable to me before.”