>> Valley Maker is the project of songwriter Austin Crane. He is a Seattle-based musician and a Ph.D. student in Human Geography. His second full-length album, 'Rhododendron', was recently released on October 12th. Check out this interview with him where we talked about his latest album, songwriting, and what he does to keep the creativity flowing!
What is the origin story behind ‘Valley Maker’?
Valley Maker started as a musical project in 2010 with a collection of songs I wrote for my undergraduate thesis project at the University of South Carolina. I’ve loved Bill Callahan’s music for many years, and the project’s name comes from “Say Valley Maker”, a song off of his Smog record, A River Ain’t Too Much To Love. For me, that song evokes both elemental and human questions around being in time, which felt fitting for this project to take inspiration from. Even though Valley Maker is a vehicle for my songwriting, and I do often play solo shows, I see it as existing over time in collaboration with other people, from various tour lineups to different recording projects (Amy Fitchette being a key ongoing collaborator, as well as producers Trevor Spencer and Chaz Bear on the new record). So I feel like the project not existing under my own name helps to keep the door open for whatever is next.
Your latest album, ‘Rhododendron’, came out on Oct. 12. It features 10 songs written about your ‘headspace’ as a Ph.D. student in Human Geography, and the connections we share with others. Can you tell us how you chose the name for the album as well as a bit about the meaning behind each of the tracks?
I wouldn’t say the record is about my headspace as much as written from it – it feels important for me to look outwards and inwards in songwriting. I don’t like to be overly deterministic regarding what any piece of music/writing/art is about, per say, just because I think that one of the most beautiful things about music is how we arrive at meaning through uniquely situational and intersubjective processes. But I have been working on a Ph.D. in Human Geography for a few years now and was traveling to conduct my research around most of the time that I was writing and recording this record. My research is on humanitarianism, migration, and borders – which have been fairly fraught subjects to study amidst the current administration’s many anti-human policies and Europe’s move to the right on immigration policy. Doing that research has certainly raised a lot of questions about how we, as humans, exist in relation to one another. I couldn’t tell you exactly how, but I’m sure that headspace has had a big impact on my writing.
The title, Rhododendron, is taken from a song on the album, “Seven Signs”. Rhododendron is a plant that grows in parts of the Southeast, where I lived for most of my life, and it’s everywhere in Seattle, where I now live. So, even as I walk around in my daily life here, it’s taken on a certain kind of symbolism for me, as a welcome continuity in bridging different parts of my past and present.
Do you have a favorite track on the album? If so, why is it your favorite?
That’s hard to say. My process for writing this album was to whittle down from about 20-25 possible songs to the 10 that make up the record – so each carries its own importance and meaning to me. But if I had to choose one I might pick “A Couple Days”, which is a song I wrote in my grandmother’s memory. That was one of the first songs we recorded for Rhododendron, and the way it came together in the studio with Chaz was pretty surprising and exciting for me. “A Couple Days” and “Beautiful Birds Flying” were the first two songs we tracked and I think they helped to orient me towards what the record could become, kind of setting the tone for the sessions that followed. I wanted “A Couple Days” to be the first track on Rhododendron because of how it ushers you into the world of the record, sonically and thematically.
What’s your favorite thing about being on tour?
I really love going on tour. I love experiencing the songs in new ways based on who is playing with me and how the space feels. It’s a privilege to get to travel to new cities and meet new people and spend a few hours together in a shared environment focused on music. That shared musical space can be magical; I always try to be present to the particular aspects that make each night special. Playing music live, especially with other musicians, also has a certain transporting effect for me where I can get lost in it, and that’s one of the best feelings too. So I guess it’s both of those things together that I’m always hoping will converge on any given night – a feeling of mutual togetherness and a feeling of transcendence, as cheesy as it sounds, just getting lost in the music.
What is your favorite song to perform and why?
I haven’t played these new songs out enough to say with any certainty yet – so we’ll see which becomes the favorite on tour this fall! Rhododendron is more of a band record than my previous release, so I’m excited to go on tour with these songs and work them out on the road with my bandmates. I really enjoy that as a way to newly experience and reencounter the songs I’ve written. Of the older songs from When I Was A Child, “Oh Lightning” is probably my favorite to perform – the guitar part is cyclical in a way that always helps me settle into shows.
When writing a new song, are there any ‘rituals’ you perform? For example: grabbing a cup of coffee, or sitting somewhere specific? When I do any sort of writing, I like to listen to music – I’m listening to your album ‘When I was a Child’ currently while I come up with these interview questions. It’s beautiful!
Thank you! When and how songwriting happens has always been fairly unpredictable for me, but I do try to see song ideas to completion once I’ve started them, to not prejudge anything before I’ve at least cobbled together a rough draft. I guess the closest thing I have to a ritual is to just play guitar whenever I can – 99 times out of 100 my songwriting process will begin with stumbling upon a guitar part I like, then I’ll pair it with a vocal melody, and then I’ll finish it out with lyrics. Even though playing music is my favorite thing to do and even though I crave having the time to write, actually carving out the solitary, focused time to enter into that creative space of songwriting is a discipline I have to regularly practice.
Outside of music, what else do you enjoy doing? Is there anything in particular that keeps your creativity flowing?
Whenever I’m in Seattle, I try to go on good walks with my dog every day. She enjoys it, so that’s reason enough! But it also really helps to clear my head and keep my thoughts active and my mind open to the world. I’m working along on writing my Ph.D. dissertation, a seemingly endless process, and there are always various computer-based tasks to work on – so having solid breaks away from screens feels totally essential for creativity. Reading poetry has become a meaningful practice for me; it’s been helping lately to orient my heart and mind towards others and towards the world, and to not feel defeated by the many depressing political developments of the last few years.
Who are you listening to currently?
I love West African guitar-based music and I recently picked up two records in Portland by Les Filles de Illighadad that I have been kind of obsessed with. I got the new pressing of Gillian Welch’s Soul Journey a few weeks back and have been having a renewed moment with that record – I really can’t believe how good of a song “Wrecking Ball” is. I’ve listened to a ton to the new Nap Eyes record that came out this year, I’m Bad Now. I got to play a show with Chad VanGaalen recently and have been enjoying going back through his discography. Lastly, I found a record by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou when I was in Germany last winter and her music is so stunning; I listen to it at least a couple times a week. <<