Timothy Monger can pluck your heartstrings with a master harpist’s precision. But the guitar-playing singer/songwriter has shelved much of his past works’ nostalgia-pangs and sepia-splashed wistful folk ambiance for his third album, Amber Lantern. Still tilling the soils of the self and rendering poetic ruminations, Monger’s now reinforcing the steel of his soul with not just the more fiery energies of rock elements (like guitar, bass and drums), but also wending his way, in lyrical words, toward a refortified resolve, augmented by a careful weaving of prog-like synthesizers, and baroque strings and brass.
Monger’s first album was vibrant and adventurous, very much a “summer” vibe, while 2011’s New Britton Sound muted the aural hues to a paler, earthier autumn haze. So it would follow that Amber would be a winter record, but its more triumphant rock moments shuttle it past the otherwise cold/barren season and right out in to the early buddings and returning greens of springtime. He’s also never sounded more humble, more contemplative, more energized! It’s an album that asks hard questions and embraces the inevitable lack of answers.
Local audiences will recall Monger’s decade-long tenure (alongside his brother James), co-fronting the A2-based folk-rock outfit Great Lakes Myth Society, which came to a conclusion right around Monger’s second album. Four years in the making, Amber Lantern shows the evolution of this Britton-based songwriter.
What was it that would typically drive you to the page to start writing (Amber Lantern’s songs)?
I knew I wanted to make more of a rock album…, or at least, one written mostly on electric guitar. I have a tonal palette that I tend to naturally fall back on, and I wanted to make sure new ground was covered here. I dno’t release albums very often and it’s important to me that they each have a different identity and sound. Emotionally, (Amber Lantern) was a spiny, unruly journey that slowly took form over several years, amid various life changes. I wrote and recorded the (album’s opening) song, “Plough King,” down in Britton back in 2012, and I finished writing (the closing song) “Grey’s End” in Saline, just days before completing the final mix in September of 2016. So, for me, the album has a linear feel.
When I hear your lyrics, even if it’s you embodying a fictitious narrator, I can hear so much contemplation and existential investigating and sometimes anxiety. How do you quell that in a prolonged creation process?
I’ve always worked slowly and it can be hard to maintain enough momentum to keep yourself in a positive place. I can go off on tangents, fall into despair, question everything, and have lots of little victories, or failures, so it’s not really that different from real life. Eventually, (the album) gets finished, and if all went well, (it) makes sense to me and I feel proud. Of course I’d love for it to be successful and heard by many, but there’s a lot of pressure these days for artists to also be cunning entrepreneurs. At the end of the day, it’s most important to me that I’ve just made something that I love and would want to listen to. Albums are really hard to make, and you have to please yourself first, or it just isn’t worth all of the effort.
What were you hoping for, or working toward, most of all, with this album?
I knew it was going to be a very personal record, but I didn’t see the emotional arc of the whole sequence (until the end) because I was still in the middle of it.
Tell us about the title song… And then how it leads in to the closing song, which is a big, rousing crescendo.
“Amber Lantern Theme” was written on a small synth called a Pocket Piano, which I borrowed from the Ann Arbor District Library. It was nice to get away from guitar-based writing and the tones it produced had an odd quality that worked well with the almost hymn-like lyrics. The amber lantern represents the spirit of optimism that I always try to maintain while the heaviness of the song’s production represents all the underlying fear that threatens it. It sets up “Grey’s End,” which is about defiance and rallying yourself out of depression and self-doubt. (Grey’s End) is a bootstrapping song and it was important for me to end the album on a high note.
When you think back to the whole span of its production, what stands out? Who’s contributed to this record over the years?
Like almost everything I’ve released, this was partly engineered and mixed by Geoff Michael in Ann Arbor (Big Sky Recordings). He has been my recording mentor for years and he’s a huge part of my aural representation in the world. I’m so lucky to work with him.
As far as instrumental contributors, I reconnected with several of my longtime collaborators like pianist Patrick Herek, trumpeter Matt Collar, and violist Cathy Franklin. My brother James appears on high strung guitar and Christian Anderson also played bass on a couple of tracks. There were several newcomers who I’d never recorded with like pedal steel player Ryan Gimpert, hurdy-gurdy player Brian McCoy, bassist Serge van der Voo, and particularly drummer Chad Sturdivant who appears on almost every song.
With my solo albums, I often tend to try and go it alone, working like crazy in my home studio on a million little parts. And then I invite someone else over to collaborate and wonder why I don’t do it all the time. Like my other albums, Amber Lantern is a hybrid of that super intense personal effort and some really strong outside ideas that help me change my perspective.
2017 lies ahead of you, Tim…
Starting the year with a new album is invigorating. This journey was intense and full of inward gazing, so I’m happy to be looking forward again!
Wednesday, Feb. 8th
The Ark | 316 S. Main St, Ann Arbor
734-761-1800 | timothymonger.com
Amber Lantern out Feb 10th via Northern Detective Records