Scott wasn’t sitting down to write an entire album. One day, one song came to him, came through him — really; it came out with a simplicity and an earnestness, set to an unhurried tempo and sung in an inflection that was self-aware and eschewed facades. And that song was “Here Comes Our Family” a spacious, almost-levitating whisper-ballad enriched by minimal pianos and strings, with enough space between each note so as to give the tenderest of intonations a sense of monumental catharsis. It’s the kind of song that slows your pulse and makes your head swim. When it’s done in less than five minutes, you kinda wish it had lasted for eight.
But that was it. Just a piano-led ambient suite that Scott Robert Allen started working on in the earlier stages of quarantine. The Ann Arbor-based songwriter was like so many of us, finding himself with more time at home throughout the spring and summer of 2020 — so the writing and recording process began, at first, very much like a meditation — or a diary, even. The other thing is, Allen hadn’t actively deployed his singing voice in nearly a decade, so the exercise, at first, was reactivating an outlet he hadn’t utilized in a while.
“With my voice and my vocal performance,” Allen said, “I don’t think I was ever really honest with the way I sang. This is a more honest representation. But I also haven’t sung a single note in almost 10 years, so maybe this is just how it comes out now? It’s weird to say that it ‘felt honest…,’ but it definitely felt real, for the first time.”
After “Here Comes Our Family,” Scott put the piano down and brought out a guitar and a distortion pedal, ripping his way through a rather ferocious lo-fi punk-rock frenzy called “Revisions,” interspersed with esoteric noise and sudden rhythm breaks. Suffice to say, an entirely different sound. But then another song came to him. And then another song. And over the course of quarantine, he’d steadily assembled nearly a dozen songs and each had its own signature sonic auras. The idea wasn’t to make a concept album but rather to just channel whatever his mind, heart, or mood at that time happened to be transmitting, and see if he could manifest a song from that.
“I didn’t wanna be very conventional,” said Allen. “What I learned when I wrote this was something that I’m sure painters struggle with all the time is figuring how to leave negative space and let something breathe. I feel like I really tried to do that. When I felt I was done singing what I needed to say, I wanted the other instruments to speak.”
And speak they do — Allen is performing many of his piano parts on an instrument that belongs to his wife, Heather (inherited from her grandfather). In fact, Heather co-wrote lyrics for “Here Comes Our Family,” and added backing vocals to “New Plans,” along with Allen’s stepson, Sebastian. The rest of the contributing cast of musicians includes some longtime songwriters/musicians in their own right and longtime friends of Allen’s, including his brother Ryan Allen (a singer/songwriter in his own right) and musician Eric Osterman, who also served as a reliable soundboard for ideas and production. Detroit-based musician Lauren Mercury Roberts added flute, and a swath of other songwriters added bits of guitar and bass such as Scott Masson, Trevor Naud, Arun Bali, and even Fred Thomas.
Allen emphasized that this album wouldn’t have come together without his family, Heather and Sebastian — which is evident in the lead-off track, perhaps the most representative of the songs because it finds Allen opening contemplative of what matters most to him in the world. “A lot has changed since I wrote music 10 years ago — I wasn’t married then, but now I am. But also my whole life is different now. And that’s kinda where the artwork (by Jordan Sullivan) came from. I saw (Jordan’s) painting and said that I had to use it.” The idea was to address the mundane and even some of the drudgery, but also locate the beautiful aspects of everyday life that are present, if not always perceptible.
Allen tends to be cognizant of the “process,” specifically the “creative process,” because he’s been a musician for most of his life and also started flourishing his talents for filmmaking over the last decade. He started a band of his own as a teenager and spent several years playing keyboards with Thunderbirds Are Now! alongside his brother Ryan. He’s created “solo” material in the past but this self-titled album, released just last month, was something entirely different for him.
“I make art, I’ve made documentaries, I’ve written songs — there’s a lot of places that I think I’m searching out, but this album was an exercise; an absolute mixtape of music. It didn’t want to be held to any sort of genre. Some songs are the types of songs that I’ve always wanted to write, while others were pure experiments. But it’s so important to me that, if it’s like each song was in its own room and they all did something differently — it was still all inside the same house.”
Scott Robert Allen has been making music for more than 20 years, but he’s still not an old man yet, (don’t let those slightly doctored press photos fool you). But, it could be said that he has led a long music life. But something’s changed for this songwriter — there isn’t a response to any self-imposed pressure and no clinging to any expectations of fame or glory — that isn’t even an issue that enters his thoughts at this point. “I’m not trying to be somebody else,” he said. “Not to say that I ever wasn’t, before…. But I’m letting things be, and whatever comes out — comes out. I’m okay with that. I have to be okay with that.”
The songs on Scott Robert Allen are, for the most part, sequenced in chronological order of when Allen wrote them. And he continues to write. Not in a hurry and not with any preoccupation — because his focus is elsewhere, on family, or work, or even other artistic projects.
In the meantime, check out these songs on Bandcamp: each has its own cinematic quality — like a tiny, contained soundtrack — each fits a variety of moods for any given day.