Until I heard him wailing about “a killer beekeeper in a Philistine desert” in a DIY venue in a storefront in Russellville, the only thing I knew about William Blackart was that he identified loosely as a poet — at least, enough to have sold me a chapbook of erudite verse with a square of beer-case cardboard for a cover. The Danville native is, though, first and foremost, a musician — one who is, this week, putting out his first album in over a decade. “Return,” as the record’s called, traffics in what happens between dusk and dawn and, though “blinding and burning light” isn’t mentioned directly until the last gutpunch of a track, chiaroscuro is its cornerstone. Blackart releases “Return” with a concert at The White Water Tavern Friday, Sept. 28, where his performance will be followed by sets from Colour Design and Fiscal Spliff. I talked with Blackart ahead of the show.
There’s a long literary history of sunrises being symbols of rebirth and promise. On “Return,” sunrises and eastward horizons turn up a lot, but they’re bitter. They’re backdrops for goodbyes and endings, not for births and beginnings. Why is that?
I think it kind of varies by song. On the opening track, “Devil May Care,” I’d say any sunrise imagery is more akin to the idea of rebirth than a bitter end. That song is basically a rebirth of attitude. Our unknown protagonist is trading in his or her acts of fruitless longing for a “devil may care” attitude: “Take me or leave me/The devil may care.” They’re saying, “Yeah, I want your love, but it’s kind of petty compared to the solace and beauty found in this earth (and, by extension, universe) that I’m a part of. So it’s all about embracing your humanity while also embracing humanity’s place in the world — or more specifically, one’s place in the world.
On the flip side, the song “I Know Mine” definitely treats the sunrise as an ending. “I’m forever damned to the sunrise.” In this case, the sunrise is what separates the narrator from her lover. I was influenced by the Townes Van Zandt song “Our Mother The Mountain” when writing this one. I always imagined the “Lover” in Townes’ song to be some sort of witch, so that got my mind moving to write some type of vampire character. But what I was really trying to do was examine the idea of dawn (and dusk, I guess, too) — how dawn is such a magical time; it’s not completely dark nor completely light. But that line of thinking really stemmed from my ideas about the present, and how it doesn’t really exist, because as soon as we try to comprehend the present it’s already become the past. I see the present as some kind of flux state that doesn’t really exist. Which I guess is a paradox, or something, and that opens up a whole new can of worms. So it’s just easier to explore those ideas through writing about love affairs with vampires. It worked for those “Twilight” books, right?
Where did this airborn dog (statue) come from? Was it heavy? Where is it now?
Oh, yes, “Air Bud II: The Return.” Ha, ha! In my early 20s my grandmother got a new dog — a border collie — and my folks found that statue at who-knows-where and gave it to her that Christmas. She named the dog Baby Angel, and when Baby Angel saw that statue it freaked her out big-time. She did an about-face and took off with her tail tucked. It’s just made of plastic and not that heavy. I still have it. It’s kind of sentimental, I guess.
I heard a little piece of an interview on KABF-FM, 88.3, recorded sometime just before the release of the new record from Adam Faucett, who produced “Return.” Someone referred to “Return” as your “Chinese Democracy,” referring, I think, to the fact that “Left,” your last album, came out in 2007. Was the delay a matter of choice or circumstance? Do you feel like waiting to do it made the album more fully realized?
The lapse in time was definitely not a choice. About a year after “Left” came out, I recorded an album worth of stuff, but I didn’t have the money to put it out. This was pre-Bandcamp. I could’ve done CD-Rs, but they can be fickle. So I kept on touring and kicking around ideas of what to do with the recording. Before I knew it, a couple of years had passed, and at that point I had newer songs I thought were better, and I felt stronger as a performer, too. So I recorded some of the new stuff, then scrapped most of it for even newer, “better” songs. I don’t know; time really passes.
With this set of songs on “Return,” I started recording them probably four or five years ago at Blue Chair Studio B in Austin (Lonoke County) with Daniel Cox. Adam Faucett produced the record, and he was living in Nashville for a good chunk of that, so we’d book a couple days here and there when he was in town. We let it breathe plenty, and it just kind of fell together. … We definitely captured some magic moments with those earlier recordings, but a better set of songs and a better performance resulted from the time lapse, and what we have currently feels pretty magical, too.
I’ve been a fan of your poetry for a while, and I notice now that your poetry is markedly different than your songwriting. Like, I can never imagine you singing “Theremin, that Greek God of ghastly camp, when beseeched by Orpheus — ‘Great Theremin, mighty weaver of audible sinew’ … ” How do you go about writing differently when you know your words will be set to music?
Um … I definitely started writing songs first. With songs, there’s so much more to work with. Music is, foremost, sonic. I was talking with my buddy, Forrest, a while back, about this very thing. He was saying how powerful it can be for someone to simply scream the word “Baby” with the right growl in their voice over the right chord. It can be as moving as any poem (or song). Or substitute “Baby” with “Corned Beef Hash,” even. Music is an audible interaction. Of course, with poetry there’s the whole rhythm thing we learned about in high school, and I guess with someone like Kerouac, he was writing jazz music with his poetry. But I guess with me, when writing songs I let the melody lead the way.
There’s a lot of language on the album that reminds me of the Old Testament, language of punishment and vengeance, most particularly on “Atlantis Calling.” And, even more transparently, on “Long Shot,” there’s this: “Once was a time when I talked to god/Talked that ear off/Now I just listen in the rocks and the trees and the drunks set beside me.” Are you a person of faith?
I grew up going to a small-town church, hearing Bible stories and those old hymns and what-not since I was born. Couple that with an introduction to Leonard Cohen in my early 20s, and those Biblical references and metaphors just seem to pour out. As for that line you mention from “Long Shot” — the narrator in that song is definitely one who sees his own flaws, and in that moment he’s — more than anything — having a humble spell. Maybe even some revelations about the world he thought he knew. To say it’s somewhat autobiographical would be true.