The Stoughton/Madison band celebrates its new album, Lonesome Loon, this Saturday at the Gates of Heaven.
The songs that Stoughton resident Paul Otteson writes with his band Faux Fawn often deliver as much mystery and nuance as they do gentle, approachable folk. Part of that is Otteson’s storytelling style—all the songs on his 2011 album Robin Red are loosely related to someone from Wisconsin, though the lyrics and gracefully cryptic narratives don’t always make it obvious. Part of it’s his voice, which functions a bit like a jazz trumpet, at times smoothly melodic and at times a bit raspy and unsettling, with an approach to melody that’s either patient and swelling or fast and flickering.
On the new album Lonesome Loon, Faux Fawn is, to borrow a phrase from the song “Marguerite," darker by design. Not that Otteson is one for cheery or bland subject matter in the first place—last year’s Prairie Du Chien EP centered around the Battle of Prairie Du Chien in the War of 1812—but Lonesome Loon is noticeably more somber and ruminative album than anything Otteson has put out before. It begins with “Lover’s Curse,” a story that has some shadowy layers to it but clearly gives off a sense of tragedy and disillusionment. “Flight Of The Pleiades,” which you can stream exclusively here, conjures a mournful atmosphere from Shawn Drake’s distant, shimmering violin and Jeremiah Nelson’s tremolo-laden lead guitar.
The band was until recently called Paul Otteson And Faux Fawn, and the name change reflects how important the group dynamic has become to the songs. Nelson, bassist Tom McCarty, harmony singer Audre Krull, and drummer Luke Bassuener prove a versatile bunch in fleshing out the mood of the songs on Lonesome Loon, from the ominous group chanting of “Poor Babbitt” to the subtle, quiet dynamics of “Marguerite.”
Ahead of the band’s CD release show this Saturday at the Gates of Heaven and their set at the December 13 Wintersong charity concert at the Barrymore, Otteson talked with us about making the new album and his development as a songwriter.
Tone Madison: How did you end up making Jeremiah a more permanent part of the band, and how has the band as a whole evolved in the last couple of years?
Paul Otteson: Since we started this thing back in 2010 with February Fables, the album lineup included Tom McCarty, Luke Bassuener, Shawn Drake, and Jeremiah Nelson. At the time, I was primarily playing solo gigs, and hadn't even thought about the potential of maintaining a band. Around the time I released Robin Red, Luke and Tom and I decided this was something worth continuing beyond the studio. We played as a three-piece for a year, and soon after picked up the amazing Audre Krull on vocals. It was at that point that things really started to feel like a band.
Jeremiah has been a defining creative force on all of our albums. Just don't tell him he's a permanent part of the band, and maybe he'll stick around. He has his own music and his own destiny. The wheel weaves as the wheel wills. He'll be with us for the CD release and some exciting shows at the turn of the year.
Tone Madison: How do you think the individual band members' interplay and harmonic contributions have changed over time?
Paul Otteson: Having played together for several years now, I think we've developed a unique approach to bringing a track to life. We've all grown into the sound that we're going for, but Luke and Jeremiah are especially good at playing by instinct and in many cases changing the direction of a song. Tom has always provided a solid foundation, but I'd say on this album he is also allowing for that same instinctive creativity and non-traditional playing. On the vocal side of things; Audre and I have really grown comfortable blending tone and timbre. She's also an ace when it comes to developing a harmony part. The biggest change I've felt over the years, is that now none of us are afraid to follow the strongest idea (musically or otherwise) that will define a song. That is one of the main reasons this is a band now, and not just a solo project.
Tone Madison: Going into the writing of Lonesome Loon, what kinds of things did you want to accomplish with the record, be that thematically or sonically?
Paul Otteson: First and foremost, Lonesome Loon was supposed to be darker than Robin Red. On the surface I truly wanted it to be sad, but in a beautiful and not a completely hopeless way. It is a concept album, as all of ours are; but that is not the driving force of the theme. I do a lot of reading and research on the people I pick to write about, and search for connections between their lives or art and connections to my own. Thematically, I immediately found myself drawn to characters who saw a greatness in themselves but failed to realize their dreams, and others who perhaps found success, but at some cost. Self doubt and fear of mortality were also heavy on my mind during the writing process. Sonically we wanted it to carry a weight, express moments of dissonance, and if possible feel larger than our previous works. We also had hopes that it would feel slower, and allow time for reflection.
Tone Madison: You are really meticulous about the themes and stories behind your songs, but don't always like to directly reveal to people just what they're about. For instance, when you put out Robin Red, you wouldn't say on the record what all of them were about, even though many were inspired by specific historical events and figures. Why is that?
Paul Otteson: I love writing to a theme. In the early stages of writing or dreaming up an album, it allows me a perfect starting place. I'll pour through dozens of characters until I find a moment in their life or art that speaks to me. Later on in the process I may find that a song is actually more autobiographical than I had originally intended. I've found that there is some safety, creatively speaking, when the listener doesn't know who or what the song is about; and it really is a beautiful thing, when you can pour out a personal narrative under the veil of a suggested theme. Most importantly, that mystery allows the listener to decide for themselves what the meaning is behind the lyrics.
Tone Madison: How did the darker mood change the approach you and your bandmates took musically on Lonesome Loon?
Paul Otteson: As the songs were coming together I tried to keep the overall tone I was going for in the back of my head. I didn't want the album to be all minor chords, so instead I focused on progressions that didn't necessarily reach the resolution the listener might be hoping for. The melodies seemed to take on that quality, sometimes rising and falling in an uncomfortable way. I believe Tom applied this approach as well; sometimes bowing harmonics and straying to more dissonant lines as opportunities arose. Jeremiah and Shawn Drake were the last harmonic parts of the puzzle. These two compliment each other so well, and fell into the darkness with the madness we were going for. A perfect example is on "Poor Babbitt"; Jeremiah's dissonant and reckless solo is matched in bow with a haunting four-part violin funeral march. Other solo lines on the electric carry that same feel and tension in many tracks throughout the record.
Tone Madison: How do you think your vocals have changed? Is having a somewhat unconventional voice a challenge or an opportunity or both?
Paul Otteson: I wouldn't necessarily say that my voice has changed, though the way I use it certainly has. I'm always trying to push the limits of my range and especially the blending of head voice to falsetto (aka second passagio). Lately I've had fun adding little flourishes here and there, and exploring the potential of creating tension with pitch swells and vocal urgency. As such, I don't know that I have an unconventional voice; I'd say I just use my voice in an unconventional way.
Tone Madison: Were there any songs in particular where you tried to do something differently with your vocals?
Paul Otteson: There are quite a few songs that force me to sing between registers, such as "At The Skyway", "In Matters Of Sin", and even "Poor Babbitt". Other flourishes, that I mentioned before, happen throughout the record. "Lover's Curse" has a somewhat classical figure on the sustained words of the chorus, which has been a fun challenge as well.