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Interview: Eli Musser

Eli Musser
8 February 2020

Photo by Chadwyck Musser

Moving to New York and trying to break into the hallowed downtown singer-songwriter scene may be one of the most daunting tasks that musicians can set for themselves, but that’s exactly what Eli Musser has been striving to do since moving to Queens from his native West Virginia. Brimming with the type of polished pop rock songs that might appeal to Big Star and Matthew Sweet fans, Musser’s self-produced debut album, Content, had enough catchy songs to convince veteran studio technician Bryce Goggin (who has worked with the likes of Pavement, Evan Dando, Sean Lennon, and The Ramones) to mix the tracks. Since last summer, Musser has released three singles off Content, starting with the uplifting, late ‘60s-influenced “Smile (‘Cause Somebody Loves You).” He plans to release the full album this year, but until then, he’ll continue proving his worth in the NYC venue trenches.

So you’ve been releasing singles for a while now, in preparation for releasing your full-length debut album. What’s it been like for you to release your work into the world, when you’re rather exposed as a solo artist (as opposed to being in a band, where the praise/criticism isn’t necessarily aimed at you personally)?

ELI MUSSER: One of the unintended repercussions of releasing an album as a more seasoned songwriter is that those criticisms and considerations don’t rear their heads in quite the same way. When I moved to New York in 2005, I wrote and performed with a band that I led, and when that ended, I used a different project banner that also wasn’t my name, and then finally I realized there was no need to hide. The songs on Content were predated by years of taking on constructive feedback, and continuing to fine-tune and concentrate on what mattered, musically. Not unlike an athlete, my approach to the fundamentals really didn’t differ over time; the end results were what started to change, and more people started to take notice. I gained confidence because I never stopped caring about the material. Exposure has a two-sided effect: it makes you more aware of your audience, and makes your audience more aware of you. I’m fully at peace with what happens when I pick up a guitar, or stand behind a microphone, or put out a record, and I hope that’s what people are responding to.

You’re from West Virginia originally, but now based out of New York City – which seems like it must’ve been quite a culture shock. What made you choose to come to NYC?

ELI MUSSER: I’ve been lucky in that my upbringing was an atypical West Virginia childhood. My parents spent most of the ‘70s in Germany, moving back to the States just before I was born. My hometown had a symphony orchestra and strong band programs. I was also fortunate in that I had two brothers who were musically active and talented and ambitious. I was introduced to the electric guitar properly as a Christmas present at age 14, but by then I had spent years playing piano, trombone, I sang in chorus classes, and I spent tons of time listening to my parents’ record collection that reflected a lot of love for classical music but also pop, rock and jazz — so like [Igor] Stravinsky, Paul Simon and Stanley Turrentine. That’s a great start for any musician. On the other hand, West Virginia was a strange and lonely place to grow up for someone who never quite fit in. I had no solid plans beyond college in Cleveland, so coming to New York was less of a goal and more of a foray. I moved from Pittsburgh to New York City with a bandmate, and he left soon after for LA and I stayed. These days – politically, culturally – my home state is fraught territory for me. I know that’s something that changes over time for a lot of people, but right now it’s hard to get ahold of that place in my head. I told this to a good friend of mine recently, and she said it just means I’m a real New Yorker now.

Being a musician in New York seems like it must be especially challenging, given all the competition – and particularly in the singer-songwriter scene. What is it about your work that sets you apart from the crowd?

ELI MUSSER: The penumbra of white male singer-songwriters with guitars is beginning to recede, thankfully, so now there’s a decrease in expectations when a person like me gets onstage. When I moved to the city, there was a bunch of what I’d call “girlfriend rock” being played in a lot of clubs and open mics. I’m sure that’s still going on to some extent, but the scope of artistry has shifted since the reconfiguring of how audiences find and digest music. Maybe because I’ve always been interested in all kinds of music and people, I’ve tried hard to make music that isn’t exclusive to any one group, and I’ve attempted to stay open to some kind of spiritual progress, not to show off but to give more interesting context to my music. I’d like to think I’m adept at delivering on different levels – lyrics that are direct and seemingly simple but meaningful, songs that have a lot of technical underpinnings but don’t abandon those who just want to hear agreeable singalong melodies. I think most importantly, I’m not afraid to put myself in my songs – I mean the awkward or vulnerable parts – rather than removing or conflating certain feelings with clunky verbal garnishes. I can’t make the pen move until I believe myself.

What’s your songwriting process like?

ELI MUSSER: I want to make the music I think ought to be made, because I’m not hearing it on the radio, or anywhere, really. Not overly workshopped, not exorbitantly produced, not overtly sampled. That approach seems to resound with a lot of people. Separating technical content from emotional is important. I went to a music conservatory and I never want anyone listening to my songs to think: ahhhh yes, guitar degree. Studiousness and technical exercise have their place in informing some of my choices, but not in a finished album. Same with the lyrics: I went through a great writing program at an English department with some talented professors and peers. But you don’t need to be a scholar or poet to tell an engaging truth. Where I get into trouble, and why I don’t rattle off dozens of songs per year, is that I keep two distinct catalogs of song starters and ideas in my back pocket: riffs or chord progressions that I think might sound cool musically, and words that I think might resonate well in a phrase or couplet or whatever. If I’m lucky, there’ll be a verbal chorus idea that suggests a natural rhyme or outline of a melody. I don’t want to commit myself to something rushed, or something cloying, or something that feels reduced or recycled from other artists. But otherwise, it’s a waiting game. I’ve spent literal years holding out for the right brand of peanut butter to get onto that great piece of chocolate I’ve been saving. I don’t usually jot anything down right away – my litmus test has become: if I didn’t remember that melody or verse or lyric from when I thought of it, it’s probably not that great. I’m like the Mitch Hedberg of songcraft.

What themes or ideas are you hoping to get across with these new songs? And is there any song on this album, in particular, that you hope will capture people’s attention?

ELI MUSSER: I’ve struggled with abusive situations and depression and other illnesses, and as a result I think my material tends to address one main theme: power. Who or what holds sway over us and why? Whose dominion, cruelty and bad habits interdict our own plans? Are we doing “this” to ourselves? Some songs address this romantically, some point firmly to other aggressors. Those relationships and their attendant behaviors aren’t usually spelled out, and what one person considers unbearable, others might find fairly harmless and almost charming. Psychologically, I prefer lyrics that are dense but manageable, or at least I think there’s a certain logic in not trying to solve problems or come to any pat conclusions with the words. A song isn’t a novel; it’s OK to leave it a little shambolic and vague. Great pains are also taken to make sure the musical beds in which the lyrics lie are comfy and well sized. Pretty universal stuff, I guess. At the same time, I’m like all other human beings (I hope): I want things to work out and for people to be OK and for hard feelings to be made unhurt and for whatever emotional restitution and resolve to occur. I think “Smile (‘Cause Somebody Loves You)” captures this delicate optimism in the truest, most appealing way of any song on the album and I hope that’s how listeners feel about it, because that’s exactly what I meant for it to do.

In this time when bands that have a big acoustic element to them are going for a more “rustic” feel (i.e., The Lumineers, The Decemberists), and getting huge acclaim for it, you’ve chosen to go in a more polished direction. What made you decide to buck the trend, instead of deciding to just go with what’s currently popular?

ELI MUSSER: I’d love to know how those acts arrive at their identities or production standards. Usually, it makes me wonder if any of them have ever spent any real time in impoverished, undervalued and traumatic communities, in places where rural music is just “music,” and in what way they think they’re connecting to those sounds, but that’s a whole other jag. I don’t know that I want to draw obvious comparisons to artists of any particular aesthetic. If it’s trendy to be good at Travis picking, I’ll have to plead the fifth, because all Travis picking ever did was remind me of the music my grandfather listened to in his pickup truck. Just about every song I’ve ever written has started life on my beat-up Guild acoustic, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. There are a ton of what I’d consider roots sounds in Content, just not pushed to the fore. Learning to play an instrument or to sing wasn’t ever about one sound or approach for me. I can’t imagine what acclaim I’d want to chase, ignoring the other elements of music that I enjoy listening to and creating. Maybe once this album is off my radar, I’ll show my true colors and put out a bluegrass set. I’m kidding. I think.

How did you come to work with Bryce Goggin on this? What was working with him like?

ELI MUSSER: The mastering engineer, Joe Lambert, was someone I’d already sent a previous project to and subsequently got friendly with. He and I kicked around a short list of names of folks he’d worked with, and Bryce immediately rose in the ranks as a great fit to mix the record. The tracking was finished, and I wanted someone who had extensive experience with great ‘90s guitar bands and sounds and textures. We worked very intuitively and efficiently together from day one. My goal of making essentially a pop record with ‘90s guitar-band aesthetics was one we didn’t even really discuss overtly. Bryce just got straight to work and allegedly didn’t even mind my annoying off-kilter mix suggestions. Another bit of kismet: Bryce’s studio, Trout Recording, is housed in a renovated auto body shop in Brooklyn – my grandfather owned an auto body shop for nearly fifty years. One more great, incidental association with Bryce: I dropped off my hard drives at Trout Recording the day I got engaged. Oh, and he’s got a super sweet yellow lab who’s always hanging around and loves to be petted.

What made you want to become a musician in the first place?

ELI MUSSER: I’m not being clever here, I promise: it wasn’t that I became more obsessed with music over time, it’s that music apparently became more obsessed with me. I’ve always been compelled by sounds, since I was a little kid – just weird, dumb mouth sounds, or hooks I heard on the radio, or esoteric little phrases I would pick up from certain characters while my brother and I watched movies or TV shows. I was surely not a virtuoso instrumentalist growing up, and had a hyperactive attention span, but something just kept pulling me deeper into organizing sounds. As I got older, I had a big list of songs I could play on guitar or piano, and those eventually formed a vocabulary for my own work. I didn’t plan or want to overintellectualize the material, but as I kept plugging away and learning more about music in general, in some instances my curiosity found its way into the songs. That led to really feeling like, maybe I have something here that other people don’t. I had no intention at any point to become a side man, despite the fact I’m trained to do just that. I’m not remonstrating and I totally respect the guys who can make their living making other people’s music come alive. It just held very limited appeal for me, and I took a day job so that I would never have to rely on making other music than what I wanted to focus on. We are all the products of our environments, but some of us just end up building funkier looking sandcastles. The synthesis of influences is what affects me. Why one person with such-and-such perspective and range of talents became Thelonious Monk was the result of an unrepeatable sequence of highly unlikely events, and that’s terrifically fascinating and cool and revelatory and something I think is worth following. Yes, I know Monk was sometimes a side man!

Is there anything else about you that you’d like to let people know?

ELI MUSSER: It’s damn hard to make some kind of original mark. If my path is like your path, expect others not to understand the mechanics of your obsessions, or the nature of your calling or whatever. There are so many more people that exist in the sphere of total anonymity, whose brilliant art is doomed to fuliginous ends because, for example, they don’t really like the Internet (and who can blame them) and won’t spend five days a week posting. My point is, there are gatekeepers and checkpoints for career musicians, who make obvious the requirements of success…and then there are the nuts and bolts of getting a record of songs you believe in off the ground, and the ten thousand things that have to happen or not happen for you to get a sense of satisfaction as an artist. But every real hunter eats standing up. You’ll never really “make it” – whatever that means to you – if you’re not pushing yourself and staying alert and challenging yourself to give and then give more. Nobody can make you put words and music together like you yourself can. Don’t confuse it with ego; you are a conduit for amazing things, I promise. There is no better reason to become a musician, or an artist of any kind, than self-discovery.

Eli Musser will play The Bowery Electric in New York on April 1.