Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Joshua Crane releases CD, ‘King Catalpa,’ at Easthampton show

Thursday, October 02, 2014
Joshua Crane and I are not sports-minded guys. But in the search for a quiet place for an interview last weekend, we ended up on a dusty bench behind home plate at an empty diamond at Northampton’s Sheldon Field.

Crane hasn’t performed or put out a record since 2010, but he just released a new album, “King Catalpa” (a limited edition of 200 physical copies), and will play a rare and early show at Luthiers Co-Op in Easthampton on Saturday at 6 p.m.

The four-year hiatus was his longest period away since he began performing in 2001, and he spent the time trying to grow musically — joining a chorus, starting voice lessons, revisiting music theory — as well as taking nature walks, delving into poetry, rereading Sophocles, and finding inspiration in solitude.

But with a new record now in stores (and also available at joshuacrane.bandcamp.com), he felt it was time to get back in front of an audience. “I think music is about connecting with people,” Crane said. “It wouldn’t mean anything if it wasn’t taking place in that regard at some point.”

With the show on the near horizon, the butterflies have started to gather. “I think I am going to be nervous, and I honestly don’t know whether I’ll feel like ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ or ‘This is where it’s at!’ ”

For those not familiar with Crane’s voice, it can shock on first listen. There’s a near-constant tremble as he speak-sings, swooping from a low conversational growl to a falsetto trill that can break your heart. He doesn’t sound anything like Tim Buckley, Richard Buckner or Mary Margaret O’Hara, but trying to describe Crane’s unique way with a song calls to mind such singular singers.

“Great Gettin’ Free” opens the album with one of its finest moments, a delicate yet powerful song with poetic verses I was moved to reread and ponder (lyrics are included in the CD booklet). Crane plays everything — mesmerizing nylon string guitar, lonely harmonica, bass, and high twinkling piano (played on his parents’ old baby grand in an empty house). It’s utterly gorgeous, something one could picture Nina Simone covering back in the ’60s.

“Everything I get / has someday got to get gone,” he sings on the bridge, his voice quivering and rumbling.

The album’s title refers to a kind of flowering tree with long bean-like pods, one of which was growing outside Crane’s apartment when he started writing what would become the album’s title track. It’s a mysterious piece, with an opening figure that sounds like a question and chords that flip quickly between major and minor, as if the ground is uncertain, so step safely ... and soon a slow swinging rhythm creeps to life.

“Sing like you’re King Catalpa / weep like your tears are a slew of the most precious jewels / dream your leaf’s playin’ broad on the breezes / could be sayin’ ‘Who needs to fly when the sky comes down to you?’ ”

Jim Matus recorded and mixed the 12-song album and appears on a handful of tracks playing an unusual instrument called a laouto or laoutar, an eight-stringed Greek relative of the lute. Its bright tone makes tunes like “Gate Song” and “Summer of Sophocles” turn 3-D, no glasses necessary.

The latter song is one of a few on the record that mentions characters from Greek mythology, a subject Crane returned to during his time away. He let the album be full of the things he had been “digging the most,” like nature, putting poems to music (W.H. Auden’s “The More Loving One” and Hart Crane’s “Reply”) and covering songs by Sandy Denny and folk/blues legend Lead Belly.

One of Crane’s earliest influences was the blues, thanks to his father’s love of the music; he showed his young son how to play guitar parts for songs by Mississippi John Hurt and others.

But the blues continued to inspire Crane indirectly, too. “Elliott Smith was one of the first people I really found on my own and thought ‘this is awesome,’ and his fingerpicking style is definitely influenced by the blues.”

Crane thanks his family on the CD, especially his classically trained sister Plum, who played piano, drums and sang backing vocals on various tracks.

He may do a proper CD release party sometime in the future with Plum on keyboard and other musicians joining in, but for now his solo performance at Luthiers is the only planned gig.

Our Sunday night interview was wrapping up, with quiet chatter from a faraway ballgame mingling with the nearby chirp of birds hidden in the trees — not a catalpa, though (“they like the water,” Crane said) — and a rambling, vague question from me got him to reflect on why he creates art in the first place.

“The word I come back to is beauty, because that’s what inspires me and that’s what I hope people will experience in some part of what I’m doing.”

Ken Maiuri can be reached at clublandcolumn@gmail.com.