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You can't mention Ann Arbor-area songwriter Tim Monger's name without also invoking the name of the band for which he's best-known, the acclaimed Northern folk-pop quintet, Great Lakes Myth Society. His plaintive, finely detailed, pop-leaning contributions to that band perfectly complement the work of his younger brother Jamie and guitarist Greg McIntosh's compositions. But even those familiar with GLMS may not know that Monger has also been writing, performing and recording solo work pretty much since he was old enough to drive. And now, with a new solo album in the works (as well as GLMS' next record under way), Monger has taken the leap forward fully into the driver's seat, assembling a working band to flesh out his new and old songs and working toward a fall 2010 goal for unveiling his sophomore release.
So what does it sound like when this mythmaker goes DIY? Fans of Great Lakes Myth Society should know that Monger's solo work is more of a refinement and expansion than a departure. The sounds found on his 2004 solo debut Summer Cherry Ghosts were expansive, intricate chamber pop. It was a lush record that gave Monger's meditations on detailed small moments a sonic backdrop that expanded upon GLMS' palette. Although he's been collecting songs for his next solo record over the past four years, he's only about halfway through the album's recording.
"I write songs at a really glacial pace," he says. "Sort of like the Leonard Cohen method of working on songs for 10 years. Adding a little part here and there."
And though he says he works slowly, he works constantly. So it makes sense that during the downtime between Myth Society gigs and recordings, he'd need to keep his creative motor running.
"I thrive on the horrible feeling of waking up every day and feeling nervous about making music," he says.
"The nervous energy must be harnessed. I just have to create new projects if I have too much time on my hands. I go birding. Last year, I ran the Detroit marathon!" he explains. "I said, 'I have no idea what to do, so I'm going to start running.' I'm one of those industrious guys that can't turn it off. I have like 70 interests, so it's a wonder anything gets done. No wonder it's four years between records."
Monger lives and often records on a farm in rural Britton — about 25 miles outside Ann Arbor — where he lives with his girlfriend. It's a working farm (his girlfriend's family rents out the land) and they have a landing strip out their back door (both his girlfriend and her father are pilots). So, as one might expect, the sights, sounds and feel of seasonally dependent Michigan find a voice in the songs he writes.
"I feel like I can't do an album or a song without mentioning a season or a month," he laughs. "It's just something that people can relate to, that can take them into the song, I guess."
"I do a lot of my recording at home, and I have to stop recording when the combine goes by during harvest season. You're very aware of what time of year it is by how high the crops are and what machines are out on the road.
"There's a loneliness and isolation to living someplace rural — and I feel like that comes through [in the music]. It's not anything conceptual, but if there's anything tying [the songs] together, that's it."
Asked if there's any overt thematic thread running through the album, he responds, ending with a chuckle: "There are ballads, mid-tempo rockers and all that. They're mostly situational tracks. A lot of the basic material: Drinking, mining accidents and the open road. It's just a classic record."
He's been cobbling together those bits and pieces, recording wherever he may be with whoever's available with whatever's at hand.
"I'm learning a lot about recording an album the modern way. We've been really fortunate to have a studio, Big Sky, where we've been recording for the last years. We're mixing there, but I've been working on recording this record in basements and bedrooms and barns and even the [GLMS label] Quack! Media office," he continues.
"I'm finding the more I research that more albums are recorded that way. It's tough because you lose some fidelity, but there's a spontaneous feel from recording by the seat of your pants wherever you can with whoever you can."
The results, thus far, have been encouraging, Monger says.
"The new songs are somewhere between the densely arranged pop of the first album and the more folky organic leanings of the Great Lakes Myth Society. I'm trying to be a little more sparse. But because I'm recording this all myself for the first time, I still end up layering and layering and I can't help myself. It's hard to find the self-censoring part of me."
He's also hired a string arranger for the first time too — Paula Kelly, an L.A.-based musician and former labelmate of Monger.
"She sent me the first demos yesterday. It was really exciting to hear. I'm getting a taste of the modern way of recording, I guess. I have a West Coast contingent!"
This is Monger's first foray, too, into assembling a band for the sole purpose of bringing his own specific musical ideas to life. He's enlisted the help of a couple members of the Starling Electric — guitarist Christian Anderson and drummer John Fossum — plus Scott DeRoche, with whom he's played duo shows, and jazz trumpeter Matt Collar.
"I'm just a huge fan of Starling Electric," Monger explains regarding his choice of bandmates. "It's great to get their pop sensibility. And I've played with Scott for years. Matt, who ... for a guy that's the most skilled musician of the bunch, with real jazz chops ... he brings a lot of great pop melodies. And everybody can sing!
"Everybody brings a personality to the band. I'm sure as we start touring, everyone will get their different roles as bands do.
"It's been really fun to play the songs from the first record. I just never got to do them live. They feel like new songs again," he says. "It's a great way to take some old horses from the barn."
Monger — who has grown enthusiastic about discovering new sounds in his own compositions — rightly likens assembling a new band to being in a new relationship.
"It's wonderful and a little scary. I've been part of one group of musicians for most of my adult life, so to have any sort of other project is like having a new girlfriend. It's crazy-exciting at first and you don't know how involved you wanna get. We're taking it casually right now. Having lots of sex," he laughs.
Tim Monger plays Thursday at 10:40 p.m. at Baker's Streetcar. With Modernlull, Flatfoot and the Drags.
Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.