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By Jon Solomon
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Tyler Ludwick is nostalgic for things he's never experienced.
"I've always had an infatuation with the cultural emotion of different nations," says Ludwick, the 26-year-old mastermind behind orchestral rock band Princess Music. "In Japan, they have the word 'mono-no-aware,' which is an obsession with the ephemeral, the transience of things. The equivalent in Brazil is 'saudade,' which is an awareness of the fleeting existence of nature, and the helplessness you feel leading to a nostalgia for something that isn't there.
"I've always felt this persistent draw toward these countries I've never been to before," he continues. "The Germans have a word for it, called 'sechnsucht' — 'sech' meaning longing, and 'sucht' meaning addicted, so you become addicted to the unattainable. So many artists in history have used that unsatisfied longing to fuel their art."
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Even without Ludwick explaining his approach to art, this sensation of grasping for a romanticized ideal that seems just out of reach is clearly expressed in Princess Music's debut album, Odobenidae. Drifting from a gently paced melancholy to a frenetic playfulness, the opener, "Morning Song (Reprise)," sets the tone for a work that simultaneously expresses a dissatisfaction with life and a joy for living. "Vic" is a warm slice of orchestral-folk comfort food, fit for a Wes Anderson soundtrack, while its neighbor, "Baku (please devour my dreams)," is a mournful lament that reaches its emotional apex with an anxiety-building tempo as Ludwick sings, "All is hell/And if you say it that way, all is life."
Although the record is rooted in classical guitar and is, at times, tied to what has become a signature Colorado sound, Odobenidae is never bound by these aesthetics. Expressly uninterested in styles and trends, Ludwick requires a wide musical spectrum to satisfy his hunger for expression. In the album's lead single, "White Wave," Princess Music employs a crudely miked Wurlitzer piano that resembles an antique music box, while "Sprinkler" offers a funky, Prince-like guitar solo that decorates sophisticated string arrangements before demanding silence from the other instruments.
Like a painting done in microscopic detail, the layered, complex arrangements on this record reflect an artist with a lot of time and devotion on his hands. But while Ludwick is obsessed with classical guitar and learning about music theory both in and out of the classroom, it's important for him to balance those interests with a sincere, thoughtless expression of self. "I've always been equally pulled in two different directions — technicality and raw emotion," he explains. "It's the place where emotional IQ and intellectual IQ meet. It's like, 'Do I want to learn, or do I want to feel?' It's a double-edged sword."
Growing up in Oklahoma City, Ludwick began playing guitar at the age of nine; he would later study classical guitar at the University of Missouri, where he dropped out after only three semesters. "I hated it," he recalls. "I hated playing for people. I hated studying it. I was so insecure about playing music. I didn't have the courage to write a song until I was 22."
Aimless, he drifted west toward Denver, like so many Midwestern transplants before him. And even though he discovered a community of like-minded musicians here, it was another two years before he began to write and perform music. "I received a lot of affirmation when I began playing music with friends," he remembers. "They said, 'You have a lot of cool ideas. You should turn these into songs.' And then I'd write some songs, and they'd say, 'These are great. You should play a show!' At first, I thought, no way. But then I played my first show with two or three songs. And then I formed a band and started writing for cello and violin. It was a very internally facilitated thing."
Despite his academic background, Ludwick had little knowledge of composition or theory when Princess Music was first formed. With encouragement from friends such as Laura Goldhamer (who has performed with Princess Music, leading some to erroneously refer to the group as her backing band) and his own internal passion for expressing himself, Ludwick set about on a path of intense self-education. "I remember I used to go over to his house, and he'd be obsessing over websites with information on composing," says Mark Mann, Princess Music's manager. "It created this spark in him that spiraled into the writing process for the album."
"I've seen Tyler almost lose everything he has just to finish a score," says Chris Adolf, frontman for Bad Weather California, of which Ludwick is also a member. "That dude is 100 percent committed. He's a super-heady player, super-smart, but he has the good taste to know what fits and what doesn't. He knows when to turn his mind off."
Beyond attracting a respectable following in the scene, early recordings of Princess Music found an international audience on Spotify and SoundCloud. "A lot of our online audience doesn't come from Colorado; mostly it's from France, Sweden and Italy," notes Mann. "On SoundCloud, we have 9,000 plays in America, but 17,000 in Italy."
This exposure led to a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, which exceeded its goal of $10,000, giving Princess Music the opportunity not only to record its album, but also to hire a seventeen-piece orchestra to perform with the band at the release show. Ludwick's unapologetic addiction to yearning, and his embrace of impermanence, is evident in the emotional tone of the album as well as in the concept behind it. One day, while improvising lyrics, Ludwick came up with the alliteration "wounded walrus," an image that wouldn't leave him alone.