On his morning commute, Chris Steele used to drive by a willow tree standing at Bowles Grove Park, near South Federal Boulevard and Bowles Avenue. Something about the tree filled him with comfort each time he passed by.
“I just wanted to call in and hang out with this tree every day,” recalls Steele, who performs under the moniker Time
and alongside AwareNess
in the Denver hip-hop duo Calm.
“The tree gave me inspiration to keep going with the day.”
The arboreal encounter inspired Conversations With a Willow Tree
, the latest concept album from Calm. Shortly after he wrote the song, Steele noticed that the tree had been cut down. All that remained was a stump that he says is visible on Google Maps. He's attached a great deal of significance to the encounter.
“It was surreal to me,” he remembers. “Maybe the tree downloaded this song into me before it was cut down. It’s kind of like the willow tree was a main collaborator on the album after that.”
Conversations With a Willow Tree is available to stream now.
Courtesy of Calm
He says that the idea of people collaborating with plants became a continuing theme on the album through songs like “In the Flowers.”
“Even when we drink coffee in the morning, we're collaborating with that plant right off the bat,” he notes. “That was kind of the hero of the album.”
Steele says that Conversations
builds on ideas first tackled on Calm.’s 2006 breakthrough record, Anti-Smiles
, which told the story of a depressed kid who finds “anti-smile” pills. Like its predecessor, the new album deals with the concept of alternative realities — in this case, dystopia.
“It’s kind of like layers of time, of a fake reality kind of mapped onto this reality,” he says. “We talked about this whole theme of dystopia.”
The new record features appearances from TAMARA, Che Noir, Myka 9, Lee Reed, Denver artist Buddha, Niko, Erica Zandolin and Oatmeal Queen. The cameo cast hails from around the United States and as far away as Singapore.
“We just like collaborating with good artists who have a good vibe and stand for cool things,” Steele says. “When we toured in Europe, we just met so many other artists. It opened our eyes and got us out of Denver thinking. It showed us the value of collaborating.”
The album challenges the concept of what dystopia actually means
, and the two changed the name of the album from To Live and Die in Dystopia
— though that title lives on as a certifiable banger of a track on the album — once they began to question their own premise during the creative process. All of the inconveniences we’ve suffered collectively during the COVID pandemic can seem like the end of the world, but Steele says that they pale in comparison to the horror that lurks in American history and in the present.
“It’s dystopia questioning dystopia,” he explains. “We're talking about different layers. You could say there are a lot of fires right now and pollution. That might be the white man’s world finally seeing what its colonialism brought and has been bringing every day since 1492. White people are just now seeing the smoke.”
Conversations With a Willow Tree
follows Nighthawks at McCoys
, Steele’s collaborative album with folk singer Maudlin Magpie and the Germany-based producer A Thousand Vows that views a north Denver diner as a portal to dimensions where ruthless capitalism, alienation, depression and mortality can be seen more clearly. It’s also a tribute to singer Tom Waits. In 2020, Steele released These Songs Kill Fascists
, a Woody Guthrie-inspired collection of hip-hop songs.
Aside from the concept of human-plant collaboration, Conversations With a Willow Tree
tackles failed friendships, betrayal, addiction, climate catastrophe, capitalism, colonialism, the war machine, the violence and beauty of typewriters, medicine, the life cycle of a bomb, the gentrification of north Denver and dealing with death. Sylvia Plath is quoted at one point. It’s heavy stuff, but Steele says he’s always found tackling social issues in his music to be a personal imperative.
“It helps me process a lot of these existential things,” he says. “I was brought up in a culture of hip-hop where you are supposed to educate — not educate, but you are supposed to share knowledge. I don't like 'educate' as a word. You are supposed to share knowledge.”
Conversations With a Willow Tree is now available on BandCamp. Calm performs at Mutiny Information Cafe, 2 South Broadway, at 8 p.m. Friday, January 21.