On the day that Colorado banjoist Jayme Stone found out about the death of his 42-year-old brother Michael Stone, he started writing about it, trying to make sense of what was happening. Michael, who lived in British Columbia, was a well-known teacher of yoga and Buddhism, which influenced how Jayme approached the poetry, journal entries and lyrics he began to draft.
One of the first things he wrote in his journal was the word "AWake," thinking about "the idea of what someone leaves in their wake and what it means to be awake to your own life," he says. It would eventually become the title of his latest album, AWake, which came out in late August.
"I was just really in a grieving process and just trying to make sense of things," Stone recalls. "And it was very clear that I was going to write about this, and I was going to make music out of that experience. It took a few months before the songs started coming — and then they became the focal point of this record."
Many of the songs on AWake deal with his brother's death in a cryptic way. "There were so many things bubbling under the surface, and different threads coming together in different ways," Stone says. "I feel like the song 'Awake Awake' was the first one that was much more pointedly about my brother and about that experience."
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On the first anniversary of his brother's passing, Stone, who has lived in Colorado for the past fifteen years, made a pilgrimage to Toronto, where he and his brother grew up. He visited the places where his brother had lived and people they had both known for many years.
"I had a little container of his ashes," Stone says. "I would scatter them in bodies of water that we'd spent time in together. And I was writing ["Awake Awake"] through that process. I can remember where I was when I wrote each verse. In a way, it was like writing to versions of him and writing to people that we knew. And so that song...I felt like I brought things into focus a lot more."
Stone has played banjo for 25 years (winning two Juno Awards and three Canadian Folk Music Awards along the way). He says it's been at the center of nearly everything he's done, including world-wise roots albums like Africa to Appalachia, Jayme Stone's Lomax Project and Folklife. But with AWake, he wanted to focus on new sounds, his voice, lyrics and production. So he set out to create a unique sonic fingerprint, only playing banjo on one track and writing most of the music on instruments he didn't know.
"I just wanted a new palette of sounds," he says. "I wanted to be lost. I wanted to be in a place of discovery and not having patterns and ideas and well-worn paths on instruments. It was really clear to me from the beginning."
He used the OP-1, a small synthesizer and sampler sequencer made by the Swedish company Teenage Engineering, as a writing tool. He would sometimes sing into it, play a few notes or a single chord, and then sort of "kaleidoscope it," pitching things up or down, he explains.
"It was really freeing," he says of the experience. "It was sort of like an immediate way of producing music and creating sound. I also felt like it could send me off in a really unexpected direction at the push of a button, and I love that. I used it throughout the process. I would sometimes use it to get the seed of a song going and create a vibe that I would then start writing to."
Whenever he would play the OP-1 or other synths, he would gravitate toward the arpeggiators, since he essentially dreams in arpeggios after playing banjo for two and a half decades. "You're constantly spinning out all of these arpeggios," he says of the instrument, "and so even when I moved to electronics, I still sort of see it through the lens of the banjo."
Stone also wrote a few songs on a 1930 tenor guitar, a four-string instrument tuned in fifths, like a violin.
"I've never played an instrument tuned in fifths," he says. "And just because of its size and the fact that it has strings, I had endless fingerpicking ideas from playing banjo all these decades. And yet I didn't know the tuning at all, and it's so much wider, so things that I would do that seemed familiar actually come out sounding wildly different on that instrument. It's really fun."
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Stone has been working on AWake for three years, laying down tracks at Figure 8 Recording in Brooklyn. He spent the first year writing and workshopping with musicians who were going to be on the album. Among others, the roster includes singer Felicity Williams, who works with Bahamas; drummer Jason Burger of Big Thief; singer Daniela Gesundheit, who's in HYDRA with Feist; and pianist Jason Lindner, who played on David Bowie's Blackstar. Over the past year, Stone has remixed the album, often turning things upside down.
After COVID-19 forced him to scrap a North American album-release tour, which was scheduled to start in August, Stone had a designer build him an immersive website with photos, videos and lyrics. It was a way to share songs from AWake in an interactive way while creating a virtual home for the music. Stone sees the website as an extension of AWake, and he likes how both the music and the site create an experience akin to the liner notes on LPs he would pore over as a kid.
"I would just sit in front of the record player and listen and leaf through the notes and be immersed in photographs, ephemera and lyrics," Stone remembers. "I feel like we've lost that in the move to digital, and yet the Internet is an incredible way to share that stuff. We can have things moving and be immersive. I've always wanted to do something like this, and now felt like the opportune time to do it."
Hear the album at Jayme Stone's website.