In March of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic signaled a period of mandated isolation throughout the world, musicians everywhere pondered what they could do at home with the imposed free time. For Joe Pisapia, the February middle ground between solstice and equinox perennially afforded him angst and opportunity; the rise of the pandemic merely heightened the former Guster songwriter’s daily awareness of both as the dark of winter slowly marched into an uncertain spring. Pisapia was already in the midst of writing and recording his new instrumental album, Imbolc, when the shutdown took hold. Inspired by seasonal changes and Pisapia’s ongoing interest for pairing music with his affinity for cooking–Pisapia’s been filming kitchen recipes to function as the music videos for several of the record’s pieces–the dozen-song set showcases his exceptional compositional instincts while utilizing classical guitar as the centerpiece instrument. Additionally, along with friends such as k.d. Lang, Ryan Miller, Zac Clark, and Jillette Johnson, among others, Pisapia has recorded a standalone single due for release in late January, 2021, “On The Other Side,” anticipating the joy of musicians and fans gathering once again in a post-COVID world.
Is Imbolc an album that you could have made only at this time and during these circumstances?
That’s a great question. There’s always a conspiracy of things that happen- at least, I notice- that make the conditions just right. First off, I notice February is such a slow time for me. Every year there’s nothing on the books and I get really afraid. Sometimes I get this blend of joy and fear; it’s like, I have nothing on the books! Oh, shit, I have nothing on the books. Because of that I get to delve into a creative thing and have nothing interrupt me. It’s a slow, dreary time of year that I secretly love. Also, I just bought a great microphone that I always wanted- a Neumann U67; I got a reissue and fell in love with it. I couldn’t wait to record with it, hearing things in a new way.
With your single, “On the Other Side,” there is a theme of celebrating a future time when we can return to gathering again. It’s a theme that has developed while artists were making their most ardent efforts to feel grateful about having time-off and being apart.
Man, you’re hitting the nail on the head. It’s all about seasons. My instrumental record, even the title, is pointing to a specific part of the cycle of the seasons. I had to look it up: Is there a name for the time between winter solstice and the vernal equinox? Is there something that shows where the middle is? It turns out, yes, and the Celtics had a name for it: Imbolc. It gives us a chance to celebrate that isolation. We really blow out Christmas around here. We have a huge Christmas jam, and Christmas dinner at our house. We do a roving caroling thing with people like Bela Fleck; all these ragamuffins- like 30 people- walking down the street with accordions and banjoes and guitars. After that, after being completely overwhelmed, I love sinking into the downtime.
Something I observed in the optimism of artists having isolated time imposed on them- of how much creative output they thought they could harness in that time- is that as the pandemic went on, the isolation from interaction with others became a hindrance, not just financially but to the spirit of music as a collective experience.
I’ll be honest with you: I was secretly excited during the first part of the pandemic. Uninterrupted creative time? Wow! Great! But everything needs boundaries and limits and balance. After a while [the isolation] really did make you appreciate the other. It’s like that Tom Waits line: Never saw the morning/ ‘Til I stayed up all night. Relativity is everything.
I’m intrigued with your interest in pairing music with food. I’ve often felt the palates are similar, in that, if you like the way something tastes, or sounds, then it’s good. No one can tell you it isn’t.
Duke Ellington said, if it sounds good, it is good. I always loved that one. I always considered myself to be genre-fluid in music. I’m curious about too many types of music; I never wanted to be just a rock musician, or Americana, or a jazz guy. I, selfishly, wanted to try everything at the smorgasbord, you know? I started this idea before the pandemic, and I do have a pretty bad-ass cooking playlist that I was putting together. The flow in the kitchen just feels musical to me. And even thinking about making records- the mix; what to add; what not to add; putting too many things in the soup; too many overdubs on the track- all that stuff is so analogous. Even during my day job as a producer, I can’t help but use food analogies.
If I’m being candid, a lot of instrumental music to me can be too precious or sound great in the New Age crystal shop, but not as great elsewhere. What I really enjoyed about Imbolc was the diversity between and within the songs. Did you consciously set out to write music that avoid that typecasting or did it just organically occur?
Do you know the book The War of Art? A couple of friends told me that I had to read it. The whole idea is that a writer writes. Every day. You go to your office and you write a piece of music every day. I had just finished the book, and I would go into the studio every morning, and I would try not to be editorial with myself. I would let things happen; just go with them. I get two or three that feel part of a unit and I keep going with that. The only thing that ties the music together is the time period in which it was done. There wasn’t any strict theme. The only thing that was a through-line for me was the instrument of the classical guitar.