Like a lot of people in Chicago (and all over), I lost all my shows booked for April and May because of the stay-at-home order here in Illinois — and it’s not clear when I’ll be able to play shows going forward. I am a songwriter, singer, and guitar player, and I often do most of my writing at home. But in the past 5-6 years, I’ve been playing out a lot more than I used to — going from a show every 1-3 months to 2-3 shows in a month. That’s partly because I now like to bust out a new or in-progress song in live settings, with a variety of players, before finishing and recording it. Lately, I’ve been working pretty consistently with a core group: Dan Ingethron (bass guitar); Kip Rainey (electric guitar); and Erik Sowa (drum kit). They (along with my friend Crystal Hartford from Omaha) toured with me last June, so the writing I’ve done in the last year has been with them in mind. Since losing the gigs and practices, one of the main things I’ve been trying to figure out is how to keep working on new material with the group.
In April, we decided to do a home recording project with one of my newer songs that we’d played live a few times. I was hoping the result could be (at the very least) a demo that we could use to work out ideas until practices and recording together would be possible. My setup at home is pretty minimal — I have a few SM57 mics and a digital 8-track portastudio. I recorded my acoustic guitar and vocals with a click track, then passed it on to Erik for drums; from there it went to the guitar players, Kip and Tom McGettrick (pedal steel) — hearing their parts inspired me to create another guitar part on my electric to add to the mix; then Dan added his bass guitar and Ariel Bolles added her vocals. Everything was turning out pretty nicely, so we decided to hire Mike Hagler to mix it. At that point, I thought the song should be released as a “quarantine” single. So my friend Curtis Ruptash mastered it, and I asked my friend Annie Klein to come up with artwork.
Having been pretty busy with my day job (teaching art/media, remotely these days) and attending a lot of zoom meetings since mid-March, I also was inspired by the visual of multi-paneled screens that dominate social interaction. (Yes, this visual theme seems to be popping up everywhere lately.) So I asked the players to shoot video of themselves recording/performing their parts on the song. Once everyone sent me the footage, I edited it all with the finished song, using the screen (and the music) to bring the group together for the performance.
I wrote “Our Valley” while visiting my Dad in Cleveland around Christmastime when Covid-19, as far as we knew, hadn’t quite hit the U.S. He and I went on a walk in an area called “the Valley,” a stretch of parks, rivers and managed forests forming a necklace-shape that hangs down from Lake Erie. My Mom and Dad used to walk those same paths along the Rocky River together for many years (they married in 1969). In June 2019, my Mom had passed away from heart failure. She died the night I played a show in Cleveland with my band as part of our tour. Still reeling from that.
In the song, I decided to use simple, parabolic imagery based on our walk; I was thinking also about our experiences leading up to and in that moment — and thinking of the valley as a shared place of solace and loss. That’s some of what I was thinking, anyway. There’s only so much I can explain, and I don’t view the song as autobiographical. As I gathered words and chords, the melody kind of unspooled itself. It happened quickly, which is not often how songwriting goes for me.
Thanks to Esthetic Lens for agreeing to premiere the finished vid. “Our Valley (Quarantine Version)” will be out officially on 5/29 at Bandcamp and coming soon to all streaming outlets. Looking forward to playing it live when the time comes!
After moving to Chicago 1999, Thomas Comerford founded and led the indie rock outfit Kaspar Hauser over a series of lineups and LP releases in the 2000s. By 2010, he was also playing under his own name with a number of backing musicians and releasing his own LPs, including “Archive + Spiral” in 2011, “II” in 2014 and “Blood Moon” in 2018. The music, songs and singing on these LPs have been compared to the likes of Jeff Tweedy and Tom Waits (“USA Today”) and Lou Reed and the Go Betweens (“Chicago Reader”). Recently, Comerford started Another VU, a Velvet Underground tribute group, who play songs from the band’s 1969 era. Currently, he is mixing his fourth solo LP and writing songs to record with his “Blood Moon” tour band.
You can keep up with Thomas at his website.