Owen Ashworth has this way of making you feel like you've long known him personally. The singer-songwriter-keys aficionado seems an open book, his gold-tipped pages filled with relatable angst, longform stories, and witty musings. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone – the project he started in his 20s in the Bay Area and retired some 13 years later in Chicago, 2010 – was something you wanted to curl up with and have a good melancholy moment, a tête-à-tête with the sound in the machine.
But Ashworth was tired of rehashing the songs he wrote a decade ago, so he broke sonic ties and started anew, with Advance Base. Its tone is similar (hence, comforting), veiled quasi-autobiographical stories pumped out of keyboards and vintage electronic equipment (electric piano, autoharp, Omnichord, old rhythm boxes), with Ashworth's familiar talk-singing sparingly backed by female counterparts.
Yet the effort is cleaned up, more full instrument-wise, and lyrically, Ashworth – now a husband and new father – mined his childhood and young adulthood familial relationships, along with those of the people he knows, instead of focusing on romantic relationships. Also, he recorded live with four musicians in the room. The result of this process is Advance Base's stunning debut LP, A Shut-Ins Prayer, released last month on Caldo Verde Records (Ashworth released it himself on vinyl prior).
I had the pleasure of chatting with Ashworth during a mid-tour break just outside of Phoenix as he was heading back to California for his first Bay Area show as Advance Base:
SFBG Any plans for when you're back in the Bay Area?
Owen Ashworth My mom lives in Pacifica, so I'm definitely going to see her. I grew up in the Bay Area so there's never enough time to see everyone I want to see in town. It's always a little overwhelming, coming back and playing San Francisco. The last time I was there to play a show was the last Casio show, which was December of two years ago. These are the first West Coast shows for Advance Base.
SFBG How has touring been so far as Advance Base?
OA It feels really good to have new songs to play, for sure. Just to have totally fresh material, and not have 13 years worth of songs to keep rehearsed so I can play them on request, feels really good. [I'm] very much in the now. Everything I'm playing is feeling exciting and relevant.
But it's definitely also been rough-going, starting over, and smaller audiences than Casiotone had. It's going to take awhile to build an audience again. There have been some frustrating nights, to know that if there was just a different name on the poster, there would be so many more people. But that's part of the challenge and I knew that. Starting over, that this was what it was going to be like.
SFBG What prompted that decision, to start over, to formally end Casiotone to start this new project?
OA I feel like I did what I wanted to do [with Casiotone]. It's something I started as a pretty young man, I was 20. After writing songs for 13 years, every song I wrote I felt like I had to consider what its place was going to be in the timeline. And I would have a new record and I'd want to go on tour and just play those songs – and maybe it was pressure I was just putting on myself, but I felt like I had to play all these old songs people wanted to hear.
It just seemed like the history of Casiotone got to be too much to deal with at a point. I felt like, if I had no songs and had to start over it would challenge me to be more productive and creative. And I just got kind of bored, playing the same songs over and over again. It didn't feel vital. That wasn't what I wanted to do with music.
My primary interest and the reason I do music is because I love writing and recording. I like the idea of concentrating my time on creating new stuff. This seemed like the kick in the ass that was going to kind of force me to do that.
SFBG It seems like it could be reinvigorating to start fresh like that – scary, but also exciting.
OA It's both of those things for sure. It's frustrating and challenging. Just having a blank slate. I mean, [there's] so much panic and excitement involved with that. It feels great to have new songs, and I'm not sick of these yet [laughs].
SFBG When did you record A Shut-Ins Prayer?
OA The first thing I recorded was this instrumental that ends the album, that was something I recorded really shortly after the end of Casiotone. It was something I made before I had any idea what the new music was going to be. After I did that I spent a year producing music for other people – I recorded a record for this rapper in Chicago called Serengeti, did production for some other people. And then took a break from really thinking about my own songs.
So the last year I've been really working on Advance Base in earnest. The Donkeys, a band that's really good friends of mine, they were coming through Chicago last year and asked 'do you have anything going? Do you want to open our show?' And that was really the inspiration to get some stuff together, it really pushed me to get some songs written.
It was a year process of writing and recording, I was playing with some other musicians and we were recording things live, which is something that I hadn't really done much of before, four people sitting in a room and recording things live in a kind of more old-fashioned way. There were about six or seven months where the thing I was thinking about every day was trying to get that album finished.
SFBG What was the inspiration for the song “Riot Grrls” – was that a personal story?
OA Yeah, it's about a couple of different people. Growing up, in high school and then into college, movies theaters were always the jobs I had. I've always wanted to write something longer about the experience of being a teenager and working in a movie theater, but the stories keep coming out piece by piece. So that was inspired by the end of high school, early college, trying to figure out what kind of person you're going to be, the friendships that feel really important at the time but they're people you don't stay in touch with. The people who are very much influential to the kind of person you've become, and you think about a lot, even though there's no direct contact anymore.
But yeah it's about me, and I feel like it is with a lot of my songs – there's a little bit of personal experience and then a lot of speculation and then combining my stories with friends' stories. So part of that song is friends telling me stories about old friends of theirs and imagining who your friends used to be before you knew them.
SFBG Now that you have a child of your own do you find yourself reflecting on your own childhood more in your music?
OA Yeah, I think the album ended up being very nostalgic, I thought a lot about the formative years and was reflecting on people that aren't in my life anymore. And it was a lot [about] family and siblings and parent relationships. I have an eight-month-old baby, and while my wife was pregnant, I think we both got really reflective. We started to have more empathetic relationships with our own parents, and a lot of wondering what our parents' lives were like when they were our ages, and that lead to reflecting on childhood.
SFBG I noticed that a lot in “My Sister's Birthday.”
OA That's one of my favorite songs on the record, I like that one a lot. I don't have a sister. That's not so much about my own sibling relationships, but other people in my family, just in general wondering about sibling relationships. When I started writing songs, it was a lot of really romantic songs, songs about like, girlfriends and things like that, but I think the stories that really fascinate me now are family relationships, especially sibling relationships – they're the people you know throughout your entire life.
If you fall in love with someone, and it ends up working out and you spend the rest of your life with them, that's still maybe the second two thirds of your life. But your siblings, those are the people who know you through everything, and have seen you every step of the way and grow with you. Those are such complicated relationships. I have a brother who's seven years younger who I'm really close with, and my parents have siblings, and those are the stories I find most compelling at this point. I think about family so much more than I used to.
SFBG I saw recently saw on your Twitter – which, by the way, it seems like you're really into social networking?
OA I like Twitter! [laughs]. I get a kick out of it.
SFBG Anyways, I read that you got to see [recently deceased bluegrass guitarist] Doc Watson when you were young.
OA Yeah at the Great American Music Hall, that was the first concert I ever saw. My grandpa took my dad and me to see Doc Watson when I was pretty young, single digits, like nine. I was really impressed with how at ease he was on stage. I didn't know what a concert was really, but just to see this man who seemed like a really nice man on stage being pretty candid and funny and conversational, it was like, 'this is what it is. A man who sits in front of amplification and has a one-sided conversation with strangers.'