Yellow Brick Man
Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Colin McGrath has a knack for penning tales of freewheeling characters with a natural tone that is both whimsical and heartbreaking. NPR Music has described him as an 'Itinerant folk orchestrator," who writes "songs that are steeped in storytelling, with characters and images drawn from old Americana." Colin studied music at Oberlin College-he's been commissioned to write chamber pieces for The Central Park Brass and The New York Philharmonic's touring educational performances-but he's received his real schooling studying the tragically poetic stories unfolding in junkshops and dive bars nationwide. Like a Model T Ford hand crank, a Seth Thomas clock, and a pair of wingtip shoes all displayed on a Formica table in a dusty, small town pawn shop-the seemingly divergent styles on Colin's sophomore album, Yellow Brick Man, convey one meticulous but playfully ramshackle spirit. Appalachian mountain music, Tin Pan Alley, psychedelic, and ambient electronic mingle together on a bed of 1960s folk. The follow-up to his NPR-touted debut is darker and more experimental with a conceptual sin-to-salvation narrative. Colin and his longtime collaborator William Berlind consciously wanted to make an album that furthered the innovative textures on Colin's debut Window Seat (2007) while also capturing an eerie dreaminess. "We knew we were looking for a certain kind of palette of sounds," Colin explains. "We went to the Music Inn on Bleeker Street and bought a Bouzouki which is 8-stringed mandolin-like instrument that has a kind of old world, ancient feeling. We rented a vibraphone for a day and brought it to our studio to record. We recorded an electric wah-wah violin, a tack piano, a cigar box guitar, a cheap old Casiotone keyboard, a banjo and a chromatic harmonica. We were looking for timbres that we couldn't get by playing conventional instruments in conventional ways so we just fiddled around with these sounds and layered them until we got exactly what we were looking for." The album's enigmatic music appropriately underscores Colin's playfully cryptic lyrics. The album loosely depicts the adventures of a freight-hopping, prison escapee who gets drunk and stranded on a desert island, has a transformational encounter with a Catholic saint who pulls him across a river before he finally finds (near) peace in the arms of a hard-headed woman. Deeply folded into this fantastical tale is Colin's own story of grappling with trying to support a family while following a lifelong dream. "A lot of it came from making music at this stage my life," Colin reveals. "My daughter is 3 and a half and I'm at a crossroads: keep this dream alive or hang it up. Those questions are all over this album. Especially 'Yellow Brick Man,' where a guy plunks down his guitar at a pawnshop and says 'Yellow Brick Man what have you got for me today?'" The album opens with Colin's plaintive voice, warm and twangy, with celestial electro ambience tucked behind some tasteful, country guitar picking. This sets the tone for the psychedelic Americana spirit of the album and this initial prison break kicks off the story: I've been waiting such a long time/ Don't want to wait no more/ I've come this far, I'm not turning back/'Till I find what I'm looking for. Colin has a Bruce Springsteen/Tom Waits skill for authentic character sketches that cleverly tuck in social commentary. "Walking Eddie" is about a transient, off-kilter kind of guy-charming, eccentric, and smelly-who wanders down the highway into local bars and shops. In this tune Colin projects against the Eddie motif the town's gentrification. "I wrote that song with my friend Janni Littlepage at a bar in Ben Lomand, CA in the middle of the day playing pool. People inside told us the story of Walking Eddie: A not entirely sane guy walking up and down Highway 9 who lived in a boarding house for mentally-disabled people. Those talks about Eddie led to how the town changed from working class to more chi chi, but Walking Eddie stayed the same. That character appealed to me; a part of me will always stay the same no matter how things change." Walkin' Eddie's tracing time, all the way down highway 9, Seen the change that's come and gone from the break of day to the setting sun. One of Yellow Brick Man's most evocative pieces is the instrumental "South 2nd St. Serenade." It's ambient and emotional with a classical sense of order and melody and a Wilco-esque, post-modern sense of adventurous textures, treatments, and sounds. It effortlessly merges Colin's musicologist mind and folkie heart. "I went to a [folk] house concert the other night and a guy played Ravel on the piano and then sang his own songs. It really hit it for me because the classical music had the same feeling as the folk music. When I listen to a classical composer like Ravel, I like to think that people had house concerts back then too, and they sat around, played music and drank beer," Colin says with a laugh. Colin first discovered bluegrass in college while playing in Weedkiller with The Office's Ed Helms. But the most formative moment for Colin's present-day vision occurred at the Kerrville Folk Festival. There he was taken with the magic of the art of songwriting: it's deep heritage and emotional currency. He was 23 at time, living in Berkeley, CA, working as a sign painter, painting billboard signs on MacArthur Highway as rush-hour cars zipped by below. He took a Greyhound bus from Frisco to Texas to catch the event. In 2009 he was selected to play at The New Folk series at that same event. "That was a big honor for me all these years later to play there...It felt like this brotherhood of songwriters all sitting around the campfire at 4:00 AM listening to each other play," Colin says reminiscing. Colin has been a finalist and winner in many similarly prestigious events, netting a $4,000 guitar in the Richardson Wildflower! Songwriting Competition. The literal and metaphorical connection Colin McGrath makes on Yellow Brick Man is that we can go from winning that prized instrument to having to pawn it to the Yellow Brick Man and our only lifeboat through this journey is the dreams we hold fast.