The past few years have held some surprising plot twists for Pittsburgh-based singer-songwriter Bill Deasy: His first novel, Ransom Seaborn, was published in 2006, followed by this year's Traveling Clothes. Now, he's working on a writing project for the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum, "just learning about trains and about American history and about Pennsylvania."
But that doesn't mean the former Gathering Field frontman has been slacking on the music. Last year saw a release by a new project, Thomas Jefferson's Aeroplane (a collaboration with Rich Jacques, formerly of Brownie Mary) and now he's releasing a new solo album, Being Normal. Cut at keyboardist Skip Sanders' studio with the rest of Deasy's live band -- drummer David Throckmorton, bassist Scooter Tamulina and guitarist Chris Parker -- the album has a broken-in ease that perfectly suits Deasy's vocals and supports occasional forays into U2 territory ("Cry Hope") and blue-eyed soul ("Sweet Salvation").
Has having a few tricks in the bag stabilized you, or do they compete for your attention?
All of the different things have enabled me to stay fresh in every stage. If I'm burned out on songwriting or gigging or whatever, I can shift gears in whatever direction. I've always been a reader, and my songwriting has always had a slightly long-winded, literary bent. When you hear some old Gathering Field songs, they're like little novels, almost!
Getting older in the music world, it's a challenge in a way to do well -- to stay viable and creative in a way that feels meaningful still, in stead of repeating yourself. Shifting into fiction was maybe a way to ease that transition a bit.
The new record sounds very relaxed and confident -- like you did it quickly and enjoyably instead of slowly and torturously.
That is exactly right -- you couldn't really describe it any better. We started working on it and we literally finished the final mix less than three weeks later. There's always some sort of stall moment in a recording process where you're pulling your hair out about something, and it just never happened. At every turn, it was fun -- really a joy of a project.
For this record, with my band that I've been playing with for awhile, I just opened the floor to everybody, idea-wise, in terms of the musical directions, the drum sound, different things -- I just put my faith in everybody around me.
Did you have any particular musical touchstones in mind -- anything you've been listening to lately?
The only record I can point to that I know I was listening to as I wrote some of this record was the latest Pete Yorn CD -- I'm a big fan of his. There's one song on my record called "With You," and I'll forever be able to hear that it was very influenced by Pete Yorn's record and his kind of songwriting. I try to fight it and listen to really current music as much as I can, but my kinda touchstone artists are Van Morrison and Jackson Browne and people like that, who I think, on their best records, achieved this kind of pureness of sound.
I think we were just going for a really natural sounding record, where you could hear the room that the drums were in -- just a real organic feel to the whole thing.
It's hard not to compare the title Being Normal with that of your previous album, A Different Kind of Wild.
That is so funny! I guess the title Being Normal is kind of a joke anyway -- joke's not quite the right word, but just how nobody's normal. I guess I mean it to be open, or almost absurd, as a title. I wrote that song, "Being Normal," and lyrically, it was important to me for some reason -- it was kind of therapeutic. I don't usually write autobiographically and to work through things, at least not consciously. That one was a little conscious self-help, or a personal kind of breakthrough.
That song comes late in the album, so the whole time I kept wondering what "being normal" would mean ...
I just seemed to be born with guilt in my DNA. [Laughs.] I didn't understand all these kind of impulses in me as a human being; growing up in the world, I didn't know how to process them and ended up feeling abnormal and kind of hidden. So this was the kind of moment when I understood that every phase of my life has been normal, and I just have to accept everything.
Not to get heavy with you! As you get older, you can hopefully develop a little more compassion toward yourself.
So, is "being normal" basically "being human"?
Yeah, but normal just seems better! "Human" might be a better word for really what I meant, though.
As someone who's had their songs performed and recorded by some big names -- presumably to your substantial benefit -- do you ever feel like you're recording a song just to use as a demo to get another artist to record it?
When I make a record I don't think in those terms as I'm making it, but after the fact, maybe there is a song to pitch to So-and-So somewhere. But no, that's never a conscious thought as I'm making a record.
The Gathering Field benefitted from a common formula for success at that time: rotation on a major radio station leading to a major-label deal. Do you think getting added into regular rotation at a Pittsburgh station now would have the same effect?
Looking back, you can see we were at the very end of that model, but that turned out to be our blueprint. I think record companies at the time thought, "If people love the song in Pittsburgh, than they will anywhere" -- it's a good representative kind of city.
I think [now] you have to be more creative. It's almost like television is the new radio, and even that is almost over. Everything's changing so fast, I don't really have a handle on it. I'm gonna work harder with this record to understand how to be heard through the Internet in more ways than I have before, and also I'm going to try to be more visual. I'm going to film the concert next Saturday night at the Altar Bar, just to get some videos on YouTube and stuff -- to be a little more conscious and make more of a presence in that way. Of course, everybody's doing the same thing!
A few of the bands that took off shortly before The Gathering Field have also released albums this past year -- The Clarks and Rusted Root.
I really liked The Clarks' last record -- I haven't heard Rusted Root's yet. I just thought it brought in the best elements from every phase of their career. I feel like this record I just made, by chance, I stumbled into a good representation of the phases of my career, too.
Bill Deasy CD-release with Maddie Georgi and special guests. 9 p.m. Sat., Dec. 19. Altar Bar, 1620 Penn Ave., Strip District. $12 ($14 at the door). 412-263-2877 or www.altarbarpittsburgh.com