Iowa-born Chris Bathgate’s sound is a subtle outpouring of humble reflection wrapped up in complex musical ideas inside traditional folk arrangements. Bathgate lays somber-ish lyrical lines with a touch of country twang atop harmonies that often feel somewhere in between folk and chamber pop. Using both acoustic and electric guitar, piano, strings, horns, and more, Bathgate creates large ideas from simple building blocks by studiously constructing multilayered harmonies and textures to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. His latest release, Salt Year, was released in 2011 on Quite Scientific Records. We got with him to talk about some of his creative influences and hear what he’s been listening to lately for the 11th edition of our Recipes series. The playlist features tracks by the likes of Etta James, Doc Watson, Talk Talk and Small Black.
What drives you to create? There’s a cocktail of reasons that drive me to create. Foremost is curiosity. I’m always curious what results musical inquiries yield. For example, the song “Wait” off Old Factory is an experiment with a singular melody line and its ability to be complemented by different supporting chord progressions. “Big Ghost” is an inquiry in using a drum part as a hook. I pose a lot of “what if” questions when writing; many of my studio recordings begin with a question or idea I have about arrangement or composition. Another jigger in this cocktail is pure emotional release. I’m a cathartic, personal writer. I write songs that are inspired directly from how I feel, or what I’m thinking. So, mental health is a factor. I’m also powerless in the face of inspiration. That enigma, inspiration, is a bit more difficult to put a thumb on. It might best compared to hunger. When an idea is blooming, I’m compelled to create.
How does your surrounding environment affect the way you write music? I’m always inspired by landscapes and people. It’s hard for me to separate my environment and the music because they almost feel one in the same to me. The music is of the place, season, and people.
What do you consider to your greatest weakness as a songwriter? My musical vision has always been bigger than my vision. So, making compromises and being realistic have always taken work to manage. Limitations aid my writing in a way though, so that weakness also contributes to projects being completed and can shape the actual art.
Do you think a cultural or social message is a necessary part of successful art? I think of art as a catalyst for thought in others. I don’t think it’s possible to separate art from culture or society. I think whether a message is intended or not, one can always exist, if you choose. Meaning is always subject to the viewer / listener.
What do you see when you look at this? I see the mirror image of a penguin, with gigantic feet, reverently marching away from melting ice.
Check out one of our favorite tunes by Chris Bathgate: “Eliza (Hue)”