Photographer: Holden Blanco
Philadelphia based singer-songwriter of The Barrel Fires, Jay Carlis, took the opportunity to chat with us. With many years covering artists like The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan, Carlis’s debut album Here We Are, will take the listener on an emotional journey of embracing change and coming to terms with certain aspects in your daily life.
For the album (“Here We Are”) you gave the nod to producer Ross Bellenoit at Turtle Studios. Some local Philadelphians May knew Ross from the group, Muscle Tough. How did you guys originally connect for the record?
The Barrel Fires cut our first EP, Run Around Years, at Turtle Studios. One of our friends had done a project there. He hadn’t worked with Ross, but Jay Levin at Turtle knew that Ross would be the right fit for us. We were so happy with how Run Around Years came out. We weren’t a real experienced studio band and Ross brought the best out of us. When it came time to do the solo record, I knew Ross and Turtle would crush it. Ross is such an incredible musician so he brought his ear for the arrangements and then played so many of the parts as well – the slide solos, electric guitar, banjo. The final result really exceeded all my expectations.
From the beginning of “Unwind” to the finale “Hey Juniper,” the lyrics speak to the listener. How long did you have the songs written until you knew it was time to hit the studio?
The songs were mostly written from April 2018 through the fall of 2019 when we started recording. These were tunes that I started writing just as we we’re starting The Barrel Fires record. I came home from work one Friday afternoon and was sitting outside practicing a bit for the studio and I just started singing the lines to “Every Passing Day” on the new record. It was a little more plainspoken and conversational than other stuff that I’ve been writing. The whole thing, 3 verses, 3 different choruses and a bridge just flowed out in an hour or so. I barely changed a word after that which is a rarity. I felt like I found a new voice which became the foundation of the songs on the new record. I spent 18 months reading, writing, listening and exploring this new voice. Unwind was the final addition. At that point I knew I had a full record and I just felt like they needed to be captured while I could.
Let’s be honest: One word we can describe this year is, “challenging”. I could use a million words there. What are some of the positive moments you have experienced in 2020?
There were a couple of musical highlights. The absolute tops was performing a couple of songs at a Robert Hunter tribute at the Ardmore Music Hall in late-January. It was such an all-star lineup. I was the first person to play with the full band that night, the Dead Friends. The place was packed and the crowd just exploded when we hit the first chords of “Bertha.” People were dancing and singing along. Then I walked out into the crowd to dance and sing along myself with some friends. People were high fiving me. What an amazing night! And then only about a month later everything changed.
I did a duo show in August at the Tailgate Takeout at 118 North in Wayne with Mike Caroto from the Dead Friends to celebrate the release of the record. We played a bunch of Dead and Dylan tunes along with some of the songs off the record. It was such a pleasure jamming with Mike. It was a real highlight to be outside on a beautiful August evening playing music for an appreciative, dancing crowd, and have my friends from around the country tuning in on Facebook live.
On a personal level, there have definitely been some challenging moments, but overall I’ve certainly been able to see how fortunate I am. My wife and I have strengthened our bond and learned to communicate better. We got chickens and we built a really nice coop together. She’s an amazing artist and has been working on a series of incredibly moving paintings during the quarantine. She’s also learning to play the mandolin so I’ve had someone in the house to jam with. Playing disc golf with my oldest daughter. Throwing the football with my son. Watching my youngest daughter learn to swim and become an absolute water lover like just like me.
This is a very unique time for musicians. Many people are going back to their “9-5” but for musicians it may be some time before they play in front of a packed house. How have you or other musician friends of yours adjusted to the times?
I’m lucky to have a steady job developing solar power projects, something I think is really important for our future and I feel really passionate about. The Barrel Fires moved our rehearsal time from Friday at 9:30 PM after all our kids go to sleep to Sundays 1-4 so we could be outside and appropriately distanced. We had some great jams. We miss getting out there in front of our fans of course but we’ve kept up practicing through the fall at least. Winter looks a little tough for outdoor jamming. I’ve done a few Facebook live appearances. And I took an occasional slot on the DELCO Quarantine Open Mic Facebook page. I’d never done live streams before and so I got to play live for friends all over the country who don’t normally get to see me play. That was one positive side effect of the situation.
“Here We Are” is a fitting title for the times we are living in. How has your life been a little more unique in 2020. Are there any new tunes that have come out of these past few months?
Having the three kids home 24/7 while working remotely has been quite a challenge. As a parent, it can be painful watching the kids have to adjust to such tough times. I remember my six-year-old daughter asking me: “Daddy, is this your first pandemic?” A moment like that just kind of crushes your heart a little bit. So yeah, there have been some good new tunes coming out of all this. Just before the pandemic really took hold, I wrote “Backwards” inspired by Mercury in retrograde. “I’m going backwards. Everything’s falling apart. I’m taking you with me back to the start.” I honestly had no clue how much things were going to fall apart a few weeks later. I also wrote a tune To John Perry Barlow, Bob Weir’s song-writing partner. Not only was Barlow a great lyricist, but he was also a Wyoming rancher and one of the pioneers of the internet. As everything shut down, musicians and everyone else were turning to the web to communicate and perform via social media, and the lines between truth and fiction disappeared online, I wondered what Barlow would think if he were alive. I slipped some Weir-Barlow song titles into the lyrics as I went through as well. I put a video out on Instagram and tagged Barlow and the Electronic Frontier Foundation he founded. Some of his friends found it and they invited me to sing it to them during a zoom gathering early on in the quarantine. That was a real highlight.
You are heavily influenced by the likes of Robert Hunter and Jason Isbell. If you could summarize what these two means to you how would you describe it.
Robert Hunter’s lyrics were one of the things that really drew me to the Dead early on. While I always enjoyed the extended jams, I never felt the same way about Phish because I didn’t connect to the songs on an emotional level. In songs like “Brown-Eyed Women” and “Jack Straw,” you’ve got these rich images that take you to a different time and place with characters plucked out of the far corners of American culture. And then “Eyes of the World” and “Box of Rain” are more moment-in-time songs, capturing ideas and emotions in pure poetic brilliance. When I started writing songs in my late teens, I was really going after the poetry. It took me a long time to get even close.
I first heard Jason Isbell when he released Southeastern. While Jason’s lyrics certainly are poetry, they speak more to the raw messiness of real life. I love the way he tells stories by drawing on specific details that tell you so much about the characters in just a few words. He creates a rich web of images that tell a much deeper story. I see a lot of similarities between Jason and Robert Hunter in that way. Jason’s drawing on his own experience growing up in Alabama and dealing with addiction. He really takes you there. That’s what I was going for on my song “Sittin on the Porch.” I think lines like “Yeah we bought the house with the little pool out back” and “We were looking out for omens like we would even know” paint a really rich picture of the characters in just a few words.