Lily, Michael and Shared Human Experiences: a Q&A with Owen Ashworth

Portrait of songwriter Owen Ashworth

Photo of Owen Ashworth by Jeff Marini.

Let me tell you about Lily.

One of my favorite things about her is that she still has an answering machine in her home. It’s not because she’s a luddite. The reason is very simple: She calls to leave messages for her dog while he’s home alone during her workday. This makes a difference, she knows, because — when she gets home — he’s moved his toys next to the machine.

I love this about Lily because it’s a small detail of the human capacity for care and thoughtfulness. She’s the kind of person I’d want to have in my phone for when I’m having a rough moment and need someone that could offer sincere, unencumbered understanding. And I’d want her to trust me to be there for her in the same ways on the other end.

The other thing about Lily is that she’s fictional — a character in songs from songwriter Owen Ashworth, who releases music under the project name Advance Base.

These details about Lily are from “Answering Machine,” a one-minute track that concludes his latest full-length studio album, 2018’s Animal Companionship. The song is told from the perspective of a friend who is singing to Lily in the second person.

Earlier in the record, the song “Rabbits” is a story told from a first-person perspective of a person longing for an ex as she walks around town alone and visits the spots they used to visit together. She reflects on the rumors of what he has made of his life throughout (he works at a bar owned by his in-laws, has a child with his wife, etc.). The narrator remains nameless until the end, when we’re told of a tree in the park that has both of their names carved within a heart:

“Lily + Michael”

On Animal Companionship, the result of these interwoven narratives is a lot less like 2005’s Crash and much more like the way Robert Altman entwines characters from disparate Raymond Carver short stories in Short Cuts: It provides greater context for their behaviors and emotions. When applied to an album of music, as opposed to a film, it’s an acknowledgement that people are complex and cannot be encapsulated into a single track of a verse/chorus song structure.

Throughout his career, Ashworth has constructed a series of songs that told human stories about the small moments in life, such as Lily and her answering machine. While the specific details may vary, the human emotions at the center of them are recognizable to us all. These narratives are strung together by a production style that largely hinges on the use of old synths, keyboards, and drum machines.

It’d be easy to just label Advance Base as “lo-fi,” but the records go an extra step that I think might be easy to miss. It’s not simply that the equipment is old. It’s that the equipment offers a unique characteristic — and the production is intent on integrating these specific qualities into the broader texture of the entire song. In this way, the audio production mirrors the characters it supports: The instrumentation is raw and complex in its idiosyncrasies, while communicating a recognizable, universal human longing.

I reached out to Ashworth with some questions recently after doing a deep dive of his discography, and he was kind enough to entertain my curiosity on how he developed his interest in storytelling and music production.

Here is our exchange, which has been edited lightly for clarity and brevity:

While researching for this piece, I read that you originally wanted to be a filmmaker, but found music to be a more accessible medium as a storyteller. Is there a film (or a few) that inspired you to want to pursue film and — ultimately — storytelling through music?

OA: While I was a film student at San Francisco State University back in the late 90s, I was also working at a little movie theater called the Lumiere. I got to see all the movies I wanted, and I really took advantage of that perk. I would watch everything, from Hollywood romantic comedies, to programs of difficult and strange experimental films put on by the Art Institute. I took it all in, and I’m sure it all influenced my writing and music in some way or another.

I remember one year during the San Francisco International Film Festival (I think I was 20), I would see two or three movies every day. I had a few other friends from the Lumiere who were as crazy about movies as I was, and we’d see just about anything that we could get a ticket to. I loved going into movies blind, with zero context for what was about to happen. A Belgian filmmaker named Chantal Akerman was at the festival presenting a made-for-TV documentary she’d made about her own career called Chantal Akerman on Chantal Akerman. I’d never heard of her or seen anything she’d made, and the documentary ended up being a wonderful introduction to one of my favorite filmmakers. In between shots of Akerman smoking in her apartment, sighing and wondering why she made films, there were clips from throughout her career: from early narrative short films to personal essay films to wordless, structuralist experiments. I loved the characters in her stories. I loved the slow patience of her more avant-garde work. And she was just so cool and weird and funny during the post-film Q & A. I was immediately a fan. 

I’ve sought out many of her films in the years since, but the one film featured in the documentary that took me the longest time to track down was a semi-autobiographical short feature called Portrait D’Une Jeune Fille de la Fin Des Années 60 à Bruxelles (Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 60s in Brussels). There’s this one particular scene at a teen dance party that I couldn’t stop thinking about for a long time afterwards. There isn’t any dialogue, but the music of the dance party kind of narrates the scene. It’s beautiful and tragic. There’s this unflinching point of view, and these feelings of awkwardness and longing that I tried to instill in my songs for years afterwards.

You previously released music under the name “Casiotone for the Painfully Alone.” While there are differences in the sound, both projects are unmistakably yours. What was behind the decision to release music under the “Advance Base” moniker?

OA: I did some damage to my ear drums while recording and mixing the last Casiotone for the Painfully Alone album, and the problem only got worse while touring in support of the album. I knew I wanted to keep making music, but my hearing had gotten so bad that I really didn’t know what would be possible moving forward. Taking time away from touring and recording was helpful, and thankfully my hearing improved over time. 

I knew that I needed to make quieter and less abrasive music, but I also wanted to play music with other people. I started Advance Base with the idea that it would be a full band, just a really quiet one. I put a band together with some friends in Chicago, and we started practicing in my apartment. The four of us played shows together for a year or so, but touring proved to be difficult due to my bandmates’ work and family responsibilities. I ended up figuring out a solo, “travel” version of Advance Base so I could play out-of-town shows. After a while, the solo version just became the regular version, and I was a solo act again. 

I found a new appreciation for solo performance after coming back to it again. I loved how totally personal and direct the solo Advance Base sets could feel. I felt more connected to myself and more connected to the people I was performing for.

Photo of Owen Ashworth by Jeff Marini

Outside of the storytelling, one of my favorite things about these records has been the production. Each track seems to mine the idiosyncratic characteristics of your equipment. Was this interest in sound something you developed in tandem with your interest in storytelling, or did that come later?

OA: I guess the production style developed right along with the songwriting. From the beginning, I was learning to write, play, sing and record myself all at once, so it all felt like part of the same thing. 

At first, I was just using battery-powered keyboards that I found at thrift stores and swap meets for instrumentation. The Casio SK-1 and SK-5’s sampling capabilities were really exciting to me, and I started experimenting with making my own drum and keyboard sounds. 

Things really opened up for me when I bought a used Korg ES-1 sampler a few years later. After being at the mercy of Casio presets for so many years, it was a thrill to be able to make my own beats and sounds. I never really got into sampling records or other media, maybe because I was worried about copyright issues, so I just tried to grab interesting noises from the world wherever I could. Over time, I built up a library of samples that felt unique to me.

These albums were recorded at your home rather than at a commercial studio. How does that impact the sound and the process of your records? Has your relationship to home recording changed over the last year?

OA: While the first two Advance Base albums were recorded at home, a lot of Animal Companionship was recorded with my friend Jason Quever at Palmetto Studios in Los Angeles, CA. Jason’s a great engineer, and he knows my music really well. I was really pleased with how that album turned out, and I had a hard time going back to recording myself afterwards. Everything I tried to record myself sounded so flat compared to the sounds Jason and I were getting. It took me a few years to really enjoy home recording again. Performing live stream concerts from my basement during quarantine was the thing that got me comfortable with recording myself again.

Back to the storytelling in these albums: So much of your work uses a place to evoke a specific feeling. What is it about these places — and maybe more specifically the people and the stories you find in them — that draws you in as a storyteller?

OA: I almost always have a place in mind when I write songs. I like to build a little community with the characters, and often my albums will be centered around a certain place or time, with some overlaps in the narratives. I like the idea of the protagonists in certain songs being extras in other songs, just moving around in the background somewhere. I almost think of the songs as little dioramas. 

I usually pick smaller towns or cities to write about, places I pass through on tour or even just names on a map that stick in my mind. I love to travel and see new places, so there is a daydreamy quality to my songwriting. I get to visit all of these different places every time I write or sing about them.

I was familiar with Casiotone from back when, but I have to admit I discovered Advance Base from watching Joe Pera Talks With You and knew your voice immediately. It seemed like such a perfect fit: Both your music and the show celebrate the small moments in life that connect us as humans. Is there a story for how this came about?

OA: Joe Pera and I met through our mutual friend, David Bazan, who makes music under the name Pedro the Lion. Dave happened to recommend Animal Companionship to Joe when he was in the midst of putting together his special, Relaxing Old Footage with Joe Pera. Joe liked the album and thought the song “Your Dog” could work really well over the special’s closing montage of Marquette, MI and Milwaukee, WI (two of my favorite cities, coincidentally). He sent me a nice email asking if he could call me to talk about it. It was a friendly call, and the way he described the special and how he wanted to use the song just made it seem like a natural fit. I was already a fan of Joe’s comedy, and I was really just thrilled to be involved. I love the special.

In August of 2020, you released Live from Home. As a solo performer who crafts such full arrangements for your records, are these live tracks constantly evolving as you develop new ideas to play them alone live? Has this time off from being on the road impacted the way you think about playing live?

OA: The songs tend to change after I’ve been playing them live for a while, yes. I’m not always considering live performance when I’m arranging and recording my albums, so sometimes, I need to figure out new ways to play the songs in real time with just my two hands. Sometimes, happy accidents happen, and I’ll find a new sound or mood that just opens up the song in a different way. That was what I was hoping to document with Live at Home. Some of the live versions of these songs have a pretty different feel than the album versions, and I liked the new things they were communicating, especially in the context of each other. 

Live at Home  is basically the set I was playing for the last few months of Advance Base live shows, and it included songs that I’d written over the span of almost 20 years. I really liked the way it moved. I had to cancel a lot of shows during quarantine, and I really wasn’t sure if I’d ever get to play in front of an audience again. So I’m grateful to have a document of what Advance Base was in 2020.

Playing live was about the closest thing I had to meditation. I had a lot invested in those songs and the audiences I was sharing them with. I had organized my emotional life around performing, and I just didn’t feel right without it. During quarantine, I really mourned that loss. It took me a while to realize that I was dealing with some actual grief. I had to figure out new ways to process my emotions and feel connected to the world. 

I have mixed feelings about resuming touring now that it feels like a possibility again. I’m really looking forward to traveling and being in an audience and seeing old friends across the country and around the world, but I don’t feel the same dependence on performing that I used to. It’ll take some getting used to.

Writer’s note: The original piece implied a connection between Lily and the song “Delores & Kimberly.” It turns out these are not intended to be connected. I like so much the intended reading and what it more represents I’ve removed this imposed connection between the other narratives to not muddy the intention and significance.

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