Strictly speaking, Bill Deasy didn't really go anywhere: The onetime Gathering Field frontman has been releasing solo albums for over a decade, the most recent in 2009. He is a published novelist as well, and he's been based in Pittsburgh all along. But his new album, Start Again, represents, if not a return, then something of a reimagining of his musical output. And it has a lot to do with working with bandmate and producer Chris Parker — and their shared affinity for Van Morrison.
"That was exactly the jumping-off point," Deasy says. "Chris had played with me for a few years, and we'd gotten to understand that we had some of the same influences."
It shows on the album's eponymous opening track; much like Morrison's Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece-era output, the mix is dominated by simple percussion and bass work. There are flourishes of flutes and strings, but it's mostly Deasy's voice and the rhythm section guiding the way — a far cry from what the guitarist is accustomed to.
"It was liberating," he says. "I'm not an amazing acoustic guitar player, but I have a distinct style that really directs everything, without me even knowing it. Most records, you start with an acoustic track and vocal. On this one, we really shied away from that; sometimes it would just be me singing with a drum beat, and no guitar. And I was just thrilled with the changes that brought."
The changes include a slightly less commercial sound. While it's no avant-garde record, Start Again might have more stream-of-consciousness than we've come to expect from Deasy, and the sing-along choruses are few and far between. For those who think of Deasy as the guy whose "Good Things Are Happening" was the theme to Good Morning America for years, it might seem an aberration, but he doesn't see it that way.
"My [other] records might be slightly more accessible," he says, "but even going back to The Gathering Field, there were always these weighty lyrics and all. That's how I think of myself. And the idea of Start Again was me getting back to that."
At first glance, with a note inside the album sleeve that says, "No vocals were auto-tuned in the making of this record," and an opening line that goes, "Analog got converted to digital / Say goodbye to the future of rock and roll," one might see earnest concern about the state of contemporary music at the forefront of Start Again. Not so, says Deasy.
"Usually I love Autotune," he says. "You give a good performance and there might be one or two notes that are off. It was just a joke, really. The first line of the record, some purists feel that way — and that's me saying that that's a cop-out."
It's true, though, that Start Again sounds like it's of a different time; it's an organic record that calls on acoustic instruments to fill out its depths, and it's a step out of the ordinary for Deasy. In the end, it's a tribute to what a few risks and faith in one's collaborators can lead to.
"At first, Chris might have some ideas about arrangement or production that might be a little foreign to me," Deasy says. "But I really consistently fought the urge to question anything [he suggested]. And I just wound up thrilled by what he was doing."