Coast & Refuge
Open heartedness was featured prominently on Kris Gruen’s 2018 release ‘Coast and Refuge”. This is true in both the themes and the making of the album-- whether in writing about what it takes to keep a relationship or a friendship going-- or in the process of making art in a series of collaborations with new and old friends. It’s an album both about and created by partnerships where the sonic and thematic threads feel constant, equally at home in the old townships of Vermont where the new folk-artist lives, as it is in the new frontiers of Scandinavia, and the California coastline where much of it was written.
That open heartedness led Gruen to creating a cinematic record full of moments of grace and soaring dynamics, but filled with subtle shadings, turning points, and epiphanies. Sometimes it sounds like Gruen is telling a secret between friends, and sometimes he’s reaching epic, mountaintop anthems. The result draws comparisons to Matthew Perryman Jones, Pete Yorn, Elbow, Griffin House, Ryan Adams, and Peter Bjorn and John; in fact, the latter’s Peter Morén appears on the album as vocalist and co-writer of “Every Day and Night Now.”
Gruen and his collaborators pursued some deeply personal topics in these songs. He reflects, “It’s a very intimate process with someone you may not know well.” His first songwriting collaboration was with AM, a singer-songwriter who’s toured with Beck and Air, and Gruen learned that it helps to break down barriers. Gruen says, “AM made sure I was comfortable, got me some tea, and we talked about life. Then we had a connection to build off of. We went into the living room, set some instruments around the room, and he played some records that he was digging. You fall into a vibe. He had me writing on the periphery of my normal sound.” It all comes down to that connection with another human being, that “refuge.” The resulting song “You Say” is a quirky, jangly highlight of the record.
After a seven country European tour supporting Jesse Malin, another coast led him to write with Peter Morén, of Peter Bjorn & John. Gruen says, “We wrote together in an old movie theater turned into an on-again, off-again performance venue. Paint was peeling off the walls and there was an old piano in the corner. We talked about how that lust for life will always call you. He was incredibly generous.” The two paint a vivid image of an “old man wool suit torn from nights of dancing” as reflection turns to catharsis. The duet had special meaning for Gruen for another reason: he played PB&J’s song “Young Folks” for his eldest daughter every night when she was an infant.
Gruen continued to stretch his sound on the epic album openers “Body in Motion” and “What Brings You”. Weepies and Dan Wilson collaborator Brad Gordon co-wrote and produced four songs on the record, including these two. Gruen reflects “When you walk into Brad’s LA studio, it’s lined with old rugs, and hung over the rugs are every instrument under the sun, and he can play all of them. He really is an excellent musician, and what he creates has the soul of a band sound. There’s electricity in the room.”
On the two tracks, Brad plays upright bass, piano, glockenspiel, organ, trumpet, trombone, accordion, and other percussion. “Body in Motion” kicks off with an insistent beat and an expansive guitar sound, embracing the span of life’s experiences in a high-energy mode that will surely inspire crowd sing-alongs. The songs retain folk roots, but bring a contemporary urgency and a huge sound. “You can hear the physical exertion that it takes to make the music. There’s a hiss of real space. We would get through tightening up on song structure. When I would record my guitar part, he would record another instrument with me live, there by capturing a band-like sound.”
Gordon says, “Kris brought an infectious sense of discovery into each writing session. He knew he wanted to write about traveling and what it felt like to be inspired by the people and places he's seen.”
“Lions” is about the courage it takes to deal with change. “It’s about one’s relationship with them self, recognizing that it’s going to take a lot of positive energy to make a change in the world, and at first not looking for it from other people, but starting at home,” says Kris, and change also came with this song, and its insistent beat marks Kris’ most pop-directed sound on record to date, after exploring folk, rock, and indie rock on prior albums. “He took me out of my comfort zone,” remembers Gruen. Co-writer and producer Justin Gray shaped the sound. Gray has written and produced for artists ranging from Dirty Heads to James Bay and John Legend.
Gray said, "I loved working with Kris on our two songs ‘Tightrope’ and ‘Lions.’ His focus on getting the story of the song exactly right lyrically and melodically really helped us cut to the bone in making these records.”
Gray and Gruen teamed up with Gruen’s long time producer, Charles Newman, on “Tightrope”, whose rousing strings rise to find a couple reconciling. Gruen sings “Even if we never see eye to eye, I couldn’t love you more if I tried” about sharing a country life with his wife, where they balance organic farming and creating art. Gruen says, “It’s a struggle-- the work of keeping a marriage inspired, when both people are still committed to exploring their dream work. It’s a very taught line that’s created between us at times, trying to hold the family together when we are required to be in these places elsewhere”.
The subtext of living between the country and city appears on other songs as well, most notably “Big City”, which documents a range of diverse communities: familial, political, artistic, and among New Yorkers. It begins with guitar fingerpicking and moves into programmed beats, sounding like a journey into the city. Of co-writer and producer Ramin Sakurai, Gruen says, “I was a fan-boy going into the session, because Sakurai was a member of a band I loved, Supreme Beings of Leisure.” Of the song, he says “It’s a conversation between me and my father [photographer Bob Gruen]. He is NYC to me.”
The elder Gruen is one of the most iconic rock photographers in the world. Kris recalls, “I was always drenched in punk rock energy as a kid hanging out with my dad. I saw the Ramones, Blondie, the New York Dolls as a kid, and hanging out with my dad meant staying awake for two and a half days straight”. It instilled a love of music in Kris early on.
His own life defines a simultaneous attraction and aversion to the music business. Moving to Vermont to embrace a slower lifestyle, he says, “There’s a truth about working with the earth that supersedes anything else, and a spirituality about being in a wilderness setting. The intelligence of an agrarian community is more intact in Vermont than almost any place I’ve ever been. People take the time to talk things through.” He puts the music he makes to the same test: is it “sustainable?”
Take for instance his collaboration on “Coming Down Around Me”, with filmmaker Melissa Miller Costanzo, Gruen returns to a timeless folk approach after being asked to compose a custom track for a key scene in the film. Costanzo says, "There was something about Kris Gruen’s voice that made me drop what I was holding. But seeing him perform actually changed me. His energy and vitality instantly took hold and I was lost in his rhythms. He was able to transform my words into something beautiful and I am forever grateful." The song appears in Costanzo’s feature film “All These Small Moments” starring Molly Ringwald, Jemima Kirke, Brendan Meyer, Brian d'Arcy James and Harley Quinn Smith, premiering at Tribeca Film Festival this year.
Producer Charles Newman (The Magnetic Fields, The Bones of J.R. Jones) takes the controls on “Coming Down Around Me”; as well as The Peter Morén duet “Everyday and Night Now”; and the album closer, “2008,” a beautifully nostalgic ballad co-written with Los Angeles based JimAndSam. Written in the band’s living room, the intimate song was recorded mostly live in Newman’s Brooklyn studio, as everyone converged on NYC amidst their tour schedules. He also produces the sunny, catchy “Young Hearts”; a duet co-written with fast-rising Finnish singer-songwriter Peppina and there again is that open heartedness that runs so deep through Gruen’s music.