For our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One, we talked with the prolific singer-songwriter-frontman Robert Harrison of Cotton Mather. During our enlightening discussion, Harrison discussed his ambitious 64-track “Songs from the I Ching” project, what it feels like being halfway through completing it, how both he and his songs have evolved since starting out in the ’90s, and much more!
You can also download Cotton Mather’s Sampler from the I Ching HERE.
NoiseTrade: Before we get into your most recent releases, let’s make sure everyone’s on the same page. What can you tell us about your in-progress 64-song “Songs from the I Ching” project?
Robert Harrison: I’ve been a longtime student of Chinese philosophy and the I Ching in particular. Over the years I’d begun to notice a connection between readings I received from the I Ching and songs that were coming to me. For those of you who don’t know, the I Ching is a book of ancient divination written by King Wen imprisoned during the Shang Dynasty. Its wisdom is accessed by tossing coins to divine answers from 64 possible readings, each containing 6 permutations. You might ask what a spiritual book has to do with pop songwriting and I would say in this case – nothing. I think it’s been filed in the wrong part of the bookstore. It’s the first self help manual – a concession to dualism trafficking purely in the temporal. The ancient Chinese didn’t really believe in God. But they believe in balance as demonstrated through nature, and how living in or out of accord with it determined outcome. To the extent a songwriter is creating from some sense of psycho-emotional locale, the I Ching confirms or furnishes those GPS coordinates in a powerful and instructional way. It’s themes are love, loss, betrayal, loyalty, indulgence, and vanity which have been the fodder of rock ‘n’ roll from the start.
I’m not a fan of rock reunions, preferring to leave well enough alone. So when Cotton Mather rose from the crypt I was reluctant to just put out just another record. I was looking for something unique. At the end of 2015 when I told the collective I wanted to tackle the I Ching song cycle idea, I don’t think anyone was initially thrilled. But when I reasoned that by releasing 64 songs over two years we’d likely get a pass if every third song was a turd, Whit Williams quipped, “so the “h” in third is silent?” Happily we’ve had no complaints from quality control.
NT: As you’re almost at the halfway point (30 songs have been released), do you feel the overall project is attainable? Also, is it transpiring as you thought it would or has anything about the process surprised you?
Harrison: I’ll admit I’ve been surprised by the strength of the output so far. After making the initial declaration I thought, “Oh boy, now I’ve gone and done it”. But over the years I’ve noticed I sometimes do my best work when my back’s to the wall. So in a sense, this was me forcing my own hand as it were. Another development has been that initially the songs connection to the readings were less overt, and in a way more of a private narrative. But I’m starting to find ways to incorporate the readings more specifically and directly into the songs. Working for instance now on a track called “Coming Up Roses” based on the reading ’46. Growing Upward’, which uses the image of a flower pushing up through the soil to signal a time of renewal and optimism.
NT: In less than a year, you’ve released three albums: Death of the Cool last July, your collaborative EP with Nicole Atkins in December, and Wild Kingdom this past April. How do you see each album in relation to the others and how do you view your evolution as a songwriter in such a short span?
Harrison: It’s all been happening somewhat simultaneously in a watershed and I always have a lot of songs going at once, so perhaps it’s difficult for me to conclude much from this vantage point. For a variety of reasons, we needed to take a little respite these last few months and are now back to work. We have a 6-song EP well in progress and then the next full length to tackle, and I believe these will sound quite different. I wanted to give each record it’s own distinct sound palette and atmosphere.
To simplify, I’d call Wild Kingdom a really good party punctuated with occasions of solemnity and Death of the Cool is its melancholic photonegative. The Wild Kingdom tracks were recorded in a more tossed-off way and are generally a little breezier. I’m glad the records are so different. The Nicole tracks were written specifically for her voice for which I wanted to create classic tracks that could have been sung by Lulu on an episode of Shindig in the ’60s. So those required a completely different style production.
NT: In regards to your evolution as a songwriter, how do you approach the craft of songwriting today as opposed to when you started out in the ‘90s? What parts are the same and what parts are different?
Harrison: I’m not sure my overall approach has changed so much but I think I can get to where I want to go a little quicker. I also write on the piano at times, which I never did back then. That opens vistas one would never find writing solely on the guitar.
NT: When you’re playing some of your older songs during a show, are there any lyrics that have changed meaning for you as you sing them two decades (or more) after you first wrote them?
Harrison: That’s a very interesting question and the answer is yes. That’s one of the remarkable aspects of creating songs is that after you release them they have a life of their own beyond your original imaginings, even to you. That’s why I’m loathe to tell people what my songs are “about”, because frankly I don’t entirely know. I write in an almost unconscious place or altered state and give my self over to it. I miss double entendres in the songs all the time. But I can tell you that last Wednesday when we played “My Before and After” three days after George Reiff, our dearest friend and original bass player on the track had passed, it had the same powerfully poignant meaning for all of us. So we opened with it and it was joyous.
NT: Finally, it’s no secret that Noel Gallagher of Oasis is a fan of your work, especially your 1997 breakthrough album Kontiki. If there’s one Oasis song that you wish you could’ve written yourself, which one would it be?
Harrison: The artist in me says “Some Might Say” because I find it among the most exhilarating slabs of rock ever committed to tape. But the responsible adult says “Wonderwall” because not only is it one of the greatest pop vocal performances of all time, it might also mean I wouldn’t be driving around Austin, Texas in a dog-eared 2004 Honda Pilot!
When writer Will Hodge (@will_hodge) isn’t standing at the station in need of education in the rain, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts, and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack