Nature's Way: Chris Bathgate's "Dizzy Seas" is simultaneously ethereal and earthy


Chris Bathgate

Chris Bathgate hasn't lived in Ann Arbor or this state for a decade, but his songs still evoke the idea of "Michigan music."

The release of a new Chris Bathgate album is a major occasion for fans of great songwriting and enticing sounds -- especially in Michigan, where he has strong ties.

He released the Old Factory EP last year, but this spring’s Dizzy Seas is Bathgate’s first full-length album since 2011’s acclaimed Salt Year. (All came out on the Ann Arbor-based Quite Scientific label.) The songs on Dizzy Seas are as strong as ever, presented in a sound that’s simultaneously rich and stripped down. And although Bathgate now lives in California, Michigan has definitely left an impression.

He agreed to answer a few questions via email about the new record, the themes of his songs, and Michigan music.

Q: You grew up in Iowa, Kentucky, and Illinois, but it’s really hard to think of your music as anything other than “Michigan.” How has Michigan shaped and informed your music, both your songwriting and your sound?
A: This state identity you bring up is something that's been on my mind recently. I moved to California in November of last year, so perhaps looking back at my time in the state is sympathetic with how you perceive the music. To answer your question, it's the combination of landscape and people, the things that make “place” for me that created many of the experiences that resulted in these songs.

I lived in Michigan for 15 years, so a great deal took place during my time there, both good and bad. That swath of life experiences is one I have drawn on, and still draw on. So, it's not uncommon for specific locations (which I sing a great deal about) to make their way into songs. Though those songs are never exclusively about a landscape or a location, they're about “place.” So, it's not just where I was, it was who I was with, how I was feeling, what happened there, that fuels the art. So, that makes sense to me, a lot of what these songs are about took place or was pondered in the great state.

In terms of sound, it gets a bit fuzzy. I was influenced by every act I heard and followed in Michigan. I learned by studying my local state contemporaries, from beginning songwriters to the big names. While I feel I should pay homage there to those whose music I was drawn to in the state, it would be reductive for me to say that my influences don't stretch beyond the Midwest. Or that my influences are limited to music at all. But we're talking about sound. Something that used to dominate my music, flourished while I was in the state, but has now softened is the reference to fiddle music and old time. That trajectory started as a kid in Illinois. There I was exposed to a great deal of traditional folk and old-time music. I experienced an even deeper and stronger community of old time in Michigan. So, my interest in fiddle music may not have flourished as it did without that move. My experiences with the incredible traditional, folk, and old-time people really kept that interest alive and that knowledge growing. I'm not the best old-time musician, so there's been a great deal of kindness extended to me in those circles and jams.

It was mind blowing to me upon moving to Michigan to find it has a distinct statewide identity in some musical genres. It seemed that at the time I was living there, many musicians in the folk / songwriter / folk-rock genres were considering themselves “Michigan” musicians rather than just city-based outfits. Detroit feels like its identity is more defined, but folks living in less famous cities certainly looked to broaden theirs. I've never seen that kind of state camaraderie anywhere else. I was happy to consider myself part of, and to promote, Michigan Music.

Q: Nature has seemed to be a major theme in your music and an important part of your life. On this album, you seem to thinking particularly about water -- three of the song titles reference it directly, along with lots of imagery in the “Northern Country Trail” video.
A: That's all true. I try and live in and closely tied to the outdoors. Nature can be a tricky word for me, sometimes it implies a kind of separateness that I don't always feel. As if nature was something outside the world of humans; as if we didn't exist in it at all times. Regardless of that nuance, nature, wild places, the outdoors, are a priority for me and my life. That's always been there, nature appears in my songs, though I'm not always talking directly about it. On Dizzy Seas you'll find that I'm really just using water imagery and pre-existing tropes as a means to some other end. While I may reference water directly, it's really just the best medium for the kinds of semantic work I wanted to accomplish. The song “Water” is really about the mind, language, ideas, and songwriting. I'm just capitalizing on the bizarre phenomenon of the sun reflecting off a vast surface of water as a way to ponder. It seemed a perfect representation of how I feel the relationship between the mind and language to be. So, perhaps I'm interested more in the things water can represent or help me explain.

Q: You directed the video for “Northern Country Trail” yourself, yes? Was that the first “produced” video that you directed yourself? What led you to get into that, and what did you learn from it?
A: I was the ideator for the NCT video. I did some directing while we shot it, but I had a great deal of help from the team at Rhino Media. It was the first time I had a video idea that made sense. I had a song written in a place, about a process, and I could capture both. That song was written on the trail we filmed and recorded in the studio we shot in, so in picture at least it feels as though it has some truth. It's more of a dramatic re-creation. I can be a bit sheepish on camera; I can't act, but I can hike. I think I learned that narrative is not always the best tool. Sometimes you just have to imply something and leave the rest to the audience.

Q: On “Northern Country Trail,” but also some other songs on the album, it almost feels like you were making a deliberate effort to create in sound -- the echo, the muted instrumentation, wind-like effects -- the feeling of being out in the woods alone. Is there anything to that, or am I reading too much into it?
A: You're definitely falling prey to the “Bathgate in the Woods” persona. I blame myself for that existing. Those sounds, to me, are more representative of being underwater, the mind, or the ether. But I'm not here to impose meaning on you; I just made it, I'm not in charge of what it does after that. So, it can be whatever you wish.

Q: Tunde Olaniran’s voice adds a deeper dimension to “Low Hey.” How did you happen to connect with him?
A: I've followed Tunde since I first heard him, which was shortly before he signed to the same record label, Quite Scientific. I'll confess about how nervous I was to ask him. I was elated he was interested in collaborating. His lyrics and voice fascinate me. He was a joy to work with in the studio, very professional. His concern for semantics and willingness to collaborate made it literally a dream come true.

Q: Something about the sound of “Low Hey,” in particular the guitar line and the melody, suggest a forgotten classic from the Great American Songbook. Do you take inspiration from that era in music?
A: Interesting, it's highly possible. I've become more interested in diminished and augmented chords the past few years, so there might be something there. I adore Bill Evans and Etta James, so there's a connection to jazz there. I'm thinking that the connection you're hearing comes from those changes specifically, which are more indicative of jazz than old time or even the majority of folk. Now, melodically I'd disagree. The guitar line is mostly indicative of hip-hop or soul. Vocally, I'm a little more sing-songy. Tunde, on the other hand, is stretching his astounding soul muscles in his verse. The drums are a sluggish version of a rhythm found mostly in pop-dance music. So, the changes are indicative of jazz, to me. The remainder is a conglomeration of many other genres.

Q: Is “Nicosia” named for the city in Cyprus? What’s the connection between the name and the lyrics, which sort of sum up the wondering, wistful quality of the album as a whole?
A: Nicosia is named after the capital of Cyprus. I spent a month there making music for an interpretation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The lyrics come from the limited time off I had there to process. At night I'd often take breaks from writing by walking the streets. I was immersed in the unfamiliar, the strange, new foods, new languages, new ideas. People perceived me differently there, the Midwestern-pearl-button-shirt-wearing kid with a harmonic rack was a total oddity there. It was a wonderful growing experience and incredibly inspiring.

Q: You’ve been one of the more high-profile names in the Ann Arbor music community. There always seems to be a fair amount of concern among local music fans about how healthy and vibrant (or not) the local music community is. How would you assess the strength of local music in the area at this point in time?
A: That's so kind of you to say, but I think I have to disagree. I think I was more high-profile at one time, and maybe those echoes still stir a little, but I haven't lived in Ann Arbor for 10 years. I think it's lovely to be claimed by Ann Arbor. I claim it often still. Though, in my contemporary view, it feels dishonest to say I'm still in that community. I can still see the broader Michigan music community, but in the context of just Ann Arbor, I don't feel qualified to speak to its health. I hope for its health, as I've seen the benefits it can have the community when it's thriving.

Q: Do you plan to tour in support of this album, and/or play any Ann Arbor area dates in the near future?
A: We will be doing some limited shows on the West Coast this fall; sadly, we only had the resources for one Midwest show this year, which has passed. Those shows I'll be supported by my favorite Michigan band, The Go Rounds, as well as Samantha Cooper.

Q: Who besides you plays on the album?
A: There's a few other drummers than myself, Julian Allen and Adam Danis (The Go Rounds). The backup harmonies and fiddles are from Samantha Cooper, and the whistle in Beg is from Drew Tyner (The Go Rounds). The distorted drones on “o(h)m” are from the engineer who tracked and mixed the record, Chris Koltay.


Bob Needham is a freelance writer; the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.