From the Roots: Chris DuPont's heartfelt "Floodplains" explores raw emotions without dwelling in darkness
When Chris DuPont released his latest album, Floodplains, earlier this year, it would have been easy to assume the themes of isolation and loss grew out of the pandemic. Yet all the songs were actually written pre-COVID, the Ypsilanti-based musician explained in a recent email interview.
The album continues DuPont’s remarkable run of thoughtful, heartfelt songwriting brought to life with impeccable singing and musicianship. The album has an intimate feel, highlighted by DuPont’s expressive guitar playing and flawless supporting accompaniment. “Retrieve” leads off the album, musing about how new relationships can heal broken ones, with guest vocalist Olivia Dear enriching the sound.
Several songs have an undercurrent of regret, and there are plenty of examples of DuPont’s knack for arresting lyrics. “Start Again,” featuring Rin Tarsy on vocals, is particularly affecting as DuPont sings, “I have never faced so steep a valley / As the center of the mattress in a wedding bed.” The album closes with touching “In the Lap of the Mountain (Benediction),” concluding that ultimately we all need someone else.
DuPont recently answered some questions about Floodplains:
Q: This is your first album of all-new material in a few years. Were the songs written throughout that time, or are they mostly of more recent vintage?
A: Yes, it’s been a long while since Outlier! The songs on the new record trickled out in spurts from roughly 2016 to late 2019. “Retrieve” was one of the earlier songs written for the new record, and I actually sat on it for a long time without performing, because I knew I was onto something new.
The rest of the songs came in little batches. Originally Floodplains was going to be somewhere between an EP and an LP in terms of length, but I wrote tracks 6 and 10-12 rather quickly in late 2019 amidst the recording process, and decided they needed to be included.
Q: Did the pandemic affect your songwriting, or did it have an impact on the overall vibe of the album?
A: I would have hoped that the isolation and solitude would have led to a big vault of new songs, but the pandemic led to a relatively dry time for me as a writer. I used to be an avid journaled, too, and even that seemed pointless during the banality of the pandemic. I did write a song called “Visitor” early in the lockdown and released it with a beloved B-side called “Jawline.” It came out before Floodplains as sort of a brief aside, a needed break from the heavy lifting work of the LP.
Floodplains was all written before lockdown, but the themes of loss and isolation certainly took on new meaning while I worked on the songs during 2020. I spent a lot of days alone in my apartment laying down overdubs, vocals, electric guitar arrangements, and auxiliary instruments like banjo and uke. The anxiety and uncertainty of the pandemic pushed me even further into the lonely voids of the songs, and I think some of the woozy soundscapes and text painting reflected this.
Q: What were some of the practical challenges about making an album during a pandemic? Did you have to worry about issues like masks and things while recording?
A: Oddly enough, this was already a long-distance project with my producer Nick Gunty (of the folk super-duo Frances Luke Accord). Nick lives in Philly, and we are both proficient audio engineers. He did a couple marathon sessions with me and players during 2019, with the intention of doing the rest of the work remotely, just swapping files with dropbox. Home studio engineers have been working this way for a long time, but COVID changed it into the main workflow!
We had all the drum tracks, and most of the bones of the songs, laid down before lockdown. We didn’t have to do much with masks, because all the 2020 work was solitary. The bulk of the instrumentation, except strings, was played and engineered by me, so I had to push my own limits as a musician. I hung acoustic treatment in my apartment bedroom, fashioned it into a makeshift studio, and built my schedule around the quietest hours of the apartment complex. I brought in violinist Lea Kirstein to play on “Lap,” and she lives in Canada but self-records from home, so I never physically saw her during the process.
Q: What’s the significance of the album title, Floodplains?
A: I had been thinking a great deal about lineage and memory as I wrote this record. Am I destined to turn out like the wayward family members I hear stories about, or can I pave my own way? How accurate is my memory? If I give up my roots, what will keep me grounded?
Around this time I took a hike [and saw] a sign that read, “You are on the floodplain.” I read further and learned that floodplains are lands near a riverbed that have highly fertile but shallow soil.
Life sprouts up quickly, but trees cast their roots horizontally, not deeply, and die off quickly. I realized many people feel rootless, and feel like they were raised on a fertile ground that lacked sufficient depth. The word floodplains tied this all together for me.
Q: Although some of the songs deal with emotional difficulties or pain, overall the album has a feeling of comfort and healing, that everything will be OK. Was that something you were going for intentionally?
A: Thanks for saying that! This wasn’t a fully conscious choice, but I believe it’s a reflection of me as a person. I’m not one to shy away from dark topics. I feel it can be crucial and liberating to bring uncomfortable ideas and stories to light, to make people feel less alone in their experience. But no matter how dark I go, I can’t seem to abandon the hope that all will be made well. I’m not sure what I believe these days, but I do believe that the universe is basically benevolent, and I’m sure this comes through my musical compositions even when I’m not intentional about it.
Q: The songs you sing with Rin Tarsy or Olivia Dear work particularly well; your voices sound great together. Did you write those songs knowing you’d be singing them with someone else, or did that decision come after they were written?
A: I love singing with those ladies. The songs weren’t written with them in mind, but I’m incredibly grateful for what the songs became with Rin’s and Olivia’s vocals. Olivia initially sang “Retrieve” with me in a live video shoot for the song. We’d been fans of each other’s voices for years but didn’t collaborate until that point. The song sounded so right in that live session that I knew I needed to bring her in for the studio version. I love how it turned out. When she takes the melody on the final chorus, it’s truly haunting.
Rin and I have been singing together for years, and I love how our voices combine. She’s got a very powerful instrument, so when I sing with her, especially at shows, I find myself tapping into a much less sleepy energy in my own vocals. I thought her non-verbal vocals in “Buried” gave a brightness and expansiveness that the song truly needed. It was written with the intent of having a “gang choir” in the chorus, but I didn’t think it through much further.
Interestingly enough, “Sandpaper” and “Start Again” were originally imagined as very solitary songs. Both deal with the loss of a partner, so I imagined I’d do most of the back vocals or leave the lead vocal bare, to truly drive home that sense of loneliness. But Rin and I went into those songs with a “let’s try this” attitude, and once we tried, there was no turning back. “Sandpaper Hymn” is absolutely brutal when Rin and I sing it live, and I think we captured some of that magic in the studio track. And her presence on “Start Again” made that piece a totally different animal. I think having male and female vocals gave it new depth, perhaps inviting the listener to subconsciously consider the multiple viewpoints that are equally valid in the dissolving of an intimate partnership.
Q: “In the Lap of the Mountain (Benediction)” strikes me as a perfect summation of the album as a whole, lyrically and musically. When was it written, and what inspired it?
A: It’s so great to hear that. This song is very dear to me, and I had no idea how it would land. In many ways it truly is a summation. The guitar line had been floating around with me since the beginning of the Floodplains writing process. It had its own complex melody, so I initially planned on making “Lap” an instrumental piece. I named it “In the Lap of the Mountain,” inspired by a battlefield in a valley in Georgia. This field was a massive grassy expanse that my bandmates and I discovered on a break between shows. While they were sprawled on the ground sunbathing, I got a guitar out, continued working on the song, and knew the melody had to be tied to that memory.
During the fall of 2019, the lyrics simply blurted out of me. It struck me as something that was existential and hazy enough to fit with the album theme, but also simple and hopeful in a way the other material simply was not. It felt like the final blessing of some sort of secular prayer meeting. I knew I was dealing with the final movement of my album. It took forever to get the recording to a place I was happy with, so I’m very grateful that it landed as a good closing point.
Q: How hard was it not to have live performances as an outlet for your work? What are your feelings about performing live now?
A: It was very strange releasing an album when live shows were essentially impossible. In many ways, I feel grateful that it’s available. Some days I’m sad that it didn’t have a big tour to drive it home with new listeners. As the music industry continues to flex and grow and recover from the pandemic, I’m trying to stay grateful that I get to do this at all.
I’ve enjoyed doing summer and autumn outdoor shows, but am still somewhat nervous about what will happen to the live music industry as we hit another cold season. The world is so divided, and I find it very discouraging that so many people want to go to war over things like vaccine requirements and mask mandates. These rules keep it possible for me to play out and feel like a good steward. I’m doing my best to stay patient and know that touring will make sense again for me someday.
Q: Do you have any other projects in the works that you’d like to mention or anything else you’d like folks to know?
A: I’m producing other artists, such as Rin Tarsy, Ceolsige, and Brad Phillips. I’m also writing and concepting my next EP. New music will come as soon as possible. I just want folks to know that I’m here, I’m thankful for them, I see them, and I can’t wait to get back out there.
Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.
Chris DuPont’s "Floodplains" is available on Bandcamp.