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Digging deep into songwriter Cory Fay's new Garden Variations



The original idea in interviewing Cory Fay for the release of his new album was to have him answer questions while reenacting an old black and white image of Ernest Hemingway sitting in a steaming bathtub. Just for fun. But because Cory Fay is a pop star at heart, the occasion of his record release requires even a little more outrageousness. He is willing to strip down to almost naked and climb into an old clawfoot bathtub in a stranger's backyard. And he dons a bowler hat and maroon lipstick. He brings his own bottle of absinthe to drink, and snacks on cherry Jelly Bellys and Coca-Cola bottle gummies from a vintage candy bowl. He chews on the end of a cigar while cuddling an orange tabby cat.

Which gives you a pretty good idea of what his album is like. Garden Variations (Minor Bird Records) is full of circus-y accordion, melancholy piano and pretty guitar strumming. There are jazzy, angular breakdowns and Modest Mouse-style melodies. Sometimes Fay goes for an Elvis-like drawl, and other times, like on "Christmas Card 1988 Early Draft," he restrains his voice in the quiet, haunting way of Bonnie Prince Billy.

It's hard to quit with the comparisons. Fay's music doesn't feel derivative, but it is rich with familiar flourishes that pop in and out like a radio being tuned to new stations. The one influence that can't be denied in Fay's music is Tom Waits. Last time I interviewed Fay, a few years ago, it was for his band Holy Lands, for which he did a good portion of the songwriting. And Waits was a topic of conversation even then.

"He comes up with every interview I have ever done, and my friends are sick of me talking about him," Fay says. "The other night I was showing some friends a first pressing of Frank's Wild Years. One of them was super excited about it and the other friends were like, 'Can you not ambush us all with your Tom Waits shit?'"

His favorite Tom Waits album is Alice.

"It really combines a lot of the loungier, almost classical side of him with the carnival barker surrealist shit," Fay says. "It's got maybe my favorite Tom Waits song on it, 'I'm Still Here.' It's just this 90-second super-short piano ballad. And it's heartbreaking. And I love it."

Garden Variations captures the manic Fay, but it has its own heartbreaking elements. It's a concept album centered on two characters, Thomas and Sunshine, who are both sick. Sunshine is physically ill and Thomas is mentally ill, though undiagnosed.

"They both know they're sick at the beginning of the album, and the rest of the album is about the process of them getting sicker and trying to cope with that," Fay says.

Sunshine and Thomas are an amalgam of Fay's grandparents, whom he watched struggle with both physical and mental illnesses. His grandfather on his dad's side died last year, and his grandmother on his mom's side died several years ago. Their partners had to be caregivers, and the hardship of those roles shows up in various forms on Garden Variations, as in "You Don't Have to Die," when he sings, "Come down they've got me in room B23 / Have the boys been told? / I want to be more than the end of something. / (god) bless her let her go."

Cory Fay grew up with very few boundaries when it came to playing music. - PHOTO BY PARKER SEIBOLD
  • photo by Parker Seibold
  • Cory Fay grew up with very few boundaries when it came to playing music.

Taken together, the album is almost unrecognizable as a familiar narrative though, with songs about witches and red moons and a possessed preacher.

"I try to write like I'm writing some fucking crazy childish version of [writer Denis Johnson's] Jesus' Son," he says. "It doesn't have to make sense."

Fay grew up in Great Falls in a family that he describes as being wildly permissive when it came to the arts.

"My grandmother had an upright piano," he says. "I would fuck around on it all the time because she never told me I couldn't. I never got in trouble for making noise, but I still can't play the piano."

His mom bought him his first guitar at Walmart. He took lessons for five years from two different teachers at the same time. His grandmother, Arlene Hooker Fay, whose portraits of Salish children are held in major collections across the Northwest, used to take him to powwows, where he developed an interest in drums and got his mom to drop $1,000 on a drum set for him in 5th grade, despite the fact they had very little money.

"Everyone was so cool about nurturing my artistic desires," he says. "And that was because of people in my family like my grandmother. She dedicated her life to painting, and it was her main pursuit since she was a teenager. So everyone in the family had an understanding [that] if someone gets really into some artistic shit, you gotta help cultivate it."

Fay moved to Missoula in 2008 to study music and computer science at the University of Montana. But he says he eventually realized he wasn't interested in being in an orchestra or symphony, so he pursued theater instead and dedicated himself to various rock bands—mostly lo-fi folk and garage rock groups, including the All Hail and Holy Lands.

Garden Variations features some of the artist friends he met along the way, including Nate Biehl, Josh Wagner, Christina Scruggs, Lauren Norby and Rob Traux, though none of them play on the record in any traditional sense. Fay asked them each to record something based on two prompts: the sound of something being unearthed and the sound of something being buried.

"Nate Biehl made something that sounded like he started turning on machines in a workshop somewhere," Fay says. "I have no idea how he made any of it. I knew I could give them some vague idea and they would just kind of surprise me. They're the kind of people who can be creative and as flippantly obtuse as possible."

For the album release, Fay has gathered a group of musicians who will help rework the album for a live audience. Garden Variations isn't really the kind of album that translates well to stage. Fay played all the instruments on the record, but even having a band take over those parts won't help recreate some of the weirder elements on the record. If anyone can do that, it's a guy in a bowler hat drinking absinthe.

"The album is slow and soft in parts, and meant to be a listening experience with people that wanted to be introspective," Fay says. "You can't really sell that shit to a crowd. You can't go to a DIY rock crowd and tell them, 'The strength of this song is that the lyrics are super good, so just settle down and listen, everyone, or you're not going to like it.' No. We had to figure out how to make it fun on stage."

Cory Fay plays the ZACC Sat., Sept. 16, at 7 PM along with Caroline Keys and Go Hibiki. All ages. Free.


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