Joe Chester released his third album, She Darks Me, on October 3rd, 2011.
Sometimes, if you want to rediscover the muse, you have to walk away for a while.
That was what Irish singer-songwriter Joe Chester realised back in 2008, after he had released two albums The Tiny Pieces Left Behind and A Murder of Crows — and notched up a string of production credits for other artists, including Mundy, Ryan Sheridan, and The Coronas.
One of the most critically acclaimed and beloved of contemporary Irish singer-songwriters, Chester — a former member of highly regarded indie outfit Ten Speed Racer — had won glowing plaudits from all the right places and received a 2005 Choice Music Prize nomination for his first album A Murder of Crows. But he had started to feel his songwriting was going in the wrong direction.
“I felt I’d hit a wall,’’ Chester says. “The way I was writing wasn’t working for me anymore. I was in danger of repeating myself.”
Instead of forcing himself through the motions, Chester changed tack. “After The Tiny Pieces Left Behind was released in 2008, I left to go on tour for a year with Gemma Hayes around the United States and the UK. We opened for My Bloody Valentine and hung out with Patti Smith and J. Mascis. It was brilliant, a really great time.”
But throughout that period, Chester felt a growing frustration inside him. “I needed an outlet. I don’t know why, but I started writing short stories. And I really got into that for a while. So after a year of writing, I suddenly had this pile of stories.
“They were nowhere near good enough to be published, so, in a way, I was disappointed about that. I had discovered I wasn’t John Cheever. I was like, `What am I going to do with all of them?’. So one night I got the idea that I’d transpose one of them for a song — the song that eventually turned out to be `Acid Rain’.
“It was amazing to me. Suddenly I looked at the screen and there were 15 verses for a song. It was obvious that I had to continue doing that. The next day I had the album’s first single, `Napoleon Bonaparte’. They didn’t all come as easily, but the process was a revelation.”
Song after song gradually gathered to become She Darks Me, an alternative pop gem of an album that marries sublime melodies with appealingly subtle and unpretentious arrangements of guitar, bouzouki, Hammond organ, violin, drums and harmonica.
Although Chester is well known for his lush, layered production style, for the new record, he opted to keep matters relatively simple, even at times folksy, having been inspired by his recent touring work as a guitar player with The Waterboys.
“I wanted to make the music as direct and simple as possible,” says Chester. “I wrote a lot on the bouzouki. There are almost no keyboards on the album. We were going for a live feel. I did do a bazillion vocal takes, but I ended up not using them. I preferred the emotional directness of the very first take.”
For the new album, which was recorded in various venues around Dublin but largely in Chester’s home studio, Chester surrounded himself with Irish and international talent, including Trevor Hutchinson (The Waterboys, Lunasa), Binzer (The Frames) and Steve Wickham (The Waterboys), who played violin on the tracks `Most of the Time’ and ‘Mercy Killer’.
Chester even persuaded Mickey Raphael, the renowned harmonica player for Willie Nelson, to contribute harmonica to his beautiful cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Most of the Time’.
“The way that happened was kind of fun,’’ recalls Chester. “I met Mickey Raphael in Dublin when he was here playing with Willie Nelson and it turned out that he had both of my previous albums and he was a fan. He said, `If you’re ever looking for a harmonica player you should look me up’. So I made contact with him a year later. He ended up doing his harmonica on Willie Nelson’s famous bus and he sent it down the line. And what he did was exactly what appeared on the record.”
It’s not the first time Chester has put a cover version on one of his albums — his delicate version of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Bleed to Love Her’ appeared on Murder of Crows and became an Irish radio hit. But the Bob Dylan song is a clear signal of the lyrical theme of the record. Or, as Chester says with a smile, “It’s not there for no reason.”
She Darks Me is about love lost and love found. “It’s about the beginnings of love,” Chester says. “And it’s also about the dying embers of love. Each song is a vignette or a story. The album is sequenced to tell that story.”
Starting with `The Middle Distance’, Chester sings about an attraction that is possibly unrequited:
Night-blooming jasmine/ Sistine Chapel face/ A face that’s taking names and calling this house to order/ Love like a drunken swell/Falling down/Among the lost and the escaped / Dogs and circus clowns/When it picks you up and spins you round/I tried to catch them by surprise/The sleeping, wild animal eyes/ But they focus on the middle distance now/And I know that’s where I’m going to stay.
“Then you’ve got Acid Rain,” Chester says, “which is probably about trying to persuade someone to take me back.” Then there’s Heart of Stone, in the middle of the album, which is a song of acceptance and moving on. “In many ways, it’s the album’s central lyric,” says Chester. “It’s about how love used to be a chaotic, noisy thing and now it’s been simplified.”
Or, as the song goes:
Your love was like a crash/A prize fighter’s song/It filled your ears with noise/The survival of the strong/But now love is falling water/Something that you always knew/Opening the door to a quiet room.
Doing his year-end round-up, The Irish Independent’s John Meagher called ‘Maybe this is Not Love’ from Chester’s 2008 record, The Tiny Pieces Left Behind, his Irish single of the year.
Expectations will be correspondingly high for this record, even if Chester knows that commercial realities are making it much harder these days for Irish artists to break through to the mainstream. “In a way, I’m sad to have to release records on my own,” he says. “That’s just the way it is.”
But in terms of his overarching musical agenda, little has truly changed in the world of Chester. Although he has worked with pop acts and indie bands over the years in his role as producer, his own fidelity is always to melody rather than genre-picking.
“I still think there’s nothing more powerful than a beautiful melody seamlessly joined to a strong lyric,” he says. “I still — possibly naively — hold onto this notion that it’s possible to operate in the pop music field and say something meaningful. I think of pop music as being a glorious thing. So I do think it’s a shame that a lot more people — clearly talented songwriters — shy away from that scene. It’s almost like a cop-out.
With the release of She Darks Me, you have to hope many music fans beyond the indie fraternity get the chance to hear Chester’s music — She Darks Me is an album that deserves your time.
What the critics are saying about “She Darks Me”
Joe Chester has become one of the finest songwriters in the country. Each of the nine originals carry the kind of tunes that other bands would kill for. With a voice like a tempered Rufus Wainwright, stripped of theatricality and lowered a pitch or two, it would still sound good if he was singing the phonebook. That said, it’s the lyrics that keep you coming back time and again. Themes of jealousy, heartbreak and desire are given a fresh twist, his mature outlook mixed with images of murder, villains and “sistine chapel faces”. It is stirring stuff. She Darks Me is elegant, measured and all the better for it. High time the listening public caught up with Joe Chester. She Darks Me has all the makings of a sleeper hit. – Hotpress Magazine.
With two superb albums (2005’s A Murder of Crows and 2008’s The Tiny Pieces Left Behind ), Chester is one of those meticulous types for whom compulsion or irrationality is a rarity. Under these terms (which are by no means limitations), Chester triumphs, as his songwriting clearly benefits from such diligence. Several tracks (notably Acid Rain, Foreign Correspondent and Heart of Stone ) bear his hallmark attention to observant detail. Musically, it’s Chester’s usual mix of innate melody and carefully prepared arrangements. – The Irish Times
Chester’s magic power is the ability to make intricacy seem effortless; to make sounds that are simultaneously singular yet don’t draw attention to themselves. In short, this is elegant music. Josh Rouse and the Avalanches would kill for these hooks. A Dylan cover (“Most Of The Time”) almost slips past unnoticed, so strong are the tracks that surround it. – groovelovesmelody.com
The Tiny Pieces Left Behind Reviews
“The good news : Joe Chester has followed up 2005’s acclaimed debut, A Murder of Crows, with a humdinger of a second album. Chester provides a welcome antidote to all those vacuous singer-songwriters who for all their emoting don’t seem to know what the word emotion means. I am reminded of John Lennon and Neil Young. It’s that good. The Tiny Pieces Left Behind is a great album.” – Adrienne Murphy – Hot Press.
“Chester’s latest work is crammed with sweetly-simplistic, robust pop-rock gems. Maybe This is not Love is a synth-gilded and virile beauty, while The Bodies Start to Move is both butter-smooth and bewilderingly addictive. In all, The Tiny Pieces Left Behind is a delight that should propel Chester towards his rightful spot at the top of our musical food chain.” – Tanya Sweeney, State Magazine.
A Murder of Crows Reviews
Its the perfect pop record. Negative feelings, like love lost and relationship break-ups are twisted and shaped into something altogether more encouraging. Theres no room for mellow tracks of acoustic guitars and weepy vocals. Chester is much more constructive and resourceful in taking his beautifully simple songs and using his extensive production knowledge to carefully construct around them. You will be lucky to hear anything more affecting all year . A Murder of Crows is an absolute joy. Every home should have one. – Hot Press Magazine
A modern alternative pop gem, the album boasts intelligent song writing, sparkling melodies and a burning if somewhat humble confidence in its own abilities. – Jim Carroll, The Irish Times
My tip for the top remains, as it has been, Joe Chester. His album is, without doubt, a joy to behold. Its perfect pop, one of the best albums I ever had sent into the show. A treasure! – Tom Dunne