O.T.R.

‘The Small Hours’: Stephen Clair Discusses Influences, Songwriting, And the Strength of a Trio

Stephen Clair discusses his latest LP, 'The Small Hours,' influences, and being an "eternal, emerging artist."

Stephen Clair may be a long time guitar slinger, but is a songwriter at the forefront of his music career. And despite having a slew of records under his belt, Clair still dubs himself as an “eternal emerging artist,” driven by the high of releasing music. Teaching songwriting at the Beacon Music Academy, and always a student of the art of words, Clair’s latest release straddles good-natured musings with the isolated thoughts at night — somewhere only found during The Small Hours. 

The 11-track LP sees Clair at his best as the artist constantly challenges his own narrative, a true feat of a writer, with a warm and crisp sound that stylistically harnesses an ample variety of Rock, Jazz, Americana, and Bossa Nova. And where at one point having tracks that were not “necessarily cohesive” used to trouble Clair, he now embraces this charismatic trait to paint a larger, fluid collection.

Falling in love with an organic sound of a trio during live performances, thanks to the talents of Daria Grace on bass and Aaron Latos on drums, Clair intentionally stuck to this format for The Small Hours. It’s a feverous orchestration that comes alive on tracks like “Nobody Knows” and “I’m in It,” almost keeping each player armed with their weapon-of-choice to never outshine the other for a full soundscape.

“So it’s just the three of us on this record,” says Clair, “And I thought by doing that, because we read each other and play together so well, that sound I thought, that sound could be the cohesive thing that glues all the songs together.”

Stephen Clair (Photo: Michael Isabell)

Only a year after Strange Perfume, the latest follows a more musical path, pushing past any similarities and crafting an album “not as dense.” Clair mentions the complexity of the tracks, musically, and wanting a certain cleanliness of a trio sound that wasn’t “terribly adulterated.”

“Where is it Strange Perfume we achieved a lot of force with grit, you know, I think we achieved a lot of force on this record through performance. That comes back to this thing I love about this ‘animal’; the trio. Because the trio can get big and loud and complicated, [and] sound mighty, but it can also draw way, way, way back.”

Prior to Clair’s release of The Small Hours, we met each other via the norm of society now: Zoom. Guitar necks stuck out from Clair’s walls and caught the rays of the sun, as I welcomed the artist to a backdrop of flying cats destroying various planets. Which is the only true way to break the ice during a pandemic.

Not having a relatively bad time during quarantine, though admitting it’s been “complicated,” Clair has been appreciative of “the slowness” of this time, staying busy after accepting the absence of live music. “I probably did more yard work this year than I have in 10 years.”

Clair spoke attentively, always searching for the perfect word, to a brisk wave of bluntness, confessing growing tired of livestreaming shows. This called for a good laugh, and good conversation, that flowed from penning a song about chickens to Marie Curie, an Iggy Pop documentary, and the influences from the world to inside a person’s head that led to the album’s title. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.

How’s the Beacon Music Academy? [Has] it been a transition to go online?

So, we did the major pivot, like when it all went down in the middle of March, and started teaching online right away, and that’s been great for private lessons. But any of our ensembles or bands, you know, just kind of went out the window.

Do you find that people, though, are reaching out to learn an instrument for these private lessons more?

Yeah, that’s the crazy thing. You know, maybe 70% of our private students — because we teach pretty much every instrument you could imagine — a good chunk of our students switch to online lessons pretty seamlessly, and have stayed with it. That’s one of the funny things about this time we’re in now. I think people are craving structure… And that comes back to like one of the things I’ve liked about this time period is the slowness of it. I don’t feel like I’m pulled in so many directions.

But that’s great to hear, especially with the arts. That’s something that’s with this industry, you know, for somebody that’s been in the game for a bit, considering the state of music right now, do you think that live music will ever be the same or this industry will ever be the same? Maybe the same isn’t a fair word.

Yeah I don’t know about the word [fair]. This quote unquote, industry, it’s so many industries within an industry. You know, there’s so many people operating at so many different levels. There are all these tiers of people in the industry who are making records and selling them…. I think what they do for gigs, and what they do touring wise is reflected in that too. Even within the sort of the DIY independent sphere, even that is kind of massive; with degrees of doing it independently. That’s an interesting thing, like, will it be the same? I feel like it’s never the same year to year. 

Stephen Clair (Tony Cenicola)

Month to month.

Yeah. So it’s- it’ll be interesting. And people have asked me how’s it feel putting out a record during this, but outside of like, being able to do a handful of higher profile album release shows, which come and go, most of it’s the same for me. And I really, I have made a handful of records or more at this point, and in recent years, I’ve been kind of doing it steadily. I love the whole sport of it. I’m just way into it. Like at this point, you know, I just released a record a year ago, and I’m releasing this one now and I’m just super stoked about it. I love it. I love the songs on it. I love how it came out. 

And to go back to these people, like the radio people who I have relationships with, or, you know, just people out there who I have relationships with, it’s, I don’t know, it’s nice to check in with them and have something to share. It’s when you’re, when you’re kind of an “eternal, emerging artist” like I am [laughs], I think I can’t help but be motivated by just a desire to keep the ball in the air, you know?

Yeah.

Because you get some buzz when a record comes out. And then like, if you don’t have gobs of resources in order to drive that, then you have to come up with other ways. This time… I knew exactly how I wanted to record it. We went and we did it. And we did it just in time before all this happened.  And I didn’t, I didn’t want to have to sit on it until the dust settles, or, you know, there’s a vaccine or whatever it’s gonna take. 

It does seem like the perfect moment with everything that was– because a later question that I was going to address, but you touched on it, it’s [the album] kind of appreciative. So to say, there’s a lot of things that are put into perspective, especially one of the tracks, which is a favorite “Hurricane Coming.” 

Yeah, yeah. And the songs, you know, you’ve listened. And the songs are, the songs are not any one kind of song. 

Yeah, I know [laughs]. 

Stylistically, they’re a little all over the, not a little all over the place, but there’s a range stylistically to what’s going on. Whether it’s kind of proto punk over here, something a little jazzier, you know, like, that’s the song “Dorothy,” which I’m super happy with, is like, it’s the first Bossa Nova I’ve ever written.

Really?

[Yeah] And “Hurricane Coming”– so some of the songs in terms of the narrative in them, some of those narratives are completely made up, whereas “Hurricane Coming” is definitely drawn from a personal experience years ago.

It’s funny, I was just talking about this, when I’ve collected together a group of songs that I’ve written to record they’re not necessarily cohesive, other than the fact that they’re mine. And you know, like what I’m saying about the range of styles here because I like to just, I like to push myself when I write and I used to be troubled with that. I used to be troubled by the fact that a record of mine, an early record of mine, might have songs that are like quiet and folky, and have songs that are up against tracks that are kind of in your face and rock, and rockin’. And now I completely embrace that, I’ve kind of decided that’s what I do.

I had a chance to pretty much just listen to the majority of your discography, you know just compare. But on this album it kind of, like, solidifies it [your cohesiveness]. Your arrangement, your vocal inflections, I believe on the track “Fate,” that was another personal favorite of mine, and the drumming. So many tracks that the drumming I thought was amazing, those fills. So [I] just applaud your drummer, everything just was so tight, and it worked. It was very full. I’m in a little bit of awe that you’re telling me that this is just a trio; very full sound. 

Yeah, yeah. Well, that I’m so glad you caught on to that. Well, first of all, everything is mixed way forward, like the drums are way forward in the mix. And that’s getting at the thing I’m saying about like, just being so happy with the way we play together, and the musicians that we are together. When we went into the basics to track bass and drums, I asked them to play as if I wasn’t going to do any overdubs, fill up the space, and you know, just lay into it, like the way we had been playing live shows. And they totally did it, and that made my job really easy when it came to like, adding minimal layers of guitars.

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