Jay Carlis Considers The Modern Condition For Alive In The Radio Age
Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter and musician Jay Carlis recently released his second solo album, Alive in the Radio Age. Carlis is also the frontman of rock ‘n roll band, The Barrel Fires, but both endeavors only came about when Carlis returned to dedicated work in music after a time away. Having played a great deal of cover music in his youth, then walked a different a career path and into family life, he nevertheless felt a pull towards original songwriting and playing again. That resulted in his involvement in The Barrel Fires. Later, some songs seem to surface in a different vein and he allowed himself to move into more personal songwriting with an Americana direction for Here and Now, which he released in 2020.
Those developments and discoveries were helped along by working with Ross Bellenoit at Turtle Studios both for The Barrel Fires and for his solo work. On Carlis’ second solo collection, we find Bellenoit (guitars, banjo, keyboards, percussion, backing vocals), Andy Keenan (pedal steel), Charlie Muench (bass), Chuck Staab (drums), Jaron Olevsky (piano, backing vocals), Andrea Weber (cello), and Nicole Tecce (backing vocals). Together they create the layering and instrumentation that builds on Carlis’ melodic songwriting and add to the haunting, reflective qualities of many of the songs. I spoke with Carlis about his return to songwriting, balancing these different musical and life roles, and about the human condition these days compared to the earlier time of the “radio age.”
Americana Highways: You seem to have had substantial experience making music before beginning solo work and releasing Here We Are in 2020.
Jay Carlis: I’d had experience of recording and I had been writing songs a very long. I took a little bit of a hiatus from music as I went down a different path. I started a career, had a family, and eventually came back to writing music because it just wouldn’t stay down. [Laughs] I’m in a band called The Barrel Fires that has more of a rock ‘n roll sound. When I had this set of songs that became Here We Are, I didn’t really write them with the band and I just felt like they needed to get recorded. I thought, “Why not do my own project?”
AH: There seems to be a significant stylistic difference between music you do with The Barrel Fires and your solo work, too. The solo stuff is really very clearly Americana music. Was that already a difference when you were writing?
JC: I think so, but I give a lot of credit to Ross [Bellenoit] who’s an incredible producer and musician. He’s been a great mentor to me throughout this process. He really encouraged us to go in that direction when he heard the songs. He’d say, “Why don’t we do a banjo? Maybe there’s a fiddle here?” And I think that instrumentation is part of what really helps move things in that direction of Americana. If we had done all of these songs with two guitars, bass, and drums, it probably would feel different.
AH: Could things potentially go either way when you’re writing?
JC: Maybe a few years ago, I would have said, “Yes,” but I think now that I’ve integrated a vision for things into my songwriting, I think to myself, “I want to write some Barrel Fires tunes.” Or I think, “I want to write what’s in my heart.” My heart is probably a little bit more like the stuff you’ll hear on the solo records.
AH: I’m sure that you’re learning and being influenced each time you go into the studio for the different projects. That must reinforce the trajectory you’d like to take.
JC: Yes, I think that’s absolutely true. Listening to new music, too, throughout the journey, is also another key factor. My daughter got really into Taylor Swift’s Folklore a couple of years ago, and I never thought I’d listen to Taylor Swift, but I listened with her. I started to love the songwriting and instrumentation. Now I have some of that influence, too.
AH: I understand that you used to play in cover bands a lot as a young person. Do you think that gave you musician chops that you use now or influences your songwriting?
JC: I played a lot of Grateful Dead covers. We’d just jam out and it was a ton of fun. We played Dylan Songs. “Melissa” by the Allman Brothers is the first song that I learned to play. Eventually I had some original ideas and they would come through. But I didn’t have a particular notion to play them out for anybody. When I got connected to the guys from The Barrel Fires, we started off playing covers. I played them some of the songs I’d been working on, and everyone loved it, so it was time to let things out.
AH: I’m sure that there are a lot of people out there who are on that threshold. They have played before, but now they’ve started writing, but haven’t showed the songs to anybody. That step may well be simply about friendships. Do you have people in your life who share similar interests? That can help erase that dividing line, I think.
JC: Yes, exactly. I’m so appreciative of the guys in The Barrel Fires and the other folks who I’ve been playing music with lately who have been really open to play my music. It’s not easy trying to make your way as an original musician these days. If you want to be playing gigs every week with a cover band or tribute bands, there are plenty of opportunities. But original music is more of a niche these days.
AH: Were there songs in that first batch that, emotionally speaking, were harder to write than others for you?
JC: I’ll tell the story of one of them. It’s called “Writing on the Wall.” I was traveling for work, which is how I wrote a lot of these songs, because I was away from the hustle and bustle of family. I was on a plane so I couldn’t take phone calls! I was writing and thinking. I started writing this song and the first line was, “Cracks in the foundation are starting to show.” I had written this whole long, detailed song about a house that was falling apart. I was so proud of myself. I had the melody and I came home and played it for my wife and my daughter, and they just laughed at me! It was a little ludicrous how far I had gone into the detail of the house. It was an overdone metaphor.
I got their point, but I still felt like there was something there. I sat down with it, I opened up to some ideas of just using the metaphor as a launching pad and digging a little bit deeper. I fell in love with the song, but it wasn’t necessarily one of my favorites. However, when we went into record it, the instrumentation was just so dynamic, and it’s turned out to be one of my favorites.
AH: That is so interesting because it’s quite possible, as a creative person, to have an experience of a song, like you’re meeting a song for the first time. It could even be kind of a visionary thing. But that’s your experience and it might not yet be something that would be accessible to others. That might take some doing.
JC: Absolutely. That was my exact experience. I was talking about something that we all knew was going on, but I was doing it in a way that was too detailed. I turned it into something that everyone could enjoy.
AH: Can you tell me about the title to the new album, Alive in the Radio Age? It has an unusual feel to it. Does it refer to the past or to the present?
JC: The title comes from a line in the song, “The Ghost of Thomas Wolfe.” He was a writer in the 20s and the 30s, so I knew we’d have to go back to an earlier time with the cover art. When you look at this image of North Philly, those houses could well have been built in the 20s. It just really fit. It kind of helps imply that the radio age is an earlier time.
AH: I have a disclaimer that my family are from Asheville, North Carolina, and I know a fair amount about Thomas Wolfe, though I’m not an expert. I’ve been to his house. I’ve been to the cemetery that has the stone angel that inspired Look Homeward, Angel. What about him caught your attention?
JC: I read Jack Kerouac when I was younger, and he was a big fan of Thomas Wolfe. He was a fan, specifically, of Look Homeward, Angel. The book has always had a big effect on me. It’s pretty intense. There’s this one passage about a baby being born, and being lost to the world and to himself, and to his family, right off the get-go. I was reading that book at the same time that we had our third child. I’d find myself up in the middle of the night, rocking the baby, trying to get her back to sleep, and I felt like that was the ghost of Thomas Wolfe. I’d have these ideas rattling through my head, and it took off from there.
AH: That makes me think a little differently of the phrase Alive in the Radio Age, because the word “alive” might mean more like birth and coming into being. Like Thomas was suggesting, the idea of growing into the world could be kind of like a process of losing yourself, in a way. Then, the character in the book is trying to get back to himself.
JC: I think he was writing about this inherent aloneness that we have as humans because we can never really know each other. I think we’re getting better at it as humans and learning to communicate better. At least some of us are. But in those days, especially as a man in the 1920s, what a time to have such a tight box around what you had to be.
AH: That is really conveyed by a lot of language in this song, like “lost” and “lonely.” As far as I understand about Wolfe, he did feel really constrained by traditional ideas of male and female roles, particularly as an artist. Neither his father nor his mother felt he fit in or lived up to what they wanted.
JC: I think you can hear that story coming through in the song, too, “No comfort in the cradle.”
AH: Does the song suggest that we continue in that condition if we don’t change things in society?
JC: I think so. I think is suggests that we can be lonely and lost, sometimes, in this broken-hearted century that we’re living in. But also, it has some hope that, “it’ll be forgiven in the end.” The second chorus says, “You never know the limits of your vision ‘till the end.” That actually takes me back to the song “Here We Are,” the title track off of the other record, which is essentially about the fact that we’re all going to die in the end. So we need to stop trying to make everything perfect and worrying about every little thing. We should just go for it. I think there are some echoes of that in this song, also.
AH: As Carl Jung would say, “Make your mistakes.” We hold back, worried we’ll make too many mistakes, but we have to allow them to do anything worthwhile. Regarding the idea of emotion and gender roles, “Concrete and Stone” is very direct about those things.
JC: That one is very much from the pandemic period. “Ghost of Thomas Wolfe” is an older song. Regarding “Concrete and Stone,” I just remember stepping out onto my porch a few weeks after everything shut down, and singing that line, “It feels so good to be alive.” That’s how I felt! We’d made it that far. It was an emotional rollercoaster for all of us. Men, particularly, realized that expressing emotion can be a hard thing to do since we’ve been taught that we’re supposed to be tough. That men don’t cry. I think that’s a mistake.
We have to let ourselves feel and express emotions so that we can understand where we’re coming from and be able to take actions on a day-to-day basis that are a little more thoughtful. A lot of what happens out there in the world is caused by people acting on emotion, but a lot of people would not admit to that. Being able to come to terms with it and admit it maybe gets people to take a breath before saying or doing the things that they do.
AH: That’s very well said. People often act purely on emotions while totally blind to the emotions they are feeling. Music counteracts that repression. Putting this idea into a song is a great move.
JC: It’s become one of my favorites to perform. I really like that one.
Thanks so much for chatting with us, Jay Carlis! Folks can get their hands on his music and learn more here: https://www.jaycarlismusic.com/
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Jay Carlis “Here We Are” Confronts Change