Photo courtesy Tris McCall
If Tris McCall had a business card, it would have to be several inches wide. Described by The New York Times as “the plugged-in, Internet-era muse of Jersey City,” he’s won acclaim as a community blogger, published author, songwriter, recording artist, musician, and music journalist, often contributing to the Jersey City Independent. But by his own admission, he’s best known as a piano man, a singer-songwriter with four albums of pithy, Jersey-centric pop-rock to his credit. He just hasn’t released any new music and has rarely performed in public since 2010.
Now, with his new website McCall’s Almanac, Tris is back. He’s taking fans on a trip across the United States, posting a new entry every Tuesday focused on a different American city. Each post comes with an original song, some tourist tips, and a short story. So far, the Almanac has visited Baltimore, Denver, New York City, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Seattle with lots more to come.
McCall’s music career came to a screeching halt when he was hired as the pop music writer at The Star-Ledger in 2010. “There was really no way to do anything with my music because there was literally an assignment every day at the newspaper,” he said. “It wasn’t a bad thing. I loved that job and it gave me opportunities to write about music that I never dreamed of. But it kept me very, very busy.”
Illustration by Ula Bloom for Tris McCall’s song “Conspiracy Theory” (Denver) on McCall’s Almanac
Tris did have time to travel on his days off, though. “And as I traveled, I’d get ideas,” he said. “But I really didn’t have time to do anything with them at that point.” (If you notice that all of the cities visited so far in the Almanac host a National League baseball team, that’s not a coincidence. Tris is a diehard Giants fan and loves to follow his team around.)
While his music career did get put on hold, McCall did find time to debut his first novel, The Trespassers, written in 2006 but published in 2012. “For a couple of years after I finished the book, I wondered whether I had said everything I had to say,” Tris confided. “That book was everything I wanted it to be, which is very rare in art. My music never comes out like how I imagine it in my head, never.
“So while I didn’t really intend it, a lot of these short stories that I’m writing now are turning out to be reiterations of what I took to be the main points of The Trespassers. If you read the book, and you were feeling it, then you’ll probably like them. If you read the book and you weren’t feeling it, I really don’t have anything to hide behind.”
For the most part, the new songs being showcased on the Almanac came together in a short amount of time. “When I left the newspaper (at the end of 2014), I hadn’t written songs in a long time [but] I wrote a lot of songs very quickly in 2015 and 2016,” said Tris. “And now I’m writing the stories [for the Almanac] as I post the pages. The stories are written in one day, one sitting, that’s the rule. I start the story and I try not to exceed 4,000 words, by the end of the day I want to have it so it’s one sustained idea. Just like the songs on the site, it’s a draft. Eventually, I might go in and change the stories, or remix the songs to bring them up to album quality. But this is a way to tell these stories and have people hear these songs, and have a more immersive reflection of what it was like when I was just traveling around, getting a feel for all these different cities.”
Illustration by Ula Bloom for Tris McCall’s song “That’s What I Like About Baltimore” (Baltimore) on McCall’s Almanac
Some of the Almanac songs – like “That’s What I Like About Baltimore,” one of the few tracks written before 2015 – clearly reference their subject, but others are more oblique. “Kate Beaton,” the song on Pittsburgh’s page, tells the tale of a bullied schoolgirl; and while it namedrops Schenley Park, the average listener might think little Kate could be from anywhere. But to Tris McCall, there’s something about this character that’s uniquely Pittsburghian.
“Sometimes it’s really explicit and there are other times when the connection isn’t explicit at all, but the idea is that when I was visiting the city – or thinking about the city in retrospect – I created a character,” Tris explained. “I write the lyric from the character’s perspective. I describe the character to Ula Bloom, who does the illustrations on the website. Once I get the illustration back from Ula, informed by what her picture told me about what I told her about the lyrics, then I sit down and really flesh the character out and write the story.
“The idea is that you can’t get the complete picture, necessarily from the song or the story, but I hope they shake hands very nicely. I hope if you encounter either out of context, you can enjoy it all out of context,” he continued. “I hope that if you do get it in context, it gives you some feel for where it’s coming from. A lot of the songs are inspired by [me] trying to imagine a person living in this city doing stuff. And what kind of stuff is the person doing? I try to step into that perspective, that character. I try very hard for that character not to be me.”
Illustration by Ula Bloom for Tris McCall’s song “Take Me to the Waterfall” (Seattle) on McCall’s Almanac
That’s because, shortly before joining The Star-Ledger, McCall released When The Night Calls, an album of very autobiographical songs about growing up in New Jersey. “We never got to properly promote that album so nobody got to hear it, but I’m very proud of that record. It’s all songs where the narrator is me. So I thought, well, I’ve done that, it’ll be interesting to have all these new songs written from another point of view, from someone who very clearly wasn’t me.”
Starting with If One Of These Bottles Should Happen To Fall, recorded in 1999 and produced by his boyhood idol, Scott Miller of Game Theory, McCall has released a total of four albums, all with very cogent themes. So why abandon the album concept now and release songs willy-nilly on the Internet?
“I don’t think the album is dead at all,” Tris replied. “In fact I think 2015 was the best year for albums ever, and last year was the second best. The whole ‘death of the album’ thing to me is completely blown out of the water by some of the amazing projects we’ve been getting in the last few years. Granted, most of them have been hip hop projects but not all of them. Some of them have been free projects, just released to the public on Soundcloud or Bandcamp. So no, I haven’t abandoned the idea of albums.”
Instead, Tris envisions the songs he’s currently releasing on the Almanac as two future albums, recorded in two different studios with different producers and personnel. “There are really two albums happening here, one that I’m making with Mike Flannery in Pennsylvania and the other that I’m making with Jay Braun, which we recorded at Water Music in Hoboken. They have distinct sonic differences but it’s all from the same source. Thematically, it will all be the same. So my biggest fear really is being redundant. Thematically, a lot of this stuff overlaps, I don’t want to get to the point where I start repeating myself, either musically or lyrically. But the same stuff does keep coming up over and over in the songs and the stories, because it’s what I was feeling as I journeyed around the country and experienced America.”
Illustration by Ula Bloom for Tris McCall’s song “Kate Beaton” (Pittsburgh) on McCall’s Almanac
“So half of the songs I recorded with Mike and half I did with Jay, but the writing was all done at the same time. I was obsessed by all the same stuff, and I was doing the same technique, of imaging a city I had recently visited, and imaging a character who was in that city, and then writing a song from the perspective of that character.”
Will the casual listener be able to tell where each song was recorded? “Part of me hopes they can and part of me hopes they can’t,” Tris said. “To me, they sound very different. The main difference is that the songs I did at Water Music with Jay are very piano based, the piano is really BIG in the mix. On the songs that I did with Mike, there is piano but there’s much more guitar.
“Jay and Mike have very different sensibilities, and very different techniques in the way they track music. What I really didn’t want was for either of these guys to change what they do, because they each work very differently and I value that, even though I knew the songs would be hitting the website at the same time,” Tris added.
Readers can judge for themselves by visiting McCallsAlmanac.com to listen to the tracks, read the stories, and think about the cities they represent. Each post comes with an original song, some tourist tips, and a short story – a new entry is posted every Tuesday. He also posts regularly about the Almanac project (and other things) on his blog, TrisMcCall.net.
Want to catch Tris McCall live? He will be doing his first full-band show on Friday, May 12 at Piano’s (158 Ludlow St) in Manhattan.
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