5 Questions with December Friend on new Album releasing March 24, 2023

December Friend is a new project started by Joel Leviton. We had a great time chatting with his “other” band Circus of the West in studio before the pandemic. Had a great time listening to the new work (Splendor Never Dies) too and love the insight he gives in the answers below!

Please tell us about yourself and your new venture December Friend.

I’m a lifelong musician and songwriter, and I really consider myself more of a songwriter than a musician.  In the years leading up to the pandemic I played in the local band Circus of the West and our last show was at the end of 2019.  After that show, I remember feeling exhausted and needing a break from band life, and I suspect my band mates felt the same.  When the pandemic and isolation hit it was a stark reminder that life is precious, and fragile, and it caused me to question what I wanted to do musically.  At that time, for some reason, songs were easy to write, they just kept coming.  And I wanted to work on a recording project that would not only focus on the song, but the production.  Like a lot of songwriters, I hear things in my head, but I do not always know how to execute the ideas.  So I reached out to two musician friends I admire immensely.  The first was Jeff Victor, whose musical abilities are beyond words — he’s in an elite league.  I asked Jeff whether he would produce and play on a number of my songs.  I think he was skeptical at first, but he’s a mensch and thankfully said yes.  Then I reached out to John Wlaysewski of the Brooklyn-based band, Late Cambrian.  I befriended John through a record label I started with some friends, Mifflin Street Music, and we were working on releasing the next Late Cambrian record (Future Snacks, it’s awesome).  John, like Jeff, brings an inventiveness to his playing that can be both moody and uplifting and John’s guitar playing really can bring a song to life.  I asked some other friends to play on some tracks, like Andy Platt, who is a great bass player, Steve Grossman, who is a wicked guitar player, and Josh Margolis, a top-notch drummer.  But Jeff, John, and I did the majority of the tracking and production and that became December Friend.

How was this recorded and what impact do you think that has? Or in other words, would you guys have created something entirely different in sound and ethos in a studio together?

Except for a few vocal sessions at Jeff’s studio, most everything was tracked remotely in everyone’s home studio, meaning each of us was alone when recording.  This was liberating in some respects because others were not watching when I flubbed a take (again and again).  On the other hand, not being in the same room certainly extended the process.  I’m the type of songwriter who knows what I want and sometimes it was hard to communicate ideas not being in the same room.  But I spent hours doing remote sessions with Jeff and John where we would work through arrangements and parts.  Eventually I think we found our balance and rhythm.  I do wish I could have done more vocal sessions as a group.  Singing is new to me (which probably is apparent!) and finding my voice is a continuing process.  I think recording live with Jeff or John on the other side of the glass would have helped accelerate that process.  But musically, I’m really proud of what we accomplished, particularly given the limited in-person interaction.

There’s a duality in the collection, feels upbeat but perhaps deceptively so; the messages are mixed – sometimes things feel OK and sometimes not. In Always Something Special there’s a line about “stay in our pajamas … blind to the reality” and so much of the tone in Should We be Dancing about the balance of finding joy and recognizing some dark things around us. My question is – Should We be Dancing?

Wow, what a great and thoughtful question.  No question, these songs were written in dark times.  When I first start to rattle off lyrics when I’m working on a song, they usually tend to be negative – doom and gloom.  I have to consciously inject positivity so songs are not so bleak.  And yes, there is duality in many of the songs.  I’m deeply impacted by the mood in our country (and beyond) and it gets me down.  At the same time, I’m fortunate to have meaningful and positive relationships in my life, and I’m truly grateful for that.  So, should we be dancing?  I don’t know, it depends on the day.  But when we do dance, I hope it’s with humility.

Rise Like a Song feels like both imagery and metaphor – especially given life in Minneapolis in the last two years. It’s very clever. It can be a celebration or a call to action. What has the role of music and this new venture been in your life between during these interesting times?

Working on this project with amazing musicians like Jeff, John, and others has been a gift.  The process brought real joy to my life during tough times (again, duality).  And that is the power of music — a song can be uplifting, heartbreaking, earth shattering, or enlightening.  Songs give us those goose-bump moments.  Rise Like a Song is a call to action to my kids.  Times won’t always be good, friends will come and go, but you have a voice, use it and let it rise like a song through the air.

Each track has an accompanying image, which adds (to quote from a song title) Texture. Please tell us more about the idea and the images themselves.

Most of the images are modifications of photos I have taken over the years and have a direct connection to the song.  For example, the opening track, Textures, is about appreciating the real-world textures of life during a time when we spend so much time looking at screens.  The outro of the song includes recordings of some real-world events in my life, one of which was watching some amazing street musicians in New Orleans.  So the image for Textures is based on a photograph of those musicians.  There’s a line in the closing track, Ghosts in the Wind, which says, “when the lights in the park are flickering that’s my ghost in the wind,” and the image for that song is a photograph of the lights in the park where I wrote that line.  I was looking for a way to visualize aspects of the songs, and I couldn’t afford to make 10 music videos!  Thanks for listening so closely to this record.  Your questions were really insightful and I appreciate that.

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