When he takes the stage at BAM tonight, Brooklyn songwriter, singer, and composer Gabriel Kahane will try to conjure up an entire city. His latest album The Ambassador is a kind of conceptual study of Los Angeles, packed with characters and tales borrowed from books, film, and real life events. Kahane will perform the album in full at BAM four nights in a row as a kind of concert-theater mixed media superspectacle. You can read more and purchase show tickets here.
Kahane's music is both tender and intelligent, filled with delicate guitar lines that wind across odd-meter verses topped with narrative-heavy lyrics. We spoke to him just before his final dress rehearsal on how The Ambassador came to be, his thoughts on New York's urban quirks, and the saddening racial injustice that's been dominating today's news.
What have you done to prepare for the BAM shows? It's an insanely-compressed process, as is often the case for things at BAM. We did the world premiere of this production in Chapel Hill about seven weeks ago, and leading up to that we worked for about a week, building the show from scratch. Obviously the music already existed, but then it was conceived very much to serve both a stage production and this album. I had the commission from BAM before I signed my record deal with Sony.
Really? So The Ambassador's stage show idea pre-dated the songwriting? Well, no. It was a pretty unusual process in that the commission from BAM and my being courted by Sony Masterworks kind of happened around the same time. [BAM Executive Producer] Joe Melillo said that he wanted to see a kind of union of the work that I had done as a musical theater composer, and as a performing songwriter. He suggested "What would happen if you did a piece that featured you, but was also a form of theater?"
And then I started talking to John Tiffany [director of The Ambassador's stage show]—I told him that I wanted to make a piece about Los Angeles, and I sort of spewed all this scattered discourse about architecture as the intersection of these two LAs—the mythological LA on one hand, the aesthetic LA of film and fiction and TV, and then on the other hand the very vulnerable physical city, as we saw a couple days ago with that horrific fire. The city that burns, the city that's subject to earthquakes. And he in his kind of eternal distilling wisdom said "Why don't you pick 25 street addresses and write songs for 25 different buildings?" So he gave me the basic organizing principle.
In the back of my head I was always thinking, "These songs are going to be put on stage." But I guess the thing that I'm trying to remind myself, and other people, is that this isn't some sort of jukebox musical—it's not a real musical at all.
Later John assembled a staggeringly great design team with Christine Jones, who did the new production of Rigoletto at the Met, and she did Spring Awakening. Her set is kind of the star of The Ambassador show.
(Courtesy Gabriel Kahane)
So, this production has very much been a case of "first thought best thougth" in that we haven't had the luxury of any more time. We had a band rehearsal Monday. Yesterday we soundchecked the band, and then we did a run-through. Today we'll do a dress rehearsal and then it's opening night.
How are you feeling? I'm really excited about the piece that we've made! I think it sits in a very unusual space between theater and concert, and depending on people's orientations they'll have very different reactions to it.
Your songs have a lot of things happening in them; I'd say each song has a very distinct story, or at least a setting and place. Do you plan on acting out some of those verses on stage, or is it going to be more interpretive? That was one of the early decisions that John and I made, approaching the stage piece—how to separate it and make it distinct from a concert. In shows that I play I tend to chat with the audience quite a bit. I've performed these songs a lot in club settings where I have the luxury of setting up the songs with some explanations. We felt like that would be really lazy for this. We have an opportunity here to try and transcend that.
John always describes his job as a director is just to be an audience member seeing something for the first time and to give the audience clarity and access points to what they're about to see. I don't want to spoil the show for people, but I think there are at least ten distinct characters that I'll play over the course of the evening. There are a couple extra songs that were recorded that are not on the album but are in the state rendition.
Basically every piece of information that the audience gets grows in some way very much specifically out of the physical environment. And in that sense we're playing with this idea of decades and decades of cultural detritus. In one sense because these songs were all very researched from film and from journalistic sources, from literature, there's a way in which this piece dumps my creative process onto the stage. I'm being a little bit cagey, but it shows people how I get excited about writing a song and how the song comes out of these sources.
Another way of stating it is that sometimes people do cabaret, where they do a bunch of cover songs and in between those cover songs they tell stories from your life to stitch the songs together. What we're doing here is reverse. The music is all original, and everything that happens in between is a kind of found text. Those found texts are the things that inspire the songs. There's video, there's audio, there are all sorts of weird media devices on stage, and there's a way in which the logic of musical theater does still prevail in that a piece of text will lead to the point where there needs to be music, but the way that that text happens is very different [in The Ambassador] than what you would get in a normal musical.
Can you just rattle off a few of those books and movies that inspired you? Absolutely. The Bradbury building—they've shot upwards of 150 films there. Blade Runner is just one of them. So the song on the record that's called "Bradbury (304 Broadway)" Is told sort of from a composite of the Replicants.
That's the song with the "Tears in Rain" line right? Exactly. And then "Veda" is sung from the perspective of the Joan Crawford Mildred Pierce film.
The only continuity [with Kahane's past work] on the album is that the first and last songs quote from a lyric of an older song of mine called "LA," that song was a kind of response to Joan Didion's novel Play it as it Lays. In a way, reading Play it as it Lays back in 2007 was the initial seed of all this, even though I didn't know it as the time. It was my coming to view Los Angeles as more than just the den of the superficial, living out there at the time.
That's very cool--you've kind of folded your own work in with the other works that you're gesturing toward. Yeah, I think there's a good tradition of that. Obviously you have to walk a fine line of not succumbing to narcissism and self-interest, but I think that if you consider an artist someone who is also a researcher, looking for things of interest, it's kind of inevitable that you're going to use your old research to inform what you're doing in the present.
It's funny hearing what you've said about LA having an "aesthetic/actual" duality. For me, coming from the Midwest, I feel that way about New York quite often. If you don't grow up in it, or haven't lived in it for a long time, then in your head it's purely a domain of fiction, due to all the movies and TV shows set in New York City. The only time a Midwesterner sees The Empire State Building or Central Park is in a fictitious story. Have you ever felt any sort of duality with New York? How do you sit with New York City in analogue to where you now stand with LA? To me, obviously New York and LA have a lot in common. They're enormous megalopolises, but I do think there's a fundamental difference. New York is a city of public spaces. It's a city of the Metropolitan Museum. It's the city of parks, it's the city of the subway. It's a city of throngs of people, of sidewalks, and increasingly a kind of bicycle culture. And Los Angeles is a city of private spaces, and the consequence of a city being largely composed of private space is that you don't see the dark side as much. Of course, if you go to skid row in downtown LA you see abject poverty and suffering in a way that you actually don't see in Manhattan. But other than that, and some other areas in Watts and South Central, you can exist in LA and see none of that. There's a way to navigate LA and be completely blind to the realities of the brutal inequality.
And I think in New York even the very wealthiest people can't get to their palatial penthoses on Park Avenue without confronting some sense of reality of poverty. And I think also, as much as New York is photographed and depicted in film and TV, I do think that for a long time there was a little bit more of a homogenous villification of LA as this den of the superficial. New Yorkers are just as superficial as people in LA, but the capital of our superficiality is different. I remember in my early 20s, riding the subway, it was all about who's reading what novel on the train. If you were reading the right Foucault on the F train, then the cute girl is going to notice you and you might get a date [laughs]. But in LA there are aspects of body image, or how people accessorize, that make up people's superficiality.
"Empire Liquor Mart", to me, is the most striking song on the album, because of how timely it sounds. When you posted it on your Soundcloud you wrote "May Michael Brown's family see more justice done than Latasha's did." Can you speak to your feelings on what's been going on with racial violence across the country? Has the song changed, for you, in light of recent events?
To speak to the genesis of the song—I'm doing an artist in residency at the University of North Carolina, and while I was researching not just buildings to write about but things that were interesting in LA's culture and history this wonderful professor of English named Heidi Kim told me that a book had just been published by Brenda Stevenson called The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins. The book came out only in May of 2013, and we were very much in the wake of Trayvon Martin and the phenomenon of a young black person essentially being put on trial for their own death. It felt timely to me as a response to that, but also, as I read more in Stevenson's very detailed book about the history of Latasha Harlins's family, I was really struck by how much her family was kind of tragedy-prone.
So much of what we talk about when we talk about Los Angeles is ideas of aspiration and a better life and the "sunshine cure" and the boosterism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries where you had Midwestern people coming and retiring in Los Angeles, getting their orange groves. And there's a thing that is just so relentlessly painful about the Harlins story, because you see the journey of her grandmother to LA, looking for that better life, and just getting slapped down at every turn.
At the same time I knew that i was interested in dealing with the Kennedys, and with Bobby Kennedy's assassination at the Ambassador Hotel. Suddenly there was this moment where what for me is kind of the psychic center of the record really clicked: these two families, the Kennedys and the Harlands, who could not be more different in terms of privilege and status, became tragically linked.
But getting back to the present, as a straight white man...[pauses] how do I say this? It's hard to know what one should try to express in a situation like this. On the one hand there's the stance of "Tell your own story, don't appropriate other people's stories." I have a really hard time with the idea of not engaging with other peoples stories, because for me that just leads to a more atomized, compartmentalized, fractured society. To me art and empathy are inextricably intertwined, and what's really important is that everyone has a space to tell whatever story they want to tell.
And as far as what's happening right now, I'm inconsolate. I'm with John Stewart when he said "If comedy is tragedy, plus time, I need more fucking time." And for me the idea of police wearing body cameras is so wrong-headed. It just reinforces our mistrust of the police, and if we look at the Eric Garner video, it's totally fucking unambiguous. There's no question, whatsoever, about what's happening here, and as plenty of people have pointed out already: What is a camera going to do? The problem is the prosecutors are in the pocket of the police.
My last question: Has doing The Ambassador from start to finish changed the way you want to make albums? Well so far we've only done one performance of The Ambassador before BAM. It was really thrilling and I had the feeling that the audience was engaged with it. It does feel, to me, like there are a lot of hard questions as far as how to make new work in the future. A huge amount of energy, artistic and non-artistic, has gone into making this happen. There's been a lot of private fundraising because it's not a commercial venture, at least not at this time. The institutions that commissioned the piece have been incredibly generous but the costs of making something like this happen are just greater than what places can often provide. I'm hopeful that if the piece is well-received we'll have other opportunities to do it more because as of now we have these four performances and then two in LA in February and that's all that's on the books. I would really love to see it have more of a life and I think that the more life that it has, the more I'll probably have increasing resources to do more projects like this.
I believe so strongly that you can't set out thinking "I want to do a big multimedia piece." All of those formal things have to fit what the content is. And I do feel that doing The Ambassador has really cracked open something as far as what the experience of music and theater can be. John is a big fan of saying "The single art form is dead" and I think in a lot of ways that's true and we've been seeing that in culture for a while now.
But I love performing in clubs. I love doing my neurotic Jewish guy bantering with an audience thing. Next spring I'm opening for my good friends Punch Brothers and I'm really delighted to bring my music to more people. It's so magical to work with brilliant people—it feels like a lot of things have aligned to make this an incredibly special experience.