- Courtesy Of Patrick Mccormack
- Henry Jamison
When he was a boy in South Burlington, Henry Jamison knew just how to make the perfect machine-gun sound. Like so many other young would-be men, fantasy adventures gripped his developing mind, many of them awash in masculine rituals and dreams of blood.
"That's sort of what a boy's life is like," Jamison muses, sitting in a sunlit booth at a Burlington whiskey bar, fingers idly running through his beard. "I don't even think I was an extreme case, but I'd wake up thinking about violence. Like, OK, I'm going to go kill some imaginary people!"
Now 30 and living the life of a touring musician, the Burlington-based Jamison has turned his songwriting lens upon those parts of his upbringing to address a loaded question: What does it mean to be a man in 2019? His answer, over 12 tracks of pristine, atmospheric folk music, is Gloria Duplex, a record Jamison says is "edging up against being a concept album." It comes out on February 8 via Akira Records. Jamison begins a lengthy national tour supporting Guster this week.
"There's a philosophical lens over it," he admits of the album. "But there's also this other realm that's weirdly related, all this boyhood and manhood stuff."
Gloria Duplex resembles a sort of rambling conversation between a man and his past. The opening track, simply titled "Gloria," recounts when he and his cousin found a hydrangea flower lying on the ground by a Dairy Queen. In a flight of fancy, his cousin put it in his hair as they walked down the street, prompting some nearby kids in the parking lot to call them gay.
With a whispered melody, Jamison responds, "Boys, if you're looking for your worthiness, well, it's already there."
The verses of the song are based on an old Irish folk song called "Arthur McBride," a tune once meant to protest the recruiting of boys for war. Jamison clearly sees much of what ails the modern man rooted in the way boys are taught to be boys. He also thinks he (maybe) sees a way out.
Gloria Duplex is Latin for "seeing both sides" and, indeed, for much of the album Jamison is reflective.
"I wanted to create this sort of infinite mirror," he explains. "I wanted it to be this unimpeachable thing, where as long as I saw something in culture, I'd also see it in me, you know? Can I — can we — dislodge ourselves from our dogmas?
"There is abundant evidence that white men in particular are stuck in some certainties, and now we're being questioned," Jamison adds.
He sips his whiskey, pausing to search for how to summarize such a thing. He gives a slight grimace and shrugs.
"So, yeah. I think we need to question ourselves," he says at last. "And look, I'm not saying anything radical. I myself am a little shocked I'm saying this. I honestly thought I'd still be writing about flowers and metaphors about love at this point.""
To be fair, that is what got Jamison where he is now. The son of a composer and the descendent of Civil War songwriter George Frederick Root and Geoffrey Chaucer contemporary John Gower, Jamison was playing shows at the Monkey House in Winooski at 17, under the moniker the Milkman's Union. At Bowdoin College in Maine, he further developed his sound, releasing singles and EPs and eventually signing with London-based label Akira Records.
Surprise 2017 Spotify hit "Real Peach" established Jamison on the national folk scene as a literate, singular artist. That led to a well-received debut record, The Wilds, the same year. As buzz grew around his music, he started touring with artists he had admired from afar, such as Big Thief. Jamison spent much of 2018 on the road with Boston's Darlingside, a group to which he's long had a personal connection.
"What I really appreciate about [Jamison] is that, as a songwriter, he will give an earnest expression of his feelings," says Darlingside's Harris Paseltiner. "It's clear that he's showing things others would shy away from, and I appreciate how outright and unironic he is about it. That's rare."
Paseltiner views Jamison as part of a movement within folk music in which artists are embracing synthesizers and electronic sounds — an aesthetic that informs Gloria Duplex.
"It's an exciting time to see someone like Henry come along and start using all these tools at his disposal, and getting into all these cool textures," says Paseltiner.
Many of those new textures come via producer Thomas Bartlett, who has produced and worked with artists such as Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent and the National, among others. With Jamison's visions for the songs in mind, the two pulled at his sound, expanding and coloring it in.
"Thomas just sort of plugs people into his way of doing things," Jamison says. "If you're in the room with him, he's going to hear what you're doing in this magician-like way, then sort of disappear to his keys and start doing his thing."
Jamison wanted the production to reflect the album's themes. He sings about video-game fantasies on "Gloria" and references them in even more detail on "In March," where he rhapsodizes about playing Grand Theft Auto and watching the sunset over the fictional state of San Andreas. Both are memories somewhat tied to violence, so Jamison tracked down a machine-gun sample — clearly not trusting his ability to mimic the sound now in adulthood — to briefly flare up over a soft folk arrangement.
"Thomas produced Yoko Ono's new record after mine," Jamison recalls with a laugh. "And that sample is on her record now, too."
Another detail he wanted throughout the album was the presence of female voices. On tracks such as "True North," his girlfriend at the time — someone Jamison asserts inspired much of the record — can be heard asking him innocuous questions. For instance, "Did you pull over?"
It's a haunting effect that simultaneously suggests tenderness and implies distance. Her voice comes over a phone to Jamison as he's driving. He's not sure where he's going and knows only that he's heading north and thinking about who he is as a man. "Was I looking up your skirt? Yeah, of course I was," Jamison sings, retracing his past as he stares at a snowy forest by the roadside.
Other female voices come and go as the record passes — some comforting, some gently mocking — as Jamison grapples with his manhood and his desire to change.
"I wanted to create a micro-world under the bigger world," he explains, "so there's this subtext of female voices questioning me or commenting on what I'm saying. It's just something that creates an undergrowth of meaning for the listener, and for me. I mean, it's a weird thing to have made a record that I then need to interpret, myself."
As we pay our tab at the bar, Jamison's high school German teacher walks over. The two catch up on the past and a particularly topsy-turvy ending to 2018 for the singer-songwriter. Their meeting happens just as Jamison is trying to draw a comparison between something one of his favorite writers, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote in Letters to a Young Poet and what he has attempted in his own latest work. It's a complex and meandering point. But the arrival of a familiar face from his youth leads him to sudden clarity.
"I'm not claiming to be some truth teller or shining a light or anything like that," Jamison declares. "It's more like, I have this information, and I'm trying to come to terms with it. I'm trying to have a meeting on the hill with all these things I think I need to talk about."
If he's successful, it will be a conversation he can see from both sides.