Quinn Erwin has been writing and performing as a solo artist for the past 12 years. He released his first EP A New Day in January 2009 followed by the full length A Million Miles Away in May 2010. Most recently, he was the Grand Prize Winner of the 2010 Jansport Battle of the Bands and played at The Forecastle Festival in Louisville, KY alongside The Flaming Lips, The Smashing Pumpkins, Spoon, and She & Him. He was also named IMVU Artist of the Month in August 2010.
Released on January 31, 2011 and produced by Jeremy McCoy (bass player for The Fray), Afterlife Parade’s debut EP Death is the first in a two-part concept album of sorts. The songs focus on fate, the end of the world, the death of an ideal, and the comfort from the dying to the loved ones they leave behind. The companion EP Rebirth is due to be released in the summer of 2011.
Quinn, I sat and listened to the songs from Death on your website and I have to tell you I was transfixed and transported. I don’t know what I was expecting, but was delighted. Your strong writing makes this a sensational album, not only musically, but lyrically – what inspired the concept and direction of the album?
I had recently released my first full length record as a solo artist (May 2010) and started talking to some people in the industry about it, and received some great compliments, and some great constructive criticism as well. One of the main things I was hearing, on the criticism end of things, was that I didn’t stand out as an artist; I sounded too much like everything else that was out there. I wasn’t offended by that really, and I took it as a challenge to dig into myself and figure out what makes what I do special. The truth is, as proud as I am of A Million Miles Away, I was still holding on to my influences, and I wasn’t totally giving voice to myself. Ultimately, the feedback I was getting was bigger than the music for me; I feel like I was at a pivotal point as a person too. Who is Quinn Erwin the man…who is Quinn Erwin the artist…etc.?
I went back to the drawing board.
The songs that would become the sound of Death had been around for awhile by this point. They were a very different batch of songs than what I did as a solo artist at the time; I was thinking I would record them as a side project – or something eventually – they were very personal, and very dark, obviously; they were songs inspired by death, in all forms, and fashions, whether physical, or relational, or metaphorical. I wasn’t totally sure how these songs would be received; I was really taking a risk by really laying my heart out there. More than that, my major concern, in diving into recording the songs for Death, was whether or not my family could handle it, because my cousin had recently passed away. I wasn’t sure that the timing was right. The longer I thought about it though – the more I realized that maybe recording these songs was part of my own grieving process; not just in grieving for my cousin, but also grieving over my past and where I was as a person at the time. When I listen to projects prior, I hear myself wanting to go deeper, but not really going where I needed to go to channel those emotions that I’ve felt. So this project was the launching pad for that.
I wanted to use this project at first as a way to show myself, to show my friends and family, to show my fans, and to show the industry why I’m different; why they should listen maybe. At first, it was just going to be a concept record called Afterlife Parade that discussed death and rebirth as themes, and showed the extreme parts of my personality in terms of sound and songwriting. It was kind of the celebration of the death of the old Quinn Erwin and the rebirth of the new Quinn Erwin. But as the recording process has gone on, however, it’s quite apparent that this isn’t the sound of a singer/songwriter; it’s so much bigger than me. It’s a band and a movement. It’s surprising, and yet it’s not, because I’ve always wanted to be in a band, but I’ve had to do the solo thing out of necessity. It frees me up a lot to do both, and for both to be that much more defined.
Why that Title?
The name “Afterlife Parade” is a metaphor, and it’s a hope I have about what the next life might be like. It actually comes from the song, by the same name, which was inspired by my friend’s mom, and the novel/movie Big Fish. I was visiting my friend Darcy in Nashville, soon after her Mom had just passed away. Darcy was telling me about how positive her Mom was as she was dying, and how her Mom comforted her during that time. It really struck me how confident her Mom was. The meeting was sort of a trigger for me too, because I realized that she was one more loved one, that had lost someone recently. I started thinking back at all the loss in my life the last couple of years, and I just had a desire to reconcile it all. Part of the idea of the metaphor is that I believe we are all walking, breathing, afterlife parades; we are life, and death, wrapped up in skin. We are celebrations of things to come, and things that have been. I hope people will grab a hold of that and want to march along with us.
This is some heady stuff – dealing with some profound issues – is there resistance to the message?
If you mean resistance as in was it difficult to wrestle with the message of the songs and the things that I went through that became the inspiration for them, I would say “yes” although most of those events happened a couple years ago or more, so I’ve had time to gain perspective and kind of disconnect a little from them.
There is a little bit of the seventies in this for me. Very cool – big sweeping movements, big guitar riffs, soaring vocals – was that what you intended from the beginning, or did it come about as you began to put the album together?
I grew up listening to Genesis, Phil Collins, and Peter Gabriel, and I feel like that came out a lot in this record in terms of musical/epic storytelling. I’ve also recently begun to get into more timeless music in the last few years, and I think that definitely affected my writing process; Dylan, Cash, and old blues greats were very present elements. I didn’t really set out to mimic, or create that sound; it just came out that way. It was all a surprise to me.
It isn’t often that I hear music that so well suits the lyric content; this is an album of big ideas and big music. The arrangements and production are amazing – tell us the what, where, and how of this album coming into being. How did Afterlife Parade come into being?
The record was produced by Jeremy McCoy and engineered by Kevin Bruchert. We tracked the majority of it at Viking Studios, and then finished it at Opulence Studios, both of which are in Nashville. All the songs were recorded live, and then we filled in the gaps in post production. I had the pleasure of playing with stellar musicians: Brandon Lozano on drums, Greg Everett on guitar, Scott Murray on guitar, Frederick Williams on keys, and Jeremy finished the line-up on bass (Jeremy actually is hired gun for The Fray). It was pretty clear from the beginning how this record needed to be approached in terms of musicality, and because we had a decent budget, we were able to capture it in a space that was conducive to the moodiness, and live feel that it needed to have. We definitely found musicians who could embrace the vision and execute it. What I loved most about the process was that I could tell that they weren’t just playing these tunes; they felt them too. They really latched on and owned these songs. It was a very moving experience.
Your lyrics strike me as very personal, as a songwriter is it important to you to be emotionally connected to what you write?
It is absolutely important to be emotionally invested in everything I write. I don’t think that it is believeable otherwise.
As a Singer?
I feel that way as a singer too. I don’t relive those circumstances every time I sing these songs, per say, but I certainly have to draw from those emotions. It’s part theater and part reality. There is a sense of duty to deliver these songs to others in a particular way as well because the whole project is about catharsis and release; these songs brought me a lot of peace, and I hope they will affect others that way too. I feel that in order for that to happen there has to be an element of deep honesty presented; so in a way, I go back to those places in myself. The amazing thing is that the songs evolve. I know where I was coming from when I wrote them, but as my life changes, I’m finding that the meaning of the songs change when I sing them at different points as well. It makes performing refreshing.
One could have just as easily written about your experience in a softer manner, sadder, even with some angst and melancholy. What had you decide to have it be so percussive, powerful and celebratory?
That really has a lot to do with Darcy’s mom, and her response to death. She just wasn’t worried about it at all. I think too that I want to be that way; no fear. Big Fish (the novel and the movie) was definitely in the back of my mind while I was writing – especially the tail end of the movie. The scene when Will Bloom is describing how Edward Bloom “goes” is just so moving and hopeful. I believe that I’ll march from death into an afterlife parade. It’ll be a sweet homecoming into the arms of Love. I hope that brings people comfort; the idea that this life, the momentary suffering that we endure here, is nothing in comparison to an eternity of love and peace. That is definitely something to celebrate and look forward to. At the same time, Afterlife Parade is a metaphor—we are constantly dying and living again here as we change and grow; I think that is something to be cherished as well, even as hard as that can be. The hard parts are just as important as the easy parts; that’s the paradox.
What do you need to say about the album that you haven’t yet said?
Death is not just about a physical death – it also touches on lot of different aspects of that theme, as a metaphor in life. There are tracks about the end of the world, or a world – the fall of an ideal, the end of relationships, the overwhelming feeling of fate, etc. I think what makes these songs special is that they can be approached from so many different angles; I am discovering that, more and more, every time I sing them. The songs take on a life of their own that way.
Tell us about your process as a songwriter/performer in melding word to music.
It is really different with every song. Sometimes I get words first. Sometimes the music comes first. Sometimes it comes all at once. I woke up singing “Nothing But Love Can Stay” one morning. It was all there; music and lyrics. It hasn’t changed at all since then. Other songs take years to write. There’s a song, on A Million Miles Away, that literally took four years to write. I had the chorus forever, and I just couldn’t find the right verses for it. Some songs change right up to the point that they’re being recorded. I went through about five or six versions of “Death before it was finalized, lyrically and structurally. With Rebirth (the second half of this concept record being tracked right now), I have really focused on the emotion of the song and vocal melodies first, and then filled in words over time. I also kind of hear all the parts when I write. I’m the son of a drummer, and I think I inherited my Dad’s sense of rhythm, because I hear the drum parts when I write. Writing is such a mystery. I definitely feel the hand of God in it, and I definitely believe that I just happened to be the one to “catch” the song; they are as much a gift to me as they are to the people that listen to them. I just feel honored to be able to deliver them.
When did you first start songwriting?
It’s funny, because only recently have I realized that I was always singing, and putting words to melody, even as a young kid. My mom helped me try to organize a “band” when I was in third grade, or something. It lasted a weekend! I didn’t really get serious though until I was a teenager, picking up my first guitar. I played to write from the beginning. I didn’t really want to learn and play anyone else’s songs; I wanted to play my own.
Do you write to sell a song, or do you write for yourself?
I would say it’s a little bit of both. I think I am learning the value of both. I want to make a legitimate income being a musician, and sometimes that requires diversification, and business savvy, over quirky artistry. I think too that I am open to songs that don’t fit what I do as an artist, so either I just throw those away, or I find a home for them, with someone else who can deliver them. I believe all songs have a purpose, whether they are transitional, or whether they are for me, or whether someone else is supposed to perform them. I am also discovering the difference between Quinn Erwin, the solo artist, and Quinn Erwin, the member of Afterlife Parade; they’re two very different sounds, and I want to do both ultimately. I do write for myself, but I do want to be able to take care of my family doing what I love.
Are you an on-demand writer or does there need to be some outside stimulus?
It works both ways; it just really depends on the purpose of the song.
In this album, you seem absolutely in touch with what is inside you – how difficult was it for you to find the words for these songs? Was anything left on the table in this album – what wasn’t said that needed to be said?
I definitely was in touch with my emotions with this project. In terms of my own personal experience, I’m sure there is much more to be said and in even more detail, but I think the real question is, is it better to give people everything right now, or to leave these songs open for interpretation and give it to them over time? I feel like for this project that there needed to be some room for people to insert themselves in these stories. I used metaphors a lot to convey what I felt in those intense moments in my life. I’m also a slow burner sometimes when it comes to how I feel about situations, or come to grips with things that actually happened to me, so I’m sure down the road that I will continue to feel residuals, and express those things in song. For right now though, I feel like I’m saying everything that needs to be said.
Afterlife Parade has been wowing ‘em on stage and you have garnered some awards. How is the album being received by the audience from your perspective?
I have really been humbled by the response AP has gotten on-line, or at shows so far. I feel like people are really getting it; I feel honored to offer something up that I think is fresh in a very unique way. I did a solo gig in Iowa a couple of weeks ago, and an older woman came up to me afterwords, and told me that she came, because she read about the show in the paper. She said that she was offended by our band name at first, because she felt like it was insensitive, but after hearing the songs, and what they were about, she came to like it after all. We ended up having a pretty extensive conversation about “Nothing But Love Can Stay” after that. I think that the whole concept is a provocative one, and I feel like people that are grabbing hold of this want to talk about it, because maybe they don’t that often. It is really cool when people pull me aside, after a show, and ask questions about the songs, and we end up getting into super awesome conversations about life. I love that stuff. I feel like that is the life blood behind what AP is about; connection and catharsis.
Is a smaller venue or bigger venue best?
Both venues are totally different experiences in general, and the goal is to make the songs work in both environments. We rock out in big venues and we rock out in smaller ones, so either way you look at it, I think it is going to be a party; in a meaningful sort of way, if that makes any sense!
Now here is the big news – you have a new album coming out this summer. Tell us about Rebirth.
Rebirth is the second half of the concept record. It is a progression and a unique expression of AP. Where Death is atmospheric, moody, and dark, Rebirth is electronic, percussive, and light; where Death is a dirge, Rebirth is a dance. They are very different projects on purpose. They aren’t so different though that they don’t fit together. Rebirth will deal with the other side of the coin essentially; what happens when we start over, or change, or wake up, on the other side? What does rebuilding feel like? It’s going to hit everything, from traveling to a new place, to finding new love, and even to revitalizing community. I’m working with three of the most incredible producers (Jason Morant, Jeremy Lutito, and Dan Brigham) all weaving in and out of each other in the creation process. We are really approaching the tracking process in a completely different way than the last. It has really stretched me positively. I’m interested and excited to see people’s response to this batch of songs; especially because they have such a different sound. It’s all AP though!
Are you touring or are you in the studio these days?
Currently in the studio, but doing spot dates here and there. We’re doing a small tour at the end of March, and then we’ll start playing in Nashville quite extensively until the fall; we’re hoping to hit the road pretty hard starting in August.
Thank you Quinn, for taking the time to interview with us. We wish you great success with Afterlife Parade, and we hope to follow-up with your upcoming release, Rebirth.
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