Primitive & personal: The introspective world of singer-songwriter Olds Sleeper

Photographer: Press photo

The lo-fi world of an abundant songwriter

 

Wildly prolific and completely unveiled in his songwriting, Olds Sleeper places little import on conventions. The enigmatic multi-instrumentalist and occasional live performer from Lancaster officially goes by the moniker that harkens back to the image of classic Oldsmobile muscle cars of the ’50s and ’60s.

He creates songs that take their time to develop, conveying only a few lines laid over the simplest of melodies. They are intensely personal, but in no way self-absorbed – an archetype for the “laptop folk” revolution of DIY singer-songwriters who incorporate the old-time sensibilities of early 20th-century troubadours and 21st-century technology.

“I don’t really have a plan,” Sleeper laughs. “Whatever I’m into will influence the sound of the next record. It’s pretty amazing that there is any consistency at all.”

For the curious listener, there are more than a few choices when it comes to his music. Earlier this summer, he released Artificial Tongues – his 15th full-length album since he first began recording as Olds Sleeper in 2007. Like his other releases, it’s a collection for specific tastes – extreme lo-fi, unfussy, uncomplicated and consciously primitive.

Sleeper records in his bedroom, in the kitchen, outdoors and in rooms of varying sonic quality and suitability. As a result, sometimes you’ll hear things that you would think don’t belong on a final mix, including his kids in the background calling to the dog.

“I leave [sounds] in because that’s what was happening,” Sleeper says. “I don’t want to second-guess anything or belabor the song too much. I just want to get it out. I have to get it out.”

Staying in the moment is a rule that results in a pure listening experience. It’s almost voyeuristic, and it’s one of the keys to Sleeper’s unique sound.

The other key – beyond his emotional and personal experiences – is the array of instruments he gets his hands on; tenor guitars, banjos played through cheap amplifiers, mandolins with missing strings, homemade percussion, canned drum tracks. He admits the resulting sounds aren’t always the best product that could be made of the particular song.

“I just picked up a 1938 Supertone guitar, and that will probably dictate what the next five songs I make will sound like,” he says.

 

Sometimes the songs seem to fade into the dark as soon as they emerge. Never do they seem haphazard, though. Every note is played with purpose, and their beauty is their unmethodical feel.

To be blunt, few of Sleeper’s songs will leave you humming a happy tune all day, but even fewer will leave you unaffected. They fall into a place where you might find the open-wound introspection of Nick Drake, the weariness of Sun Kil Moon vocalist Mark Kozolek, the haunting howl of Skip James and just a little bit of the sheer nuttiness of Roky Erickson. But they belong to the man who created them, and no one else.

On his January release, Blackbird, the impending death of a colleague led him to contemplate the purpose for the lines on his own hands in the song “Sky is Only Sky.”

“We tend to look at the lines of our hands when they are open,” Sleeper says. “But they are there to make the hand able to grip…to hold onto something, or in this case, to someone.”

Artificial Tongue features the somber acoustic tune “Where the Dogs Let Out” – a hypnotic, meditative piece envisioning that moment you let the dogs out at night and stare at the stars for a precious minute. The equally haunting “And the Woods Grow Thick” follows it – a banjo underpinning the line, “Don’t leave me here,” until the melody washes away.

Even some of his titles – “After Summer Burnt Streets,” “Meth-Breath” and “A Final Message on the Machine” – are intriguing enough to encourage listeners to discover the hidden meanings. The purpose of making music at all, Sleeper says, is nothing more than personal journaling.

“Here’s what I did over the last half year, and I’m not all that concerned about it otherwise,” Sleeper says. “It’s a way of marking that part of my year.”

Sleeper releases albums like clockwork – usually at the beginning and the middle of the year. But for a musician so dedicated to his work, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He laughs with a deep and infectious cackle at the prospect of being what one might consider a successful songwriter, and never does he feel the need to perfect a song beyond what it takes to get its idea across.

“If you feel something, then it’s good,” Sleeper says. “If you feel it, that’s all you need. Like [writer Charles] Bukowski said, ‘If your parents like it, you are not ready.’ You don’t need your girlfriend to like it, and that’s probably why I have 15 albums. I never began this with the idea that it would ever take me out of my basement. And it would have been fine if it never had.”

 

It was back in the early days of MySpace when Sleeper started posting his songs online, originally going under the moniker Quiet Songs.

With less than a dozen people following him on his website, Sleeper started receiving attention from Willy Tea Taylor – a California-based songwriter who began the well-known 52 Week Club as an online challenge for songwriters. Members are given a prompt – a single line, a title or an image – and have one week to submit their tune. A panel of judges picks the winner.

“After I had done a few of them, Willy called me up and said he wanted to come play a show with me,” Sleeper recalls. “And I had to admit to him that I didn’t have one single gig. I was so embarrassed because he assumed I was doing well and touring and all that. But he was cool, so he said he would fly me out there.” Sleeper spent a weekend performing at festivals on the West Coast.

Sleeper’s still infrequent gigs in the region often include ace fiddler Claudia Harrison and may (or may not) include his most recognizable tunes. Fans expecting a track-for-track recitation of his current release will probably not find that at his live show.

“The minute you think you are important, it’s time to pull back into outer space and realize how insignificant you are,” Sleeper says. “And that’s okay. That’s liberating – as a person and as an artist.”

 

Olds Sleeper performs at Lancaster Dispensing Company (35 N. Market St., Lancaster) on Saturday, October 18. 10pm. 21+. 


 

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