Thom Kunz and Whitney Pearsall’s new project
(originally published in Star News, additional interview material below)
By Brian Tucker
“I’m carving out my own love and respect for the album as an art form,” Thom Kunz said of new album Stars in the Black and Blue he made with singer Whitney Pearsall. “We’re living in a world of singles. A song is a song – an album is the experience. An album is how I grew up loving music.”
Stars follows last fall’s Paper Brain, a dynamic concept album Kunz envisioned and created with five different singers. Songs were built on varied music personalities and fits the album experience definition. Pearsall sang on two of its songs and the collaboration led to something larger, this week’s cd/vinyl/digital release of Stars.
“I first heard Whitney’s voice in the summer of 2014…playing acoustic songs with my friend Mike Ruwe,” Kunz recalled. “Though we didn’t meet that evening, her voice just stayed with me. A year later, upon completing the music to “Far Away” and (putting) feelers out to singers, I knew her vocal contribution would be remarkable on that song. But it required reaching out to a stranger about a very personal song.”
Stars feels more intimate and emotionally driven, largely due to Pearsall’s honeyed, raspy and soulful voice that echoes 70’s singers Stevie Nicks and “Hasten Down the Wind”-era Linda Ronstadt. Her delivery sounds both comforting and scarred. A mostly self-taught singer, she recalls the two projects as life-changing.
“I learned so much,” Pearsall said. “Music and singing has always been the one place where I can truly let go of everything, just release it all into the song and be completely free. Stars has been a cathartic project on so many levels, and working with Thom, I am so proud to call him my friend and partner in this musical journey.”
“Her quieter moments can be haunting in one song and angelic in another,” Kunz said. “When she’s firing on all cylinders in the finales of these songs, I still get chills. She sings all the vocals on this album, at times building to three and four part harmonies.”
Stars is a more complex concept album this time around, where songs range from damaged love and personal loss to a lovesick fantasy world underscored with exploratory ambiance. “Cold Moon” concerns the cruelty of Alzheimer’s Diseases and “Gentle Breeze” bears emotional confliction, such as in lyrics “Love haunted you/You haunted me/Gentle as a Breeze.”
Kunz recorded, produced and mixed the album in Wilmington and Kunz and Pearsall collaborated on writing lyrics, with the singer filling in key parts.
“I’d penned “Veins of Stone” about going through a divorce, but I was stuck on the bridge,” Kunz said. “While tracking vocals, she came up with ‘There was a time we could fly smooth and even/The scars have hardened with this grievance.’ We quickly realized we were connecting on these larger themes. I was amazed how we shared the same musical head space, and I knew right then we would make a special record.”
Kunz notes the album starts at the point when there’s nothing left to say, yet the closing lyric is hopeful – ‘Smile and learn to carry on before its gone.’ The words are fitting. Kunz grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey on a steady diet of different music tastes. He moved to Wilmington at the end of the 90s, went to college, and somehow lost his way throughout his thirties.
“Life is incredibly fragile, and I’d spent far too much of my thirties in emotional limbo, unmotivated, dodging any accountability, and not utilizing creative outlets like writing and music I adored so much in my twenties. Thankfully, I found the courage to reposition myself and move forward.”
Additional Q & A with Thom Kunz
“Cold Moon” cuts deep. Is this album as personal for you as Paper Brain, just in different ways?
Kunz: There’s breathing room on Stars whereas Paper Brain was deliberately confined and suffocating. The lyrics on ‘Stars’ are a result of composite narrators drawn from experiences. Paper Brain was more like trying to capture some of my most specific darkest times.
“Cold Moon” is a great example. My grandfather had died of Alzheimer’s and I’d watched my father take care of him for two years – it’s incredibly sad, to watch a loved one actually lose his mind. But I wanted to write more from a universal headspace. A few nights later I happened to see the Glen Campbell documentary I’ll Be Me, and listening to the stories of Glen’s family dealing with his illness just struck a chord with me. The lyrics started forming thereafter. “All the mistakes you tried to forget / Wave goodbye then fade away.” We spend so much time trying to shake the guilt and regret we acquire in life, and to think this illness simply strips it away along with everything else.
Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted before discussing it with Whitney?
I’d written many songs over the last twenty years, and roughly eighteen of those I knew would fit her voice – but many lyrics were just crap. I don’t feel I found a voice until Paper Brain. The good news was we had a lot of great music. Just imagine a large piece of clay.
We knew we wanted Side A to have isolated songs that were a thematic mirror to a larger piece on Side B. So we started with that structure in mind. In the end many songs we loved ended up on the cutting room floor; some simply didn’t fit the vision of Stars, or we had to make time choices since recording for vinyl is 22 min per side; it forces you to be concise.
The title track, can you explain? The structuring is interesting, the lyrics hopeful and romantic.
Early in the recording process, we landed on the song Stars in the Black and Blue. I wrote the music in 1999 when I first moved to Wilmington, and it was then called “Streetlight Lady & The River Taxi.” The music stayed with me all these years, but the lyrics and vocal line were lackluster, on top of me singing it – triple dreadful.
But as we began to reshape this song, we quickly discovered it would be the album title and first song on Side B to kick off the larger narrative. The song follows the changing seasons, the patterns we’re all so used to. We meet these two lovers who are always counting on time to make things better. But time doesn’t really solve anything, time only takes away the sting, or provides a comfortable room to sit back and delay making a change. Communication is what solves problems, but communication may require time. There’s the conundrum.
As we worked on Side B in the later sessions, the somewhat supernatural and sci-fi elements began creeping in. Damaged love is the most isolating feeling. In a crumbling relationship, one feels invisible, living in a different world than the rest of society’s participants. So, the idea became what if this isolated world is the gateway to somewhere else, if a door opens and sucks you into some mental fantasy where all the things one could never communicate begin to find a voice? Side B takes place in this world.
A lovesick fantasy world of one’s own creation is a dark place, and while darkness can sometimes feel romantic, it’s not a sustainable place to grow – the darkest places all have a door that leads back to clarity or even peace.
“Gentle Breeze” bears emotional weight as well – “Love haunted you/You haunted me/Gentle as a Breeze.” Are you one to ‘hear the music’ after writing lyrics, or does it work in reverse?
It’s definitely both. In the case of “Gentle Breeze,” the music I’d written maybe sometime in early 2000, originally called “Dream in Harmony,” and while many of the original lyrics remained in “Gentle Breeze,” those particular lyrics you mentioned came recently. I believe the original chorus was “I wanted you/You wanted me/ Dream in Harmony.” But there was nothing there. It was a sweet thought, maybe about a romantic one-night stand – that’s about it.
During revision, Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession” and The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” were points of reference, because those songs sound like love songs, while they’re really about stalking and obsession. I wanted “Gentle Breeze” to walk the same line, being incredibly sweet but unsuitably dangerous. I also think it’s also a song about the difficulty of letting go – but that only dawned on me recently, which is kind of fun when you figure out meanings much later.
How did you first come to know Whitney, through fellow ILM musicians or shared interests?
I first heard Whitney’s voice in the summer of 2014 at Towne Tap & Grill. She was playing some acoustic songs with my friend Mike Ruwe. Though we didn’t meet that evening, her voice just stayed with me. A year later, upon completing the music to “Far Away” and starting to put feelers out to singers, I knew her vocal contribution would be remarkable on that song, but it required reaching out to a stranger about a very personal song.
I got her number from Mike Ruwe, called her, and stuttered through a flurry of sentences that explained the album and project I was trying to make. She was incredibly sweet and on board before hearing a single note, which to this day I think is a perfect example of Whitney’s incredibly kind, creative soul.
I sent her a demo of me singing “Far Away,” that was rough. She had the demo for maybe ten days and then fast-forward to a humid July morning in 2015, she arrived at my house where we met in person for the first time. We sat for a bit and talked about the song, and I felt comfortable with her immediately.
Her first vocal take coming through my earphones reduced me to tears. I remember sort of hovering over the controls and hiding the fact that I was a total mess. I knew we had something special, and it didn’t matter if only ten people heard the song – we just had something, and I was so happy I could have that recording to listen to whenever I wanted.
The album is two halves, is it about going from darkness to light, letting go and accepting?
“After all is said and done/there’s a vacancy on your tongue.” In many ways the album is starting after there’s nothing left to say, and that’s a very bleak place. The album’s closing lyric – “Smile and learn to carry on before it’s gone” is the most important lyric for me personally. I think it speaks to the album as a whole, to my life experience, to those feeling completely stuck.
Now, a few months after recording, I realize it’s the perfect coda to Paper Brain. Life is incredibly fragile, and I’d spent far too much of my thirties in emotional limbo, unmotivated, dodging any accountability, and not utilizing the creative outlets like writing and music I adored so much in my twenties. Thankfully I found the courage to reposition myself and move forward.
What surprised you about working directly with one person on this album?
The first night Whitney came over to start working on Stars, I introduced her to the fifteen songs, and we recorded acoustic demos of “Perfectly Shattered,” “Cold Moon,” “On Your Side,” “Veins of Stone” and “Gentle Breeze,” basically all of which became Side A. This was our process: I handed her all the lyrics I had for each song, I sort of sheepishly sang through the first verse and chorus, and by the second verse and chorus, she would naturally take it over. I was amazed how we shared the same musical headspace, and I knew right then we would make a special record. Our friendship developed as the record developed, and we organically became characters the album required.
Are you at home as producer, or would enjoy someone producing/guiding you in a studio?
That’s an interesting question. I think it would be difficult for me to give up control, and also very easy, depending on the situation. Creatively, I’m a control freak, and I like the isolation in my creative space after things are tracked. I like long hours of mixing, editing, re-tracking, and figuring things out. There’s so much discovery there.
And it’s never perfect; it’s just the best mix I can make right now. I know my albums could all ultimately sound more slick, etc., but for me, at least with Paper Brain and Stars, I’m learning along the way, and there’s something to be said about doing it yourself and making the best project your current ‘self’ is capable of making.
Tom Scheponik is a seasoned audio engineer who mastered both Paper Brain and Stars. He’s been a great source of feedback, and his direction is invaluable. I hardly know him personally, but I value and trust his input. He’s this sort of distant person who I think will help me improve with each project. He can take what I create and make it sound the best it can sound. Mastering is so important. I cannot stress it enough.
I could see myself giving up control in terms of not actually playing the music, since I’m not a seasoned musician. I play a little of everything, but I don’t excel at one thing. I’ve always considered myself a songwriter first. I’m not a singer. I’m not looking to stand front and center. And I’m ultimately not trying to make a career out of this. I’m making music because I love doing it – and I’ve found some people near and far who like it too.
For me the sweetest part is an email or message from someone who randomly bought Paper Brain on vinyl in a record store because of the cover and they found a serious connection with it. That’s more than I ever hoped for. I hope for the same with this album.
Additional Q & A with Whitney Pearsall
What have you been involved with locally in addition to collaborating with Thom?
I’m actually not currently in any local bands, but I was working in an acoustic duo here with Mike Ruwe called The RambleJacks. That’s where Thom first saw me singing about a year before he was recording “Paper Brain.” I am in two bands based out of town, TripleWide, a blues, rock, funk band in Wilson and Better Off Dead, a Grateful Dead Tribute Band based in Raleigh.
Did you have strong impressions of Thom on Paper Brain? From the beginning did he have a vision for what he wanted?
When Mike Ruwe told me Thom was interested in me singing “Far Away” on Paper Brain, I didn’t know what to expect. Thom sent me the link and I was blown away. What a powerful song, and the concept of the whole album was so amazing. One of the best things about working with Thom is that you feel his vision through the music. He would give me a general idea, I’d start singing and it was just right there. It’s very synchronistic.
Were you surprised Thom was interested in collaborating again?
When Thom got in touch in late November about collaborating, I was at band practice. The guys said my mouth hit the floor. I was so excited and really humbled to be asked to collaborate with him again. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect and when we went over the songs, I got chills-again, synchronicity. Thom is a genius, he really is.
You have an engaging singing voice. Did you learn to sing as a child?
I was self-taught as a child. My mom would tell you I was singing before I could talk. I was in choruses through school and have been in bands since 1989. I went back to school in 2014, at CFCC, and took two semesters of voice from Dr. Jennifer Muehrcke. She really helped me in maintaining and exceeding my vocal range.
Were there songs that gave you pause? Did you ever doubt yourself?
Oh did I ever doubt myself? Yes! We almost scrapped “Skies and Limits,” the song that prompted this album, but was one of the last songs we recorded. I was so frustrated with myself, that we actually stopped recording and started working on another song. We were recording this through a very difficult personal time for me and I was so emotionally and mentally exhausted. It was intimidating as hell for me and pushed me harder to say we are going to record this song. The next time we got together, I took a deep breath and sat down and we got the song in two or three takes.
Have you learned more as a singer working on these albums? Have you been changed by these projects?
Working on these projects has been a life changing experience. I learned so much, for sure. Music and singing has always been the one place where I can truly let go of everything, just release it all into the song and be completely free. Stars has been a cathartic project on so many levels and working with Thom, I am so proud to call him my friend and partner in this musical journey. He and Liv are amazing souls and it’s been my privilege to work with them.