Austin Stahl has long been a presence on the Baltimore indie scene, whether playing in bands like Small Sur and A Throwaway Society, running the label OTPRecords or, most notably, releasing four albums as the singer/songwriter behind Private Eleanor from 2002 to 2007. But after that project gradually grew from a solo outlet to a full-fledged live band, and then went on hiatus, Stahl decided to start making music under his own name for the first time. In June, the album The Things You Carry and a "bonus mini-album" called 1982, comprised of covers of songs from the year he was born by the likes of R.E.M. and XTC, were released for free on AustinStahl.net. Both records were recorded at home on an analog 8-track recorder, and are in some ways a return to the roots of Private Eleanor's lo-fi early albums, while at the same time expanding Stahl's palette of instruments and moods far wider than on any of his previous efforts.
Surprisingly enough, though, when Stahl began gigging around town in support of his two new records this summer, his live repertoire was almost completely different. Accompanying his voice mainly with a small electric mandolin while opening for NOMO at the Ottobar last month, Stahl played brand new compositions, old Private Eleanor tunes, and some non-1982 covers including "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)" by Hank Williams and a revelatory take on "See No Evil" by Television. Since I've known Stahl through various mutual friends around town for a few years, I decided to grab a beer with him at the Golden West last week to talk about the records, the shows and the future. Austin Stahl and his mandolin play Joe Squared on Friday, September 25th.
SPLICE TODAY: Since Private Eleanor started as a solo project, how did you make the decision to do a solo album now?
AUSTIN STAHL: Well, when Private Eleanor started, I kind of debated whether to use my own name, and I didn't really feel comfortable doing it at the time. I'm not sure exactly why, but something didn't feel right about it, maybe I didn't feel right putting myself out there like "look at me." It's a little more indie pop to have a fake band name. But for whatever reason, this time around I felt like it was time, or something. We had kind of made the decision to stop Private Eleanor, at least for the time being, so that wasn't really on the table for me anymore, and the idea of starting a new band wasn't something I was really interested in, I just wanted to make a record for myself, just for fun. It was something just for me to do to experiment and mess around.
ST: Did you record the covers before you started recording the originals, or did it all come together around the same time?
AS: Well, the original idea for the record was to be a covers record. I had gone through a couple years where I wasn't really writing very much, and I kind of started to worry that maybe I had lost my creativity or my drive to do it. So the idea was just to keep myself busy, I was gonna make the record with a bunch of songs that were the same age as me. That was my idea, to take all these songs from the year I was born and try to reinvent them a little bit, but I would still be engaging in this creative act, but I wouldn't have to actually write anything, I hadn't written anything for like a year. And then, of course, it had the desired effect of sparking my [songwriting]. I had one old song, "Great Things Await," that one was already written, but everything else came after I started recording all the covers. So it got me excited and I just started making music every day, and eventually my own stuff started to come out. And I actually finished the album of originals before I finished the 1982 record.
ST: Was it hard to pick songs for that?
AS: I had a pretty hard time. I knew there were a couple that I wanted to do, but for some reason 1982 was a very under-represented year in my record collection. I think I had three songs that I knew I wanted to do, and then after that it was really tough. I was at one point kind of trying to decide whether I should fudge the rules a little bit, like "Well, this song was probably written in ‘82 even though the record came out in ‘83," and I decided against that. Originally it was gonna be a full-length, that was my idea, and then I ended up with only six songs.
ST: So how did you end up with this live show with the little electric mandolin and all these songs that aren't on the records?
AS: I think the main reason behind that is I wanted to play the set on mandolin, I bought this mandolin because I just felt like learning a new instrument. I kinda messed around on it before. I bought my dad a mandolin a few years ago because he's really into bluegrass. I played that a few times but I didn't really get it. It's strung really differently, it's kind of upside down. I didn't know how to play this instrument, so I'm gonna learn some songs that only have a few chords, so that's why I learned a bunch of old country songs, all those Hank Williams songs are like four chords, so they were really good to learn on, once you figure out what the four chords are to that song you just play them over and over again. That was the idea, I just wanted to play most of the set on the mandolin. Somebody told me they thought I was gonna play Rock Band. I like the idea of being different, like if you're gonna be a solo dude up onstage by yourself, I'm tired of being the solo dude with the acoustic guitar, at least I can be the solo dude with the weird electric mandolin.
ST: It definitely seems like you try your hand at a lot of instruments, there's a lot of variety on the album.
AS: There's actually one song I recorded on a Wurlitzer. I learned it on mandolin, because that's a pretty simple song, too, so I wanted to figure it out. Drums were my first instrument, then guitar, then I learned bass. I've never really explored too many other instruments. I was always a drummer, because drummers were in short supply.
ST: How did you get into playing with Small Sur?
AS: I missed playing drums in a band, when I was focusing on Private Eleanor, and I wanted to get back into it. I was friends with Small Sur and I'd gone to see them a few times and it seemed like the kind of music I'd be good at playing, because I'm not a really hard powerful drummer, I'm more subtle. I'd gone to a bunch of their shows and every time I'd think "Man, this is something I could play." And when their drummer left it came out that they'd be interested in me playing and I'd be interested in playing with them.
ST: Do you have further plans as a solo act?
AS: I don't know, I've been working on new stuff at home, continuing to record, some things on 8-track, some things on ProTools. The records I just finished were to some degree an exercise to see if I could make those records completely on the 8-track. I realized a couple years ago toward the end of Private Eleanor that I hate booking shows and I don't wanna do it anymore, so my philosophy with the solo stuff is that if someone wants me to play, I will gladly do it, but I'm not gonna tear my hair out trying to get shows. I realized once I stopped doing it, I was just so much less anxious in my daily life, it was a weight off me. Right now I'm having a good time not really worrying about it.