Carson McHone: Still Life, Still Alive
Potent Austin Songwriter, now married and living in Canada, explores themes of attachment and longing, uncertainty and loss, on new album
There is one near universal pandemic experience we can point to: the moment when the slow shift to reality with COVID-19 became a fast and full tilt. Maybe you were at a restaurant, now shuttered, enjoying your last indoor dining experience for months or even years. Maybe you were at your favorite venue, also now shuttered, hearing live music that would soon fall silent. Maybe you were wearing a bandanna mask and scrapping for toilet paper in the decimated aisles of H-E-B.
That "oh shit" moment, the one in which we realized everything would change, has become (or replaced) "Where were you when JFK was shot?" And for the purposes of tale swapping, Carson McHone has a pretty good one: a plane ride back to Texas after an abruptly abandoned Spanish tour.
That was early March 2020, and COVID was spreading quickly. McHone arrived back in Austin to the news that South by Southwest had been canceled. Like many who could, the Americana artist largely hunkered down. But for McHone, quarantine life wasn't failed sourdough starters and now-dusty puzzles.
"I've had this incredibly beautiful time," McHone says. "Some of the things I've experienced have been the most beautiful times of my life. And yet there's been such great loss that is just right there. You're taking that all in on many levels."
For McHone, these past two years have been, objectively, good. She's gotten married, she's recorded her third album, she's started to build a life in Canada. And all of those things intersected in the most felicitous ways. Still Life, due out February 25, was produced by Canadian musical chameleon Daniel Romano – who also happens to be McHone's new husband. The album was largely birthed from the couple's home studio.
Speaking from her bedroom over Zoom, she carefully tries to sum up what the pandemic has been like for her, weighing society's collective grief with her fortune. McHone, who has been a fixture of the Austin music scene since she was a teenager, understands how COVID-related closures and the virus itself have impacted her friends and colleagues. And yet, she also recognizes the abundance that this time has brought her. It's not something she let go to waste.
"As far as my circumstances are concerned, I have had an opportunity to address things that I had not been doing on tour or in the fleeting moments that I was home," she says. "I had these beautiful things happening in my life. And to have that opportunity and not take full advantage of it would be foolish."
McHone spent her last moments of pre-pandemic freedom in a European idyll.
Building off of the steam from 2018's LP, Carousel, McHone had just been on a Scandinavian run opening for narrative folk rock outfit the Felice Brothers. Next would be a string of Spain solo sets in small venues, six stops in total.
Her second show was at an old stone church in Sant Feliu de Guíxols, along the Catalonian shore. People brought food and wine to share. As in the rest of Spain, McHone noted, people kissed each other in greeting. It was a lovely night, but, without McHone or anyone there really knowing it, a risky one.
"I could see it in the headlines: Small-town Texas girl causes this many deaths in the wake of her tour," McHone recalls.
As soon as she stepped offstage, McHone learned that her mother and her manager had conspired to bring her home immediately. March 11, 2020, the very same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, would be the last stop of the tour.
"Thank you for this beautiful night, it's so intimate and sweet," she remembers telling the crowd. "And I'm glad I got to play for you – I'm gonna go home tomorrow instead of continuing on."
The crowd was incredulous. Wasn't she overblowing this whole COVID thing? Just days later, on March 13, the Spanish prime minister announced a nationwide state of alarm. On March 15, Spain would go on a national lockdown, restricting movements only to grocery shopping, work, and emergencies. Nonessential shops and businesses were ordered to close. Meanwhile, McHone was at home in quarantine.
She described her time after returning from Spain as laying low, which for some translates to "not really going out much," and to McHone means "getting married and moving to Canada with no public announcement," apparently.
For months ahead of its release, press releases and write-ups of the three singles have noted that Romano – one of Canada's most prolific musicians – produced Still Life. There have been write-ups that the two will be going on tour together later this year. What the press has failed to mention, and what McHone and Romano have kept off of the social media machine, is that Romano is her co-conspirator in more ways than one.
In September 2020, McHone and Romano got married and have been quietly pinging back and forth together between Texas and Welland, Ontario, the town near the Buffalo, New York, border where Romano and members of his band, the Outfit, hail from. The absence of McHone from Austin clubs where she has been a fixture since she was a teenager was easy enough to explain away, should anyone ask: For years, she had been poised to break into the big leagues – Carousel was named one of Rolling Stone's top Americana and country records of 2018 – and she spent a good chunk of her time on tour. And, well, there was the aforementioned pandemic.
But there has been no marriage announcement to the press. Even in her interview with the Chronicle, McHone seems to reveal her nuptials in layers: first in subtle drops of a "we" traveling back and forth to Canada, then, when asked how an Austin native ended up spending a chunk of the pandemic living in Ontario, she replied with a simple, "I married a Canadian."
Throughout the conversation, McHone gradually offered more insight – and confirmed Romano's identity. It felt like she had buried the lede, but it's hard to blame her. After all, this conversation was about Still Life, her first release after signing to Merge last October, and arguably her most polished and expansive record to date. Romano got his credit as a producer on the album, didn't he?
Like many of us during quarantine, McHone shared more with her spouse than she perhaps intended.
McHone wrote most of the songs on Still Life in 2019, on tour or between tours, which had been almost constant until "everything screamed to halt" in March 2020. Before the forced stillness, she penned these songs in "those little brief moments that I had to myself or that I had at home," she says.
She demoed out many of the songs over the summer and fall of 2019, some with the full band she had been playing with, some over voice memos. It was this mishmash of songs she showed to Romano, who McHone described as having a much more "throw and go" style than her own. They decided rather than layer on top, they would start the songs from scratch from their home.
"I was articulating certain things in these demos, but it was gonna need to be pieced together in order to be something that would work," McHone says. "We decided, let's just set the drums up in the living room and make a record from scratch."
Revisiting the songs in a new setting – off of the road, removed from many things that felt intimately familiar, even revisiting them as the world had shifted – cast them in a new light, allowing McHone to sharpen and revise for a new context.
"Some of the things those songs themselves were carrying either fell away, out of context, or became more solidified and stood on their own. It was a nice way to test them," she says, adding: "It did give me this perspective that I think was beneficial to the songs, because it either stripped them of their fat or tightened the muscles up."
Still Life was recorded in fall 2020, with only four people. McHone took on vocals and guitar, with Romano playing drums, bass, and guitar. Two of Romano's regular collaborators joined in: David Nardi of the Outfit on saxophone and Mark Lalama playing piano, organ, and accordion. It was a COVID-bubble collaboration, utilizing talent that happened to live down the street.
The stripped-down setting and small group allowed McHone creative freedoms that a typical setup – a full band, rehearsed and ready to go in the studio – has not.
"One of the things I liked about that limitation was that we could use it to our advantage to try things," she says. "We could throw stuff at the wall and see what stuck and build from there, which is exciting. I have not really done that before."
The results capture that freedom to experiment. Where Carousel tested the boundaries of McHone's country lilt, Still Life breaks them, at times, completely.
Nardi's sax gives a brassy crunch to the record, most notably on "Hawks Don't Share," where he punctuates twangy verses with bright blasts. A profusion of electric guitar zaps songs with expression, adding quirks and texture in songs like "Only Lovers" and cathartic release to the slower build of "Trim the Rose."
The album draws heavily on playful Sixties guitar pop and Southern bayou soundscapes, which are married perfectly in "Fingernail Moon." The accordion-driven waltz time is spliced with jangly guitars, slowly building more layers until the two disparate influences meld into the something that might be played at the funkiest Southern belle's debutante ball.
But the through line of Still Life is still McHone, her voice and lyricism shining brighter than ever. Her voice feels more assured, taking on a richness that shines best in the stiller moments of songs such as "End of the World" and the stunning "Folk Song," which acts as a sequel to Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow."
In a stroke of prescient songwriting, McHone explores themes of attachment and longing, uncertainty and loss. As she puts it, "There's not a lot of resolution" on the record. In that way, Still Life rises to meet this current moment.
"There's this weird suspended moment you have, the opportunity to really address what's in front of you, or yourself, which I think a lot of people have been either forced to do or taken it upon themselves to do in this strange moment the whole world has been a part of," McHone says. "In that way, thematically, it's weird how that projected onto the time when I made the record. I am a different person than I was when I wrote these songs, even though it was within a year."
McHone had never made music with Romano before – they'd only played one show together, long before they were married. But McHone already feels the benefits of the (musical) partnership. Performing the original cut of the title track – quiet, just her and the acoustic – left McHone feeling wrung out, emotionally exhausted in a way that she felt wasn't repeatable. After communicating that feeling to Romano, he helped her in a new direction. The result is a propulsive jaunt stuffed with layers, a far cry from that stripped down acoustic. But there are still parts when McHone's voice lingers just a little longer than it seems like it should, still tapping into that original feeling that made "Still Life" so tough to execute. Her spark is still there, just brightened and spread by the partnership with Romano.
It turns out their relationship was a creative match, too.
"Whoa, this feels really good," McHone says of collaborating with her husband. "But also, we didn't know how it was gonna go. We didn't know if we were going to clash. It was an experiment that ended up working out really well. It sounded like I wanted it to sound."
McHone wants to be clear: She's still got one foot in Texas.
"It's not like Austin's not my home anymore," she says. "It's just expanded."
She's gathering a community in her expanded home. She and Romano built a studio. She's adjusting to the snow, "which is still kind of exotic," but she's homesick enough to admit that she'd rather be shoveling manure. She also shared that fresh snow is the perfect base for a frozen margarita – the most Texas of life hacks.
Although future plans are still unclear, she and Romano plan on making the split arrangement permanent, no matter what that looks like. It's her first time living away from Austin apart from a yearlong stint in Arkansas for school, and she's very much looking forward to a trip back to Texas in March.
"I do feel a bit removed, and I'm very eager to spend some time back."
Touring plans behind Still Life, originally set to kick off in Texas in early March, were delayed slightly. She plans on being on the road "nonstop" with Romano, but wanted to make her reentry in a way that felt safest and done "the right way," which meant delaying until April. Still, she's eager to get back on the road. Her last show was in that Catalonian church nearly two years ago.
"Careful what you wish for – the break from playing shows was welcomed to a certain extent," she says. "But it's so bizarre to have not exercised that part of your personality or just how you carry yourself. Sometimes you don't feel like yourself, and you're like, 'What is this part that's missing?' We're very eager to get back on the road."
There are currently dates set from March 31 through the fall, largely through Canada and Europe, but with an Austin stop October 1. Still, even though the original Texas tour stops were pushed back, she's still heading to Texas in March. She'll visit Austin, where her brother and dad – Marshall McHone, a veteran of Austin beer joints who, along with Carson's mom, co-owns the Sagebrush and the White Horse – still live, but will also trek out west to Alpine to visit her mom. On the to-do list? Horseback riding, which she grew up doing, maybe giving some lessons if she has the time. Being outside. Jumping in a river. Mexican food (which she punctuates with a longing "oh, God"). In general, she "wants to thaw."
"Being away and then coming home to your hometown, your home state, you get some healthy perspective."
Carson McHone’s Still Life arrives Friday on Merge Records.