“A snapshot of where we were”: C. Ray Harvey Takes Us To Omaha, Alaska

photo by Adam Meyer

I think the purpose of being a great artist is to both create the art and evolve it as well. If you’re lucky, the artist evolves in the process. You want to keep moving forward in the creative process. You never want to devolve. In that process of evolving one needs to be able to process and create from the good and bad that happens in ones life. Process the everyday and make something of it. Hopefully it’s something others can relate to and say “Hey, I get that. I feel that way too.” If you can connect with others through your happiness or sadness or anger or despair, then great. But ultimately art is for the creator. It’s a process by which the artist works out some s**t of his or her own. You take hits and misses, the loves found and lost, and the triumphs and tragedies of your life and put them through this existential meat grinder and hope something digestible comes out the other end. The ultimate goal is to figure it out on a personal level, then you can move on to the next crisis of the moment.

C. Ray Harvey has been making music in the Fort for years. I saw him play for the first time when he was fronting Wooden Satellites on Record Store Day way back in 2010.  He fronted that band like a guy who’d been performing a lifetime(at that time he was probably only in his early 20s.) From Wooden Satellites he joined the ranks of Heaven’s Gateway Drugs and made two albums with those freaky Fort Wayne staples before bidding Fort Wayne a fond adieu and moved to Nashville for a year for work.

C. Ray has returned to Fort Wayne and to music with the band Omaha, Alaska. It’s a fictitious place with very real emotions and existential dilemmas. On the band’s debut Harvey is indeed working out some s**t, but also working on his songwriting skills and crafting some catchy pop songs. I talked to C. Ray about the band, the album, and where he goes from here.

J. Hubner: So tell me about Omaha, Alaska. How long has this been a project of yours?

C. Ray Harvey: Omaha, Alaska is just a container for songs I’ve written. After leaving Heaven’s Gateway Drugs in 2014 and living in Nashville for a year, then moving back to Fort Wayne, I decided to come up with a name and gather some of the bits and pieces of songs I’d been writing and give it a name. I threw post-it notes up around my office for how I thought the songs should sound, and what the first record should be like, what the first show would sound like, all before I had band members or had decided on the instrument make-up. Some of the songs were mostly written already, one or two even dating back to days in a band I used to lead called Wooden Satellites, but they didn’t sound quite like they do now.

J. Hubner: Stylistically it’s nothing like HGD, but you seem to be a songwriter that has many a muse to follow. Can you tell me which artists influenced the more intimate, sparse sound?

C. Ray Harvey: The vision for Heaven’s Gateway Drugs was primarily Derek Mauger’s vision. We all added to it, but he was the source. The parts I composed, the production I did for HGD, all of it was meant to catch a specific vibe. Everything I wrote for that, even the lines that were very personal, were crafted to fit that vision the best that I could. Start with an aesthetic, write to match it. Omaha, Alaska starts with more personal songs, and then I add an aesthetic to try and tie them together, cutting songs that aren’t fitting the aesthetic after the fact. In HGD, we had this massive playlist of psychedelic music from the past 50 years and we were pulling from that to craft songs. I’m less about the sound I’m going for in Omaha, Alaska and more focused on songcraft, so from an influence standpoint I’ve listened to a lot of classic songwriters and focused on what it is about their distinct personalities that makes their songs stand out, even as they transition styles or dynamics or crossover genres.

J. Hubner: Which artists influenced the more intimate, sparse sound?

C. Ray Harvey:  I could name names, but they’d be the hallmarks of “great songwriters” that you see in every list. Instead I’ll call out Jason Molina, David Bazan, Damien Jurado, J Tillman, Timothy Showalter and Conor Oberst as my kindreds, although I’d only make them look better if we stood in a family portrait together.

J. Hubner: I have to admit that I did look to see if there was an Omaha, Alaska and I alas didn’t find one. So this is a “place” of your own making. Sort of a metaphorical destination where one feels as lonely as they ever have. Can you tell a little about the concept of Omaha, Alaska? 

C. Ray Harvey: When I looked at fragments of songs I had at the end of 2015 and thought about my move back to Fort Wayne, I started to imagine a place where that music came from and I named it Omaha, Alaska. It’s a place with pride in small accomplishment, real or imagined, and just about as remote a place as you’ll ever find. At one point I had an idea for creating a fake city government page with an active message board of characters that I would write for, but decided that might severely hamper the productivity of the actual songwriting.

J. Hubner: The songs themselves feel as fragile as the fragile state that Omaha Alaska represents. Despite the emotional state these songs possess though, musically it’s downright catchy. Beautifully ornamented, yet sparse piano-driven tracks. What was the songwriting process like?

C. Ray Harvey: The songs in Omaha, Alaska are usually penned by me on guitar or piano without a lot of attention to musical flourishes. As opposed to the group writing that some bands do, jamming until they get a groove going, then arranging that into parts, and then writing lyrics to fit the vibe… I usually just sit down with a melody and the start of a lyric and then work out the harmony and try to pen it in one sitting. Then I go back and try to add the flourishes, which are fairly few in my songwriting. Given that I do this outside of practice with a band, it usually just happens a handful of times a year. It used to come faster with some bands, where I could write an album of music in a day. It used to be a bit more utilitarian, like in Heaven’t Gateway Drugs, where I had lines to color in and had immediate feedback on whether I was in the lines. Nowadays it’s a slow, pondering process of capturing those one-liners in my phone and then waiting for a day that I feel like or can practically sit down for a few hours and work out a song.

J. Hubner: Are these songs autobiographical or more just storytelling? Maybe a bit  of both?

C. Ray Harvey: Some of it, like “Read at 10:00 PM” is directly autobiographical. Others are embellished. I guess it all comes from in me, but a lot of it is congealed experience that I piece together from the lives of friends and add my own interpretation of how they feel, or merge it with my own similar experience. Given that in the 18 months before I formed the band, I left a previous band, lost a lot of friendships, went through a divorce, and lived in a new place where I felt very isolated for a year… I think a lot of that comes through in the music.

J. Hubner: Can you tell me about the recording process? Where was the album recorded? Who else is in Omaha Alaska that helped play a part in the creative process? You took a large role in the back end(engineering, mixing, mastering.) Do you like that aspect of creating as well as just the tortured artist aspect? 

C. Ray Harvey: The album was recorded on my PC in our practice space and in my garage. Our guitar player, Andy Plank, lent a few mics to the process, and everyone played the parts we recorded. Then I embellished, mixed, and mastered on my computer. Honestly, recording and arranging during the recording process is as much, if not more fun for me than performing live. I love having artifacts of creativity, and I love composing and layering sounds. I had to hold back in a major way not to get overly polished in fixing performances and severely limited myself in what I added to the songs after recording the “live” instruments. It was a new challenge. I’m happy that it’s a snapshot of where we were, even if I furrow my brow to think of all that could’ve been added.

J. Hubner:  You’ve taken Omaha Alaska out and played some shows. How has the feedback been to the new songs and project? Do you have any shows booked in the immediate future?

C. Ray Harvey: We performed our first show as a three piece in February, 2016, with no microphones. That was my design. I wanted the music to be so quiet, drumsalbum-cover-1500x1500-300dpi included, that I could sing over it and people in the bar would have to shut up and get close to hear it. I’m not interested in performing as the background music for somebody’s blackout; I wanted to perform something that people could choose to engage with fully or not at all. And that made people really uncomfortable. Since then, we’ve added another member, we play at normal volume, and we mesh a bit better with other acts on a bill, but I still try to get the venue dead silent at least once in a set. I’m not sure how that will change in 2017, or what the instrument makeup of the new songs I’m writing will be, but I think I’ll back down from the performance art aspect a bit and maybe start trying to have a good time on stage again. We are playing with Ryley Walker in February.

J. Hubner: I know you became a father in 2016. How do you like being a dad?

C. Ray Harvey: I like being a dad. I think it connects me to the human experience in a way I didn’t realize it could. That said, I don’t believe any role, even one so intrinsic or familial should be the limiting factor in one’s identity. That’s a complicated way of saying, I don’t see myself as a dad, or a songwriter, or a business analyst (my job)… I’m working to see myself as just C. Ray, a guy that enjoys doing those things.

J. Hubner: So what’s in store for Omaha Alaska in 2017. Is it still a lonely place? 

C. Ray Harvey: I’m done writing songs that focus on loss and loneliness without resolution. Those will always be touch points in my music, but I’m more interested in a narrative that builds up solidarity for the human experience. I’ve always admired Will Oldham for having a somewhat playful, acknowledging, and almost uplifting perspective on humanity. Suffering with a twist of smile in the corner of its lip. I want to create that feeling, a sort of grinning commiseration rather than the gloomy, self-focused exposure art that I could accuse myself of in the past. 

Keep up with Omaha, Alaska at https://www.facebook.com/omahaalaska/?fref=ts and at http://www.omahaalaska.com/. The debut album can be streamed over at Apple Music, Tidal Music, and Spotify. So you have no excuses. Put that album in your ears.

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