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Nick Castro's Turkish Folk Delight

The sound is warm and viscous, the thick tones of cello merging with tabla-style drums and meeting mystic minor-key choruses. "Sun Songs" is the opening track to Nick Castro and the Poison Tree's Further From Grace, now out on Strange Attractors Audio. Its unearthly vocals — that's Josephine Foster in the background — and fevered flute and strings, set up the pan-worldly, melancholic tone of Castro's second album. Like the Incredible String Band and countless followers, Castro finds common ground among a variety of folk traditions — British, American, Middle Eastern, and, most particularly, Turkish. "It's just a strange thing, how the rhythms of the Middle East really fit into lots of different kinds of folk music, I think," he said in a recent phone interview. "It's weird, but I guess they both have a swing rhythm to them. They just fit together perfectly."

Coming just a year after Castro's 2004 debut, Spy in the House of God, Further From Grace is a far more collaborative effort, drawing textures and colorations from Otto Hauser, Helena Espenvall and Meg Baird of Espers, bassist Chris Smith, and producer/engineer Brian McTear, as well as Foster. Songs range from the pristine folk of "Guildford" to the jazz flugelhorn lilt of "Waltz for a Little Bird," to the Middle Eastern dance-drone of "Music for Mijwiz."

Further From Grace was recorded at Brian McTear's Miner Street/Cycle Sound Studio near Philadelphia in, as Castro remembered, "an absurdly lightning-fast process" that took less than a week from start to finish. "One of the things that was amazing was the size of the space," recalled Castro. "It's 4,000 square feet. The live room has got to be 200 by 100 feet, and it has 15-foot ceilings. It's just amazing. And it's got an arsenal of everything we need, recording equipment and instruments. I don't want to get too techy, but he just has a lot of recording equipment, a lot of World War II-era compressors... It's a museum in there."

It was McTear who suggested, for instance, recording Josephine Foster's "Sun Song" vocals through a Leslie Cabinet, a vintage organ cabinet with a spinning speaker inside that creates an almost Doppler-like effect. "I knew exactly what I wanted it to sound like," Castro said. "I'd been hearing it kind of in my head when Josephine and I were on tour together. I had this idea for a lot of vocal tracks interweaved together without her hearing the other tracks so that they all came together really randomly."

The Leslie Cabinet, with its spinning speakers, gives the vocals an unearthly, oscillated quality. "If you're listening on headphones, especially, you can hear the sound rotating around," he added.

Castro says he took a looser hand on this record than in the past, allowing his very talented collaborators the freedom to work out their own parts, often starting on the day of recording. "I wanted to have a very loose feeling on the record, so I didn't let anyone see the sheet music until we actually got to the studio, or sometimes just a day before," he said. "It kind of freaked everybody out, but I felt that it worked and benefited the record. Instead of having everybody work out their part beforehand and have it sound too structured, I wanted it to be more loose."

The album's longest track, "Deep, Deep Sea," for instance, showcases the musicians' ability to improvise. Castro had been playing the short sung portion of the song at the end for several years before going to the studio. There he completely reoriented the song, cutting the vocals down and adding a long instrumental intro. "The guitar part is written out note for note, but everything else is improvised around it," Castro explained. "The song is very structured in its staging, but as far as what everybody else plays within that structure, it's completely improvised."

The basic tracks — Hauser on drums, Espvall on cello and Castro playing guitar and singing — were recorded live in a single session. Additional sounds, such as another cello part by Espvall, were added later. "Because we recorded live in the same room, the track ended up having much more of a unified feeling," Castro said. "There was a lot of interplay between Otto and Helena."

Yet while Further From Grace is often collaborative, it also includes some moments that are solely, uniquely Castro. "Guilford," written near the Southern Vermont home-base of Castro's friends in Feathers, is simple and unadorned, just a man and his guitar with a few piano grace notes. The song came all at once, Castro said, in the car on a country morning, almost without effort. "It's weird. Sometimes it's such a labor. Other times, it just kind of happens," he mused, adding, "It seems like when it just happens, that's when it's the most honest, for me at least."

On this album, as on Spy in the House of God, Castro experimented with unusual instruments. "Music for Mijwiz," for instance, incorporates a Turkish three-reed flute. "I sort of have a Turkish culture fetish," Castro admitted, naming revered Turkish folk artist Bulent Ortacgil as one of his all-time favorite songwriters. "Turkish music is kind of a perfect blend of Middle Eastern classical music and folk music. And I just like the sound of the instruments, the saz, just the loose action on the strings."

With his fascination for the Middle East, as well as his deep affection for pastoral folk music, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that Castro lives in urban Hollywood, surrounded by cars and the bustle of city life. "Up until real recently, I had my life set up here where I never really had to drive very much, and when I did I always drove about five minutes. And other than that, I would just kind of walk everywhere or didn't go, because the traffic is really horrid. But other than that, I really love it as an environment, as much as I do the country."

Castro works at a school doing behavioral therapy for children with autism, a day job that funds his music, his burgeoning label, Records of Ghaud, and his passion for unusual instruments. "Our house is kind of riddled with instruments from all over the world," he admitted sheepishly. "Basically all my money goes to music and instruments and records."

Which ones? Castro says he's been playing the Turkish saz, an instrument that resembles a Greek bouzouki, a lot lately. "I'm like a little kid with the instruments," he said. "I'll be really into one for a while, then I'll give it up and try another.

He adds that it sometimes takes a fair amount of work to ready these instruments for use in recording. "Instruments from all over the world have really different tunings," he explained. "They're really fun in and of themselves, or if one were to seriously get involved in the music that that instrument's used for. But if you want to use it in Western music, you've got to do some modifications. A lot of times, it's just boring, anal work of taking the frets off and repositioning them so it can be played in tune with the guitar." Having just modified his saz so that it could play in major C, Castro said it may be a while before he tackles another such project.

Castro is currently recording his third full-length, an album that he says will incorporate significantly more percussion, courtesy of drummer Chris Guttmacher (Damo Suzuki, Cul De Sac) and engineer Tom Wunder. It may also sport a few new touches — Uilleann pipes from Ireland, saz, and perhaps some early instruments. He's also preparing for the second leg of the Spy on the Horse of Smog tour with Smog and In Gowan Ring in October, as well as a couple of shows coming up with Simon Finn in November. His label is busy preparing the third Nick Castro & the Poison Tree album, as well as releases for Simon Finn and Fern Knight. For complete tour dates and news on upcoming albums, check out his Web site. — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, September 26, 2005]

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