Casiotone for the Painfully Alone – Owen Ashworth Interview

Siobhán Kane spoke with Owen Ashworth about the impending retirement of Casiotone for the Painfully AloneCFTPA play The Workman’s Club as part of the Harmonic Series on Saturday 6th November.

When Owen Ashworth/Casiotone for the Painfully Alone announced in July of this year that he was to “end” CFTPA many hearts withered, but, like much of his work, the news was bittersweet, since he will continue to make music (Advance Base, Oscillating Innards with his brother Gordon and many film scoring projects). His work over the last thirteen years has always been playful, inventive and heartfelt in the most subtle way, and he presents stories and situations particularly vividly, perhaps a legacy from his short time at film school in the late nineties. In any case, there is a visual spirit permeating all of his work; you have walked those wintry streets with him in St. Paul, lingering “at the twinkle lights as you pass by the mall’ (‘Cold White Christmas’), begged Eleanor not to catch the train (‘Hey Eleanor’),and ‘crashed the party with Larissa and Chris’ (‘New Years Kiss’), as we are also the ‘half-ghosts’ that he writes of; that community of messy individuals, saddled with distress, decisions and a semblance of hope – Ashworth has always written as if we are all connected, somehow.

His beautifully crafted earlier records, such as Answering Machine Music (1999), Pocket Symphonies for Lonesome Subway Cars (2001) and Twinkle Echo (2003) made delicate use of rickety battery operated keyboards and electronics recorded to 4-track cassette to accompany his deadpan lyrics and soaring spirit. However, 2006’s Etiquette seemed to indicate a shift, introducing live instruments to further explore everyday life, and his most recent record Vs. Children compounds a sense of him as ultimately a folk musician, since he continues to extoll so many real and topical concerns, and often his own distance as a lyricist (mini narratives, conceptual ideas, allegories) means that he is really accessing a kind of autobiography, not necessarily just his own, but his generation, and more than that he is accessing a less-obvious, quiet truth. On his latest record, and the track ‘Optimist vs. The Silent Alarm’ he sings: ‘oh and we’re laughing through the fear/ that we’ll never make the clear/ oh and you’ve never looked so dear/it’s the end of our career‘. However, he has always made ‘the clear’ and in turn has made so much more clear for so many, and though perhaps painfully alone, there will always be Casiotone. Siobhán Kane talks to him.

While you are going to continue to make music, you have decided to retire the name you have had for thirteen years, with your final show on 5th December at home in San Francisco. Can you explain a little as to how you reached the decision?
I just need to spend my time doing something else. I don’t enjoy playing these songs like I used to, and I just don’t enjoy touring like I used to. It just doesn’t feel right to keep playing these same songs over and over again. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate people’s interest in the music I’ve made in the past. I just don’t think it’s necessary for me to maintain such an active role in what I’ve already done. I love making music, and I’m very much looking forward to making more music, but right now I feel like so much of my time and energy goes into maintaining whatever Casiotone for the Painfully Alone is, and there’s just not enough time left for making new things.

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone has already surpassed any plans I ever had for the project. I’m very proud of what I’ve done over the past thirteen years, but I never meant for it to just go on forever. I’ve known for a long time that Vs. Children would be the last CFTPA album. It just felt like an appropriate place to stop.

How do you feel about having your final show on 5th December, thirteen years after your first show? I came across this from a previous interview I had done with you in February of 2008:

How did your gig in San Francisco on 5th December go? Was it strange to mark a decade of CFTPA? And can you remember the feeling you had when you did your first show? San Francisco shows must always feel quite special to you.

I sure didn’t think I was going to spend the entirety of my twenties doing CFTPA ten years ago. A good friend of mine was in the audience at the 10 year anniversary show. She was standing behind two teenaged girls. I mentioned at some point during the show that I’m thirty, and as soon as I said that, according to my friend, these two girls turned to each other with horrified looks and whispered “he’s thirty?” in unison.<<

It seems so strange to think that a couple of years on that decision to end Casiotone has been made; those teenage girls will be as sad as I am (and horrified that you are now thirty-three).
If it wasn’t sad, it wouldn’t be an ending, right? I’m trying not to be too precious about it. I’m sure it’ll be an intense feeling, playing that very last show, but mostly I’m curious about how I’ll feel when I wake up the next morning.

What other music have you been working on, and are yet to reveal to the world?
I spent a lot of the summer working on songs for the next Serengeti album on Anticon. We recorded six of my beats. One just came out on a 7¨ for Asthmatic Kitty, and five of them will be on the album. We both want to do more work together. I’d like to do some more collaborations as well. We’ll see what works out. The next thing that I make by myself will be released under the name Advance Base. I’m hoping to finish an Advance Base album in the spring. So, nothing superheroic. Just more work.

It takes a lot of courage, to change your life. I can understand when you wrote: “after nearly thirteen years of being the dude from Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, I’m ready for a fresh start and a new challenge”. Do you like the idea of being anonymous, perhaps running away and working in a Parisian bakery?
I do like the idea of being somewhat anonymous. I always preferred jobs where I didn’t have to wear a name tag. I used to work in a bakery. I can’t remember if they made me wear a name tag, but it was a pretty lousy job. I don’t mean to squash your daydream. I’m sure a Parisian bakery would be a lot more exciting than the dump where I worked.

I have always loved your lyrics, they resonate so deeply, like from ‘Jeane, if you’re ever in Portland’: ‘there’s kissing in Kansas, but that’s not home,/ and we sigh when we’re on the phone’. You write so well about a sense of redemption in the potential of deep, true love, but there is always a yearning attached. Do you sometimes think that the power in a story is the lack of fulfilment, whether it is love or artistic achievement?
First of all, thank you for your kind words. I always think the most interesting part of a story is what’s left out. I think it’s important to leave lots to think about, without being too manipulative about it. I’ve been accused of just not ever writing endings, but I like that about my songs. I like the idea of finding yourself in the middle of an environment and being left to feel your way out.

You once said that you hold romance in “high esteem”, I hope that is still the case?
I think I am romantic. Love is absolutely important to me. I think I’m more of a realist than I used to be, which isn’t to say that I find life disappointing. If anything, I spend less time being disappointed than I used to be. Does that make sense? I feel like I’m getting more practical as I get older, and that feels fine.

How much of your own experiences influence those lyrics? They are so candid, it seems like a vulnerable process.
I’m a pretty private person, and I’m not interested in singing about my personal experiences so much. My songs are mostly fiction. My stories and my friends’ stories certainly influence what goes into the lyrics, but it isn’t always easy for me to pinpoint all of the sources. It all gets scrambled, and with a few rare exceptions, I haven’t felt any obligation to stick to the truth. I would’ve have gotten sick of singing these songs a lot sooner if I’d just been gushing about myself, I can tell you that much.

Casiotone for the Painfully AloneThe song ‘New Years Kiss’ always makes me smile because of the mischief in the mystery and how the most unexpected everyday becomes the magical: ‘not the way that you’d imagined it/on a balcony with champagne lips/but in a pantry against the pancake mix/you had your New Year’s kiss’, by going against what is perceived as romance you create something far more romantic.
You know, it only just occurred to me recently that the dude in the song only offers to make coffee and toast for breakfast, even though there’s pancake mix right there in the cupboard. I can’t believe I never thought about that. Maybe the party wasn’t even at his house, though. Maybe he was just another party guest. I didn’t really figure that part out.

Who are some of your favourite writers, musicians and filmmakers that perhaps render life’s experiences in a less obvious way?
Lately I’ve been really obsessed with the comedian Louis CK. His TV show, Louie, is just about my favorite thing there is right now. I like the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki. I like the rapper DOOM. I like John Prine’s songs. I like Lorrie Moore’s short stories a whole lot. I like the Canadian radio producer Jonathan Goldstein and his program Wiretap. I’m just a big fan of stories. Stories, stories, stories.

Do you think around the time of Etiquette, things started to change a little in terms of your own approach to music, as you started including more analog instruments? It felt like something was changing.
I think I got a little more confident. I heard some covers of my songs, and it suddenly occurred to me that I was writing real songs, and I could make them sound however I wanted them to sound. It probably seems like a pretty simple idea, but it felt pretty huge at the time. It was a real “Ta da, I can do shit” moment.

Do you think that there should be a kind of ‘etiquette’, not only for making music, but living life? Do you like a sense of formality about things?
Eh, that’s a tricky question. I don’t know. I believe that people should be decent to each other. I like that golden rule.

When I saw the film In Search of a Midnight Kiss [directed by Alex Holdridge]from around 2007, it put me in mind of your music, have you ever seen it? Maybe it also because Etiquette had just come out and you have that song ‘New Years Kiss’.
I haven’t seen that movie. I’ll look for it. I started writing New Year’s Kiss on a New Year’s Day of, I guess 2005, after going to my friend Jenny’s New Year’s Eve party. Jenny’s sister Kelly and I took a walk over the Golden Gate Bridge on New Year’s Day, and I wrote some rhymes down on the back of a bank receipt. I recorded a demo about a week later. That’s an incredibly fast turn around for me. It usually takes me months, if not years, to decide a song is finished. My tip to young songwriters is always opt for a receipt when you go to the ATM. I would’ve forgotten a lot of song ideas if it weren’t for bank receipts.

How far do you think your love of film, or a visual sense, has informed your musical work, as your lyrics are often so vivid: ‘past the phone booth and the beauty bar/the broken windows of your neighbours’ cars‘ and often give an acute sense of place.
I usually have a pretty clear visual sense of who the characters are and where the action is happening. I like for the songs to feel familiar and lived in. I’m definitely a visual thinker, which is part of what I like about working in a non-visual medium. Translating pictures to sound is what makes music such an interesting challenge.

Do you think that sense of place is hugely important to you?
It’s an easy trick, mentioning a city or a place or whatever. I use it a lot. It makes a song feel like a souvenir, whether the listener has been there or not. I’ve always liked songs about places, and I guess mostly what I do is just emulate the songs I love. I think about that Jimmie Rodgers song ‘T For Texas’ a lot.

If you had to choose a favourite song or complete record of yours that means the most to you, which one would it be and why?
It changes all of the time. Recently, I’ve really enjoyed singing ‘Harsh The Angels Sing’. I think it’s been sounding really good lately, and it’s just a nice, satisfying feeling to really get something right. One bad show could easily ruin a song for me, though. I guess I’m pretty fickle when it comes to my own stuff.

What have been some of your favourite experiences as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, over the past thirteen years?
I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of my heroes, and I’ve been able to visit some amazing places. I’ve been a long way from home and back again, and I made it happen with my own music. That’s a satisfying feeling. The thing that I’m most proud of is having created a body of work that I’m absolutely proud of. I’ve written a handful of songs that I think are very good, and I feel pretty confident that I have some more good songs left in me. I can’t wait to hear them.

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Casiotone for the Painfully Alone plays The Workman’s Club on Saturday 6th November. His most recent records Vs. Children and Advance Base Battery Life are available on Tomlab.

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