by Craig Howieson
Parallel Fears: Alec Ounsworth on empathy, and the micro and macro battles that inspired his latest record, New Fragility
It is becoming hard to remember when the turn of a newspaper page, the flick of a remote, or the scroll of a thumb could bring more dread. And yet, as we are plunged again and again into new realms of political, socioeconomic and environmental distress, the consumption of news is becoming an increasing hazard to our health. Chatting to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth from his Philadelphia home, where he has just been rehearsing for a series of online zoom shows, you can feel his malaise at the United States he finds himself in. ‘No one seems to be speaking to what I feel like is inescapable,’ he says by way of explaining the political tone of his new record New Fragility. ‘The political environment around the world, but especially the United States – I don’t understand why people don’t try to at least touch on it.’
New Fragility is not an exclusively political record, nor is it a collection of protest songs. But, held within its lyrical themes is the barbed exasperation of half a nation whose futures are being held to ransom. As a father to two young girls, the pervasive fears of being a present day American citizen, as well as a wider citizen of the world, is perhaps felt more keenly than most by Ounsworth.
‘There are a lot of fears,’ he says. ‘Post pandemic, the most direct worry I have is about the climate.’ It speaks to his generosity of spirit and thoughtful nature that it is the environment, and the potential devastation awaiting the planet, which weighs heaviest on his mind, and not matters closer to home that impact him on a personal level. As he keenly points out, ‘a lot of what is going to happen in the next few years with climate change is gonna dramatically hurt people that you don’t know.’
‘People in the United States who are interested in some sort of nationalistic movement have a lot of trouble seeing beyond the end of their own block. People are not able to look beyond themselves and be empathetic regarding citizens of the world.’
It is his empathy and wider sense of collective responsibility that he wants to pass on to the next generation. ‘Regarding my girls, I think the hope for me is just to point them in the direction of good role models. My older daughter really looks up to Greta Thurnberg for example. Otherwise, she listens to a lot of Nirvana and her hair is green and she goes skateboarding and all this other shit, and that’s fine. But she’s also really sensitive about what other people might be feeling. She knows that’s the most important thing.’
It can be easy to feel alone living in a country or community where the values do not correlate with your own. Ounsworth is quite matter of fact in describing how he has ‘never felt a sense of camaraderie in the US in my whole life. I have more in common with somebody in Tokyo than I do with someone half a block down the street. I guarantee it.’ Despite this, it is not without at least some sense of sadness that he reveals how ‘there is a lot of consideration on my part of leaving, and I don’t really understand what I can do differently to embrace it. Maybe I drew a parallel between that and the divorce I had recently. You try to work every angle, and you try to stick around, but it kinda keeps pressing on you.’
The parallel Ounsworth draws here is pivotal in understanding the themes of New Fragility. It is not a record that focuses on a sole subject, but, instead, navigates the threads that run through the crocheted blanket of our multifaceted lives. Opening up about his experiences with depression, and the impact of his still relatively recent divorce he states, ‘it’s not been easy over the last two or three years. Personally things have been kinda tough.’
The weights of the world are felt heaviest by those most sensitive to the feelings of others. Global issues become personal burdens, and turmoil in close relationships can feel all consuming. Ounsworth recognises the gravity of both. ‘In relationships, there are parallels to what you witness as a citizen of the United States, for better or worse.’ It is something he goes on to describe as a ‘disillusionment.’ ‘I wouldn’t say it’s entirely a loss of hope, but, certainly, there’s a similar sense of abandonment when you try to do your best and you feel to a degree that you are the one who has done something wrong and you’re the one who should change somehow. There’s a point at which it’s hard to know how much more of this shit you can take.’
New Fragility also acts as a taking of stock – where Ounsworth attempts to balance the scales of what has been won and lost as part of living the life of a touring musician. On CYHSY, 2005, the title of which alone will transport fans back to the band’s blog buzzed beginnings, we hear him sing of longing to stay home only to find himself time and time again loading in gear for another night on another tour. Casting his eye back to 2005, he says that when starting out he ‘liked the idea of working on my own in a little project studio, and just putting things out and people might like it, they might not, and it didn’t really matter.’
This vision was never to be realised as the band’s popularity soon far outstripped their ambitions. ‘When we released the first album, people liked it,’ Ounsworth says almost half bemused 15 years on. ‘I had never even considered going on tour until The National asked us out, then, all of a sudden, we were actually doing it. And then you get years in and you realise this is what I have to do now. But I didn’t want to do this necessarily.’
Having fallen somewhat unwillingly into the life of a road bound musician, Ounsworth was unprepared for the fall out. ‘There’s a long list of what you give up,’ he says. ‘Relationships have not held up too well. There’s been a long time that I’ve been away from my girls, and I wanted to coach them in soccer and all that sort of stuff, but I had to be hesitant about that. Any decision which required me to be around at all has not been possible in the last 16 years.’
There are still many aspects of the life for which he is grateful though. ‘I make friends easily wherever I go, and I am thankful that I have them around the world. And I like it for the travel, interacting with people and going into weird community markets, stuff like that. It’s not for the roar of the crowd as people might imagine. I’ve never really cared about that… at all.’
Even pre-pandemic Ounsworth displayed a preference for connecting with his fan base on a more personal level. ‘There are some clubs that are great, but there are a lot of clubs that I still play that quite frankly are shit holes, and when you do them over and over again, you are longing just to see people.’ This has led to him exploring alternative means of performing away from the obnoxious din of crowded venue halls, such as visiting fans homes to perfore living room shows for small groups.
Detailing becoming trapped in the torturous cycle of ‘battling depression and raising two kids and feeling the guilt and anxiety that you can’t muster the energy to be better,’ Ounsworth again finds himself reminiscing. ‘Even early on, though, at the beginning when we were really doing well as everybody put it, that was when I was at my darkest strangely enough.’
On Mirror Song – one of many exquisite moments on the new record – as arpeggiated piano is roused by a surge of acoustic guitars, Ounsworth delivers the devastatingly fragile line ‘and despite our best efforts / here comes another new year.’ It talks to the inescapable nature of time and how life can pass us by while we look for resolutions. Expanding on the track, Ounsworth describes an all too familiar pattern for many artists.
‘You are almost limping from one year to the next, but keeping yourself busy by being on stage and doing things you are told are meant to help the soul. You’re also doing these albums to get it out of your system, and then self medicating to distract yourself from the shit that is unresolved in your mind and might remain so.’ Before soberly adding, ‘‘an album is not necessarily gonna help it all the time either.’
Writing has ultimately become an escape for Ounsworth, as opposed to somewhere where he attempts to address and resolve the factors impacting upon his personal happiness. ‘I’ve tried to write songs about my mum who has had Alzheimer’s for eight years. She is entirely gone now and I was really close to her. You try to write songs about some of that shit, and some people are like “you’re in a really dark place now, you’ll get some good material out of this,” but that’s not really how it works. You do that when you’re kind of stable. Unfortunately, a lot of people go through that, but I guess the idea is to limp along and hope that you will find some sort of opening – because here and there it comes.’
The lead up to and creation of New Fragility has undoubtedly been a dark period in Ounsworth’s life – something that seeps into the record, but does not consume it. His lyrics carry a new emotional heft – pared back to the copper wire, and free from much of the obscure imagery of previous releases. Where it would have been easy to delve into a darkened pool of wallowing, he has, instead, injected a tentative optimism into his songwriting ensuring the album chirps and buzzes in the way that only a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah record can. As we come to the end of our call, Ounsworth sounds content, explaining that despite what may lie ahead he has finally ‘come to terms with making music for my own purposes.’
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