Imagine all of the music you’ll never hear that’s being recorded as you’re reading this sentence. All of the poetry and art coming to life right now that you’ll never lay eyes on. That’s something Andrew Carter thinks about, which makes sense, given that he’s created oceans of material that will never see the light of day.
“I’ve been trying to make records since I was a teenager,” Carter told me recently at Black Hand Coffee Company after he finished a morning shift. “I’ve probably made like 50 records, but they were all terrible. I think it was always in the back of my mind, this idea that someday I might be able to make a record that rescued me from my terrible existence… ‘If I just make this one record maybe something magical will happen.’”
This article was featured in RVAMag #29: Summer 2017. You can read all of issue #29 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.
That idea is no longer in the back of his mind, because in 2016, Carter leaned into the idea of making music purely for the sake of creation, and ended up single-handedly crafting And How!, an album that’s connecting his detailed, melodic songwriting to more ears than ever.
The fact that And How! has kicked Carter’s music career into a higher gear is laced with a beautiful irony, given that the album’s lyrics paint a vivid picture of what it’s like to feel stuck. The band he was fronting, The Mad Extras, had generated momentum around town with energetic live shows, but the exercise ended up feeling hollow.
“At first it was really cool,” Carter described, “because you felt like a rock star. You were on stage, and you had your mic, you were doing your performance, and you kind of weren’t yourself for 30 or 45 minutes… Then that wears off. At a certain point, it feels like the more fake elements of the performance catch up with you, and [you think] ‘Now I feel like I’m just doing this character, and I don’t like it anymore, and I can’t change it because everyone’s expecting to see me do that.’”
While all this was happening, he was watching as other Richmond artists gained national notoriety. When The Mad Extras set their sights on recording a new album, Carter felt pressure to make the city’s next breakthrough album.
“I wanted to make better songs,” he said, “and I wanted them to stand on their own as songs. It didn’t matter if the song was fast enough that everybody would dance. It didn’t matter if the song was this or that or how would it sound live. I just wanted to make a record, and I wanted the record to be really good.”
“Somewhere between six to eight months we were tracking this record,” Carter estimated. “We were just re-recording the same things over and over again. I think it was one of those situations where different band members had different ideas, and it was this whole struggle to get something together.” Those sessions, like so much of the work Carter had done to that point, will likely not be released.
It says a lot about Carter that his chosen method of escape from the frustration of a stalled recording project was… more recording.
“The whole point behind making [And How!] was to just make something for fun, just for me,” he said. He spent his free afternoons in the same self-styled basement studio The Mad Extras was working in. “I’d get off at noon and have all day. I was looking for a chance to blow off steam… Everything was still set up — all the mics and the recording stuff and the drums — and I had all my bandmates’ instruments lying around.”
You hear that sense of leisure all over And How!, most pointedly on “Sudoku, An Enlightenment,” which reads like a guide to idleness. “What was it I said I’d do today? I’ve already forgot,” he asks, not 30 seconds into the song. A few tracks earlier, “River Days” provides an ambivalent depiction of a season in life when time is cheap, days are wasted in more ways than one, and simply remembering names is an accomplishment. “All the songs on the record are just whatever I was feeling at that given moment, he affirmed, “being brutally honest about how mundane my life was.”
Carter is originally from a small town near Albany, New York. His father was a pastor, and while the younger Carter didn’t start listening to canonical secular artists like Bob Dylan and The Beatles until he was a teenager, he showed an early interest in instruments and performing. “My parents have all these photos of me holding toy brooms when I was three or four, holding concerts in the living room for my cousins. It was clearly something I was obsessed with. They told me I watched Michael Jackson’s Super Bowl performance from the 1990s and we taped it, and I watched it over and over again and memorized the moves.”
He eventually taught himself to play guitar and piano, taking an experiential approach to learning and letting the music he loved guide him. “Rather than studying music theory, I studied records. If I liked a sound I heard or a song I heard,” he said, “I wanted to know how it was made. The nuts and bolts.”
That curiosity led to years of experimenting with the recording process, and if there’s one thing And How! makes perfectly clear, it’s that Andrew Carter loves to record. You can hear it in the album’s opening moments — his knack for molding off-kilter sounds by manipulating sub-par equipment. “[In] that first song, ‘Plot Devices,’ there’s that weird, lo-fi stringy sound. It’s this little toy Casio run through a shit-ton of weird effects. That was part of the fun of making it. ‘What cool sound can I make that doesn’t exist?’”
There’s also the sheer amount of sound he puts into each song. Double-tracked guitars. Layered vocals, with songs containing as many as 30 vocal tracks. It’s a devotion you either have or you don’t, and Carter is inspired by the artists who have exhibited that same dedication.
“All that sound, the double tracking — [those are] my little DIY, amateur Pet Sounds moments. When I was 15 or 16, I heard that record for the first time… I think ‘God Only Knows’ was the first song I heard on it, and I had an actually life changing moment, like ‘I think I just heard something that’s going to change everything I’ve ever thought about music.’ It was somehow everything I didn’t know I loved about music in one album. I listen to that record almost every day.”
While Carter cites “God Only Knows” as a jumping-off point, I can’t help seeing his story in “In My Room.” The solace in having a space that’s all your own. Being yourself with zero outside judgment. It made for a fertile creative ground, and it makes the album’s success even more rewarding. “Feeling like ‘Wow, I played all these instruments, and I made all the creative choices, and I did all of the recording, and at no point did anyone lay their finger on this project until we were doing final mixing,’ there’s nothing like it, feeling that validated.”
Interest in the album developed quickly, despite the fact that Carter initially envisioned a small listening party as the project’s logical conclusion.
“When I finished it,” Carter described, “I had about 10 of my friends come over, we sat in my living room, and they were really awesome about it. They were really respectful. They just sat, and we listened to it, and I even printed out some lyrics… and we had a little moment together. And I [said to myself] ‘Yeah, this is it.’”
Cue Ron Howard’s disembodied narration from Arrested Development — “That wasn’t it.”
Things escalated when he shared the album with Brandon Crowe of Lights Out Management, and his partner Tyler Williams, also drummer of The Head And The Heart. He also shared it with Noma Illmensee of Manatree and EggHunt Records — all parties were impressed, and what followed was a frenzied exploration of label interest that resulted in Carter inking a deal with hometown imprint EggHunt.
“It’s hard to wrap my head around that there are all these people out there who are stoked on this and want to be a part of it or want to help out with it.”
It would be easy to read that kind of disbelief as pro forma humbleness, but Carter wears humility comfortably. Maybe too comfortably. “My mom particularly hates how self-deprecating I can be about my music,” he confessed at one point.
As I was getting ready for our interview, I noticed that the liner notes for the Mad Extras’ ironically titled Best New Artist album contain this snippet: “The Mad Extras are not trying to be the next big thing, they’re just trying to put on a good show. ‘Best New Artist’ isn’t about reinventing the wheel, it’s about keeping it spinning.” That description struck a chord, given that he’s settled on Minor Poet as this project’s name. Still, in terms of self-deprecation, neither example holds a candle to the stage name he recently abandoned, or as Carter put it, “the whole Tony Jabroni thing.”
“I think I was undercutting myself — psychologically undercutting the possibility of this being a real thing. Then it became a funny joke when Tyler and Brandon got involved, and it started to look like we were sending this to labels… I was just waiting for somebody to tell me to stop.”
In addition to pressure from labels, one piece of advice helped him ultimately decide against calling himself Tony Jabroni: “Think about it this way,” Carter paraphrased, “What if this really did become successful, and you have kids someday, and this is the album that pays your bills. Do you want to explain to your kids that they have food on the table because of Tony Jabroni?’”
“Minor Poet” offers a milder, more meaningful reflection of Carter’s modesty, as well as a connection to one of the major inspirations for Carter’s lyrical approach to And How!
“There’s a poet — Frank O’Hara — who was a huge influence on the writing of these lyrics,” Carter said. “He was the curator at the MoMA, and everybody knew him as the art guy, the curator guy. He wrote these poems for fun, and he turned out to be this incredible, legendary poet. He wasn’t really taken seriously by other poets in his day — they just knew him as the art guy — but it turns out his poems were really good.”
Carter expressed admiration for how O’Hara’s writing is “very direct, literal” but gives way to bursts of abstraction and connection. “[You see] meaning in what he’s experiencing, even though it’s a very mundane experience.”
“Sudoku, An Enlightenment” makes even more sense after hearing about O’Hara’s influence, and while the song typifies the album’s leisurely lyrics, another line from the song now strikes me as the most profound: “Enlightenment is the realization on my cigarette break that nothing ever changes.” In other contexts, that thought would register as pure cynicism, but from Carter’s lips it sounds more like a deal he made with the universe, not knowing he was creating the very thing that would prove those lyrics wrong.
“I’m already way beyond what I ever thought I was going to achieve,” Carter confessed. “Everything from here on out, I’m just riding it. I’m just riding a wave.”
All this reminds me of a metaphor that comes to my mind often, and while I’m not sure it’s backed up by physics, there’s a zen-like logic to it. It’s the idea that squeezing a handful of sand tightly will let more grains out than if you held that same handful with a balanced, intuitive looseness. Talking to Andrew Carter about it makes me think his intuition has led him to exactly that balancing point.
Catgch Minor Poet at his LP release show for And How! this Saturday at Strange Matter featuring Spooky Cool, Blush Face, and Sammi Lanzetta.