The gestation of Teardrop Canyon, a musical project of Josh Kimbrough, was a period of his life when he was spending a lot of time alone and pursuing a long-distance relationship with the woman who is now his wife, but the impending birth of their first child in September hastened the completion of the new album.
“The songs from the record came out in one big burst of inspiration, which I think of as unusual,” said the 32-year-old Kimbrough during an interview before a show at the Garage in Winston-Salem to celebrate the release of the eponymous album. He was living at a band house renowned for providing shelter and creative abetment to generations of Chapel Hill musicians, going back to the members of Sorry About Dresden in the 1990s. (It’s memorialized in a song on his album called “Exile on Huse Street.”) His car had broken down, and the slower pace of biking and walking gave him time for reflection.
“This is not unique to me, but going on a bike ride or taking a walk is a way of allowing the lyrics to seep out,” he said. “You get weirder lyrics, sometimes more honest lyrics.
“Knowing that this was going to be one of my last seasons of that type of free youth, I started to let my mind drift,” he continued. “There’s this sense of desperation: I said to myself that this is a season when I’m going to focus on songwriting.”
The nine songs on the album are united by a kind of 1980s pop sensibility with a dark undercurrent while generally progressing along a sonic plotline from polished to jagged. Kimbrough’s vocal affectation at first suggests a detached observer of the human condition, but aching emotion gradually emerges in each song. The minor-key tonality, ’80s-style guitar shredding, liberal use of synths and — on one song — a soaring sax solo gives the album a late-noir feel, with anthemic choruses that come across as earned as opposed to contrived.
The confession of a lover acknowledging a desire for something more comes out in the fourth track, with the lyric, “Can’t you tell me that it was meant to be, for once?” And in “Wait Too Long,” the song most directly related to the long-distance relationship, Kimbrough neatly captures a sense of vulnerability with the lyric, “I’m the Jackson 5 without a tambourine.” As he moves into the chorus of that song, the wry sentiment of a Joe Jackson or Elvis Costello gives way to a rueful anthem that recalls mid-’80s Tom Petty.
Despite growing up in the Triangle and becoming deeply immersed in the scene that coalesced there around Trekky Records, some of Kimbrough’s formative music years took place in Greensboro when he attended UNCG in the mid-aughts. He took inspiration from local artists Adam Thorn, Tiger Bear Wolf and Embarrassing Fruits — founded by Joe Norkus, Kimbrough’s high school bandmate in Westfalia — while soaking up national acts that played Gate City Noise and the short-lived Flying Anvil. Kimbrough started a band, Butterflies, in Greensboro, which would carry him into the next several years of his musical avocation.
“Playing music for the joy of it was a huge part of the process,” he recalls. “You could do all of it: Write songs, put a band together, record and play some house shows where you could fill a room. That was very satisfying. You know, since we could never keep a mid-sized venue — necessity breeds creativity.”
A year after his 2006 graduation, Kimbrough returned to Chapel Hill, where he quickly immersed himself in the creative community burgeoning around Trekky Records. The label had been founded by Martin Anderson and Will Hackney in 2001, and the official history on the Trekky website notes that the label founders both saw “a preternaturally gifted band called Westfalia in a high school talent show.”
Butterflies, Kimbrough’s solo act, opened a number of shows for Lost in the Trees, an orchestral indie folk band that was founded by Ari Picker, and Kimbrough’s friendship with Picker deepened when he was asked to serve as tour manager after the release of Lost in the Trees’ second album. When Lost in the Trees went on hiatus in early 2015, Picker expressed an interest in producing. Kimbrough emailed him the demos for the songs that would fill the Teardrop Canyon album.
Picker immediately became a close creative collaborator on the album, so much so that Kimbrough entrusted the sequencing of the tracks to his producer.
“We thought ‘Let It Rest’ was the mission statement,” Kimbrough said of the lead track. “One thing I wanted to do with this batch of songs was be direct with the music and language and lyrics. It’s very concise. We made a decision that we wouldn’t use a song if the chorus doesn’t hit you over the head.”
Kimbrough said some of the ’80s aesthetic might be a residual of his role as keyboardist in Humanize and its principal songwriter Thomas Costello’s penchant for the music of the Smiths and the Cure.
“Those were the keyboard tones that I had in my head, and some of that sound palette probably rubbed off on me,” Kimbrough said. (Costello returned the favor by playing bass for Teardrop Canyon’s show at the Garage.)
“Getting Dressed Alone,” a song with a more relaxed sonic structure along the lines of Pink Floyd or John Lennon’s solo work, is the one exception to the ’80s motif, which emphasizes direct production values.
“We tried to serve the song — to make it as big and bold as possible,” Kimbrough said of “Defeat,” the third track. “We were into making bold choices, not being afraid to use something that might seem cheesy. We felt like it was irreverent using the most bold synth sound.”
Near the end of Teardrop Canyon’s set, Kimbrough asked the audience to come closer, adding, “We’ve only got two songs left.”
The performance had tracked exactly with the album sequencing, and with the deliberate, dirge-like opening of “In Your Shadows,” the artifice had fallen away. The song was deceptively powerful, with dissonant tonic notes obscuring the building gale force. By the final verse and chorus, Kimbrough’s forehead was perspiring, and he delivered the hurt in the lyrics with stabbing conviction. “Will you recognize me when I wash up on your shore?” he sang. “And what about when I don’t need you anymore? It’s just that I’ve been in your shadow for a long time.”