You could say that masculinity is a hot topic these days. You don’t need me to tell you that. No matter who you are or what you believe, it’s likely that you find the term more slippery than before. You’re not alone. A lot of folks have become less sure what masculinity is. Or what it wants with us, where it came from, what to do with it. One day, people might even talk of masculinity and its place in American life in the same way they've told other myths to their children — like Pecos Bill, Mothman, or Gyges of Lydia.
It's this particular myth that indie-folk artist Henry Jamison has lately taken up. His forthcoming album, Gloria Duplex, is a confrontation of the artist's own sense of masculinity, and meditation and criticism of, as Jamison puts it, "the ways in which boys in our culture are recruited into a toxic fraternity, by each other, by their fathers."
After leaving Portland — and his band The Milkman's Union that he started at Bowdoin College — for his hometown of Burlington, Vermont in 2014, Jamison has become a darling of the indie circuit, one of a new class of thoughtful, worldly songwriters and storytellers that can write with equal veracity about getting whiskey-drunk at the pub and debating Degas on a museum date. The success of his 2017 album The Wilds — a union of Nick Drake, Vampire Weekend, and Sufjan Stevens — and the strength of the international Spotify-led smash single "Real Peach" (which amassed over 40 million streams) has brought him to this new chapter in his career.
It is also bringing him to Portland. This weekend, Jamison returns to play the Port City Music Hall Saturday, December 8, with the Boston indie-folk quartet Darlingside. Then he leaves again for several months through the U.S. and Europe. I talked with him by phone.
When you’re writing songs, do you feel like you’re in a sort of dialogue with people?
Well, that’s kind of the crux of the difficulty. It feels like there are extremely blurry lines between self-mythologizing and a feeling like I'm doing a sort of service, but I don’t know where one ends and the other begins.
Do you feel a responsibility to be truthful or accurate or is there some sort of characterization you perform?
I’ve had writer’s block for a few months or so, and I’ve kind of been phenomenologically looking at what that is. It's like I’m being dragged along by some inner demon that would have me only do music and not have a healthy home life. But along with that feeling, there's a sense that my best self comes out of my songwriting. It’s this dual feeling of being half a person, but that half is pretty okay. It’s almost like I’m writing songs expressing my best sentiments more than I actually have lived into them.
My experience of listening to your stuff is interesting because I feel like I’m familiar with your personality, character and temperament but I don’t know any of the terms or substance of your life. Are there Portland songs on The Wilds?
There are a few in particular that are fairly literal Portland stories, mostly when I was hanging out with [a girl in Portland]. That was all just a drunken twenties nightmare with a kernel of true sentiment. My song “Through a Glass” — with a few poetic-license moments, that’s pretty much a straight story of that time.
How about “Dallas Love Field”?
That’s about more when I moved home [to Burlington]. Most of the songs on that record are very explicitly about my most recent girlfriend. I feel like, somewhat problematically, I outsourced my moral compass to her. My most recent record (Gloria Duplex, out in February) is about manhood. It’s basically me being schooled by her on a lot of spiritual matters and trying to live up to them in my songwriting.
Do you think about how it’s going to feel to perform them?
Recently I was playing in Brussels and everything was going terribly awry and I was on the verge of tears. I barely ever cry. I performed and then the crowd seemed to understand that I was having a hard time. They all stood up off the bleachers and walked up to the front like elephants. I don’t have such a block in my emotional life that I can’t perform those songs and feel everything they bring up. It doesn’t ruin me, but it can be difficult.
What kind of teachings were you looking to for the masculinity stuff. Like Robert Bly?
Yeah, actually that is how it started, though I very quickly turned on him a little bit. Robert Bly in the ‘80s was involved with this guy James Hillman who was much more rigorous than Bly ever was about this neo-Jungian stuff. I ended up being unhappy with Hillman’s work on the men’s movement. I’m just not sure. I know that men — myself included — are very confused about what our role in the world is, but it doesn’t necessarily seem like their emphasis on the “warrior archetype” or getting back in touch with our primal self [covers it]. It seems potentially problematic, or like there needs to be more included in the discussion.
Yeah, it also feels especially divorced from the discussion happening now about accountability. I read that men’s movement stuff to be about disconnecting and looking within instead of being a more responsible person.
At this particular moment I’m worried about hypocrisy on my own part. I built it all into the music. I feel like I’m going into this album cycle and it’s going to require talking about those themes but I feel especially unqualified right now. I didn’t want that irony to be lost on me, even if it is inevitably going to be anyway.
One thing that’s interesting about your work is that there’s some balance between irony and authenticity. You have a relationship to authenticity but there are a lot of affects of irony that come with the territory of smart, contemporary indie-rock, so it’s interesting to see both of those at play. Is authenticity something you care about?
Yeah, I go into songwriting trying to do something as authentically as I can. There’s probably an ironic or deadpan quality to it, but it’s just a little bit of resistance to earnestness, which feels like a function of the culture. Like, maybe it’s necessary to have a little bit of poison in the medicine.
It makes me think of that line from “Real Peach” [from The Wilds] where the lyric is about how you crossed out the lyric “All is fair in love and war.” It’s this meta-referential thing that you handle really well.
Thanks. Yeah that was a recognition of this cliche that no one really understands. I don’t even think that I treat it in the song the right way, so I was crossing it out [in the song] even though it became like, the main refrain.
I remember listening to that song after getting a notification from Spotify. I listened to it once — I remember I was in bed and it was before I was falling asleep — then I didn’t listen to it for many months but I still could remember it very well.
Yeah, that song hit all the algorithmic shit.
It had like 600 million streams or something.
Do they know that song in Europe?
Yeah, but because it got so many streams people basically don’t know that it’s me. When I play it in Europe they think I’m covering it, which is strange. But I have some qualms about it happening the way that it did. It’s not that I didn’t write that song to be catchy and all, but to be such an outsized song compared to the rest of my stuff, it doesn’t feel great.
The whole record is beautiful. That song in particular is like a type of folk song, but there’s a lot of other styles you pull from, and there are beats on the record. How’d you choose which style or mode to write in?
Well the beat aspects weren’t unintentional, but they were necessity somewhat. On the new record, it’s almost all live drums, but there is a little bit of that pulse-y club quality to some of it. I'm just integrating all the different sounds that I like.
What does being on tour feel like to you?
Well, there’s a bit of a feeling of divided self. I’ll wake up on the day we’re leaving for tour and I’ll have my bag all packed, and it’s like I’ve popped into a different mode, like I’m running on adrenaline. I feel quite at home in it because every moment is defined by what has to happen next. Every hour of the day is accounted for in some way. I’ll listen to guided meditation or whatever as I’m going to asleep. In the U.S., I’ve become a big proponent of Starbucks. Especially in the Midwest where it’s a nutrition desert, they’ve got the protein boxes and like, actual coffee. Chipotle is another one of the hacks. As we’re driving, we type in “distance to Chipotle” and that’ll get us through our day. [Touring] is a real marriage to corporate America.
You grew up in Burlington. Were positive models of masculinity hard to come by in your world?
No. It probably would have made me more qualified to tackle this subject to have had some difficult time growing up and then battled it and acquired clarity in some way. I went to a Waldorf School from the age of 4 through 18, so I felt like I was also standing outside of the mainstream, then having to negotiate the world after coming out of this extremely wholesome, cut-off place. That made college really strange. The masculinity stuff is something that I need to figure out how to talk about, but it’s also something that feels so close.
There are all these models that I took on from art and music growing up, and some of those deserved interrogation in adulthood and some hold up pretty well.
Yeah. I’m grateful to myself for treating it in as nuanced a way [on the album] as I did. It’s almost like I saw myself more clearly when I was writing the songs than I generally do. I hadn’t listened to the record for awhile after it was done, and when I did, it felt like a slightly wiser version of myself telling myself about what was happening.
Henry Jamison + Darlingside | December 7 | Sat 8:30 pm | Port City Music Hall, 504 Congress St, Portland | $15-18 | www.portcitymusichall.com