By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
In September, Adam MacGregor released two covers (“Cry” by Godly & Creme and “Tears” by Rush) under the name Soft Corner, teasing a forthcoming full-length. Today, November 6th, he celebrates the release of that long-in-the-works self-titled record.
Fans of MacGregor’s Pittsburgh-based bands, including Brown Angel, Conelrad and Creation is Crucifixion, will note this project’s –ahem– softer approach. Here, he leans away from harsh noise and into (among other things) post punk and shoegaze, drawing inspiration from Husker Du, Codeine, Warning, Jesu and even Van Halen. Soft Corner has been in the works for eight years, tracked, MacGregor says, “in extended-stay residences, hotels, living rooms and storage facilities from Pittsburgh, PA to Beijing, to Quito, Ecuador.”
MacGregor chatted with the Current via email: read our conversation about melody, place, and life in Mumbai below, and check out the record at softcorner.bandcamp.com
I’m interested in the idea that Soft Corner allows you to work with the song ideas that have been deemed “too melodic.” Can you elaborate on the appeal of melodic songwriting for you, and what it’s like to be able to scratch that creative itch with this project?
I think the aim was to compartmentalize these kinds of ideas with Soft Corner: melody, harmony, more narrative/personal lyrics, and even my limited ability as an actual “singer”! Conelrad, Brown Angel, and any of my other past heavier projects weren’t really the contexts in which to do this. Rather than try and shoehorn these “poppy” elements into Brown Angel, (which I had a tendency to do years ago), it made more sense to separate all these orphaned riffs, arrange them, and give it a name of its own. So many artists I admire have multiple outlets for any number of their own disparate ideas, so why not? Keeping the songs slow and heavy enough to maintain my own interest while grasping at more traditionally “musical” ideas has pushed me in some uncharacteristic, challenging, and ultimately satisfying ways. And as a largely untrained musician, I don’t come up with melodies or chord progressions the same way a pro would. I don’t know about leading tones or resolutions or head voice – it’s just about finding what sounds right to me and what carries the right emotional weight and depth.
You worked on this over several years in lots of different places. How has your relationship to the material morphed and shifted over that time? It must be a relief to finally release it!
It is a relief! My biggest fear was that I’d lose it all in a hard-drive crash before it was out. It was kind of a trip when I was working recently on final mixes of stuff I’d recorded in Falls Church, VA in an extended-stay room before my partner and I moved to China for her first assignment (she is a U.S. diplomat). It forced me to revisit the uncertainties and anxieties that were permeating the music. I suppose it is sort of the closest thing I’ve ever kept to a diary. That “longitudinal” nature is a positive in the sense that I’m now able to see how much I’ve grown as a person since then. From a practical/technical standpoint less so: my recording skills were still pretty amateur when I started, and owing to the long prep time I lost at least one rhythm track and a couple of guitar-tone models, thanks to a software update a couple years back! Luckily, I had a great couple of collaborators in Steve Moore (old friend from ZOMBI, who helped me to polish the mixes) and my friend Sujeesh Prabhu here in Mumbai, whose mastering job smoothed over the sonic variances.
What is it like to literally travel with something like this? There is some sense of placelessness and nostalgia that comes through on this record, and I was curious more generally about how place –where you physically are- impacts how you write or work creatively?
This is a wonderful question that made me think immediately of an early mentor of mine, Professor Judith Vollmer. In her poetry and writing courses at Pitt-Greensburg, she emphasized the importance of “place” – “place” can have a poetry all its own. It’s something that really stuck with me through my own later work as a news reporter (in another life!) and a musician. I do reference a lot of specific places and times in the lyrics; for me, this anchors the song to the particular event where I felt an emotion that was intense enough to inspire something. For example, “Marine Layer” is a song about reconnecting with my younger brother during a walk on Pacific Beach in San Diego when we were both going through some tough times. However, I wrote the tune in our Beijing apartment, so it’s almost as if even the act of writing it was an exercise in nostalgia, as well as an attempt to take my mind off the shock of relocating. Judy would always talk about “writing off the subject,” too, which I apply to my broader process by writing about a particular place or topic when I am physically, geographically far removed from it. In the path that my partner and I have chosen – aside from change itself – music is the only constant. I’m totally cool with that now!
Tell me a bit about what your life has been like over the last few months. Have you been in one place since March? How have you been spending your days?
Since 2019 we’ve been fortunate to be posted in Mumbai, India, which is my favorite city in the world (next to Pittsburgh). The COVID-19 situation has certainly disrupted life and livelihoods for millions here, which is a very sobering thing to consider, and in the “Maximum City” of Mumbai it’s really been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I’ll never forget how eerie the silence was out on the normally chaotic, exciting streets after the government declared lockdown back in March: There were no sounds but the calls of the crows and hawks outside. It’s been gradually reopening since, and I think India is going to be back strong soon. I’ve been trying to support my partner as best I can (in the process, learning how to make some great local Maharashtrian dishes if I say so myself!), checking on my folks back home via Skype, and of course working on new music for Soft Corner and other various projects. Aside from all the rock stuff, I’ve taken up the sarod (a north-Indian stringed instrument) and have been trying to maintain the immense focus and discipline needed to get the basics down. Even here, your observation of nostalgia keeps cropping up: I first heard this instrument at a concert nearly 30 years ago at Pitt-Greensburg and had been fascinated since! Maybe my musical journey is more of a “cycle” than I realize?