LOS ANGELES, Calif. — On his newest album, The Boat That Carries Us, out on July 15, 2014 on his own Himmasongs Recordings, Peter Himmelman is a man on the move — whether it’s in a dark El Camino wrestling the wind outside of Reno, on a plane floating 33,000 feet above the Midwest or, on the title track, in a boat that needs no sails.
It’s no coincidence that a variety of vehicles (planes, trains and even 10-ton tanks) roll through this CD, since Himmelman wrote many of the tunes while on cross-country flights. This sense of being in transit also influenced the nature of his songwriting, with each of the record’s characters in a kind of perpetual motion. “Being so high above things,” he says, “gave the songs a particular perspective — physically and metaphysically.” The “bleary-eyed travelers” in “Afraid To Lose” who wear their “doubt like a skin” aren’t just shuffling through a bus station, they’re also are on existential journey. The world-weary airplane passenger in “33K Feet” is “too tired to explain what I mean” when relating his epiphany of feeling “somehow complete at 500 miles per hour/and 33,000 feet.”
The Minnesota-bred, L.A.-based singer/songwriter describes his albums as “just chronicles of my life at a given period of time. I’m essentially a journalist. I write as I see things and I try to report objectively.” After several albums filled with narratives of the emotional struggles he saw before him, Himmelman now feels like he has succeeded in scaling a mountain, and the songs on Boat reflect this new perspective of hopefulness.
The songs that bookend Boat especially embody Himmelman’s more optimistic (at least for him) point of view. The title track, which opens the CD, offers reassuring words of survival: “though the current’s strong/it can’t break our will,” “the Northern Star/will surely guide us home” and “the darkest sky/gives way to dawn”. The closing number, a folksy, gospelflavored “Hotter Brighter Sun,” similarly conveys the idea that something better exists “over the edge of what’s expected/off to the side of what’s been done.”
Even the disc’s darker tunes offer rays of light. “Green Mexican Dreams” finds a man experiencing a Castaneda-esque south of the border trek before returning home to Los Angeles, while “In the Hour of Ebbing Light” delivers a swamp-pop apocalyptic vision of a city about to burn yet suggests that “we can back it back to Eden.”
Boat marks the first time that Himmelman composed the lyrics first, which he discovered to be an extremely liberating way to write. “Seeing the structure of the words on the page was very visual, almost like drawing the lyrics,” he explains. A visual artist as well as a musical one, Himmelman described this songwriting process as being similar to painting as it induces a semi-dreamlike state, or, perhaps, he suggests jokingly, that comes “from the lack of oxygen on the plane flights.”
To record Boat, Himmelman also altered the way he creates an album. Instead of utilizing elaborate demos like he often had previously, he only brought in rudimentary song sketches, which he recorded primarily live in the studio with few takes. He found this approach to be “exciting, challenging and stimulating.” It helped that his core backing band featured a pair of legends — drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Leland Sklar — plus the talented David Steele (Steve Earle, John Prine, Lucinda Williams) on electric guitar. “They took me to a higher place,” Himmelman confesses, “We each elevated one another.”
These musicians, he says, know how to transform a song into “a transcendent thing with the power to hypnotize listeners.” They also are such intuitive players that he didn’t have to tell them what to play. Keltner changed the drumbeat to “Green Mexican Dreams,” turning a track that wasn’t quite working into one of the CD’s standout cuts. Steele’s guitar work so impressed Himmelman that he wound up playing just acoustic guitar and piano. Steele unleashes some particularly nasty guitar work on “Angels Die” while using jazz licks to color the sardonically twisted love story “Tuck It In.” Keyboardist Will Gramling joined the Boat party after the main sessions; however, his organ work fits in seamlessly, especially the soulful tones he contributes to tracks like “For Wednesday at 7 p.m. (I Apologize)” and “That's What It Looks Like to Me.”
Boat, Himmelman says, wouldn’t have been made without the urging and input of his longtime friend and collaborator Sheldon Gomberg. Serving as producer, main engineer, sounding board and mentor, Gomberg helped shape the album, advising Himmelman to not camouflage himself in these songs. As a result, Boat stands as the warmest, and most spare sounding, album in his critically acclaimed catalog.
Himmelman first surfaced on the American music scene in the Minneapolis New Wave band Sussman Lawrence before moving on to create a uniquely diverse musical career. He’s best known as the thought-provoking singer/songwriter that the San Francisco Chronicle described as someone who “probes the depths of all the passions, from anguish to lust, to depths few rockers can even imagine.” Himmelman’s restless creativity has led him to record a series of children’s albums (including the Grammy-nominated My Green Kite), compose scores for numerous TV series and films and, for several years, host the live podcast show Furious World. Recently, he founded Big Muse, an innovative new company in which he uses song writing to show companies how to improve, communication, innovative thinking, and leadership skills.
To get Boat made, Himmelman turned to Kickstarter and found his inaugural crowdsourcing endeavor to be a truly galvanizing experience. Although claiming that he basically writes songs for an audience of less than ten: (his wife, his mother, his best friend, his kids, and himself) Himmelman was able to see, through the Kickstarter campaign, the many fans out there who care deeply about his music. For the CD’s release, he has created an artfully designed lyric book as well as a cookbook, which he admits is really is the work of his wife. Well known for his witty, wry live performances, he will share his excitement about The Boat That Carries Us with some selective touring while also working on the music for the new USA Network show DIG.