Carswell & Hope’s Sign of the Times examines quiet calm and intense feelings

Carswell And Hope John Knepper

Carswell & Hope. // Photo by John Knepper

One sweaty evening in August, I met up with musician Nick Carswell out front of the Bourgeois Pig in downtown Lawrence to talk about his new album with Carswell & Hope, Sign of the Times. The album marks the band’s first new recordings – outside of some pandemic cover videos – in almost three years and the first proper Carswell & Hope album in over four. The full-length collection of ten songs is divided almost neatly in half, with an upbeat timbre for the first five and almost gothic darkness on the second five. It makes Sign of the Times a fascinating and involving listen, so it’s appropriate that’s the first thing we discuss as we sit down with our drinks.

“To a certain extent, it was a little bit by by accident,” Carswell says of the sequencing. “The beginning of records I make, usually the first track is always some kind of statement that isn’t related. It tries to be a true intro, in that it’s different and something that maybe doesn’t happen elsewhere on it. The first two tracks are kind of paired like that.”

He shrugs and admits that it is, definitely, a pandemic record. While Carswell is quick to acknowledge that maybe some folks might be over that as a concept, Sign of the Times was made during the pandemic and reflects that. With that in mind, the musician started thinking of the album’s first two songs as palate cleansers.

“The more I thought about it, ‘Anthony’ is supposed to be spacious, or I tried to create space and tried to create a different kind of palate,” explains the musician. “And then the second track, ‘Lo/Behold’ gets intense.”

To Carswell, it was akin to his perception of the pandemic where at times it seemed to feel as though there were two separate parts: “At times there was a quiet calm we could have on my back deck every night. You could find moments of calm, but then you could also find these intense feelings where we all thought we were losing our minds.”

It’s an appropriate summation of the way Sign of the Times begins, he says of the two tracks which kick off the record.

“They’re shorter and they do very, very different things,” continues Carswell. “The title track, then, is to me where the album starts. Then in the second half–the sixth track, “Simple Country Man,” that’s an older song. It’s definitely political. At one of the Replay matinees, I mentioned a “he who should not be named” and mentioned Sam Brownback. My perception of the person that song’s about goes back that far.”

It takes some time to make an album and the worldwide pandemic which is Covid didn’t make things move along any more quickly. While the band would occasionally play a free socially-distanced gig in Carswell’s driveway or collaborate to make YouTube cover song videos, it definitely wasn’t the same.

“It was great just to get out and share music but part of it was frustrating because we couldn’t develop songs and we couldn’t write,” Carswell says of that time. “We never figured out and never really dedicated the time to figure out how to write songs in a driveway. It’s much more conducive to drinking beer and having the neighbors over, to me.”

While the members of Carswell & Hope would get together, it was also frustrating to not be able to work on the stuff they really wanted to work on. They ended up playing cover songs and, while Carswell is willing to admit that a lot of music during the pandemic was about making other people happy, by the end of it definitely existed the need to scratch the creative itch.

“Once we realized how long it was gonna go on and how long it was gonna take to go back to normal, then it just became about having a good time,” Carwswell says. We didn’t really get to do the artistic part, ’cause it was just wasn’t safe to do so at the time.”

Some of the tracks on Sign of the Times had been started before the pandemic and were in various stages of completion and when things felt safe during the pandemic, the band would try to record some things. To further illuminate just how long the album’s been in progress, friend of the band Lucas Parker recorded a guitar solo for “Sight Unseen” nearly two years ago, but the vast majority of what you can hear on the record was recorded earlier this year in January.

“We wanted to produce something or like, put a tail on it, as well,” says Carswell of Sign of the Times. “We wanted to say, ‘This is it’–whatever happens after this will not be that pandemic album or it’ll be its own thing.”

Carswell brings up the point that, with the pandemic, there were a lot of things which he wouldn’t choose to have done, like working remotely for a year, but in having to do them, he learned things and thinks that’s even true for how they might make the next record. One of the things the band learned anew was how to build things from the ground up.

When Omicron became a thing early this year, Carswell and drummer Jason Slote committed to bubbling together and got together in the studio to craft some songs.

“We threw a lot of ideas down with acoustic,” explains Carswell. “Jason might add some drums and we just kind of kept revisiting and adding things over time. The time pressure wasn’t there, but we had to figure out somehow a way to move these tunes towards completion. That was fun, but I never would’ve chosen to do it.”

The ultimate goal is an artistic one, Carswell says, and the fact that the band has always gotten along well helps them get there. From day one, he says, the members of Carswell & Hope have always listened to each other very well.

“There’s not much ego in the band,” Carswell acknowledges of the band dynamic. “It’s pretty easy to get on the same page for this shared idea. The songs are a big part, but we just love doing it.”