Sea Wolf

“Old World Romance.” That phrase hangs in the imagination like a Rembrandt on the wall – evocative, elegant, stately. There’s an autumnal glow to it: a little mystery, a little gravity.

If there’s a theme to Sea Wolf’s third record, gravity is it. Pulled back to his native California after a several-year sojourn in Montreal, Old World Romance finds singer/songwriter Alex Brown Church dealing with major life changes, including the death of a close relative. Geography, relationships and the weight of life – of growing up and facing who you are and where you came from – wind their ways in and out of Church’s sweeping, swooning pop tunes.

Gravitational pull also affected the writing and recording of the album.  Back on the West Coast with a home studio to work in, Church returned to his original process of creating an album – spending good amounts of time on his own writing and demoing the songs; being able to go away and come back to them over time; allowing himself the space to figure out how much he could do on his own and how much help he wanted to involve in bringing his creations to life.

But if that part of the process was a return to familiar ground, Church opted to take a different tack in terms of his songwriting – both in terms of overall direction and the writing itself.

“I wanted this record to be more melody-based and in a way less lyric-driven,” he explains.  “I wanted to be a little more straightforward, less mysterious or difficult to comprehend.

“So I went into it with a different writing process than before,” he continues.  “Traditionally I would sit down with a guitar – and it could be days, it could be a week, it could be a few hours – and just mess around with different song ideas until I found one I really liked, then just stay with that until it was done.

“This time I wanted to change that process a little bit, so I recorded every song idea that I had and every week or two weeks, I would make a CD of all the song ideas and then go back and find the ones that I liked and go with them. I wrote a lot more songs because of that – because if I had a day where I was really inspired, rather than working on one song, it was easier to come up with parts for different songs because I wasn’t trying to stick to just one.”

Although the songwriting process was more productive and allowed Church to experiment with the use of drum machines (an endeavor that made its way to the final album) the home-based process of writing and recording ultimately delayed the album when a literal hard drive crash sent the bulk of Church’s work tumbling to the floor.

“I had to go back and redo everything, which was excruciating,” he grimaces. “But in a way a lot of it turned out better because I ended up doing a better job recording it.
“But it was pretty tedious having to redo the same parts that I’d already done,” he admits.
When Church was ready to record the album, he enlisted the help of multi-instrumentalist Zac Rae, who – along with drummer Joey Ficken, bassist Ted Liscinski and keyboardist Lisa Fendelander – provided a Technicolor sweep to the material. Kennie Takahashi (Broken Bells, The Black Keys, Jessica Lea Mayfield) mixed.

Like previous releases (2007’s debut EP Get to the River Before It Runs Too Low and the subsequent full-length albums, Leaves in the River and 2009’s White Water, White Bloom), Old World Romance is both literate and heartfelt.

The record’s first single “Old Friend” is a bittersweet heart-tugger centered around a minimalist drum beat and calculated acoustic plucking that highlights Church’s vocals and perfectly pulls at the albums’ theme of confronting reality as well as the past. Church revisits the East Coast on the gently lilting “Blue Stockings” and restless “Changing Seasons,” but most of the songs (the evocative, clear-eyed look at the end of romance of ‘Priscilla,”“Kasper”’s scared-but-hopeful contemplation of adulthood and the bruised and searching “St. Catherine’s Street”) find their home in California – a state that Church is rediscovering and re-evaluating upon his return.

That’s apparent in the cover art. A photo of a less than pacific ocean (which is exactly the Pacific Ocean of Church’s Northern California boyhood as he remembers it) with the sun breaking through the clouds, it is, in Church’s view, “Scary, hopeful, big, open – it has a sense of adventure. It has this drama and moodiness of where I grew up. It’s my California – not the beaches and palm trees and movie stars that people think of,” he explains.

It’s a perfect representation of his homecoming – both to the West Coast and to some of the people and places he’d left behind. If the first two Sea Wolf albums referenced rivers, Old World Romanec is all about the ocean, the ultimate destination of those tributaries.

“Being back in California made me remember who I was and where I’m from,” he says. “It made me do a lot of growing up in terms of looking at where I come from, what I’ve run away from. I’d been doing a lot of avoiding.  I had to face that. And it was amazing in the end.”

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