Bassist Nat Baldwin is best known for his work in Dirty Projectors, a band that's largely a vehicle for singer/guitarist David Longstreth's compositional vision.
Before meeting Longstreth, however, Baldwin was already performing his own music. Over the years, he's released a half-dozen full-length albums — his latest, "In The Hollows," came out last month — and he's now playing solo shows around the country. Baldwin performs at Cafe Nine in New Haven on June 6.
Baldwin and Longstreth met through mutual friends in 2004. "I had just started writing songs and had some friends who were setting up their own tours and driving around the Northeast," Baldwin told CTNow, by phone from his home in Kittery, Maine. "There seemed to be a circuit of that underground DIY thing happening that all seemed connected."
Those connections are easily traced back to Baldwin's time in Connecticut, where, as a student at the Hartt School, he got turned onto the music of Wesleyan composer Anthony Braxton. (Braxton's son, Tyondai, himself a composer and performer, was a senior at Hartt when Baldwin was a freshman.) Pretty soon, Baldwin was spending more time in Middletown than Hartford, and eventually withdrew from Hartt. While sitting in on Braxton's classes at Wesleyan, Baldwin started playing his teacher's graphic scores with the Middletown Creative Orchestra, a group of like-minded musicians from various backgrounds.
"It was kind of freeing, after being at the Hartt School for a couple of years and studying pretty intensely and specifically," Baldwin said. "It was interpretive and improvisatory. I was already interested in textural improvisation, getting away from traditional melody and harmony."
Things took off from there. "It felt like an exciting time, and it was awesome to be a part of it," Baldwin said. "Braxton felt like the glue to all that… Being around him was inspiring. He definitely showed me that music didn't have to be a certain way, or fit into any specific category."
After subbing for Longstreth's bassist on an NYC radio gig, Baldwin became a full-time member of Dirty Projectors, who've since gone on to become one of the more influential bands in indie-rock circles.
Still, the music wasn't his own. "It's [Longstreth's] project," he said. "I've seen so many lineups over the years, and the music certainly changes with the personnel shifts. Some of that even comes from Dave. He might write in a different way to complement somebody's skills." His role, he said, is a traditional one. "Because I'm a bass player, I started out in service to others... That's what I was expecting to do: play in other people's projects and bands."
Baldwin has played upright bass on records by Vampire Weekend ("Contra"), Grizzly Bear ("Shields"), Department of Eagles ("In Ear Park") and others. But his own stream of ideas never stopped flowing; he wrote four full-length collections of original material before releasing 2011's "People Changes," an album that was written about favorably in taste-making publications. "I wanted ['People Changes'] to be the bridge between my interests in experimental and textural music and how that can relate to songs," Baldwin said.
Each song on "People Changes" has a distinct palette: one song has just strings, another song adds a horn section, and still another piles overdubbed basses on top of each other. "In the Hollows," Baldwin's most cohesive work to date, was meant to represent the exact opposite, with "just one specific kind of energy that sustained through." Every track on "Hollows" features Baldwin on upright bass — often bowed — and memorable, upper-register vocals, with minimalist drumming from percussionist Otto Hauser and string-trio arrangements by Rob Moose and Clarice Jensen, of the NYC-based ensemble yMusic. You'll hear parallels — in harmonic and melodic sophistication, the use of falsetto vocals, even some recording techniques — with some Dirty Projectors songs, but also plenty of differences. Longstreth's influence, Baldwin said, is "not consciously something I think of, but watching Dave over the years and seeing him develop and the way he works has definitely been inspiring, and how hard he works."
Other influences — Nick Drake, Anthony & the Johnsons, Bill Callahan — shine through on Baldwin's songs, which were written while he was training to run a marathon. There's a fondness for metrical ambiguity; in the opening measures of "Wasted," for example, you're not sure where the downbeats are (until later). On the closer, "A Good Day to Die," Baldwin creates space. It's addition by subtraction.
His collaboration with the string arrangers, Baldwin said, was largely conceptual. "I don't have quite the background to score out a string section," he said. "I can talk to someone vaguely about what I want them to establish or project. But I was really lucky to find those folks who could jump on board right away and hear the music and get what I was trying to do."
By leaving holes and keeping the instrumentation steady through "Hollows," Baldwin hoped the songs themselves would be dissimilar enough to sustain interest.
"I've been playing mostly solo and I definitely wanted that showcased on the record," Baldwin said. "The idea was hopefully that the songs are different and dynamic enough that the ensemble can be the same and it's still a varied and interesting album."
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