“The songs that I consider to be my best songs are very much immediate reactions to very specific events or moments, and they usually have to do with other people,” Shapiro says. “They’re like memories I can’t shake, things that affected me emotionally.”
“Alexander,” Shapiro’s new album (due out on Dec. 16), collects nine acoustic guitar pieces; all but one, “Catfish Blues,” has a Roman numeral (“I,” “VII,” etc.) for a title. Most point to particular memories. Shapiro keeps the details to himself.
“I have a tune in my head right now. When I play that tune, I can see it. I can see this person’s face. I can see exactly where they’re standing in the moment that inspired that tune. It’s so vivid.”
This was a moment of downtime. The previous week, Shapiro submitted audition recordings to Yale (he wants to get into the classical guitar graduate program). He hosted an LP release show at Never Ending Books in New Haven; the following night, Shapiro performed at the Telegraph, a New London record store, on a bill with experimental musician Zach Rowden.
A solo guitar show requires a certain level of audience buy-in. It’s quieter than a rock concert. All the interest, if that’s the right word, radiates from wood, steel and fingers; it’s enough for some people, but not everyone.
“There’s a big difference between music meant for social gatherings, where people dance and have fun and interact with other audience members,” Shapiro says. “‘Devotional’ music is too exact a term, but it aims at the performer-audience relationship that I’m trying to describe.”
Shapiro plays social music, too. At Oberlin College in Ohio, he formed Nagual, an experimental, two-guitar band, with Ian McColm; they continue to perform and release music, though McColm currently lives in Virginia. “It’s on and off,” Shapiro says. “It’s hard to work with Ian hundreds of miles away.”
After college, Shapiro played mostly solo electric guitar sets, filling rooms with sound, trying to control physical spaces with volume. “There was very little actual guitar playing,” he said, “mostly pedals and drones.”
In January 2014, he moved to Fairlee, Vermont, to work for luthier George Morris, who runs Vermont Instruments. Shapiro spent much of his time outside, walking along Lake Fairlee, away from the sounds of the city. He wondered if his interest in the electric guitar would wane.
One morning, three months after relocating to the woods, Shapiro woke up with a melody in his head. “It was just — poof — it knocked me out of my bed,” he said.
Shapiro was late for work, but he stayed in and wrote a song. As he got up to leave, “another melody just hit me right in the head.” He composed three songs in two hours.
“Nothing like that had ever happened. It completely blew my mind. I felt really bad being so late to work, but it was a new, cool experience that felt important to me.”
Most of Shapiro’s songs are through-composed. From show to show, he’ll switch up a tempo, depending on his mood. Some pieces are woven through with pockets of improvisation — melodic or harmonic ideas he can vary or stretch out.
Shapiro recorded “Alexander,” his new album, when he was in a slow mood. Harmonies linger and gestate. Melodies ring out and reappear. There’s little, if any, reverb; strings clack like typewriters on “II,” one of the only rapid-fire tunes on the album.
Christensen, a member of the now-defunct New Haven band Estrogen Highs, performs occasionally with Shapiro and McColm. Shapiro and Christensen also play in Headroom, a psych-noise project started by Mountain Movers guitarist Kryssi Battalene. (Shapiro played drums at first, then switched to guitar.)
In Headroom, Shapiro often restricts himself to a single chord, played excessively loud, with absolutely no distortion or signal processing, for long stretches of time.
“I’m trying to aim at elements of the devotional music experience,” Shapiro said. “People want to come and sit in silence, and they want to close their eyes, or maybe watch. But they want to feel the music, and to let the music that’s happening be the only thing that’s happening.”
When he’s not performing or practicing, Shapiro deals with the non-musical elements of musical life: sending emails, shipping LPs, booking tours. As Alexander, he traverses a network of houses and smaller spaces across the eastern half of the U.S. He’s obsessed with playing as many small towns as he can.
“It seems like in any town, anywhere in this country, there’s at least someone who cares so much about making a DIY, underground music scene happen, even if they only have eight friends who come out to every show they book. … They love music, and they don’t get to see it every day. You feel like you can get closer to people.”
Alexander’s self-titled LP will be released on Dec. 16. Click here to pre-order a copy.
Press Play is a column by music writer Michael Hamad exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to him at email@example.com.