For a man who’s made one of the best records of 2018, Owen Ashworth isn’t, strangely, one to suggest that he’s doing anything particularly new on Advance Base’s Animal Companionship.
“I’d say that 80 percent of writing songs is, for me, mimicry,” the DIY veteran says, on the line from his Chicago home. “I’m trying to re-create the feeling that other music has given me. What you make is personal and relevant for yourself, but I’m not bringing too much to pop songwriting that is wildly original.”
To fully appreciate the self-deprecating nature of that argument, consider what he’s achieved with Animal Companionship. The record is being framed as something of a loose concept album, one that revolves around the relationship that human beings have with their pets.
From a musical standpoint it’s beautiful stuff, the 12 tracks all soft-glow keyboards and Ashworth’s sad-season vocals made for sitting alone at 2 a.m. in a three-storey walkup, staring at the gently falling snow.
“I’ve always been really attracted to minimalist, hypnotic-feeling arrangements—that’s something that really compels me as a listener,” Ashworth says. “And when it comes to performing, there’s something really meditative about playing these songs. I was in a place in my life where I was really turning to music for comfort. So what I was writing was sort of ritualistic—a friend of mine has described it as holistic music, which I really liked. It really felt like, for my mental health, I needed these songs to be as gentle and meditative as they could be.”
Populating the tracks on Animal Companionship are dogs, parakeets, cats, and the other nonjudgmental critters that help us get through those times when life sometimes seems as much a burden as it is a blessing. Nowhere is the power of such creatures more moving than in “True Love Death Dream”, where, over gorgeous snowdrift synths, Ashworth tells the story of a pet owner who deals with the death of a loved one in a van crash by naming a dog after him, thereby ensuring his memory lives on.
The very real danger of making a record where the songs seem to revolve around a specific theme is that people will write things off as a dog record of interest primarily to dog people.
“I knew what I was doing with this record,” Ashworth says. “I was really looking for a hook when I was putting these songs together and trying to find a theme to write around. My early draft for the record had a lot more dog stuff going on, but some of those dog songs didn’t make the cut.”
Instead, Ashworth also found he had plenty to say about the human condition. Consider lyrics like “You could have a real house if you just left New York/A vegetable garden a white picket fence” from the melancholy marvel “Same Dream”.
The Chicago musician, who’s done time in the trenches with not only Advance Base but previous projects like Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, has obviously tapped into something with Animal Companionship. He notes that pet owners a-plenty have been showing up at Advance Base tour stops.
“It’s been really heartwarming to see how pet owners have responded to the record,” he muses. “There have been all sorts of dogs at the shows. I don’t drink, so I try not to play at bars—I’m more interested in DIY venues or sort of atypical show spaces. There have been shows in bookstores, record stores, vet halls, and places like that. So, when appropriate, people have been encouraged to bring their dogs to shows. They want to talk about their dogs, and, yeah, it’s been really nice.”
Advance Base plays the WISE Hall Lounge on Thursday (December 6).