With his new album When The Day Leaves released today, Jasper Willems spoke to Valley Maker to get to know the mind behind these contemplative folk missives.
Austin Crane’s default state lies somewhere between modesty, marvel and benevolence. When talking about his former bedrock, Seattle, the first thing he mentions first isn’t the community of like-minded recording artists he joined. Neither does he mention the University of Washington, the place where he had spent years pursuing a doctorate in human geography. No, the first thing he tells you is the beauty of the landscapes in Washington State. Crane would walk his dog for long stretches across the vast woodlands and fertile hills, staring thousand yard stares into the distance. From all four cardinal directions, there seemed to be no end in sight.
It was a far cry from his home at the time within the city’s geometric features. Living in a one-bedroom apartment with his wife Megan, who works as a midwife, the walls started to close in. On his 30th birthday in 2017, Megan gifted Crane a 1960s Martin acoustic guitar, which he considers “the nicest present anyone has ever given me.” Not long after wielding the instrument for the first time, the first vestiges of “Voice Inside The Well” manifested. To Crane’s own surprise, the song was intrusive in nature, mentioning details like the deadly Las Vegas shooting of 2017, and channeling the desperation of clinging onto love in troubled times.
Given the usual tranquil, compassionate disposition Crane takes recording under the name Valley Maker, “Voice Inside The Well” sounded completely different. In the final version that appears on When The Day Leaves, his voice almost moves between the plaintive guitar notes as if interrogating their unblemished beauty. Crane admits the song did have more of a cerebral arrangement than usual: “I definitely thought about syncopation, and where all the syllables fall in relationship to the guitar parts to create something that was compositionally compelling. That song was meant to feel a little bit chaotic.”
Like the harsh comedown between metropolitan life and rural splendor, the Valley Maker project started in 2010 with less-than-romantic means. Debut album When I Was A Child was conceived out of a college thesis that Crane wrote while at the University of South Carolina. All the songs were inspired by narratives from the Book of Genesis, and to this day he never held illusions that the project would kickstart a full-time career as a touring musician – which it eventually did.
To Crane, writing songs was first and foremost a way to ask big overarching questions; questions that deviate from his other vocation in academics. The new Valley Maker album When The Day Leaves represents the cyclical nature of existence, and finding that center of gravity between all these different trains of thought. And ultimately, highlighting the glint within life’s bottomless soul search.
“I feel I have a tension in my songwriting between universal big questions,” Crane clarifies. “I grew up in a very spiritual household that had these big questions presented to me as a kid. Like the end of the world… and where I would be at the end of the world,” he laughs. “I grew up in South Carolina, out of a pretty conservative evangelical family that talked about that stuff a lot. As I’ve gotten older, that has become less of a religious thing and more questions in line of ‘what it means to live life in relation to other people’ And to love! Ideas like love are on one hand very abstract, and on the other hand incredibly immediate and tangible. Encountering big topics in songs like “No One Is Missing”, for me it feels interesting and appropriate to address the song with a combination of open-ended, mysterious dimensions in order for it to be interpreted in different ways. But then there’s also the specific moments you want to capture.”
As the Valley Maker project has developed from album to album, so has the embrace of that mystery in Crane’s songs. Within the lush, majestic alt folk leanings of his third album When The Day Leaves, his words appear like shapes and contours through a fog. Someone like Nap Eyes’ Nigel Chapman (one of Crane’s “favorite current bands”), for instance, has made it an art form to sprawl between bookish scientific musings and wry poetry. But with Crane it’s always hard to tell whether a lyric derives from tangible or metaphysical reflections, and that’s precisely where a lot of the beauty is found in Valley Maker’s music.
“In the first verse of ‘“No One Is Missing” I have this line, ‘Drag me past the checkpoint to Salvation Mountain’. Salvation Mountain is an outsider art sculpture in Southern California that I have a real memory of visiting,” he says. “The sculpture is all about love and an expression for God’s love for humanity, love for the world and for one another.”
During the long drive from Los Angeles to visit the late Leonard Knight’s vibrant Salvation Mountain in the middle of the desert, Crane was quickly reminded of the oppressive structures that hinder Knight’s altruistic message of love and humanity. “We went through several checkpoints where border officers were checking immigration status for people,” he sighs. “Which in itself felt wrong and ugly to me, those limits.” It was another moment where Crane’s roots in both spirituality and academics coalesced in profound, quizzical ways. Another song on When The Day Leaves, “Line Erasing”, meditates specifically on the concepts of borders, and the way they influence our worldview.
“To me, that song is wrestling with what it means to live. I think one of the lines in the song says something like ‘The belly of the beast’ which is a really dramatic way of phrasing ‘What does it mean to live in America at this moment?’; in this period of time when it’s an empire wielding so much power but also flailing and significantly failing in certain ways for people across the world. What does it mean to live in this place in the middle of my life? All of the privilege I enjoyed because of that, but also the pain and struggle that come with realising what’s done in terms of policy. The many ways the country I live in plays a role,” he reflects. “Maybe more importantly than that, “Line Erasing” is a song that thinks about borders… the ontology of borders. How they structure our thinking, what is knowable about the world. How we have a fundamental knowledge of ourselves and how we draw the lines between us. A lot of the research that I’ve done focusses on immigration and borders and the political geographies of borders, how borders are managed and how migration is managed. The role of humanitarianism and care, plus the limitations of influence they have on the systems we’ve set up.”
Despite the pensive concrete subject matter, “Line Erasing” is one of the most uplifting and inviting from a sonic standpoint. As much as Crane’s lyrics have a way of striking a nerve, When The Day Leaves embraces a sense of transience in the way it’s produced and arranged. “I had a lot of room to breathe. The record was partly a practical situation,” he says. “With Bob Dylan, for instance, I would enjoy a solo version of his work just as much as him performing with a band. With this record I wanted to arrange these songs and produce them in a way that could work as a solo set, but also make them sound pretty developed in terms of different textures. But still feel dynamic with a lot of people in place as well. I listened to Dylan’s record Desire a lot. That has been a big influence just in terms of how the songs feel. “Sara” is a song I love; I think production-wise too we were checking in with that record.”
Crane found more space to live when he and his wife moved back to South Carolina in 2019, buying “the worst house in the neighborhood” and gradually fixing the place up as the pandemic continued. He reveals he’s found more peace in mind in “imagining the future”, teaching geography classes and finishing his research.
At the time of this interview, Crane is painting a studio space in which he can record and “hopefully” invite band members to rehearse. The main hook of the new album’s opening cut, “Branch I Bend”, uses the phrase “All in a day’s work”, but peculiarly enough, Crane doesn’t name menial daily tasks, but addresses more universal notions of love and mortality: “Picking up the dust specks in your wake / Love is a home that I build and I break.”
“I was thinking about the cyclicality of existence and what it means to continue and to be in a relation to other people in particular. The mundanity and also the beauty of existence, it feels like that’s always getting bent and tested,” he says. “I guess it becomes a bit of a mantra for me to affirm that it’s not going to break, that there is always a continuation. There is always a reason to move on, and to wake up and face the day. And to be there for the people around us, you know?”
Valley Maker’s new album When The Day Leaves is out today on Frenchkiss Records. You can buy the record on Bandcamp.