Seattle-based Ghosts I’ve Met‘s front man Sam Watts is never without his grandfather’s felt fedora. Over the years the contents of the brim have changed based on where Watts is in the country: feathers from birds of prey, dry grass from the desert, autumn leaves from the West coast, and occasionally a guitar pick or two. This hat has become a symbol for how I understand Watts’ writing process. His songs are incredibly well crafted — with knowledge similar to that of a lifelong hat maker. The songs are tried and true, laden with his many life experiences and holding remnants of the landscapes he has traveled through.
The Leveling Storm follows on the heels of the 2011 full-length album on Yer Bird Records, From a Spark. From a Spark features artwork from Watts’ grandfather, Sam Richardson, a well known contemporary artist with work in some of the most highly regarded art collections in the country. In the 1960s, he and Watts’ grandmother built a house nestled high in the Oakland Hills. It’s a beautiful home bathed in tree-filtered light complete with studio space surrounded by nature. Watts grew up visiting his grandparents and couldn’t help but be inspired.
“My grandpa’s art and the influence of the California landscape is a huge part of my life/writing. Seeing him have new paintings every single time I have gone to visit my entire life has had a huge impact on me and my ‘always keep working’ theory.” Besides spending time with his grandfather and his work Watts also likes to frequent the plethora of Bay Area cultural institutions. “I have always loved going to the Bay Area museums with my grandparents. From the old de Young to the new one, I have had amazing days in the area’s museums.”
His last trip to Oakland included a visit to Yosemite, where the album artwork for The Leveling Storm was captured. An image of Half Dome dusted with snow at the end of summer serves as a regenerative symbol for Watts. This record embarks on an emotional journey that deals with the various grievances of past relationships. In choosing the project’s title Watts was attracted to the duality of a leveling storm. “I like the multiple ways in which something can be ‘leveling.’ It can be both bad, as in a hurricane and good as in the rebuilding after.”
This can certainly be heard in the music. The sharp lyrics build slowly, cresting just as they hit their intellectual peak. Watts’ lyrics are incredibly perceptive and narrative in nature, almost literary. The Leveling Storm‘s sound does not take us into the heart of the storm, but the aftermath. The first track, “Forest Light”, opens the record with a walk down a wooded path, wrestling with an inner debate about giving everything, despite the consequences that follow thereafter.
The Leveling Storm feels a bit more Northwestern than some of Watts’ previous, more twangy recordings. This work is true folk drenched with smart and subtle percussion, soft ghostly vocals, and acoustic guitar strumming that act as the lifeblood for each song. The heartbeat is the poetry of the songwriter. The title track, “The Leveling Storm” showcases Watts’ own musical talents as he performs most of the instruments on this tune with the help of Bill Patton on electric guitar.
The last song is the one we are here to hear, however. Ghosts I’ve Met is premiering the video for “Metal Strings” with KQED Arts. This song is a duet between Watts and Sharon Van Etten featuring Michael Lerner of The Antlers on drums. This song begs for closure; it is the last coat of paint on a house that has been destroyed and rebuilt. “Everything I tell to you I try to tell myself. If there are lies in my words will you help me pull them out? Because everything I heard I did to you from someone else. Nothing here would make more sense than from your mouth to my mouth.” The constant in the video is the sky. We see the changing landscape and the tilt of the earth in a time-lapse montage of Seattle and Northern Washington. There is weather, but no storm, just the beautiful presence of lights both man-made and heavenly. Without further ado, I present to you “Metal Strings” by Ghosts I’ve Met, a music video by Dan Isaacson.
Watts says this EP is the wrap-up of a downtrodden breakup era and we can expect future melodies to sound more like “Metal Strings.” The song reflects on the horizon the storm came from, looking to move forward. Ghosts I’ve Met will be touring with this EP, so keep an eye out for Bay Area dates in the spring.