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Magic 12 - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 13 / 1 / 2002

Magic 12 - Interview


Of the many groups on the vibrant Boston independent music scene, Magic 12, which has just released its second album ‘Dear Diary’, has one of the most eclectic and experienced line-ups and memberships

Of the many groups on the vibrant Boston independent music scene, Magic 12, which has just released its second album ‘Dear Diary’, has one of the most eclectic and experienced line-ups and memberships. Guitarist Dana Hollowell is a former member of the acclaimed alternative country act The Willard Grant Conspiracy, while bassist James Apt plays regularly in the same band and also used to be in the alternative punk group Six Finger Satellite, who were signed to the influential Sub Pop label. Pianist Beth Heinberg and percussionist Nancy Asch meanwhile have their own cabaret act, Lucky and Angel, and have toured and also record with the art rock group Come. The band’s vocalist and songwriter Toby Ingalls has also worked in a variety of local groups, including popular new wave novelty outfit Lou Miami and The Cosmetics and post punk pop act Sensurround. Magic 12, which first formed in early 1998, has been described as a cross “somewhere between The Velvet Underground and Kurt Weill” and has also drawn comparisions with The Go Betweens, Mazzy Star, The Red House Painters, Harvey Williams and Belle and Sebastian. The group’s debut album, which is also called ‘Magic 12’, was released in November of that year. Ingalls had badly injured his hand in a bizarre, but serious accident two years before that, severing two of his tendons and various nerves with a knife whilst changing a mophead, and still unable to play the guitar at the time, he composed the album largely on a keyboard with the rest of the band helping to develop and to augment his songs. Heinberg’s piano, perhaps not surprisingly, is the predominant instrument, and ‘Magic 12’ is a lyrical, starkly beautiful and tender, and also melancholic album. With the exception of one track ‘Lone Star’, which is a gloriously up-tempo love song, its tone is in the main sombre and reflective. Ingalls’ brooding poetic lyrics on it are generally downbeat and wistful and often about loss, sometimes about the end of love affairs, but also too about the collapse and failure of other relationships and friendships. ‘Dear Diary’, like its predecessor, has been released on Dahlia Records, a small label which is run by Robert Fisher, the lead singer and frontman in The Willard Grant Conspiracy, and is limited to 1000 copies. In contrast to ‘Magic 12’, however, with Ingalls’ hand at last beginning to slowly recuperate, it was largely written on the guitar, and is poppier in tone and both lighter and more upbeat in style. “All the songs on ‘Dear Diary’ were written and collected over the course of a year” says Ingalls , back for a second interview with Pennyblackmusic and discussing the album’s title. “I had been in a relationship and was moving back to a situation where I was more on my own, and ‘Dear Diary’ is a collection of thoughts and songs written during that time period. It is definitely like my own personal diary.” “A lot of the last record was about suffering and sorrow ” he reflects. “I feel that it was a lot more melancholic. People argue with me about how uplifting ‘Dear Diary’ really is, but I think that much of it musically, and, maybe also sometimes lyrically, is more uplifting.” While generally more optimistic in tone, ‘Dear Diary’, like ‘Magic 12’, is often sometimes again bittersweet. ‘Moonfaced’, the opening track and the only song composed on the piano, is about losing sight of and becoming a stranger to one’s self, as are the strident, jangly ‘Long Walk Home’ and the soft and harmonic ‘Thread’. ‘Fallen Star’, with sudden shimmering bursts of piano from Heinberg, hints at and promises something wonderful as a new relationship begins, but the romance quickly plays itself out and it ends in disillusion and disappointment. The acerbic, self-scorning ‘New Year’ meanwhile has its drunken, bitter narrator mourning the fact that all the accomplishments he has set out for himself for the previous year have not been achieved. At the same time, however, he also mockingly acknowledges that he will be making the same flimsy promises again for the next year. Nearly every downbeat song on ‘Dear Diary’ is, however, balanced out by a more hopeful one. ‘Top of the Hill’, which has rattling guitarwork from Hollowell and popping piano effects from Heinberg, finds Ingalls taking simple solace sitting on the hill above the town in which he was born, while ‘Sunday’, with light, fluctuating gusts of keyboard, chronicles the early morning pleasure of a day without work. The breezy, floating ‘Sweet Refrain’ meanwhile is a glorious, sumptious love song which captures the dizzy, sweet intoxication of a new romance. “It is really odd” Ingalls laughs, discussing the latter song. “ Writing love songs is a completely new avenue for me, and Nancy is the one who is responsible for it. When we were still doing the first record she said to me “All your songs are so inward and self-reflective. Why you don’t write any love songs ?” It was a good question, and so she then challenged me to write one. ‘Lone Star’ was the first official love song that I wrote, and for this album I ended up doing ‘Sweet Refrain’, which is about trying to keep someone that you care for close.” The new album is also not above laughing at itself either . The exuberant and unusually raucous second last track, ‘Dear Diarist’, which finishes with a flamboyant guitar solo from Hollowell, finds Ingalls teasing and poking fun at himself for his introspectivenesss. “If you keep a journal or a diary, you often spend a lot of the time complaining in it” he explains. “ ‘Dear Diarist’ was a response to the whole record, and came up because I didn’t always want to be quite so serious. It was me saying to myself “You can’t take life seriously all the time”and “I don’t want to hear anymore. I’m tired now. Give it a break !.” Six of the ten songs on ‘Dear Diary’ were recorded at Dogleg, Hollowell’s own home studio. The band then reconvened to Zippah Studios in Boston, where they had recorded all of the first record, to record the remaining four songs and to finish off the album. The songs at Dogleg were produced by the band, while those at Zippah were co-produced by Robert Fisher and Zippah’s owner and in-house producer Pete Weiss. “When we started out, we were going to do the whole thing at Dogleg” Ingalls explains “But then we decided to book some time at Zippah and to finish it up there. We were really happy with what we recorded at Dogleg and felt that we had done everything as well as we could. We decided to keep what we had recorded , but wanted the experience of working in Zippah again and so then went in there to do the last four songs which was just great. Pete Weiss is a great engineer and he’s got a great studio.” “Everyone in the band is really talented and contributes one hundred percent.” Ingalls continues, describing Magic 12’s members individual abilities and their seperate contributions to the album. “ Beth Heinberg makes her living out of music and it’s great to have that kind of person around. She’ll tweak things, and pull out notes which she doesn’t think are working.” “ Nancy is a great percussionist and has a really good sense of timing. She is able to say “ We should make this one a little faster or this one needs a different beat”. “Dana is not only able to answer on everything which I call, but is also able to make any song an extension of where I want it to go. We have telepathic waves. I’ll know when Dana is going to call me. I’ll lift the phone and I am practically able to say “Hi Dana !” It will be him. With my guitar playing being affected by my accident, he plays as a reflection of how I would want to play.” “James meanwhile is a really elegant bass player. He is also incredibly knowledgeable about music, and he has this really psychedelic style of bass playing because he really just stays on the root note, but is also able to add adds these things that are little counter rhythms.” Magic 12 finished recording ‘Dear Diary’ in March but have delayed its release until now, because they felt that despite the new hopefulness of some of the tracks it was not a light enough album for a Summer release. Several months on Ingalls and the rest of the group, however, remain delighted with it. “I am very proud of it.” he says simply. “ I feel odd tooting my own horn because I want others to make up their own minds, but I couldn’t be happier really. A lot of time and energy was put into it. I am really pleased with the way it has come out, and everyone in the band is also really pleased. Sometimes when you put on something that you have written and recorded you hear mistakes and you hear things that you wish you had done better, but with this album I don’t feel like that at all.” On a high since finishing recording ‘Dear Diary’, the band have already begun working on new material and have six new songs demoed and prepared, which Ingalls promises will involve both more mixing up of their instrumentation, and perhaps for the first time find the group using a Fender Rhodes piano. Magic 12 hope to take the songs into Zippah in the Autumn to record the first half of a new album, which it hopes to release at the end of next year. Already having developed their sound considerably between their first album and ‘Dear Diary’, it will be fascinating to see where this most versatile of groups goes from here.

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Magic 12 - Interview

Magic 12 - Interview

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