Worth Waiting For
On Timbre, Riki Michele and the Wonders of Crowdfunding

I’ve mentioned here before that I’m a big fan of Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general. My money is definitely where my mouth is there, and I think I’ve contributed to more crowdfunding campaigns in the last month or so than I ever have.

I’ve already talked about Birds, a new full-length record from manic pop genius Bryan Scary. He’s recording this now, and keeping us pledgers apprised of his progress. I also recently supported the second album by Mike Roe and Derri Daugherty as Kerosene Halo, a comeback album from the extraordinary Fleming and John, a long-awaited vinyl pressing of the Prayer Chain’s masterpiece Mercury, and most recently, the first full-length by one of my favorite discoveries of last year, Marah in the Mainsail.

(A couple of those campaigns are still going – Fleming and John and the Prayer Chain have met and surpassed their goals, but Marah is hoping to raise another few thousand, so if you’re so inclined to check them out, please do.)

I’m certainly not the typical music buyer, but this signals to me an uptick in the use of crowdfunding to make art. I think that’s fantastic – I wholeheartedly believe that all of the projects listed above would not exist without the ability to pre-sell them like this. And I want projects like these to exist. As of this writing, 243 people have kicked in to make a vinyl pressing of Mercury possible. This is an album that sold only a couple thousand copies in the mid-90s, and the audience for a double vinyl remaster is, clearly, pretty small – so small that the band likely couldn’t justify paying for it the traditional way. Thanks to Kickstarter, this is going to happen, and it’s going to make a few hundred people like me very happy.

I’ve been having a few conversations lately about crowdfunding and its merits, and a few of them have centered around this. This is a wildly successful campaign by De La Soul to fund their first album in 11 years, and a strong argument can be made that De La doesn’t need to crowdfund. They’re worth millions, and could likely afford to create this new record on their own. For the record, I haven’t supported De La’s campaign – I will gladly buy this when it hits stores, which I expect it would have whether or not the funding drive was successful.

But to me, that’s not all crowdfunding is about. It’s a way to build communities around works of art and their creators, and that I definitely support. The people who contribute to De La’s campaign are going to feel part of something – some of the bigger-ticket rewards include spending time with the band and recording a bit for the album – and that’s a pretty cool thing. (As with a lot of things, Marillion figured that out before most people.) Does it justify millionaires asking for your money upfront? I suppose that’s up to you.

I think you have to take the good with the bad, and weigh your contributions carefully. Crowdfunding is an amazing way for artists to find their audiences and create amazing work while minimizing the risk. It is also a great way for those artists to foster community and build trust – a good campaign with a strong end product, delivered when promised, will make me a fan for life, and getting to experience the creation of something special with others who love it as much as I do is worth it to me.

Viva la crowdfunding, I say. And this week I have two more reasons why I think it’s pretty much the best thing ever.

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Five years ago, I saw a young harp player named Timbre for the first time.

It was at Cornerstone 2010, on the Gallery Stage, and that show made me a fan. It wasn’t just the harp, although the sight of that ornate instrument on a stage built for rock bands was pretty cool. And it wasn’t just her voice, which is high and strong and almost operatic. Timbre writes fantastic, expansive songs, blowing past traditional lengths and levels of complexity, and then plays them with a band of multi-instrumentalists not afraid to circle around them with their own ideas. Watching her cover Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates” was revelatory.

Nearly two years ago, I pre-ordered what sounded like a remarkably ambitious new project from Timbre. She wanted to make a double album called Sun and Moon that broke down the walls between pop music and orchestral pieces, and show how they feed each other. For this she would need to contract a symphony orchestra and a full choir, and compose about two hours of music. This seemed crazy to me, but since I enjoy her work so much, I happily gave my $25. She barely raised the 10 grand she was asking for, which was half the money she needed. I figured it might be a while before this idea saw the light of day, if it ever did.

Last week, Sun and Moon landed in my mailbox, one year and 11 months after I paid for it. And oh my god, she actually did it. She made the record she wanted to make, and it’s magnificent.

True to her word, Sun and Moon runs close to two hours. The discs are separated into songs performed with her band (Sun) and pieces performed on harp with an orchestra and choir (Moon). The first disc is more energetic, the second more elegiac, and together they tell a story that spans from sunrise to sunrise. You’ll feel like the earth has turned and you’ve truly been somewhere when Sun and Moon is over.

The first disc is the more familiar one, for those of us who know Timbre. She writes glorious orchestral pop songs, and the ten that make up Sun are among her most glorious. The album opens with a brief scene-setting instrumental called “Sunrise,” and then launches into the propulsive “Song of the Sun,” strings and percussion surrounding Timbre’s quick harp notes. There are so many great moments in these five minutes, from the delicate violin lines to the wordless refrain to the exultant “I am alive” that concludes things. It’s the best single-song encapsulation of what she does that I have heard.

But wait, there are eight more songs, and they continue in the same vein, if only seldom reaching the mountain-scaling heights of “Song of the Sun.” The patient eight-minute lullaby “Your Hands Hold Home” makes room for a guest spot by Michigan-based collective The Soil and the Sun – they join about two dozen musicians who contributed to Sun, and the result is the most expansive music of Timbre’s catalog. And yet, much of it is quiet and subtle – “The Persistence of First Love” finds Timbre singing over a sustained dirge, and the sweeping “Singing and Singing” drapes its wonderful melody over a harp figure and a toy piano for about half its running time, before the lovely strings swell in.

Timbre songs already have much in common with orchestral music – they unfold slowly, taking their time, developing themes and building to climaxes. The gorgeous “I Am In the Garden” begins with nothing but strummed harp strings and the lovely tenor of guest vocalist David Ahlen, but over its 7:40 it blossoms like a flower in the sun. Timbre and Ahlen let their voices slow-dance together, and when the strings join them about four and a half minutes in, the effect is stunning. Sun ends with the foreboding “Night Girl: Nycteris Sees the Sun,” referencing the George MacDonald fairy tale, and roughly halfway through the song explodes – percussion, strings and oboes join the harp in a progressive dance that certainly counts as a grand finale.

As much as I like Sun, though, Moon is the big winner for me here. It takes Timbre out of what I previously considered her comfort zone and shows us what she can do with a wider canvas. Moon begins with an 11-minute choral song and ends with a 16-minute orchestral piece, and Timbre proves adept at these more intricate arrangements. “Sunset,” the choral piece that opens things, is remarkably beautiful, rising and falling throughout its running time, and flowing nicely into “Of Cloudless Climes and Starry Skies,” the harp instrumental that follows.

While the harp pieces – including the fantastic eight-minute “As the Night,” a duet with oboist Ashley McGrath – tread somewhat familiar ground, the massive fantasia “St. Cecilia: An Ode to Music” truly gets at what Timbre can do. With a full symphony orchestra and a choir backing up her soprano voice, she creates a world you can sink into. She then ups the ante with the concluding “Day Boy: Photogen Sees the Moon,” bringing the fairy tale full circle with a constantly shifting slice of orchestral grandeur. Themes from Sun make their reappearance here, most notably the hook from “I Am In the Garden,” and the whole thing concludes with the album’s biggest and sunniest passages. The applause that greets the finale – it was recorded live in front of an audience – feels like it is cheering the earth for making another 24-hour revolution, another day and night.

Sun and Moon is a triumph, a work of art well worth the years it took to create. It’s a winding, wonderful journey that proves just how talented the woman at its center truly is. I remain amazed that something this ambitious was created independently, and I’m certain that without crowdfunding, it either would not have been made at all or would have been smaller, lesser, reined in. As it is, I am so glad to have been a small part of something so richly rewarding. And you bet I’m going to support the next one.

You can hear all of Sun and Moon and buy it here.

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Riki Michele is a little less ambitious, but I’m no less glad that I supported her new album, Push.

I’ve been a fan of Michele’s voice since her days in Adam Again – while much of the attention that band gets usually goes to the late, great Gene Eugene, Michele’s lovely countermelodies added a sweetness and a soaring quality that Eugene’s songs would have sorely missed. Her last solo album, Surround Me, came out more than a decade ago, so the Kickstarter campaign announcing Push was a most pleasant surprise.

Michele makes lush, ambient pop music, and the ten songs on Push are probably her most lush and ambient pop songs yet. With graceful production by Margaret Becker, Michele creates cloud-like atmospheres and lets her voice swim through them. Sarah McLachlan used to make music that sounds sort of like this, but Michele has always been in her own space to me – no one makes records quite like this anymore, so I’m doubly glad that she’s back.

And the songs here might be her strongest. “Into Peace” is beautiful and subtle, built around a sparse electric piano and some acoustic guitar flourishes. “You took me in and the wind made waves and it all crashed down,” Michele sings as placid oceans of backing vocals and guitar ambience lift her up. “What Would You Say” brings the record’s first uptempo beat, but the song remains subdued, elegantly skipping through verses and wordless vocal sections. “The Sweetness” is a lovely waltz with a melody that reminds me of Jonatha Brooke and the title track shakes and shimmies through a memorable and almost funky chorus while still remaining low-key.

Push is a strikingly confident album – Michele and Becker knew exactly what they wanted, wrote the right kind of songs and marched forward like they had nothing to prove. It’s hard for me to explain why it works so well for me, but when Michele gets to the big chorus of “The Gift (Uwoduhi),” my heart soars. “Can we imagine a life so beautiful,” she sings, and yes, I say back, we can. It’s always great to hear from musicians I admire after long absences, but it’s that much sweeter when they return with something truly worthy, something that reminds me of why I fell for them in the first place. Push is that kind of record, and I’m delighted that it exists, and that I (and 382 others) helped make it possible.

Check it out and buy it here.

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Next week, some records I bought the old-fashioned way.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.