Steve Abel’s Flax Happy, with the help of some impressive contributing musicians, mines a “haunting spareness” with lyrics “fiercely elemental and moody”. He talks to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM about making his sophomore album.

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Steve Abel: Flax Happy

STEVE ABEL has managed to assemble a rather impressive collection of musicians to play along on his second album, Flax Happy with musicians such as Jolie Holland, Geoff Maddock (Bressa Creeting Cake, Goldenhorse), Mike Hall (The Brunettes, Dimmer, Pluto), Milan Borich (Pluto) and Gareth Thomas (accordion) involved. But that kind of intro tends to overshadow the actual music. Abel’s work mines the same haunting spareness of the likes of Will Oldham, and his lyrics are fiercely elemental and moody. He’s an artist who understands not to do too much, and yet say so much at the same time. Flax Happy may slip under the radar a little, but it’s a beautiful wee album from a talented and intelligent singer-songwriter.

Abel has taken a while to get to get around to this second album. “They represent the kind of occurrences of a given period which is really the two, two and a half years since we released our last album. All of those songs have been written since then, except for two of them.” They’ve arisen out of a lot things in Abel’s life including “relationships stuff that was happening, international stuff – Guantanomo Bay, Iraq, George W. Bush – but they’re not necessarily explicit blatant themes at all, they’re just the zeitgeist that can’t help but manifest itself in a work that occurs during that time.” Abel admits that “it’s an interesting thing how a collection of songs come together.”

However Abel suggests that the songs that he writes usually “come out as love songs, but they’re usually multilayered in their meaning.” His music does contain a lyrical depth that’s often lacking in a lot of contemporary New Zealand music, and it’s no surprise that Abel carefully considers his use of words. His words carry a strong elemental quality to them, integrally tied to the land and people, and there’s a tingling simplicity to the sound. “I think that’s true, I think elemental is a wonderful term for it. Elemental in reference to the stuff of nature but also the increasingly used very simple chord structures. I really like a simplified line. My earlier songs used to have more complex chords and bigger words. I’m more and more drawn to a more elemental use of language and musically. I frequently return to the same kind of G C Am chords and shamelessly play the songs in the same key. Unless it needs anything more why add anything more? That’s the kick I’m on at the moment.”

His music is quite restless too, and Abel suggests “I think that restlessness, that’s part of the human condition if that’s not a too clichéd term to use. It’s part of what you’re working out in the process of art, and I’m much more interested in the contradictions, the doubts, the uncertainty of life than I am in the clearly formed moral dictate if you like. I think the confusion of it all is a much more interesting subject for song and for music. Life is dissonance you know, and that’s what interests me much more musically.”

Abel has managed to assemble a pretty impressive band of musical players for his songs. He’d been playing with some of them for a while – meeting Geoff Maddock in ’98 while working with Maddock’s bandmember from Bressa Creeting Cake, Ed Cake. He met Gareth Thomas while Abel was playing solo gigs in the bookshop Dead Poets, and Thomas would jump on stage to play along with the accordion. Eventually Hall and Borish joined up too, and by 2003 Abel was starting to record his debut album Little Death (which wasn’t released until 2006). His music had been compromised from the start with budgetary and time constraints, but this hasn’t seemed to have affected Abel’s output. However, the musical backgrounds of his collaborators have assisted considerably according to Abel. “There’s an incredible intensity to studio recording, it’s like you’re singing with your mouth to someone’s ear, you have to be really delicate. The classic mistake is over-singing, you get a bit hyped out and play it too loud and too hard. That’s what great about that band, they’re so gentle and sensitive. That’s a classic sign of real experience and great musicianship.” This helped Abel record thirteen songs in two days for Flax Happy – the time pressure meant “it was really like we have to get onto the next song. That actually was great, it’s a very live recording, we didn’t have the time to dilly-dally, we didn’t have any luxury of overdubbing or doing too many versions of songs. We’d get to do three or four versions and move on.” I ask if it was intimidating working with such established musicians, especially given that Abel is not particularly well known (outside of his solo work and songs on Florian Habicht’s deranged masterpiece Woodenhead). “It’s not intimidating at all, intimidating is not the way to describe it. I think it’s part of the intensity of being in a studio, we’ve got to do something and then you just play the song and perform the song.”

“I really like a simplified line. My earlier songs used to have more complex chords and bigger words. I’m more and more drawn to a more elemental use of language and musically. I frequently return to the same kind of G C Am chords and shamelessly play the songs in the same key. Unless it needs anything more why add anything more? That’s the kick I’m on at the moment.”

Getting Jolie Holland on the album too was a real coup, and the album standout for mine is ‘Cinders of the Sun’. “I gave her a CD of Little Death at her Auckland gig, and just by coincidence, I had a gig the next night, and she and her manager came along to a gig and she jumped on stage. She came back to the country by pure coincidence because her partner was a on a writing retreat in Wairarapa, and she sent me an email.” They recorded five songs in three hours in Wellington, and Abel says “there’s a real southern spirit when you meet people from the south of the US, there’s this real relaxed, openness, this real heart. I was really impressed with Jolie Holland’s willingness to listen to the music and hear it for what it was, irrespective of the name because I was a nobody here in New Zealand. She just liked the song, I really respected she just listened to the song. She’s got a phenomenal musical knowledge, she has this amazing catalogue of songs, and she’s a multi-instrumentalist. It was like a fast line into that incredibly rich sort of folk music tradition that’s so rich.”

With all these country and folk leanings, Abel finds himself continually being compared to Will Oldham and others such as Townes van Zandt. “It’s a funny, I’m a great fan of his [Oldham], he’s a great craftsman, but I discovered Will Oldham and Townes van Zandt because people kept coming to me and saying you sound like Oldham and Van Zandt. I think there can be a spirit of approach that you can have reached through a process of refining your craft that other people can have got to, independent of you, and you independent of them. Often there might be part of a whole natural procession of songs and music, of course there’s other people in the world doing something similar to you, I’m completely flattered by any comparison to Will Oldham though.”

Abel is also politically active, though his songs for the most part refrain from outright political activism. “There’s no question I had a real need to be more abstract in my self-expression after years of doing full time activism for Greenpeace. I really had a need to do more music. There’s no right or wrong way, I had to stop being a spokesperson because things become too simplified, too black and white, too many soundbites and I needed to be an artist again.” Abel also believes that music is inherently political – “I think your values and your self come through in everything. I think some of the most potent things human beings ever do in terms of affecting the world are creative, artistic things. It’s not that you should necessarily set out to do that, but by it’s nature, it’s a visceral and very whole form of expression.”

Of course, Abel has seen first-hand what direct political activism can do. His partner is Deborah Manning, the courageous lawyer who with others fought for Ahmed Zaoui’s release. He dedicates the title track ‘Flax Happy’ to Manning, Zaoui and Zaoui’s family, after having witnessed what Zaoui went through. “I thought I should specifically dedicate that to Ahmed, that’s a funny thing to do. I’m not really into doing that generally because it can overly specify the meaning. I actually felt a lot of anger about it [Zaoui’s treatment]. I saw the essential lack of compassion of a really systematic wilful political indifference. It was for me a very direct experience of a man’s life being used as a political form and a man falsely accused, being left to rot. Of course, for anyone who was close to him and his family which Deborah was closer than anyone, it was harrowing, and it felt like a huge betrayal.” He’s full of praise for Manning too, and on the song ‘Deborah’ writes ‘Deborah//your eyes shine like a clear winter morning // all I have are these words”. “I think Deborah Manning as objective as I can be, is amazing in what she achieved. Ultimately she really is a negotiator, she’s a great fighter, and she also negotiated a resolution.”

Abel’s is off to Switzerland next, travelling alongside Manning who’s moving there for work. He’s also got a large collection of unreleased songs to drip-feed out. But Flax Happy should get the attention at the moment, a fierce and tender album, and some beautifully compelling singer-songwriter material. Abel’s an underrated talent, and with a little help from his friends, this album may end up creeping up on a lot of people.