On his new CD, Coming Home, the Bay Area-based cellist turns the mythical hero's quest into a sweeping musical voyage.
March 19, 2018
One of the perks of hosting a music program on a listener-sponsored radio station, in this case KPFA 94.1 FM in Berkeley, is being able to broadcast live music from the performance studio. And one of the best parts of that is getting to sit just a few feet away from the musicians in the studio and experience a private concert. I had never heard Joshua McClain play cello until he appeared on my show, The Hear and Now, in a duo with singer-songwriter/pianist Monica Pasqual, who is best known for her longtime work in the pop-folk band Blame Sally. She also fronts a solo project, Monica Pasqual & the Handsome Brunettes, of which McClain is a member.
McClain has since returned twice to The Hear and Now to play solo, using a looping station and an effects processor to achieve the orchestral grandeur needed for his deeply layered, sprawling soundscapes. On his second solo visit, McClain played the first four pieces from his recently completed solo album Coming Home.
There is something especially human-scale about the cello, both in its size and the way it melds with the sitting body of the player, and in its sonorous range. All instruments transfer the energy of breath and/or muscle into music; the cello seems to alchemize being into music. While I watched McClain play in the studio, waves of sound—warm and reassuring—washed over me; their undertow pulled me closer, figuratively, to the instrument, and drew me into the heaving sighs of the music.
McClain, who lives in Oakland, California, and also performs with the American folk group Spark and Whisper, cites Andrew Bird, Zoe Keating, Mark Summer, Yo-Yo Ma, Sigur Rós, and Jimi Hendrix as influences. But as I drifted in the dreamlike ambience of his looped rhythms, riffs, and textures, I was reminded of Robert Fripp’s early Frippertronics experiments and the more recent overdubbing techniques used by former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud on her enthralling solo project Visual Music.
What I didn’t realize was that I was experiencing only a partial representation of Coming Home, which I hadn’t heard yet. To fully realize his vision for a concept album evoking a hero’s journey McClain brought other instruments and musicians into the fold. Coming Home finds McClain playing baritone ukulele and electric guitar as well as cello. BZ Lewis adds drum programming and shaker, and Pam Delgado and Jessie Turner contribute vocals. Unabashedly romantic, and only occasionally spikily experimental, the eight compositions on Coming Home are meant to be listened to in one sitting, starting with “The Journey,” moving through “A New World” and meeting “Spirit Guides,” enduring “A Storm on the Horizon” and spending more than ten minutes in the “Underworld,” undergoing “Rebirth,” opening your heart to “Hear My Voice,” and finally recognizing that you’re “Coming Home.”
I’ve always been a sucker for concept albums that demand that kind of surrender—committed, extending listening that can become deeper and richer as you allow the music to take you where it will over the course of an hour. (One all-time favorite: Go, the collaborative effort of Stomu Yamashta, Steve Winwood, Michael Shrieve, Al DiMeola, Klaus Schulze, and others.) Josh McClain has made just such an album, one that comes from his own soulful interior space but that provides a universal embrace.
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