When Cory Fay was an undergraduate, he switched his major from music to theater and found himself subject to critiques about how acting and writing for audience work.
Don't insult your audience by talking down to them. Be compelling and use as much energy as you can while pacing yourself, and leading the audience on.
The traces of both a music and theater background seem embedded into the layers of "Garden Variations," the 28-year-old Great Falls native's first solo album. In a grand theatrical gesture, he wrote and performed all 15 songs himself. He played all of the instruments, save a few cameos. He tinkers with genres, such as creepy waltzes, noisy indie rock, campy old-time country, demented blues, and heartbreaking acoustic folk. He tries on different vocal styles: nearly whispered harmonies and rock yowls.
The project began somewhat simply, with a tune called "The Dying Garden Waltz," in which he saw the basis for a full solo album and soon grew into something more ambitious — a lo-fi song cycle he could make himself.
The songs can stand alone, but if you read closely into his lyrics, he carefully submerged a concept album story arc.
He's somewhat conflicted about spelling it out — he said musicians have their own interpretation of what songs mean. The audience has their own, and what it ends up "being" in the end lies somewhere between the two, he said.
In broad outline, the theater grad wrote a song cycle about a couple in crisis: One partner is physically ill and dying, which has spurred the other into a spiral of mental illness.
It was inspired in part by the strength of his grandparents' marriages, even through struggles with Alzheimer's, depression and anxiety, and heart problems.
"Both grandparents on both sides of my family spent their lives together and loved each other more than anything, and made crazy sacrifices and did so much for each other," he said. "I kind of hope that one day I can maybe have something like that in life. The lives that they built together are kind of rare. It doesn't come around anymore," he said.
He opens the album with "Building the Machine" whose title contains one of his central metaphors. In a faux-musical warble over jaunty piano, a protagonist sings about "building a terrible machine, anything to break my daily miserable routine." The notion of "building machines" as coping mechanisms is broached again on "Christmas Card 1988 Early Draft," an evocative and and quietly gorgeous tune about the need for human connection and mortality set against the backdrop of a holiday. Like many of the songs, it has an extended instrumental coda in which Fay layered guitar and string instruments. "You Don't Have to Die," a minor-key weeper, finds a character imploring their partner to let God heal them. (The album is saturated with references to gardens and religion.) "Oh Sunshine!," with back-up vocals by Christian Scruggs, which takes the form of a classic-sounding old-time tune.
Those comprise the album's "bawlers," as Waits notably categorized his sad songs. Waits called his junkyard rockers and shanties "brawlers," of which Fay has included a few of his own: "The Cursed Old Possessed Preacher Blues," "Sleep No More" and "Run Thomas Run! They All Want You Dead!" are more uptempo and confrontational, and often indulging Fay's abstract wordplay and toying with genre.
It closes with a warped redux of the opening piano lines, after "Oh Sunshine!," which he said was the most "eviscerating" thing he's recorded, for both him and Scruggs.
If you give "Garden" a few listens, the storyline will likely emerge. Artist Lauren Tyler Norby provided cover art and hand-lettered lyrics that you can sift through if you like. Even if you don't, the symmetries will probably emerge eventually.
"I feel like every album is a concept album, almost," he said. Even if they're not explicitly a concept album, he said, they're "a snapshot of a moment in time, wherever you were."