In J.W. Teller's songs, characters flee small towns, "driving hard on faith and gasoline." Ghosts and the past haunt "mysterious nightfalls and swamp-covered lake beds." He transmits the weariness and desperation with an unassuming drawl that lightly cracks on the higher notes.
The songs, collected on his first full-length album, were almost all written before he moved to Missoula from Asheville, North Carolina, last October, with intentions of holing up for a winter to produce new material.
Yet western Montana is where he walked into the right circumstances to record them.
"Which is often how this existence works things out," he said. "If it's supposed to get done, it's supposed to get done one way or another."
Teller, 29, grew up in Canton, a small cotton-farming town outside of Jackson, Mississippi. In high school, he was interested in poetry and sports. He began writing music about a decade ago, and penned most of these songs over the course of his 20s. He wouldn't want to relive that section of his youth — many of his songs are about his own mistakes, but conceded that he's "glad I got the songs out of it."
Once here in Missoula, he and Britt Arnesen, a local singer–songwriter and multi–instrumentalist, met up for a brewery gig. Finding a rapport, they played more and began recording in Teller's living room. First, he cut the vocals and guitar. Then Arnesen recorded upright bass and back–up vocals.
The recordings clicked for him after several other sessions didn't sound right to him — one, for instance, felt overproduced and "took away from the songs." These new ones feel more genuine to his ear. "It's got flaws in it, which I like," he said. He thinks it's funny that "oftentimes, the right way to do it is probably the easiest, too."
Teller's early admiration of songwriters Townes Van Zandt, Dave Van Ronk and Guy Clark was later joined by the beautiful but doom-laden prose of Cormac Mccarthy, whose embedded details and personalities affected Teller's writing. Yet there are some things that come naturally with a Southern upbringing. In one song, "The Closer," characters hang out at a graveyard, a notion drawn from Teller's own youth. In a small town like Canton, there's not much to do, so back in high school he and some friends would "sneak out to this supposedly haunted church" with a cemetery out back, careful to park their cars far down the road to avoid suspicion from the police.
The notion of spirits comes up again and again. In "Ghost," a Southern Gothic tale with acoustic guitar and ominous bowed bass, he sings, "I recall one night she stood on the sidewalk the crowds they all chanted suicide/She jumped from the bridge line into the dark pines her body was never found."
In "Kentucky," he says, "there's a ghost here that haunts me/claims to be my own self/hollowed eyes but he shimmers when he swears." In "The Closer," with a scene set outside a chapel, "we toasted with a ghost/hung with medals around his throat/he said if fear is an option/I suggest you let it go." In "Spirit That Resides," he sings, "there's a spirit that resides in the pines/how she toils me/how she toils me."
Asked about the repeated theme of ghosts and the past, he said that the South has a "dark history, and it's often hidden behind some form of Christianity in a way."
Confederate statues are constant reminds of the Civil War and slavery, which "in the whole scheme of things, it hasn't been that long ago," he said.
"There's a lot of darkness in these really beautiful areas that just carry this really strong energy to them," he said.
On the record, in addition to Arnesen, Ryan Scott of the Best Westerns plays lap steel and accordion. The latter instrument was a fit of random inspiration on the opening song, "Mexico." Teller thought the chorus, which reminds him of a Southern Gothic chant, would pair well with an accordion. Scott happened to have one in the living room, and spent hours playing with it until they settled on a simple but effective and ominous atmospheric drone.
Another unusual arrangement comes up on "Kentucky," in which Teller's voice is accompanied by "this battlefield-like string effect," as he described it, courtesy of Isaac Callendar on fiddle and Spencer Hoveskeland on bowed upright bass.
Elsewhere on the album, Tom Wolverton added pedal steel and dobro to the mix.
Teller's touring incarnation varies by the musicians' schedules. He likes to think of them as "a family of people I trust that care about the music a lot, and I love to have them when we can." Sometimes it's Arnesen, sometimes it's Scott.
Teller's touring right now, with a line–up of dates around Montana and the Northwest down into California. For now, you can only buy a copy at his gigs. He's working with a publicist out of Seattle for a proper digital roll-out, singles and all.
"It's kind of like a weight off my shoulders to have this thing done," he said. With the material's deep roots, particularly on his touring route in the Southeast, he's been "playing these songs from street corners to listening rooms to dive bars" and is happy to share an album with people who "hung with me this long."