It’s easy to approach various topics through an academic lens, but when dealing with something as abstruse as how our memory works, it can be difficult finding a pragmatic answer. For Northampton musician Gabe Gill, the last four years have been less about uncovering an answer and more about contextualizing the esoteric nature of memory by parsing through its nuances as a young adult.
The culmination of this journey is Gill’s new album, How Memory Works, a cerebral, nine-song odyssey that aims to capture the fleeting thoughts, memories, and dreams embedded in the human mind before they escape. Through this journey, Gill finds that memories are neither defined nor perfectly vivid. Rather, they are pieces of the human conscience that are overanalyzed forever-even if they don’t always affect how we live for the future. With the help of close collaborators like Rothstein, Tieren Costello, Deem Spencer, Honeyfitz, and many more, Gill develops a compendium of pensive tracks with velvety (and sometimes scorched) melodies rooted in styles ranging from acoustic-driven alternative pop, R&B, spoken word, classical, and even small flourishes of jazz.
The textures are rich but so are the descriptions Gill uses to deliver the themes of the project. Many of the fleeting moments mentioned are personal, but the ideas themselves are far from exclusive. The “bus from Manhattan to New Haven” on “130 Miles,” which sets the scene for a meditation on physical and emotional distance, could define any number of memorable locations in our lives that had us toiling with those similar feelings. The Chinese shop on Pine St. mentioned in the eponymous track reminds us of our own local spots and how their signatures not only whetted our appetite, but provided camaraderie. Deciphering how memory works can feel complex and aimless, which Gill does a good job of capturing, but the album also gives you a good reason to learn about how memories shape, and have shaped, our lives.
Although Gill has since moved to Boston and then New York (and Hadley, Mass. at some point in between all that), Northampton was the spot where the artistic seeds were cultivated. The progressive-leaning city is the nucleus of Hampshire County, and now boasts close to 29,000 people. It includes a formidable downtown scene filled with bookshops, burgeoning local art venues (33 Hawley and Bombyx), staple restaurants/bars, a county fairground where legends like Wiz Khalifa have performed, and many other little shops and idiosyncrasies, including a cannabis dispensary/cafe/nighttime lounge hybrid. In fact, statistically-speaking, Northampton is essentially the cannabis capitol of the state. Much like other cities with high rents though, they have a noticeable homeless population, which they are currently trying to solve through different avenues, like creating a Community Resilience Hub. It’s a fascinating city. There’s a lot to do and there’s never a dull moment.
For Gill, it was the perfect setting to entrench himself in a multitude of artistic pathways, which has lead him to this album. Boston Hassle had the pleasure of speaking with Gill about these pathways, the project, his inspirations, Northampton’s charm, and what’s next.
Photo credit: Carlos Semedo @carlosmsemedo
Boston Hassle: How are you kind of doing now? How does it feel releasing this album?
Gabe Gill: Yeah, it feels good. It feels sort of surreal because I started working on this album at the point where it was a different album. The first song I made for this album was “Happy Hour,” which just came out, which was in a body of songs that I made right after I had left college. I was in New York for a month and I made a bunch of songs that were going to be this project called Return to a Shared Language. I kind of scrapped that project, but that song [“Happy Hour’] really stuck with me. I feel like this album was created by scrapping so many different bodies of work.
It’s been a project I’ve been working on since 2018, which is a long time at this point. And it feels like it’s gonna be really good to have it out. I think there was a long time where I felt blocked creatively because I had this group of songs for so long that I couldn’t really figure out how to finish, but it felt like it had such a strong vision and story to it that I couldn’t figure out how to move on to something else. The last song on the album was the first one I made. And the first one was the last one I made. So the intro “Ballet,” I started in probably January or February of 2021 and finished about November or October of that year, so that’s the most recent one.
I have a lot of other stuff that I’m like ready to put out right after. So I’m excited to just get this one out.
BH: That’s awesome. So, what made you kind of want to change course and pursue How Memory Works, and how did that concept come about?
GG: So, I think I had had this group of songs that had felt cohesive to me for a while. I think when I moved to New York in the summer of 2019 from Western Mass, and my friend Carlos, who’s from Florida, had come and stayed with us for a couple months. And I feel like for whatever reason, when he got there, the body of work that I had just started cohering into this thing that made sense to me. And I think a lot of this work was born out of a combination of anxiety and existential crisis and also remembering things from the past coming back to me in different pieces and processing them over a long period of time. There’s a line in “130 miles,” that my friend Tieren [Costello] said, where he said, “I can learn how to love how memory works or doesn’t, I’m scared of forgetting how to write, previous nights, I wasn’t.” And I remember just loving those two lines and feeling like that kind of summed up the whole thing, of learning how to be a peace with the fact that our memories are imperfect and memory comes back to you in different ways, and also the anxiety and the urgency of feeling like you need to sometimes put things down fast. A lot of these songs were made very quickly.
So, I just liked the idea of calling it, How Memory Works.
BH: You said you’ve been working on this in different variations since 2018. How was it recording and writing during the pandemic time? Did that kind of shape the project in any way at all as well?
GG: A little bit. Yeah. I mean, I think ironically, the way that it shaped is that I basically shelved this project for almost the entirety of the pandemic and I was working on other stuff. I can’t really think of any songs on there that I actually worked on during the lockdown phase. I was working on my band Deadmall. We had a couple projects that we worked on during the pandemic. I worked on a couple songs that will come out after this, but I think that [the pandemic] gave me a real shock and sort of froze me in place in terms of, there were times I was like, ‘I don’t even know if I should finish this.’ And then I think when life started to feel a little bit more normal, for whatever reason, I was able to re-motivate.
Last year, I put out a bunch of singles because I felt like my solo project had just been in stasis for so long, and I wanted to put out a bunch of singles to get my project going again, before I put out an album. So, I think in a way, it made me reassess what my mission statement was. I did a lot of individual songs that kind of got me restarted, and then I was able to start strategizing finishing this project.
BH: So, the last album you put out was that Carousel back in 2018.
GG: Yeah. Which I actually just deleted off of Apple.
BH: Since it’s been four years and, and you have this new project coming out, I was gonna ask you how the last four years shaped you as a songwriter and maybe even as a producer too?
GG: Yeah, I think that Carousel, I had a really grand vision for it. But I feel like the way it ended up coming out felt very like patched together. And I think with How Memory Works, I was trying to do something that had a much tighter focus, and is very minimal and intentional. I think that maybe Carousel is a little bit about being a teenager and being kind of dramatic. And I think How Memory Works is about being a young adult and trying to parse through the nuances of things.
BH: I also wanted to ask how the album’s artwork came together?
GG: So, Rain Drooker, a friend of mine since high school, did the album art, and then McGavin Israel did the single art based off album art. I think I developed this fascination with trail cam footage. There was a while growing up in Northampton where I had this job where I would work really late and I would ride my bike home to my parents’ house, and I would just see deer every night at like 1:00 AM.
The kind of like metaphor that I formed around it was sort of like, when you see something from a trail cam or footage of a wild animal in the woods, it feels like you’re stumbling upon something that feels surreal because you’re not really supposed to see it. And I think that the deer on the album cover felt like sort of like thoughts or memories or dreams that were scattering because someone had startled them. I think that a lot of this album had that urgency to capture something that’s kind of getting away from you as it’s happening, but also [Rain Drooker] had made that album art for me when the album was probably halfway finished, and I think it’s interesting because the album art influenced the album as much as the album influenced the art. So I have to give huge props to him. He’s super talented.
BH: I also want to ask about “130 miles.” How did the video and song come together? Because it’s very interesting.
GG: Yeah. So, my friend Elihu [Jones], who I’ve made a lot of music and videos with, and I have gotten so used to this patchwork style of making videos, so that video contains footage that I shot out the window of actually being on the Metro North train from, I think I was going from New York to New Haven.
Then there’s also footage that Elihu shot of me on our roof in Brooklyn. And then there’s also footage of Tieren, the feature in that song, that his girlfriend shot of him in Sweden, because he’s going to school in Sweden now. And I felt like that was kind of fun because the song is sort of about physical and emotional distance and so I liked that there’s just like all this stuff being laid on top of each other in that video that’s all happening in different places.
BH: You mentioned moving to New York for a little and from Western Mass. How was moving to a bigger city for you?
GG: So I grew up in Northampton, and then I went to school for two years in Boston. And, I moved back and I lived in Hadley for a year. And then I moved to New York. So, I’ve been in New York for three years. I think that in terms of my art, [the move] made me work a lot harder because I feel like it made me realize that I took for granted a lot of things, like the time and the cost of living and the energy that I had in Western Mass. But, I think it also gave me a lot of new inspiration, and I think that being somewhere different usually makes me more in touch with my identity.
I think it was a difficult transition to make for sure. But it gave me a different level of like determination, because I felt like the ceiling of what I could do became so much higher. But, I also think a lot of the music that I made since moving was somewhat about feeling displaced or feeling different.
BH: How invested were you in Northampton’s art scene?
GG: Yeah, I think I was invested in a lot of different ways. I grew up being really fascinated with illustration and fine art. And I was really into the book, The Spiderwick Chronicles.
The dude who illustrated that lives in Amherst, and I wrote him letters until he let me intern for him when I was 12. I was just obsessive about inserting myself into the art scene that was there. And I did a lot of theater and improvisation in high school. I taught theater and then eventually I was really involved in the DIY scene and the house show scene.
So I think I was very invested. I think that [Northampton is] a really special place because it’s a small town, but there’s so many colleges around that. There’s a lot of young people and it’s very easy to fulfill something that you want. Yeah, it influenced me a lot. I feel really lucky to have had that experience as a kid and a teenager.
I think Northampton’s a really special place because it’s bizarrely culturally relevant and you’re able to feel much more in touch with the zeitgeist than you would in another small town. I had a lot of amazing mentors and older people in the arts that I knew that gave me really good feedback and support.
BH: What inspired you musically for this album?
GG: There were a lot of different influences musically. I think I would be lying if I said that Frank Ocean wasn’t a huge influence. I wanted to put a lot of strings on the album, because I was really influenced by the early Kanye [West] stuff, where he was using a lot of orchestral instruments. John Brion, who was a producer that worked with Fiona Apple and a bunch of other people…like chamber pop type stuff. Also, Sufjan Stevens.
I think a lot of Dean Blunt, too. And then I think that, like my favorite songwriters, have always been people like Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell. They’re able to tell a really rich story in a very effortless and conversational way. And then a lot of rap, it felt like it was able to transition between like scenes or non-sequiturs to put together a bigger story in a similarly very effortless way.
Photo credit: Carlos Semedo @carlosmsemedo
BH: One of my favorite tracks on the album is actually the the opener “Ballet.” How did that come together?
GG: Yeah, that was a song that I had made during a period where I was laid off for my job during like the second COVID winter. I think it was just a beat that I had made and I auto-tuned these like bird chirps that are in the beat. And I remember feeling like in keeping the kind of imperfect memory theme, I thought it would be cool if I came in on that song kind of like in media res halfway through.
Then I had realized that Rothstein was the last voice that you hear on the album. Cause I knew “Happy Hour” was the last song. And I thought it would be really cool if it began and ended with a feature from him, like as this sort of book end. And I think a lot of the project revolves around the way that you can spiral out into overanalyzing things, but the fact that that might not really affect the way you act going forward. so the line that it ends with from Rothstein is, “I don’t know if I changed.” And the refrain of his part at the beginning is, “I hope it’s worth it cuz I’ve been working on it for too long.”
So I felt like that was just a cool bookend to an album. That’s kind of about all these little moments or, you know, interactions analyzed forever.
Dan Purcell did the drums and the bass on that and Adam Dumas mixed it and also played piano and guitar at the end of it. I made it towards the end, I was moving towards a much more collaborative way of working and it was fun to pass it off to different people and be like, ‘all right, we just got one more song.’ Like everybody just throw me your ideas and we’ll finish it up.
BH: What’s the future look like for you?
GG: I have an EP with Brasstracks that should be coming this fall. I have an EP with Steve Cooper. That’s gonna be coming this fall. And, both of those are very different flavors than this album.
And then I’m working on another album with Brasstracks that I think is going to be head and shoulders above this one, which is probably a bad thing to say to promote this one. But if people think that this one is good, the next one is gonna be really, really good.
And then I have some singles. There’s some material with my band DeadMall that I’m trying to finish up and put out and Rothstein and I are going to finish up some type of project and put it out soon. Collaboratively, he’s one of my biggest inspirations and we have a lot of music that I’d really like to put out. So I’m hoping to put out a lot of stuff this year. Or next probably next year.
Listen to the project below. It is out on all platforms.