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Dark Was The Night

Written by Thomas Mitchell on March 24, 2009

Music and charity go hand in hand. Bono has been doing it since he put on his first pair of tinted glasses and R. Kelly is famous for his work with children… So when Aaron Dressner from The National, along with twin brother, Bryce, was approached by Red Hot to put together a compilation in benefit of AIDS research, he jumped at the chance to follow his contemporaries.

“Originally it was a result of me working for Red Hot for a number of years, through a sister company of theirs. I was playing music [with The National] but at that point the band wasn’t big enough to be my only job. But when the National became successful, the founder of Red Hot, John Carlin approached me and said it would be amazing to do a charity record that was focused on the independent music scene.”

Thousands of indie kids must have wept into their fringes as they saw who signed onto the record. The list of artists featured reads like a soundtrack to Juno: The Sequel.

“Yeah all of them are either close friends or people we know through touring, or festivals. There is a lot of mutual respect and admiration between musicians. Some of the people on here I’ve looked up to and listened to for a long time.”

This type of charity relies on donations, the kind that isn’t tax deductible. If I drop 20 cents into a homeless man’s hat, I can’t be brought down from my high horse for weeks. So to donate an entire song, a slice of creativity, is a big deal, and Aaron is aware of the sacrifice.

“I think when Feist sent us the duet with Ben Gibbard from Death Cab, that was a real step-back moment, it was so beautiful. Like if that were on her record it would be a hit. That was the moment when we knew, wow, this is going to work. It is such a gift to donate work like that. And it kept happening, The Dirty Projectors and David Byrne, we put it together and hoped for the best, and they nailed it.”

Choosing the right partners is as important in music as it is in mating. The wrong pairing could result in a bungled song, however Aaron’s match making skills were spot on.

“Most of the collaborations were our suggestions. The cover of Nick Drake’s ‘Cello Song’ that the Books did, we suggested it. They’d been doing it live for a while but it wouldn’t really work on one of their own albums, so this gave them the opportunity to lay it down. Then we invited José Gonzalez and he was more than happy to lend his vocals to the project.”

Compilation CDs tend to be stilted, different artists doing different songs, a melting pot of creativity, colour and sound, it’s all very confusing. Needless to say, Dark was the Night is the exception. The track transition is smooth and seamless.

“We wanted it to blend together and be cohesive. Some of it was a happy accident, it is difficult to do, but the reason compilation albums aren’t that great normally is that people give you whatever they’ve got lying around but we knew that these artists, that we respect and admire, would give us quality music they cared about and in the end the cohesiveness is a product of the quality of the songs.”

However, this blessed idea was not without its problems. One of the major players in the process was the brooding band of rockers Arcade Fire. Shockingly, it turns out organisation was not their strong point.

“Arcade Fire had been on a break, they’d finish intense touring after Neon Bible, and our deadlines kept coming up which they kept missing. They also don’t write that many songs. There was a chance that we wouldn’t have them, which would hurt the whole project. But we got it in the end, halfway through the last day of mastering it arrived, so we got it in the end. It was major last-minute development to even get it, but it is a special track.”

When he isn’t saving the world, fighting AIDS or feeding the hungry, Aaron actually enjoys a bit of music himself. As guitarist of The National, Aaron can write songs, but also enjoys spending time with Bryce. Even at this age though, Aaron is determined to make one thing clear.

“I’m actually older by seven minutes. But now we’re both 32 so I am becoming an old man.”

Before age takes hold of Aaron, arthritis ruins his fingers and the bowels fail to function, he is nice enough to grab the band, pack into his studio, and make some more tunes.

“We built a recording studio in my garage, we go in there everyday, it’ll be really interesting to see this new music we’re working on come together over the next ten months. We see the songs as ugly ducklings and it takes a while to turn them into something beautiful.”

Amen to that! Dark was the Night is out now. Visit http://www.americanmary.com

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