It’s been nearly a decade since Philadelphia outfit Clap Your Hands Say Yeah burst onto the indie scene with their much admired eponymous debut album, claiming praise from the blogosphere for their stridently independent approach to making and distributing music.
Nine years on, the trajectory has been far from smooth, with CYHSY’s latest record Only Run preceded by the departure of the majority of the band’s formative line-up, leaving just frontman Alec Ounsworth as the sole creative force behind the album.
Still, Ounsworth tells Music Feeds, despite the challenges of the past decade he has never wavered on his commitment to being an independent artist. He remains beholden to no industry entity. “It is the only way,” he explains.
Watch: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – As Always
Music Feeds: This new record has been described as a personal observation of your life over the last 10 years. Can you tell us a little more about the inspiration behind the themes in Only Run?
Alec Ounsworth: To a large degree, I think it was an album born of resignation and acceptance and, with acceptance, freedom. I am trying to wrap my head around the idea of creating and performing in the face of extreme challenges coming from businesses which purport to be representing the musicians’ best interests.
These challenges have many different forms and have been making an already difficult occupation nearly impossible. It has gotten to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised to see musicians disappear and a certain dull, compromise-based, monotonic wave of “popular” music take over completely. As an independent, I feel like I am outside of the industry. This is both a luxury and a burden but it is the only way.
MF: Has the switch from working with consistent bandmates to a changing cast of collaborators changed the way you approached this record?
AO: I don’t think it has changed things.
MF: In an earlier press release, you said the album was about “balancing optimism in the face of overwhelming odds”. How does that difficult balance translate sonically?
AO: I imagine it is more in the lyrics than the sound but, maybe sonically and lyrically, I will not follow any trends to get to where I need to be.
MF:Tell us about working with The National‘s Matt Berninger. How did that collaboration come about?
AO: Matt is an old friend and we have stayed in touch here and there. I had recorded the song myself but had later imagined his appearance might make it more interesting. I asked him and he said yes.
On [The Velvet Underground‘s] Lady Godiva’s Operation and here and there on the [Lou Reed/John Cale collaboration] album Songs for Drella, there is something about how Lou Reed’s voice cuts against John Cale’s in a jarring but helpful way. Something like this is probably what I was after.
Listen: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Coming Down (feat Matt Berninger)
MF: Given the drastic changes in the music industry over the last decade, especially with regards to the internet and distribution of music, has your philosophy towards making music altered?
AO: Not too much. I have always preferred to be independent so I have managed to push some of this pressure away. I think what is happening in the music industry has really driven the point home.
I am a bit disappointed that certain for-profit organizations who have business models which are based upon the exploitation of musicians have been getting away with petty thievery. It has made things difficult for all creators. For me, the only way is to be is independent and leave it up to the fans to decide your fate.
One way or another, the changes in the industry should have little to do with how I write music. However, if you squeezed tightly enough, it is difficult to avoid it seeping in and affecting the approach. I try not to let it bother me too much but sometimes I can’t help it.
MF: Earlier this year you undertook a series of living room concerts, eschewing the stadiums to play gigs in people’s homes. What was that experience like? Did you learn anything new about the relationship your fans have with your music that you didn’t know before?
AO: I love meeting the people who are directly invested. I have wanted to do this sort of thing for years but was unsure of how. I learned that I can depend on my fans and, through their support, they will be the ones who allow music to be pure.
They are entirely in control, now more than ever. My belief in my fans and their belief in me has emboldened me and suggested I should continue to move forward.
MF: What’s on the cards for the coming months? Can we expect any Australian tour announcements in the near future?
AO: It would be nice to get back to Australia but your guess is as good as mine whether and when that will be.
Only Run is available now.
Listen: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Blameless