It’s not too often we’re treated to an album that offers both ethereal, instrumental tracks and commanding lyrical ones too. Western Sky Music is a masterclass in the use of space within music, and the poignancy it can bring to a piece of art.
A Jersey native with his feet now firmly planted in Portland, Jeffrey Silverstein has been making music for over a decade. From his time in Baltimore collective Secret Mountains to releasing music with Brooklyn duo Nassau, his songwriting has always focused primarily on its use of instruments.
His fourth album, Western Sky Music, is a graceful, otherwordly journey between genre boundaries, encompassing folk, psychedelic rock and of course a little country. Enlisting a wealth of talent across each instrument, and incorporating spoken word samples, Karima Walker’s vocals and a fantastic amount of the pedal steel guitar, Silverstein takes us to a timeless land that doesn't care for your labels.
To find out more about the man behind the music, here are 10 things to know about Jeffrey Silverstein.
A teacher by day and musician by night, Silverstein feels as though he was always destined for this duality. “I’ve always had this balance of teaching and music,” he says. Initially not wanting to follow in the footsteps of his mother, a fellow special educational needs teacher, he soon resigned himself to the fact that this was what he was meant to do. “In the same way that music is in my DNA, I think teaching is too”, he muses.
Whilst grateful for the opportunity to do both, Silverstein still experiences the push and pull of it all. “Teaching requires you to be ‘on’ all day long, then you go to another version of being ‘on’, on stage. Connecting with people on both fronts feels like all of my energy is being used. But teaching also supports my music in some way, holiday breaks give a natural time to tour, and not relying on music to pay the bills also helps keep that part fun.”
Their first gig took place at 7.30am as they welcomed their classmates into their high school, a privilege afforded to them because their friend was running for class president. It was not the debut Silverstein had hoped for.
“I was sick that morning, and then broke a string but I didn’t know how to fix it or how to play on. So I played one song, and then went home sick. For the most part, I like to think my shows have improved since then.”
Music was always an important element growing up in the Silverstein family. Some of his particularly fond memories involve shopping for CDs with his dad, being told he could pick anything he wanted.
“That discovery and curiosity aspect has always been a big part of it all for me”, he reflects. “As soon as I started picking up music myself, I was like ‘Yeah, this is it.’ I’ve always played something in some capacity, it's how I’ve come to understand myself and other people. I’ve fully accepted that it's something I kind of have to do, or will always do.”
A punk fan in his high school days, it was during his time at college that Silverstein was exposed to a more psychedelic rock sound. It was a particularly prominent time for emerging bands in Baltimore, with the likes of Future Islands, Beach House and Animal Collective all beginning to pick up momentum. As part of another collective, Secret Mountains, this was where the foundations were laid for his future career, learning the inner workings of the music world.
“Secret Mountains was where I learnt to communicate within a band, how to book shows and just generally be involved in the music community. All these bands were starting to come up and I was so lucky to watch them start to get popular. It made me think I could really do it. I was sharing stages and playing with those people.”
The lofty labels of ‘cosmic’ and ‘psychedelic’ seem often to be paired with Silverstein’s music, perhaps owing in part to the dreamy pedal steel guitar that weaves its way across the album.
“I’m not quite sure what cosmic means, but I like it”, he laughs. “It feels like a door opening, and it asks a question, where saying just ‘indie’ might not. I think context helps people and if you’re not so familiar with the genre, at least they’re terms that make you think.”
Whilst making country music wasn’t his initial mission, he’s glad the genre seems to be a more open place these days. “I’m happy that people are starting to not have such a narrow view of the genre and who participates in it”, he remarks.
“Being a kid from the northeast suburbs of New Jersey, I never thought I'd be playing what people see as country music. My love of country music started in parallel with my love of collecting records. The thing you can often find the most of, for the cheapest, is country records. People want to look at the fancy records on the wall, I’m always crawling along the ground searching the dusty piles.”
Alongside his keen curiosity for discovering new records, he cites the pedal steel guitar as another of his great loves; a sound that permeates his own style. It was the guitar playing on a Chet Atkins record that caught his attention early on his own musical journey and really opened a door to other country music.
This, followed by hearing the music of Barry Walker, who now plays drums for Silverstein, was what set him on his path of discovering his own style. “He had a kind of ambient pedal steel guitar record”, he says of Walker, “and I think there's a really cool intersection between country music and ambient/instrumental music. When I heard him creating this really peaceful sound, that was a really big moment.”
In art, that is, not the outer kind. “Space is really important to me, both in art and in life. An early lesson was that you don’t need to be making sound all the time. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a song is nothing. I like movies that are slow and have minimal dialogue where you’re just taking in everything that’s happening.”
This concept has clearly informed the project, as he channels the ‘expansiveness’ of his home’s surrounding landscapes into each song. “In Portland you can pick a direction and be in the mountains, desert or the sea within hours. Out east of Oregon you can find high desert, where my wife and I spent some time on a camping trip. That’s the place I went to for this album.”
“There’s always a question of whether you want to work with the same people or create a new kind of experience”, Silverstein says of his approach to making a new album. “Collaboration was a big part of this album, building on the trust I already had whilst also welcoming some new people to the fold.”
Featuring a team of collaborators old and new, Western Sky Music is Silverstein’s second album to be produced by Ryan Oxford, with Barry Walker on pedal steel and Alex Chapman playing bass. Dana Buoy, formerly of Akron/Family, played drums - which Silverstein confesses was a big deal as the band had “kind of changed my life”. Guitarist William Tyler was also part of the album, which Silverstein says was a “special” moment, as well as vocals from Karima Walker on ‘Birdsong in the Canopy’, the album’s hypnotic closing track.
Spending their days with just the radio for company, Silverstein can’t help but wonder what truckers are all listening to. “Think about how long they’re driving for!” he exclaims. “I’m so glad it’s a medium that is still so popular. People have told me radio is how they’ve discovered me, and I really love hearing that.”
For true country fans, humour is as important to the music as heartbreak. The wit of country musicians is not lost on Silverstein, a particular fan of the genre's funny side.
“The wit and humour in country music is a really big appeal to me, it’s kind of like a dark comedy”, he laughs. “You can say a lot with a little, and that plays to my own tastes.”
The album’s opening line on ‘Cowboy Grass’, “I don’t like flying / But I like getting around” was an off-the-cuff, accidental poetry moment from Barry Walker as they discussed their mutual dislike for flying. “He’s got country music in his blood, he’s from Nashville.”