The Making of Backroad Carnival, chapter 3: Sell You My Soul

June 23, 2017

In May 2014, I went on an epic field recording trip through the heartland of Ethiopia with a team of non-academics led by Quino Piñero and Jonathan Banes. The goal was to get 1) lots of footage for the beautiful film Roaring Abyss directed by Quino, and 2) high quality audio for a groovy compilation released by Jonathan called Out of Addis. Needless to say, many strange, beautiful and horrifying things happened on this trip, which you can read about in depth if you scroll down this blog a bit. There was one very specific moment in all this that triggered the beginning of my song “Sell You My Soul”: I was in a storage godjo (hut) setting up microphones and gear to prepare the terrain for a recording session in the remote northern mountains of the Wollo region when a a young dude began pressing me to buy one of his two sisters (who couldn’t have been more than 11 and 14 years old). They were behind his back looking at me shaking their heads, silently imploring me not to buy them. At first I thought this was a joke, but it kept going for 10 minutes or so and became quite disturbing. He made perverted hand gestures, saying the girls would be really “good” in a couple of years. He finally got the message that I wasn’t interested and moved on. You can read all about that exceedingly bizarre day here.

I think this little moment represented the breaking of the levees in my mind about what mankind appeared prepared to do to get ahead. I had been in Africa for a full year by this point, and I suppose that that experience just unraveled all my head-in-the-sand naiveté and willful ignorance that I had keenly tried to preserve up until then. There had been some other experiences: a road trip to Wenchi crater a few hours outside Addis that went completely awry, with young, agressive, unemployed men desperate to fleece us for every last birr the minute they saw we were broken down and desperate; people (including some we had met) being callously tossed in prison for voicing even mild forms of dissent or for being (falsely) accused of wrongdoing; the witnessing of rampant prostitution, which had apparently skyrocketed over the previous several years; etc etc.

But in the end, this was merely the African piece of the horror puzzle. The song is more of a general overview of soul-vending (see lyrics below). I think I have been starting to become very uneasy in this modern world with the idea of putting all aspects of my self out there. So, while of course I was shocked at this guy trying to sell me his sister, it became a giant metaphor for what we are all doing – putting all aspects of our public and private lives on “sale” to get more attention, more likes, more success, and, in the end, more money. This is all the more daunting when your work involves having a strong online presence, as it seems increasingly expected that you share everything. Ok, so politicians, media “personalities”, actors, models all do this, so why not musicians? But it does makes me particularly sad to see artists broadcasting to the public at large their latest offspring, their partners, and other sordid details of their personal lives (including “leaked” sex tapes). It’s probably a classic case of sink-or-swim, and that my luddite self should just jump on the bandwagon of social media-induced oversharing, but sending this information out to people I don’t know makes my stomach turn. How can one really have a private life if even that is given away to the public? I know that google, apple, facebook, uber and others already have all this info in their databases, but does that mean everyone else also gets to have it?
We all know that babies, pets, rumors/gossip, fake news, and leaked private footage will get you exponentially more attention than anything else you do. So is the calculation that by making the private public and thereby constructing a virtual sense of “community” around you, the public will buy you in all your commodified incarnations? Whoopdidoo. I refuse to do this and so I’ll never “make it”. I don’t really care either, but the further we head into the future, the more I want to head into the woods. For now though I’ll swim, but hopefully more on my own terms.

With my friend, filmmaker Israel Seoane, and the additional help of cameraman Yoni Robbins, we hastily made a music video here in Paris featuring the actor Florent Dorin as a sort of Mephistopheles producer guy who buys the souls of each musician and molds the band to his liking. The irony of course being that we sold our souls and yet are singing this song to an empty concert hall..
The film was shot in multiple locations around Paris, with the main last scene at the New Morning, a premier venue in north-central Paris (thanks to Tom Woods for hooking that up!).

Sell you my soul for a bottle of homemade gin
Sell you my sister with a toothless craven grin
Sell you my future if right now it guarantees I win
I’ve deflated my ego, auctioned off my psyche
There’s a blowout discount on all that is me

Sell you my wife at the drop of a Stetson hat
Sell you my iddy biddy little kid for my chance at bat
Sell you the shirt off my best bud’s back
Used to say there are some things money can’t buy
Doesn’t mean that I can’t give it my very best try

Sell you my socks to get a pair of shiny gator skin shoes
Sell you my body and pretend I don’t approve
Used to sell the uptown jazz and now I sell the lowdown blues
I’ll give you my troubles, my sins, my weakness for free
And you’ll come buying everything else off me

Sell you my soul.

The recording process
I sent a demo of this to Jean-Etienne and Geoffroy at Tonehouse Studio and they immediately thought “analog”. So after touring and performing the song a bit with the band, we piled into the studio and recorded a few takes live on to a Studer tape machine. I’m on guitar/vocals, Ben Body plays upright bass, David Chalumeau is on harmonica, Patrick Gigon is on drums, Daniel Mizrahi is on lead guitar. We then picked the best version and went back and re-recorded the guitars, the vocals, and the harmonica to get the sounds we wanted. Later my brother overdubbed Rhodes keys, and members of the Gospel Travelers in Annapolis, Maryland recorded some gritty backing vocals at the end.


One Response to “The Making of Backroad Carnival, chapter 3: Sell You My Soul”

  1. Loving the album! Keep these coming!

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