Keep It Like A Secret; An interview with Brad Peterson

Indie-pop songwriter Brad Peterson recorded his latest, The Ellipsis Album, in a wooded area near Lake Michigan north of Chicago, where he built a little back-yard garden shed – effectively a music-making laboratory where wrote and recorded his songs. His studio hideout is the place of childhood fantasies as are his past accomplishments; Brad has shared stages with Jeff Buckley and Radiohead. Unfortunately, he all but stopped making music after a spinal injury left him partially paralyzed and unable to record or perform for several years and learning to brush his teeth and to get dressed became the predominant priority. Fortunately, with the help of skilled doctors, long months of rehabilitation, and painful hard work he’s finally back to physical – and musical – health.
The idea for the record occurred to Peterson on a hazy-pale morning out by the shed — the air was perfumed with fresh-ground coffee and he saw beams of sunlight through tall pines slowly shifting like from a blurry dream. A sense of calm washed over him like a murmur of hushed ambient sounds. From his dust-covered speakers came a warm tone seeming to reveal long-kept secrets and childhood memories of a smile of a familiar face. The the music on the The Ellipsis Album captures this experience.
Ghettoblaster recently spoke with Peterson about recovery, rebirth and his vivid musical vision.
When did you first begin writing the material for The Ellipsis Album?
Just a few months ago. Most of the album was written and recorded in May and June 2017. The last track, “See you on the other side,” was written the night before I sent out the master so I only had a few hours to record it in its essential form.
Tell us about the record? Is there a cohesive theme to the tracks? Or is more a collection of songs?
Once I realized I wanted to make a full length album, it came together fast — spending about two to three days per song once I had an idea. I didn’t deliberately set out to perform everything myself at first, but eliminating other musicians to learn and play my ideas, certainly sped up the workflow. I built a garden shed studio in my backyard where I spend most of my days dreaming up new stuff and experimenting with the dozens of instruments within arm’s reach. Because it’s a snapshot in time of what I’m thinking, there’s a continuing thread with regard to the subjects and melodic sensibility.
This album almost didn’t get made. Can you tell us about your spinal injury and recovery?
I began losing the use of my right arm about six years ago from what the doctors describe as “a perfect storm of physical conditions” coupled with what I describe as “an Evel Knievel disposition.” My spinal cord was strangled and damaged. Over the following year, all strength was lost in the right and the left began to go too. I had few other choices but to undergo some pretty scary surgery and the medical team basically told me I’d never be 100 percent again — that this was more to “prevent further damage” than to offer recovery.
My surgeon was a professor at Northwestern Medical who thoughtfully managed my expectations while still offering me some hope. After the procedure, It was hell for about three or four years, but I kept going. It became more and more tolerable over time and when I felt strong enough, I built the garden-shed studio. That was part of my self-imposed mental and physical therapy. I’m now able to continuously play for extended periods. I’m just grateful and perhaps my work ethic and productivity reflects that.
The opening lines to your single “What The Open Heart Allows” (“Abounding constellations shown, Luminous we’re not alone”) are quite celestial. What is the story behind the song?
I have a few “celestial” dreams per year since I was about four years old. It’s difficult to describe the epic magnitude of these dreams and even Industrial Light & Magic would be challenged to reproduce them. If you can imagine Jean-Pierre Jeunet directing an animated sequence inside Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” where there’s a sense of universal connectedness, that was the dream from which “What The Open Heart Allows” was born.
“All Roads Lead To Home” feels like an outlier compared to the rest of the tracks. We hear a lot of Super Furry Animals in those synth sounds. Are they an influence?
For “All Roads…” I was tinkering with an analogue synth with an arpeggiator; At a certain point when the knobs were just so, it became reminiscent of the ARP used on the Who’s Next album. I must have channeled a sleepy Roger Daltrey. I wasn’t afraid to be a bit silly and I suppose that might result in some conspicuous moments.
What artists are you listening to these days?
Off the top of my head and in no particular order: The Honeydogs, Tame Impala, Dr Dog, Punch Brothers, Ray Lamontagne, Callum Pitt, The Zombies, Blake Mills, David Gray and a stack of CDs that I bought from local artists. I spend more time in silence than I do listening to music, really. Music is never a passive activity for me; I can get overloaded.
What’s next for Brad Peterson? Videos or touring?
When performing live, I prefer to play with a full band and right now no one in my band has heard this album yet; I’m exploring that idea. I hope to follow up with another album in the spring. Mostly, I’ll continue trying to be useful to others.
(Visit Brad Peterson here.)