Labor of love

Chris Bathgate's fourth album cost him lots of money and sleep, but the Michigan musician's 'Salt Year' is finally ready for release

By Chris Azzopardi

Chris Bathgate took just over two years - and lots of coffee-fueled nights - to create "Salt Year," the Michigan singer-songwriter's fourth full-length album. It was one of the most intense, and expensive, periods of his life, which didn't seem like much of one at the time. No social life. No money. No time to just sit back and reflect.

Bathgate's job then, working as the music coordinator at Ann Arbor's safe house for LGBT teens, Neutral Zone, coincided with the recording of "Salt Year." The juggling left him dead tired and so stressed he took out his frustration on his music.

"Sitting on the floor, banging on the drums, is definitely therapy," says Bathgate, who, on a recent afternoon, is seated in the backend nook of downtown Ann Arbor's Sweetwaters cafe - drinking coffee. "When there's not any time by myself for that solitude, I get really crooked. You need a moment to take a breath. I didn't have that."

The songs on "Salt Year" draw profoundly from that intense time of depletion and self-criticism - and love. Love in all its complexities. Love in all its confusion. And the partner who probably doesn't exist but the one that lives in our head anyway. Bathgate has one. Her name is Eliza, the namesake of two songs on the album.

"I'm getting old, right?" says Bathgate, though he's only 28. "I have this idea of things that I'm looking for in a person that I want. Things that I want to do when I'm older. I'm imagining those qualities in Eliza, who's that weird sketch in my mind.

"In some cases, her identity is attached to real people, but" - he says, teasing out his statement - "I will never, ever tell you who those people are."

'An intense minute'

Before moving to Ann Arbor 10 years ago, and then to his current hometown of Pinckney, Bathgate spent most of his life in the rural communities of Iowa, Kentucky and, as a kid, Illinois. No matter where he went, there was always music - especially at his uncle's farmhouse. Fiddle tunes were usually all they played. The one Bathgate remembers most is "Nail That Catfish to a Tree," a Volo Bogtrotters song.

"The fiddle sound is totally magic," he says. "It gives me goose bumps. I don't know what it is about it, but they say it's in the same frequency band as the human voice. I've been thinking about my music and how it's related."

Some of that traditional sound seeps into "Salt Year," out April 26, but the album isn't as linear as a straight-up fiddle tune.

Compared to his much-complimented "A Cork Tale Wake," released in 2007 to praise from NPR and the BBC, this album, says Bathgate, is "more balance, not so off-on and plays more like a balloon ride than a rocket ride."

He goes on, "I had an intense minute, and a lot of the songs come from that."

Bathgate's influences for "Salt Year," he says, derived from Motown music and John Lennon songs. People tell him all the time that when they hear him they hear Neil Young, even though he didn't even own a Young record until recently.

But Bathgate, who was once in a metal band, listens to just about everything - even Lady Gaga. "Trust me," he says, "I've heard her, I've turned it up. It's all research."

The "research" started as a child, when his uncles, who'd constantly gig around town, would throw a bunch of albums his way. Bathgate got attached to the words and, he says, "I suddenly started copying down lyrics from radio and became obsessive with it. Songwriting became holy to me at an early age."

Working for equality

When Bathgate wasn't scribbling down song lyrics, he had farm chores to finish. That's the kind of community he grew up in - small (he graduated high school with 45 people), secluded and narrow-minded. Then his brother came out.

"He had a lot of problems," Bathgate remembers of living in the Illinois countryside. "It wasn't really an environment where that was accepted, and he was kind of persecuted. Looking back, I was pretty inhumane."

But then something snapped in Bathgate, who was in his own bubble at the time. And he thought, "Wait a minute - why does that even matter? Why is he being treated this way?"

So Bathgate became an ally. Two years ago, he played We Are Michigan, a three-day music series promoting the awareness of LGBT issues. Before that, there was the Build-a-Boy benefit, in the backyard of somebody's Ann Arbor house, to raise money for a transgender person's surgery. And, of course, there's Neutral Zone, where he was hired to not only manage a staff and youth programming, but also to remodel their recording studio. After painting and laying carpet, he headed off to Backseat Productions on Jackson Road in Ann Arbor to record "Salt Year."

"When you have to work eight-plus hours to bring the bread home," he says, "you're left with scrapes. And that's what you're using to fuel all your creative energies."

Most of his paychecks went toward the album, and the late night/early morning routine was catching up with him. So in September, after two years with the non-profit, he left to focus on "Salt Year." "I was like, 'My record is done and this is a good place for me to break,'" he says. "It's a great place and a number-one asset."

When talking about his passion for LGBT rights as an ally, Bathgate does it the best way he knows how - by bringing it back to music. "If people in bands tell you, 'Hey, you should check out this act,' you're probably going to be like, 'Oh, well, you guys are in a band.' But if a fan says, 'Oh my god, they're so good, you should check this band out,' you'd feel more compelled because there isn't a conflict of interest.

"That's the only way I could communicate it in my mind. Everyone stands something to gain, but that separation is important just to get that message across. Maybe it makes the message stronger - and louder."

Breaking out

Bathgate's career has gained major momentum since "A Cork Tale Wake," on which he also worked with local producer Jim Roll, who owns Backseat Productions. The LP's first single was a gorgeous sing-songy piano ballad called "Serpentine."

Way before "Glee" even existed, creator Ryan Murphy took notice. He used Bathgate's song in the FX pilot for his 2008 series "Pretty/Handsome," about a transgender dad, that was never picked up. "I was still honored," Bathgate says. "I'm glad I'm on his radar."

This is how it is a lot of the time for Bathgate - he's always teased. "Music industry emails come in with large sums of money and the possibility of that happening," he says. "And that would totally help me out and solve a lot of my problems."

But he could be worse off - Pinckney isn't nearly as pricey as New York City or Los Angeles, where dreams of being a musician are often pursued. Bathgate's home on the Huron River chain of lakes is modest, but he has a piano and privacy.

"I like the isolation, to be honest," says Bathgate, who previously had short-lived places in Ypsilanti and Pittsfield. "I engage with people on my own terms, but it really does take me a lot of alone time to demo stuff and not be afraid that the neighbors are hearing."

While working on "Salt Year" he was tinkering a ton, burning through money but also envisioning the project's end-result - he, of course, just wanted to like it. No matter what the price.

"I'm either really bad at managing my finances or I'm kind of obsessive," he says. "That's probably what it was: I was like, 'I can either be really broke and get a little closer to the record I want or go out to eat twice.' It was definitely a trade-off."

Broke. Tired. Overworked. The ingredients for a good album?

Bathgate laughs. "I hope not," he says, "because I don't really want to go through that again."

Chris Bathgate

Doors 9:30 p.m. April 21, Blind Pig

208 S. First St., Ann Arbor

Mac's Bar

9 p.m. April 28

2700 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing

http://www.chrisbathgate.org

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