Cheval Sombre releases his third album, Time Waits for No One, on February 26. It is his first solo release for over eight years, following 2018’s critically acclaimed collaboration with Galaxie 500 and Luna frontman Dean Wareham, and the first of two new albums scheduled for 2021, both of which have been produced by Sonic Boom.
It will be available on vinyl – white in record shops and a frosted clear and blue splatter exclusively from Bandcamp – plus CD and digital.
Cheval Sombre is the nome d’arte of Chris Porpora, a poet from upstate New York whose otherworldly psychedelic lullabies on his self-titled album from 2009 and its follow-up, Mad Love (2012), won him a cult following. Time Waits for No One ushers in his most prolific period, and serendipitously the world has finally slowed down to his pace. This is no lockdown record, but Cheval Sombre’s reclusive, reflective music is its perfect soundtrack.
“I’ve always said that what I really want to do with music is to give people sanctuary,” he explains. “Pandemic or not, the world has always felt as though it were spinning out of control to me, and so if folks have slowed down, I do see it all as an opportunity to discover vital realms which have always been there, but we’ve been too rushed and distracted to encounter.”
Time Waits for No One is also his finest and most fully realised body of work to date and, appropriately enough for a record that has taken so many years to come to fruition, across eight original songs, an instrumental and a closing cover of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘No Place to Fall’, its overarching theme is time itself; what it is and what role it inevitably plays in all of our lives.
“Linear time marches on, whether we are awake or asleep, whether we like it or not,” he says of the concept, which was at least in part inspired by Thomas Merton’s translations of ancient Chinese philosophy in The Way of Chuang Tzu. “This way of looking at time can be a trap, and a profound source of suffering. But I’ve certainly fallen victim to these illusions, and I think that it’s important to acknowledge that aspect of our humanity.”
But the record is also timeless, contrasting the musical simplicity of Cheval Sombre’s open-tuned acoustic guitar curlicues with the beautiful, sweeping and ornate arrangements of Sonic Boom’s keyboards and Gillian Rivers’ and Yuiko Kamakari’s strings. The end result is something akin to Daniel Johnston backed by the Mercury Rev of Deserter’s Songs. Elemental and earthbound, but simultaneously and very subtly shooting for the stratosphere.
“Music doesn’t have to be so ambitious all of the time,” he says. “Once a lovely element is discovered, I say let it ring out for a while – allow the listener to get acquainted with it, to enjoy it, to lean on it. No need to take it away and replace it with all kinds of technical flurry. There is a place in music where we might suggest something eternal, a refuge – something to rely on.”
Taking time out with Cheval Sombre
How did this record come about? “In many ways, I felt that Mad Love would be the last record I would do. The content of that album came from a treacherous way of living, and by the time it came out, I was amazed it even happened. But the songs on Mad Love came about naturally and easily, looking back now. The songs on this record came about in sudden rushes – irrationally, unexpectedly, with significant gaps in between – yearly stretches, even. There was no view, or any pressure to make another record. But suddenly a song is in your lap and you wonder what it’s doing there. Sometimes it didn’t feel like a blessing – a sudden song – it felt inconvenient, intrusive. But this song happens and it sticks around, and you learn to live with it. There is a luxury in simply living in one song for a long while – to let a song develop on its own, to watch it become itself. What a privilege – what a wonderful, illuminating thing. Songs are incredible teachers, whether they are invited or not. I had no choice but to acknowledge that these entities were building. I must’ve made a list, and realised that despite making no plans, plans were being made. There was a record – there was something to confront. Writing poems is a whole other process. There is a conscious, unfolding deliberation, while these songs just came bursting through, and I had to learn them, and from them, long after they appeared.”
Why the eight-year gap since Mad Love? “Life has this way of getting in the way of making records. Life has to be lived so that songs can come into existence. Experience brings music, and one never knows what the next sound will be. So, during the course of a life thoroughly lived, a song is born. And despite how much linear time goes by, once you’ve got a song which is full, wholly a world unto itself, you say wow – I’ve got something here, but you don’t want to wait for a whole album to follow because this one song was hard-earned, and who knows when another song may visit again. In those moments it’s important to put it out, under the best conditions possible, to give it its due. I suppose there are a few instances of these moments out there on wax – between Mad Love and now – and I could not be more grateful to the labels who have helped bring them out [A version of ‘It’s Not Time’ was released on 7” by Slightly Delic in 2014; ‘Had Enough Blues’ and ‘Hitch a Ride’ by Fat Elvis in 2018]. ”
What about the physical recording and the people who helped you make it? “Music is physical, isn’t it? One gets possessed, and it’s go find a guitar, or hit some keys on a piano, or just hum. The body gets up, and we follow where it leads, don’t we? Often after putting down a decent version of a song at my place by the river upstate, I’d jump on a train and go and see Darshan [Jesrani, one half of New York DJ duo Metro Area], who with his own hands built an incredible studio down in Brooklyn. We’ve been friends since school, so there is endless unspoken magic when we get together – just trust. He is the capturer. If I find a flower up north and bring it his way, he sees it doesn’t wilt while we record it properly. Gillian [Rivers] was often too in Brooklyn, bringing those singular classical strings, all heavenly but terribly and necessarily earthly, too. Dean [Wareham] is a virtuoso guitar player, and I’ve noticed that my songs bring out the atmospheric side of his playing. Since we started recording together, Britta [Phillips] has astounded – the unexpected vocal, bassline, keyboard touch – always just right. And I always find it difficult to articulate the Sonic Boom/Cheval Sombre thing. Alchemical, is what it is. We’ve never questioned why it works – we just let it happen.”
Would you say this album is more earthbound than escapist? “The songs selected for this record are those acknowledging what it is to be caught in this linear world, consumed by darkness, trouble, sensuality, doubt, suffering and yes – the news cycle of doom and desperation. ‘Had Enough Blues’ is the closest thing I’ve ever gotten to a topical song, and then Pete did this incredible, unexpected word collage at the end of it, cementing it as such – and wickedly so. Anger is smouldering there for sure, but the song is also about stepping out of cycles of suffering, through music. Remember – the blues are redemptive.”
Why did you choose to cover Townes Van Zandt? “Townes Van Zandt speaks to me – his depiction of time as a train [“Time, she’s a fast old train/She’s here then she’s gone”] is eloquent, precise. This album is also about travel and the many facets of love, so lyrically there are affinities. Townes was a masterful writer, able to merge concepts of time, travel and love into one, short tune. I did ‘Greensboro Woman’ on the record with Dean, so it felt nice to include ‘No Place to Fall’ as a hint of continuity.”
Do you see your music in a contemporary way, or does time just catch up with you now and again? “It’s for all times. The greatest compliment one can give a piece of music is to acknowledge its timelessness. There are songs that I’ve played endlessly from when I was very young on cassette tapes which have since broken, bought again on wax, CD, digitally – songs of which I know I will never tire. If there are gaps between my releases, my hope is that in the end, when something released in 2021 sits beside another from 2008, that the two coexist easily, each holding its own. I’d like it to be impossible for a new listener to distinguish between releases in terms of (linear) time – simply that each is an accessible world unto itself, full of light.”