Although Mike Gordon has done plenty of recording in the four years since the dissolution of Phish, there's a case to be made that his just-released new album, The Green Sparrow, is his first real solo project. The initial releases bearing Gordon's name came with the potent co-billing of extraordinary acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke, and his first true solo album, Inside In, was a sonic experiment designed as a companion piece to his 2003 film, Outside Out.
"All those projects were sort of a precursor to this one," says Gordon. "Inside In started as a movie soundtrack, and I took the score music and added lyrics, which was really fun, but all the songs are about the characters in the movie, and it's very texture-oriented. With Leo, obviously, since it's a collaboration, it's a whole different animal, and on both of them, we got together and shared ideas and did a little jamming to see what worked. It was just a meeting of minds to see where we flowed together, and we emphasized that. In a sense, it's simpler because it's one person, but it's also more complicated because it means anything goes. I don't have to find the common ground between me and another person. I have a lot of different musical tastes and interests. When you're by yourself, you can do anything, so you have to impose limitations."
When the time came to start thinking about what he would do on his "first" solo album, Gordon tried to keep his creative mind open to the possibilities that might present themselves down the line. From that standpoint, the songwriting he did throughout 2007 was focused but in a relatively directionless manner.
"I had a few general goals in mind, but there was a lot of room for letting it become what it was going to be," says Gordon. "I knew I wanted to spend a whole year songwriting and nothing else. It was a world of activity, all day, every weekday, for a year. And to do it myself. I'd never heard of someone doing it that way. My fantasy was to write enough for either three albums or an entire repertoire for a new band, plus whatever other band members would contribute. What came out was this album."
What actually came out was well over five dozen compositions, which Gordon continually whittled down until he arrived at the 10 that make up The Green Sparrow. Part of the culling process included finding the songs that would represent the spirit Gordon had envisioned for the album.
"I knew I wanted an upbeat, rhythmically oriented album that would reflect my general excited state of mind," he says. "I knew I wanted to have some more sophistication to the chord progressions and the layering of parts but also have it be more accessible on a certain level than my previous stuff. And I knew I was going to be working alone for a year."
Gordon originally believed that he would be making strictly instrumental music when he began recording. He quickly abandoned that direction when lyrics presented themselves almost spontaneously and became a focal point of his musical message.
"That only lasted for a couple of weeks before I knew I wanted to concentrate on lyrics as the center of things," he says.
After Gordon spent his year writing, trying new recording techniques and exploring different instruments (he played bass, guitar, keyboards and percussion on much of the album), he had more than 40 new songs - which complemented the 20 or so that he had written previously and never used. When it came time to pare down the material in order to craft the sonic profile of The Green Sparrow, Gordon knew what he needed to hear to fulfill the concept in his head.
"Of all the piles of them, certain ones stuck in my soul and resonated in a certain way," says Gordon. "Maybe it had to do with the melody, or there's maybe a certain catchiness that caught in me to a point, where I was able to say with certain songs, 'There's no way that I cannot put this on the album.' And then there were other songs that it would have been nice to have on the album, but it would be OK to wait. I chose the ones that are awake and upbeat, as opposed to some of the ones that I mixed and didn't use, which are dreamier and more contemplative. I know I'm going to release them, but for now I wanted it to be kind of an awake vibe."
Ironically, The Green Sparrow nearly wound up being a quasi-Phish reunion in the most flexible sense of the term. The Phish bloggers will likely make much of the fact that guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell are featured prominently on the track "Traveled Too Far," and Jon Fishman supplied drums to a song that wasn't used for the album. But in the literal sense, only Gordon and Anastasio actually inhabited the same space while working on The Green Sparrow; Gordon mixed the album and Anastasio added his guitar part at Anastasio's Barn studio in Vermont, where the album was mixed.
"Traveled Too Far" is one of a trio of tracks on The Green Sparrow that shows Gordon in a large band context, even if not everyone was present for the session. "I did a few tracks with Chuck Leavell playing keyboards, and Trey played guitar. Scott Murawski, who's now in the band, played acoustic guitar and [the Grateful Dead's] Bill Kreutzmann played on two and Joe Russo played drums on one," says Gordon. "Of those three songs, I didn't use one. Two went on the album. So Trey and I were playing on 'Traveled Too Far,' and then we added Page after the fact."
After selecting the 10 songs that defined the overall concept that Gordon had in mind for The Green Sparrow, he was still left with more than 50 songs, some of which are completed and others that will require some tinkering. Either way, Gordon has an impressive archive to work from, going forward.
"We actually recorded 17 songs and then mixed 14 and then chose 10," says Gordon. "I definitely want to use some of the others and some of the ones that I didn't record, but I also have a lot of ideas that I want to try writing and recording. I tried a whole bunch of different methods last year, but I'm still working on different ways of doing it. It's going to be kind of a dilemma - how many of the old songs to put out that I'm totally in love with and how much to go in new directions and start from scratch. But in the middle of the past and future is the present, and I'm real excited about the way this album is right now."