Alec Ounsworth has released albums with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and as Flashy Python, but he's casting out under his own name for the first time with his solo debut, Mo Beauty. Rolling Stone caught up with the Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter to get the story behind the new album and an update on the future of CYHSY.
How did you come to record this album in New Orleans?
I was there for an artists' retreat where they brought down a bunch of musicians — Will Oldham, Nicole Atkins, Hank Shocklee from Public Enemy — basically they brought in musicians to sort of say, "Here's the situation in New Orleans years after the flood." They were giving us an idea of what was happening down there and asking us to take it with us and speak out to anybody else who might be able to help.
[Los Lobos producer] Steve Berlin was another one of those artists. I met him there, and he suggested that we try to work on a record together with the musicians in New Orleans, and I've always had a thing for New Orleans, as many musicians have. It's just so full of talent and so many interesting personalities that I couldn't pass up the opportunity. And also working with Steve was a glimpse into another world, really. Steve's maybe a little more experienced than most of the people I've worked with in the past.
Were some of those songs from that huge cache of tracks you had from before Clap Your Hands Say Yeah?
Yeah, for the first Clap Your Hands Say Yeah record a lot of that stuff was pretty old from before that even started. I would say five of the songs on this record are from around that period. And then there are several newer ones and ones that maybe I tried to work into the Flashy Python record or I tried to work in Clap Your Hands and they just didn't kind of make it. [I had] the opportunity to go down and be like, "All right, let's see what Stanton Moore and George Porter think of this sort of stuff, or Robert Walter, and just take it from there."
How did it end up being released under your own name?
When we were finishing recording Steve said, "What are you going to call this?" And I said, "I guess I haven't called anything else by my name so far, so I â€˜m going to throw that in there."
So how do you know at this point whether it's a solo project, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, or Flashy Python?
That's a great question. When I was starting off it seemed a lot easier. I could do three or four songs in a day and I would see it clearly. These days, I don't really know. It's starting to get a bit muddy. That said, these three projects are all quite different. But it might just have to come to the point where they are all joined in some fashion, rather than my trying to guess which one goes best with which group of people.
When people hear that it's under your name they assume that this is the most personal of your stuff, that it's the clearest expression of what you're about. Is there any validity to that?
No, it's just the same as anything else. Clap Your Hands, I guess I was just uncomfortable with calling it by my name so I figured I had to come up with a band name. I never thought my name to be all that glamorous or anything, so I thought maybe I can try to twist it into something a little cooler. Not that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is the coolest name in the world. That was just kind of coincidence, really.
When you say that this all may merge into one thing, it's hard not to wonder whether the future of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is questionable.
I don't know. I don't know if I want to talk too much about this right now. I don't want to spread any rumors.
But you're figuring stuff out.
Yeah, pretty much. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah wasn't precisely a collective effort, you know what I mean. Not to take any credit away from the guys, who did an amazing job. I shouldn't be talking about this sort of thing. I don't want to knock anybody in the band. They did a great job, but at the same time, it was never meant to be a band, you know what I mean. It just happened to be called that.
You're also talking in the past tense.
I've decided to work on these projects right now, two records. I have material for other records and other projects. But I am kind of calling Clap Your Hands sort of an indefinite hiatus right now.
How much of the sound of the solo record developed because of the musicians who accompanied you?
Probably more than any other record this one developed because of who I was playing with. For this, I was really kind of putting myself in the hands of everybody down there and Steve as well. Steve did a great job of just kind of like maybe guessing where I would want to go. It was pretty fast - a 10-day recording, so we didn't have a lot of time to fuck around.
It's funny how a song called "South Philadelphia (Drug Days)" is one of the most New Orleans-y songs on the album.
Well that's the thing. I never knew where that song came from. Well, I knew where it came from lyrically. I wrote some Bo Diddley-esque tune years ago. One of the things Steve did was try to rhythmically draw it away from that.
When you call a song that, people are going to start asking you questions.
That's fine. That was an older song and that probably has something to do with a darker time in my life, a particular incident. I don't wanna go too into it, but it's kinda a small window into that. I don't recall when I wrote it, but I wasn't taking what had happened all too seriously.
When you hit the road, are you going to be playing everything: Flashing Python stuff, solo stuff and Clap Your Hands stuff?
Yeah. I'll probably go out there and find people being confused, and not really knowing what they're coming to see. Basically when I go out on the next tour, I'll basically be covering everything that I've written, and covering all the ground from early Clap Your Hands through all these records.
So you're an Alec Ounsworth cover band, basically.