Artist Profile: Literary musician Chris Bathgate returns to Michigan

Courtesy of Chris Bathgate
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By Amelia Zak, Daily Music Editor
Published March 11, 2015

Who is the coolest teacher you’ve ever had? Maybe they were well versed, well traveled, or even just very well dressed. Many favorite teachers are described as more relatable, or able to inspire interest or personal immersion into a typically academic topic.

Imagine an instructor who teaches only in the summertime, dictates writing techniques and the lessons to be derived from literature on the side of a mountain in the American northeast. He loves John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut and holds garnered experiences from the real-world application of inspiration derived from literature in the form of lyricism. This is because you have a teacher who also leads a double life as a celebrated indie folk singer-songwriter of especially potent fame in the Ann Arbor community. He’s the coolest teacher you’ve ever had; he is Chris Bathgate.

Though some University students may know Bathgate from his role at the University’s New England Literature program, his career extends far beyond the depths of the forrests of New Hampshire. Bathgate attended the University back in the early 2000s and with the gained support and from the school’s community of musicians as well as the nurturing warmth of the general Ann Arbor music scene.

“Ann Arbor helped me the most in providing an infrastructure that allowed emerging musicians to grow;that’s probably the number one thing I can thank Ann Arbor for,” Bathgate said. And musical growth is what followed his collegiate experience.

In 2006, Bathgate simultaneously released two albums, A Detailed Account of Three Dreams and Throatsleep, in addition to an EP. This excessive deployment of music was ultimately deemed successful, grabbing for him the 2006 title of “Best Solo Artist in Michigan” from Real Detroit Weekly. This young initial fame launched his career forward, as far as overseas, and placed him as the opening act of the experimental indie pop band, Saturday Looks Good to Me, in their European tour. He signed on to numerous labels, including the famous European, Björk-approved, One Little Indian. The opening track of his 2007 album A Cork Tale Wake, “Serpentine,” earned the acclaim of the NPR’s Song of the Day back in 2008. And since his accomplishments of the ’00s, and his gorgeously melodic most recent album, the 2011 Salt Year, Bathgate has remained, to the uneducated eye, relatively dormant.

“I took a hiatus from performing live for about two years and in the interim in that period of time I’ve been working on a record that’s actually tracking this week. And then I’ve also been working on a collaborative project titled SKULLLS, which is another record that will be coming out hopefully by the end of the year.”

All this while bouncing from a film set in Baton Rouge to a recording studio in New Orleans, Bathgate hasn’t abandoned his musical post. With his newest music venture, SKULLLS, a collaborative project that he admits gained more influence in the jazz and hip-hop world, and an upcoming tour for his nearly complete upcoming album, Bathgate’s creativity and musical advancements have not dissipated. Rather, as a riper musician, Bathgate holds the temperament and wisdom of an experienced artist. He holds a practiced process of inspiration that is still dictated in his most recent work: solitude, location and poetry.

“For the landscape I spend a lot of time on the coast, on the East and West, and in the South most recently, but whether or not the cultural music identity of those locations makes its way into the music—the landscape surely advances my state of mind,” Bathgate said. “So in the South there are these beautiful bald cypress groves and swamp land that are incredibly beautiful.”

Bathgate dissected himself further, explaining, “I don’t know if you could pinpoint one specific note or lyric that is directly connected to those landscapes but they definitely change my state of mind.”

“Solitude is always a necessity, you just need time to work through your ideas and it’s difficult to create with people in that space, but with poetry, it’s kind of always been there,” Bathgate said. “With SKULLLS, this presence is definitely traceable.”

Unsurprising, isn’t it, that a jack-of-all-trades musician who holds skill in the complete spectrum of instruments, also assimilates the English language and his literary experience into his music. The Renaissance man himself bashfully implied it too.

“As the sole lyricist for my music, and in order to sustain this role, I think I will always find this to be true.”

And how exciting it is, really, for those individuals most apt to find indie folk inspiring are also likely to find inspiration in the words of some of Bathgate’s favorites, like Steinbeck and Vonnegut.

His perfectionism is another concurrent constant for the Bathgate process, one that he admits “maybe it’s at the dismay of fans who are waiting for an artist’s newest art but you can only release a record once, so sometimes it just takes me more time.”

His complete rejection of any half-ass job, coupled with the seemingly endless amount of hats Bathgate wears, would obviously produce a man who just can’t release new music on an incredibly regular basis. With age and experience, he’s learned to allow himself more liberties with his work, letting “patience play a key role in composing and restructuring a song.”

Time and gathered influences have funneled his music into numerous pathways and styles, and so the perfectionism takes its positive toll – one that the fans like myself must dutifully endure.

Bathgate returns to the stage this spring with an initial set of shows in Michigan before continuing onto a larger audience on the East Coast. This long set of shows begins this Saturday, March 14 at the Blind Pig where Bathgate will be performing with The Go Rounds and the Antivillains. The cyclical return of watching an Ann Arbor musician, a man so well versed, well traveled, and perhaps even well dressed, return to his original foundation of inspiration. His musical roots never feel far from his present self, a musician who once found inspiration in the accessible solitude of North Campus, surrounded by a landscape of student musicians, allowing the ebb and flow of literary academia impact his sound – everything now has changed, but everything has stayed the same.