Making and Then Unmaking

by Derek Piotr

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1.
There are little ghosts near my bed Their forgiveness spreads oil to my skin I hear wind chimes from your window And a church bell far from here While my running tortures the forest floor I consume the wind who consumes me Your ribs form branches I walk under There I’ll lay for a thousand years Your ribs form branches I walk under There I’ll lay for a thousand years
2.
Stick a spigot into a hill of sand Drain the wells from the driest land Make the cambric shirt Destroy a perfect vow Feast on only dirt There is only now
 You can watch the house next door Get unmade and then remade Always progress You have nothing to do with Launch an arrow with your hand Be in search of untroubled land Ward off Lankin and the De’il Fill all seas in with a single pail You can watch the house next door Get unmade and then remade Always progress You have nothing to do with
3.
It oozes out of everything But slowly at first You have to notice You have to collect it Carefully
 The things I hold onto Make me want to change But the more I change The more I find myself Holding on Everyone’s telling me I should move ahead But the movements I have mapped Are invisible The things I hold onto Make me want to change But the more I change The more I find myself Holding on
4.
Bolakins 02:48
Bolakins was a very fine mason As ever laid stone He built a fine castle And for pay he got none Where is the gentleman? Is he at home? He’s gone down to Marion For to visit his son Where is the lady? Is she at home? She's upstairs sleeping Said the foster to him How will we get her down Such a dark night as this? We'll stick her little baby Full of needles and pins They stuck her little baby Full of needles and pins The foster she rocked and Bolakins he sung While blood and tears From the cradle did run Down come our lady Not thinking any harm Old Bolakins He caught her in his arms Bolakins, Bolakins Spare my life one day I’ll give you many marigolds As my horse can take away Bolakins, Bolakins Spare my life one hour I’ll give you daughter Bessie My own blooming flower You better keep your daughter Bessie For to run through the flood And scour a silver basin For to catch your heart's blood Daughter Bessie climbed up In my window so high And saw her father Come a-riding hard by Oh, father, oh, father Can you blame me Old Bolakins Has killed your lady Oh, father, oh, father Can you blame me Old Bolakins Has killed your baby They hung Bolakins To the sea-gallows tree And tied the foster To the stake of stand-by
5.
It is an ocean I must shoulder an ever-present kind of ache The folks around me they grow colder Burn my heart for them at the stake Some days i feel i am cyborg care with AI intensity If you are lost or you are flagging See my heart’s already caught fire I am a cyborg Enhanced love-chip built right in me If you are lost you know I’ll find you Care with AI intensity
6.
The Creek 02:35
The leaves drop One by one Fill up the forest edge Fill up the lake How many winters will I wait for you To come inside me? For your spirit to release itself In my poor heart? The clouds move One by one Move past the tops of trees Move past the creek Move past you and me Move past just me How many springs will I begin again? The years have seen the futures I have sought But come up empty-handed Whenever you cry out I find you So why when I am crying Can’t you find me? Why whenever I cry— Why?
7.
It's a wall of snow In paradise All of us changing For that better life Did you manifest What means most to you? Cos you cant resist It's an innate pull It's an inmate's skull Forgotten in the corner By a careless warden Many years ago
 It's the letters sent To the wrong address But you wrote them all On a letterpress So you're holding hands With a time-loop And you're making friends With that theatre troupe Acting progress
8.
The River 02:17
Take a taste out of these stores Just a hint of where I’ve been: Memories of memories These will fade on their way out Of the body, unable To transform The river cuts around your ankles, But you do not cry out: You move deeper And more beautifully Into love Once I had you by my side And our laughter rose so high Beautiful and bright Now we work hard to disguise And we want to fill our nights With the effort of effort The river cuts around your ankles, But you do not cry out: You move further And more painfully From love Longing to just forget Love
9.
Light-Years 03:00
Have I faltered If you don’t trust In my conscience And abilities? Am I older In light-years of confidence? Have I faltered Irreparably? Am I able To charm you One last time? Have I faltered Irreparably? Have I wondered If you would have Too many problems That won’t see the light?

about

Dulcimer, pedal steel guitar, clavichord and banjo are not instruments that one normally associates with a new project from Derek Piotr, but his new album, Making and Then Unmaking, opens an entirely new chapter in his oeuvre. Coming out of 2019’s Avia, Piotr’s deeply personal celebration of his grandmother’s life, the artist found his interest in digital instrumentation waning and began to immerse himself instead in his long-held passion for folk music.

Diving into the Library of Congress’ archives, with a particular interest in the songs of Lena Bare Turbyfill, Piotr’s research focused on US interpretations of traditional folk music from the north of the UK (especially Scotland and Northumberland), most notably the Scottish murder ballad ‘Lamkin’. His investigation deepening, Piotr read widely around this and other songs and interviewed members of Turbyfill’s family, recording their renditions of these pieces. This stoked his excitement, and he began to formulate his own contemporary takes on this musical tradition.

This research has culminated in perhaps Piotr’s most musically ambitious and emotionally raw project to date. The composer’s voice is foregrounded throughout, operating in a different register to that of the more recognisable singing voice used on previous albums, and the historicity within each song’s lyrics and storytelling are central to their conception. There is a wide variety of acoustic instrumentation woven into the record, comprising instruments both native to western folk (acoustic guitar, pedal steel guitar, banjo) and more foreign to the genre (clavinet, saxophone, keyboards), and these formulatean often dense – but always carefully rendered – sonic palette.

Piotr wrote, produced and edited the entire album, co-mixing many of the tracks with the brilliant Scott Solter (The Mountain Goats, Spoon), and one with Nicolas Vernhes (Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors), orchestrating nine intricate compositions that are equally complex and delicate. There are connections, mysteries and lyrical echoes throughout the album, both intentional and coincidental, with layers of research and poetic resonance threaded through each composition. Stories, experiences and histories – both personal and universal – are evoked and reshaped in the context of the record.

Given the centrality of tradition within the album, it is fitting that the first song in this collection is the oldest. ‘From Your Window’, initially conceived as a more lyrically abstract piece, was birthed ten years ago, pre-Piotr’s solo career. In its finished form, Piotr’s insistent vocal is intertwined with a thicket of instrumentation, including acoustic guitar by Ed Williams (who performs on several songs here), percussion, and dulcimer by Tom Chandler.

The first half of the album is the most heavily inspired by folkloric tradition, particularly in its lyrical themes. Despite its extensive orchestration (among other elements, there are strings, Mark Lavengood’s pedal steel guitar, harp by Janelle Lake and three different acoustic guitar players), ‘Invisible Map’ feels even more intimate than the album opener. Piotr’s lyrics are self-reflexive and self-deprecating, exploring the contradictions inherent in simultaneously dwelling on and documenting past experiences while seeking growth and progress. He describes this as the ‘Dolly Parton moment’ of the record – a definition that fits perfectly, even if it is one that certainly couldn’t be attributed to much of his previous work.

‘Sandhill Command’ is one of the most recognisably ‘authentic’ renderings of folk on Making and Then Unmaking, perhaps owing to the humanity of its single-take vocal and the litany of folk lexica scattered through its verses. Accompanied only by David Karp’s acoustic guitar and subtle steel pedal guitar from Lance Martin, Piotr here again reflects on the notion of progress and development, but this time from the externalised perspective of an invested onlooker.

At the album’s centre are its most intertextual moments: ‘Bolakins’ and ‘The Stake/De’il In The Kitchen’. Piotr’s extensive research into and deep admiration for the balladic folk music of Scotland and Northumberland is borne out most explicitly in these performances. ‘Bolakins’ is a variation on ‘Lamkin’, with the artist’s determination to pay tribute to Lena Turbyfill’s rendition being further emboldened by the revelation that longtime colleague Shirley Collins had recorded her version (‘Cruel Lincoln’) after coming across it on a BBC compilation. These singers’ moving deliveries of this traditional Scottish murder ballad – whose history is one tied up in a variety of myths, legends and rumours – inspired Piotr’s uniquely North Carolinian take. ‘The Stake/De’il In The Kitchen’ is another study in selfhood, juxtaposing Lance Martin’s banjo (that well-worn staple of stripped-back US folk) with a playfully futuristic lyric about cyborgism and artificial intelligence. The coda interpolates the strathspey ‘De’il In The Kitchen’, here slowed to 88 BPM and performed by Jesse Ofgang (border bagpipes).

The final four tracks on Making and Then Unmaking maintain the folk-inflected orchestration of their precursors, but with a more autobiographical emphasis in the lyrical content. Changes in personal circumstances give much of this final act something of a ‘torch song’ aesthetic. Here, Piotr studies the ways in which relationships are made and unmade. The saddest piece on the record, ‘The Creek’ is also the densest musical composition here: its textures incorporate reed organ (Anders Lillebo), two banjos, viol da gamba (David Karp), autoharp (Alice Springs) and gorgeous backing vocals (Cassie Tarakajian). A lament, certainly, but one whose musical setting seems designed to obscure the singer’s apprehensive delivery of such revelatory lyrics.

‘Snow In Paradise’ and ‘The River’ also contain a wealth of instrumentation, with the former combining keyboards (David Karp), glass marimba (Noah Sanderson), drums/pencilina (Bradford Reed) and saxophone (Justin Comer), and the latter complementing Lance Martin’s pedal steel guitar with the addition of mandolin (also Martin) and clavichord (Ed Williams). Both pieces began as more fleshed-out works, but during the formulation of the record they were stripped down to establish a more Appalachian timbre. The lyrics to ‘Snow In Paradise’ are the most abstract on Making and Then Unmaking, but Piotr’s sensitive vocals illuminate their intimacy nonetheless. The more classical romanticism of ‘The River’, whose baroque nature nods to David Munrow, takes sonic inspiration from Björk’s Volta; specifically her clavichord recording technique. By placing the microphone inside the clavichord, the tonality is brought to full bloom, its enormity cradling and elevating Piotr’s vocal.

The closing piece, Piotr’s personal favourite, is a beautifully simple composition that feels both timeless and individual. ‘Light-Years’ features album mainstays Ed Williams (acoustic guitar), Mark Lavengood (pedal steel guitar) and David Karp (clavinet), and the instrumentation – which at first glance seems contradictory – is perfectly balanced here. The folk sound that Piotr has established across Making and Then Unmaking reaches its final destination on this song, with the overarching motif of a North Carolinian take on Scottish/Northumberlandian ballads expanded with the addition of Lavengood’s Weissenborn – a delicate texture reminiscent of the kora playing of Malian virtuoso Toumani Diabaté. In this way, ‘Light-Years’ acutely embodies the balance of the entire album. Derek Piotr has steeped Making and Then Unmaking in a variety of communal global musical traditions, but his lovingly detailed research, extensive song-writing process and deeply personal evocations have allowed him to produce nine beautifully fresh and contemporary sounding compositions: a musical history, made and unmade.

-Dr. Michael Waugh, Newcastle University

credits

released May 14, 2021

Written, sung, composed, produced and edited by Derek Piotr, except where noted.
Mastered by Rashad Becker at Clunk. Track 4 master recording edited by Derek Piotr.

Cover photography by Alex Weber. Post: John Keon.
„Appalachian Loki” character concept by Derek Piotr.
„Bolakins” woodblock print by Pavia Burroughs.
Poncho by Mostly Heard Rarely Seen.
Blouse by Equipment.
Scarf by J. McLaughlin.

Logo design by Derek Piotr.
Lyric map and disc ring design by David Joez Villaverde.
Disc marigold by Pavia Burroughs.

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Derek Piotr

Derek Piotr is a folklorist, researcher and performer whose work focuses primarily on the human voice.

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