A slow unfolding: Chequerboard’s next move
It took John Lambert five years and a reluctant Fundit campaign to get his new album out – it is well worth the wait
Chequerboard aka John Lambert. Photograph: Kate McKeown
He takes his time, but it’s worth the wait. Five years on from Penny Black, Chequerboard’s John Lambert has finally got it together to write, record and (via a Fundit campaign) gather up enough cash to deliver his new album, The Unfolding.
If you’re not aware of Chequerboard’s slowly throbbing sonic palpitations, then it is time you were. Penny Black, from 2008, set a standard in how to create music that was simultaneously serene and sturdy – here was nominally ambient music deeply imbued with melody. If hipster heaven had spa treatment rooms, Penny Black would be the soundtrack.
Lambert’s new album is just as beautiful, but this time around he has broadened out the sound to include other musicians and other ideas.
Lambert, a bearded, bespectacled bicyclist in his late 30s, is a calm speaker with a gentle disposition who is into meditation. His characteristics reflect his music. So it’s not an enormous surprise that we had to wait so long for a follow-up to Penny Black.
“I probably realised from the last album that it just takes as long as it takes. I learned to not make promises to people, so I buttoned my lip this time.”
The Fundit route
How does a critically acclaimed musician with no label support manage to release a record? Working as a graphic designer brings in some funds, but once the bills are paid, there isn’t much left to pay studio costs and musicians. Moving back to Dublin a couple of years ago from Sligo, Lambert achieved a reasonable balance in the division between design work and music, but he knew that, for a new record to find an audience, he would have to look beyond his own resources. And so, in late 2011, he turned to Fundit.
“You need nerves of steel to do it, but you’re cornered,” says Lambert. “It was either [find] funding or else the album might not have been out for years. I was apprehensive, but I have to say it’s all been a fabulous journey. Usually, I would tend to work on my own, and if help was offered I would just batten down the hatches, so this was a big exercise in letting other people on board – that was a first.
“I’m not somebody who tugs on people’s arms, and I think that helped, because the funding flowed through very nicely. I asked for over €7,000, and actually getting more than that put the wind in my sails.”
That’s an apt analogy for The Unfolding: there’s a pleasurable breeze filtering through it. There is, explains Lambert, a theme of sorts, a narrative arc touching on childhood, loss, sorrow, resignation, acceptance, relief and contentment. Issues of one kind or another are being addressed and resolved, you feel. Of course, being mostly instrumental, only the track titles (The Sorrow Bird; Like a Bell to a Southerly Wind; Today Is Beautiful, We Have Things To Do; A Field of Night) shed light on whatever thoughts lie beneath.
Does it matter that some people will like the music for what it is and not appreciate the themes? That’s fine, says Lambert. When you’re inside the music as much as he is, he implies, it’s difficult to comprehend how someone else can experience it.
“Once the album has been written in terms of melody, pacing and expression, you then slide into the more subtle language that’s around and underneath it. It’s just a language I have in my head for interpreting stuff – if the feeling of it is something that some people get, then great. All I can say is that it’s my choice to try to subtly imply these things, so song titling is really important. I like the minimal palette . . . for telling a story or a narrative.”
An artistic pursuit
It is crucial, Lambert points out, to recognise and cultivate the notion that creating music is your work, your art. The more you ignore that, he says, the sooner it will erupt into a stress rash.
“The trick is to learn how to make it sustainable. I enjoy the graphic design, and I love the music. I like the idea of doing small tours, yet coming back home to some level of a livelihood. Music is a particularly bizarre pursuit – when you think of it more like an art practice, so much of the stress is removed.”
The Unfolding is on Lazybird Records