Owen Ashworth’s newest project, Advance Base, will feel familiar to fans of his earlier work. It is a continuation of the soft, melancholy, keyboard tunes and hum-mumbled vocals Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, his first pseudonym, became known for.
Watching the show, I had the feeling that Ashworth was singing his tiny audience a bedtime story, cradling them in his arms and cooing them to sleep with visions of snow-covered streets and old, love-worn cars. Such was his tone, sweet and melancholy. His audience, which could not have numbered more than a dozen, was scattered before him in little metal folding chairs, quiet and transfixed inside his stories. He sang about how losing a cat after an apartment fire changed his relationships with people, and how much respect he had for it when, after three weeks on the streets, it returned to him, skinny but alive. He sang about his religious sister, and her blind, hopeless faith. He sang about being alone on his couch, waiting desperately for a someone to come home. He sang about his daughter, and about how he doesn’t see his old friends so much anymore-all in a poet’s gruff baritone.
And Ashworth is, in my opinion, primarily a poet. He writes little goodnight hyms on his (what I assume to be) Casiotone keyboard, and he sings them as a bard might sing about a prince’s great deeds. But Ashworth sings about himself and his own experiences of living, loving, and losing. He is a bard of the everyday struggles of real people, and he is a poet who speaks about the subtle emotions of the tender heart, showcasing his work in scenes of the recognizable and the mundane. Most of his characters on his latest album, Nephew in the Wild, are people from the Midwestern United States, who deal with depression and feelings of loneliness, epitomizing what Ashworth seems to view as the struggle of living. This is what makes his work at once so powerful and so relatable; he writes about being alive.
Listening to his tender poetry, I am reminded of the simple, spiritual, and bard of laymen, Leonard Cohen. Ashworth was very particular about exactly the softness of light behind him, and asked for his vocals to be adjusted three separate times during the show. The Make.Shift Art Space was the perfect place for this intimate, perfectionist attitude towards performance, as his audience was responsive to his changes, giving him thumbs-ups when he hit exactly the right balance. I have never been to a Leonard Cohen show, but I like to imagine him performing at a similar venue–talking with his audience, and telling stories of his life face-to-face. Ashworth was less overtly spiritual than the ex-monk Cohen, but still there was a sense of emotional purity seeping into his words.
Ashworth’s new project, Advance Base, is named after an Antarctic meteorological station, way out on the ice. This name, while symbolizing a departure from the music he made while being Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, calls our attention to the state of loneliness. Nothing is more isolating than being stationed at a base in the Antarctic, after all. So how do we, sitting on our couches, or out drinking coffee, or seeing an interesting show, still feel lonely?