Life rarely provides obvious answers. But if you appreciate the beauty and wonder of exploring its complex mysteries, then Seattle’s Valley Maker deserves your undivided attention. Recorded on opposite ends of the country, and composed during a nomadic period spanning two continents, When I Was A Child features twelve originals that contemplate life, love, and death, faith and doubt, time and space.
“Songwriting is a way to approach unanswerable questions, these experiences that don’t have easy conclusions,” says Austin Crane, the 27 year-old multi-instrumentalist and songwriter behind Valley Maker. “It’s a way to dwell on history and ask these big questions with other people.”
Distinctive finger-picking, unconventional tunings, and plaintive vocals anchor Crane’s music. Throughout this record, longtime collaborator Amy Godwin intertwines her voice intuitively with his; the end result sounds less like two individuals harmonizing than one who sings with astonishing depth and dimension. Some selections (“Another Way Home,” “Oh Lightning”) mesmerize the ear with little else than voice and guitar, while others are fleshed out with bass, drums, and piano.
Music opened up the world to Austin as he approached adolescence. “My dad gave me my first guitar when I turned thirteen, and I started playing in bands with friends almost immediately.” Initially fixated on keeping abreast of the newest indie music, his tastes settled and matured as the Internet directed him towards key influences like Bill Callahan (Smog), Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billy), Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia).
Valley Maker began in 2010 as Crane’s senior thesis project at the University of South Carolina. He’d achieved a modicum of local popularity fronting a band that bore his name, and needed a moniker to distinguish his new material, eventually lifting one from Callahan’s “Say Valley Maker” (on Smog’s 2005 album A River Ain’t Too Much To Love). “For me that song paints a picture of floating down this river as part of your life, and you know it’s going to end, and you’re facing that futility and figuring out what it means to respond to it.”
Big existential ideas like that perfectly mirrored the first collection of Valley Maker songs for the thesis project, which explored the Biblical origins stories of the Book of Genesis from new angles. “So much Biblically-oriented material has an agenda and tells you how to think,” Crane opines. “I wanted to make these familiar stories strange by unpacking their humanity and mystery. What’s not being said here? Or what’s being said that no one ever talks about?”
Eventually Crane posted this early material online. While it pleased him to hear that other music lovers connected with these songs, and he played some shows around them, he didn’t imagine Valley Maker would carry him into the future after graduation. Instead, he embarked on a series of international aid internships, Eastern European adventures, and graduate school studies that led him to Colorado, Bulgaria, Kentucky, Ukraine, back to South Carolina, and ultimately Washington.
The oldest song on When I Was A Child, “Take My People Dancing,” grew out of feeling cut off from his home community during a stint living outside of Denver. “Those years just out of college, you’re figuring out who you want to be: what it means to have relationships with increasing distance, what it means to work a steady job,” he recalls. “That song was me reckoning with moving into a new stage of life and the doubts that came from that.”
As his travels continued, so did the music. “Songwriting became a way to stay in touch with other aspects of my experiences and my interior life. It would be disingenuous to say I never intended to record or play these songs live, but I really didn’t have a concrete plan when I wrote most of them.”
After completing his master’s degree at University of Kentucky in Lexington, Crane entertained several possibilities for his PhD. The vibrant music scene of the Pacific Northwest influenced his decision to choose University of Washington, where he recently completed his course work and will begin research in Human Geography – a field which happily affords him more opportunities to ask big questions. Balancing the two disciplines suits him fine. “My two favorite things to do are write and play music and to think, learn, and have conversations about social and political issues that matter for people’s lives.”
For now, Crane is excited to invest more energy into sharing Valley Maker with the world. And the open-ended nature of this songwriting project permits him to showcase it live in different configurations: solo, in a duo with Godwin, or as a full band. “My hope is that there are more Valley Maker records to come, and some of those may be stripped down and sparse, and others built-out and full. It’s nice to be able to shape-shift a little.” Because as When I Was A Child affirms, when the questions you ask – and the art they inspire – remain fluid, moments of great truth and beauty ensue.