Starting at noon today, “attic folk” rocker Peter Felsman will take his new “-pf” album to the streets of Ann Arbor, Mich.
He’ll meet up with “-pf” (pronounced “dash” “pf”) friends and fans to listen to “LIFE Goals,” the band’s newest album, which drops today.
It will be a “reverse progressive” listening party of sorts where people can listen with Felsman throughout the day as he bikes along to the folkish rhythms of “LIFE Goals.”
“I’ll be biking around town to listen with whoever wants to join me,” said Felsman, “-pf” frontman. “I’ve created a Facebook event and invited people in the Ann Arbor bike-able area to message me if they’d like to host a listening event where other people can join or if they’d like to join one.”
In classic “-pf” style, the release of “LIFE Goals” coincides with another academic milestone for Felsman, who’s pursuing a doctorate in social work and social psychology at the University of Michigan.
The album marks the beginning of Felsman’s two-year fellowship with the International Max Planck Research School on the Life Course (LIFE), which takes an integrative and interdisciplinary approach to understanding human development in a changing world.
Felsman’s research fellowship is conducted internationally in conjunction with the Free University of Berlin, Humboldt University of Berlin, the University of Zurich, the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan.
“LIFE Goals” also highlights the first time “-pf” has recorded an album in a proper recording studio, the Kalamazoo, Mich.-based La Luna Recording & Sound owned by Ian Gorman.
A Light in the Proverbial (and Musical) Attic
In 2015, Felsman recorded the first “-pf” album, “Grad School (The Album), Part 1, Live in Peter’s Attic,” with two other musicians in band member Peter Littlejohn’s home-based attic studio. He dubbed the “-pf” musical style as “attic folk” after recording his two follow-up albums, 2016’s “I’m a Professional: Limited License” and 2017’s “Candidacy,” and two other singles, “Swearing” and “Googly Eyes,” in Littlejohn’s studio.
“At the beginning of grad school, I moved into a co-op, and I remember I had taken a songwriting class at the end of undergrad with Dick Siegel. I had written a few songs and thrown a few out there with some friends,” said Felsman, who initially earned a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Michigan. “I thought it would be really cool to record an album, and that it should be on my ‘10 things to do before I die list.’”
Coincidentally, Felsman released “Grad School” when he received his master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan. It served as the start of releasing a new album in tandem with each new academic milestone.
“After we had an album, I realized it was something I could do. The release show I marketed as my master’s recital because it coincided with my master’s degree, and I thought it was funny,” Felsman said. “There were music students I went to school with years later who thought I had been a grad student in the School of Music.”
Over the next two years, Felsman recorded his next two albums and two singles in Littlejohn’s attic with a host of talented musicians, including Max Lockwood (bass, electric guitar), Rebecca Rosen (vocals), Nicole Patrick (drums, percussion), Julia Knowles (cello) and Littlejohn (Rhodes piano, mandolin and electric guitar).
“Getting to record original music was a pipe dream, really,” Felsman said. “We recorded one album, and all of sudden, it’s possible. We can do this, it’s fun, and people are getting something out of this music.”
Setting ‘LIFE Goals’
Last summer, Felsman started writing tracks for what would become “LIFE Goals” while applying for a different fellowship, which he ultimately didn’t get. Initially, the “-pf” album had a comical working title, “There Were Many Qualified Applicants, and We Encourage You to Apply Again Next Year,” before getting its official name.
“It’s a direct quote from my rejection, which is another academic milestone of sorts. LIFE Goals is a better name though, and I wouldn’t have the title track otherwise,” Felsman said.
Interestingly, the title track of “LIFE Goals” sounds like a voice memo that’s been put to music and played back on a vintage turntable. As the sixth track, it closes out the brief, but fun album, which clocks in at 13 minutes, 36 seconds.
The other “LIFE Goals” tracks feature personal themes woven throughout the album with lush harmonies and gorgeous cello solos. It’s the perfect 13-minute audio escape on a busy August afternoon. For Felsman, each track represents a different memory, moment or lesson in life:
- “I’m Not Ready” – “This song is meant to allude the idea of not wanting to say goodnight to a date, but it’s really about not wanting to say goodnight to my creative writing notebook, with whom I have many dates that end before I’d like.”
- “Restless” – “After eight years as a student in Ann Arbor, I’ve started to get a little restless. ‘All my friends are getting wed. I’m going back to school this fall.’ – That’s the beginning of this one, probably the shortest song I’ve ever written. And I generally write short songs.”
- “Paige” – “My first friend in grad school had gotten into her first serious relationship and was about to spend her last year of grad school living far enough away that I’d miss her. I wrote this song for her 30th birthday.”
- “Cant’s Help It” – “This one’s on infatuation, the lesson it bears, and the difference between falling in love with someone and mutually investing in a sustainable loving relationship. And intuition.”
- “Grandma” – “When I was seven or eight and out with my family, my grandma bought me soft-serve ice cream. Just before giving it to me, she took a big ole lick of it. It was one of two childhood tantrums I remember having. The voice of the song alternates between being directed at my kid self and my current self, all in the name of self-improvement and being more grateful for my grandma.”
- “Life Goals” – “Producer/bassist/holder-of-many-other-titles Max Lockwood, in the studio, said to me something to the effect of ‘It could be cool to add a sixth song, even if it’s a voice memo.’ I had the basic melody in my head for this song and knew that I couldn’t release it on any other album. Plus, I loved the contrast of a voice memo nostalgic vibe to the rest of the album, more hi-fi than anything we’d previously done. And it’s very fitting for this song. Since the LIFE fellowship I have will mean nothing to most people, it has become kind of the fake titular track of the album. There’s something playful about that, too.”
Less is More
For Felsman, less is more when it comes to songwriting. He doesn’t mind defying traditional approaches and styles, especially when it comes to composing one-minute songs. It’s not in his nature to write a 60-minute, 30-track magnum opus.
“It may be in part to my own facility on guitar being limited, wanting to keep it simple, valuing simplicity and people’s attention, and my own sense of play being more lyrically driven than guitar or vocally driven,” said Felsman, who’s “-pf” email signature became the band’s moniker. “I like obscuring classic song structures and writing songs that don’t really have a chorus.”
Felsman developed an appreciation for music while growing up in South Orange, N.J., also the hometown of Lauryn Hill and E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg. As a kid, he took piano lessons, played flute and drums, joined his brother in a band and learned about Thelonious Monk and other jazz legends from his grandfather.
By eighth grade, drums became Felsman’s instrument of choice, and he sought inspiration from Glenn Kotche, Keith Moon and Ringo Starr. As with songwriting, over the years, he took a similar approach – less is more.
“I remember early on having a teacher who played, and just the way he played it relative to how I’d been playing it, I got it,” Felsman said. “You can play simple things, and they can sound amazing.”
Toward the end of high school, Felsman decided to major in percussion and psychology at the University of Michigan. Ironically, he traded drums for guitar and vocals in grad school.
Beyond ‘LIFE Goals’
Over the next two years, Felsman will pursue his LIFE fellowship and share his research through an academy in Charlottesville, Va., and Zurich. At this point, there are logistical challenges for the full “-pf” band to play together as a group due to band members being geographically dispersed and committed to other professional obligations.
In the meantime, Felsman will ponder material for the next “-pf” album.
“I’m going to push ahead to writing new songs and seeing what happens with the next release, and the way I like to do that is to book a show and have some new material to debut it,” he said. “We’ll probably keep trying to do living room shows, get whoever’s available to join me, have new material and certain play ‘LIFE Goals’ songs.”
Whether it’s in the living room, up in the attic or on a bike, Ann Arbor will be ready for the follow-up “-pf” album, and of course, Felsman’s next academic milestone.