Brimming with atmospheric soundscapes and curative tales, After Blue provides a calming, aerial pathway to new possibilities.
The metro Detroit indie folk duo of Katie Williamson (vocals, piano) and Tom Alter (vocals, guitar) instantly soothes and invigorates weary, lost souls on their enchanting new album, Far Above and Far Away.
“I think the first song, ‘Armada,’ was written prior to the pandemic, and I read an article in the paper about the town and what they did to build the garden. And Katie and I finished that one off together in her old house. I think that song kinda set the stage for the rest,” said Alter, who formed After Blue with Williamson in 2016.
Throughout their latest release, After Blue gracefully discards the painful feelings of the past and surges toward the radiant promise of the future. Each mesmerizing track allows listeners to rediscover their sense of spirituality and inner peace within an azure-filled dreamscape.
“I think ‘Charlotte’ was the next one that was written … but it is about persistence. There’s a line in there where it says, ‘I promise that bruises heal,’ and that’s the core of that song,” Alter said.
Armada to Nick Drake
Together, Williamson and Alter embark on their cathartic Far Above and Far Away quest with the tender, reflective opener, “Armada.”
Mournful acoustic strums, serene piano, consoling shakers, soft drums and delicate bass tightly embrace the Macomb County village, which suffered the devastating loss of 14-year-old April Millsap in 2014. To commemorate Millsap, her family and the community planted a memorial garden at the site where she tragically died.
Williamson sings, “Let’s go to the garden, our rainbow memory/Lavender and zinnia, golden day lilies/Sitting in the garden, stories we could tell/Gone never forgotten, ring the lasting bell.”
“It was about the Detroit Free Press article on the garden and how to make something beautiful out of something that was just horrible. That really appealed to me. And then just recently, the town got hit with a tornado, and they’ve gone and planted a bunch of new trees, so it’s pretty inspiring,” Alter said.
After Blue also inspires listeners on the delectable, domestic anthem, “Macarons,” which delightfully celebrates spending time with family during the pandemic lockdown. Spirited drums, rich bass, eager acoustic drums and jubilant electric guitars encourage households to live in the moment and create something scrumptious together.
Williamson sings, “Just because we cannot do what we thought we would/Shouldn’t put us deep in a mood/We can make up some other fun whether it’s rain or sun/And bake up something so good/We’ll just pick our instruments up and play new chords/And we’ll think ourselves up some words for a new song.”
“When my middle daughter was 10, there was a snow day, and she was like, ‘Mom, I’ve decided I want to make macarons.’ She’s very persistent, smart and optimistic, so we kept at it for years and years,” said Williamson, who continues to bake macarons with her daughter.
“Last Christmas, she made over $500 in macaron sales and gave away a portion to charity. She’s gonna do it again this winter. Sometimes, she’ll say, ‘I’m gonna make macarons today.’”
After making “Macarons,” After Blue relishes the limitless beauty of nature on “Lights in the Sky.” Cosmic synths, insightful acoustic strums, dreamy electric guitars, breezy bass and pensive drums provide a breath of fresh air and soar through the expansiveness of the universe.
Williamson reflects, “Fleeting moments sing/Melody of dreams of what heaven brings/Slowly float downstream through eternity/Feel what heaven brings.”
“One of the things that brought me peace in the early days of the pandemic was to go outside the front of my house in April or May of last year, stand there for five and 10 minutes, look up at the sky and gather my thoughts before heading off to sleep,” Alter said.
“I kept thinking about how that related to other moments in life where we feel a great sense of peace. I wanted to write about that, but I also wanted to write a song that I knew Katie would be singing.”
For Williamson, “Lights in the Sky” represents a cherished time hiking outdoors with her family. “We spent a lot of time outside during the pandemic, and we went to all new places. We had just moved to Shelby Township, so it felt like everything was really close,” she said.
After Blue also includes a tranquil, ethereal reprise of “Lights in the Sky” at the close of Far Above and Far Away. Filled with mystical electric guitars and chirping crickets, it’s the perfect way to wind down after an exhausting day.
“After doing the recording, I thought there were a lot of little pieces of it that could be restructured and almost made a whole new song on the reprise. It felt like a last song to me,” Alter said. “We have this process where we pick the first song, and we pick the third song, but the fourth song is usually the more experimental song.”
Right before the closer, After Blue pays tribute to late artists on the folky, compassionate ballad, “Nick Drake.” Forlorn acoustic strums, introspective electric guitar, somber bass, sparkling synths, steady drums and tranquil shakers acknowledge creatives who deserved recognition long before they passed.
Williamson sings, “Life, a glimmering spark of light/Darkens quick with a slight of hand/And so soon is done/The sense of hope you must have lost/When no one listened, no one called/Now lives on in a song.”
“I haven’t listened to Nick Drake in a long time, but I listened to the Pink Moon album a lot in college. When I was in those practice rooms writing, I was like, ‘Oh, Nick Drake,’” Williamson said.
Like Williamson, Alter sought inspiration from Drake and other artists who left too soon. “His music is mysterious and seemingly very simple because it’s usually just guitar and his voice. We’ve always loved minor chords, and I think we have more major chords on this album than we’ve ever had.”
“I read about Edgar Allen Poe first, and I did not realize that he was not recognized until he died. And of course, there’s (Vincent) van Gogh and Emily Dickinson. Then, I Googled artists who were not discovered and appreciated until after they died, and Nick Drake came up. That’s when I decided I wanted to write a song that’s similar to his style.”
Creating Far Above and Far Away
For their fourth release, Williamson and Alter started writing songs remotely during summer 2020. They exchanged ideas and parts via email and workshopped the tracks during socially distanced outdoor performances.
“We were able to start playing them out and polishing them up before we recorded them. The recording process was over a year,” Alter said.
By fall 2020, they began recording Far Above and Far Away in Williamson’s garage despite chilly temperatures and intermittent pandemic-induced delays.
“It didn’t take a long time to lay down the tracks. Once we got things settled, this was the absolute fastest I’ve ever put down vocals ever. I think there was a song with one take,” said Williamson, who’s influenced by Tori Amos, Sinéad O’Connor, Pink Floyd and Bon Iver.
Alter agreed. “We’ve become less perfectionist, and more interested in getting that first take and emotion. In previous sessions, we would do section by section with a loop recording process. Now, we just feel and sing the song, and if there’s anything that doesn’t feel right, then we’ll go back and fix it.”
After Blue also invited Ann Arbor cellist Sara Gibson to collaborate on two tracks, “Michael’s Song,” which features Alter on lead vocals, and “Love is Mine.”
“I reached out to Sara and said, ‘I’ve got a couple songs,’ and she’ll be on my other album, too, that’s coming out at the end of the year. We did all the recording in my house, and Sara was in a different room,” he said. “We were very careful and wore masks the whole time. I let her do her thing. That’s all Sara, and it’s all her creativity.”
Outside of releasing a new album, After Blue continues to perform live regularly in metro Detroit. They will bring an intimate, stripped-down acoustic sound Friday to Royal Oak’s Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room and again on Dec. 17 at Auburn Hills’ Blue Skies Brewery.
“I think listening to our music, while it’s the same voicing and things like that, it has evolved, and we’ve worked towards simplicity more. We’ve not only done that in our songs, but also in our performance,” Alter said.
“I play guitar, and Katie plays percussion, a djembe and a shaker, and she focuses on singing. I think Katie’s always been a great singer, but I think without having to worry about playing the right chords on the piano at the right time, that frees her up.”
Williamson nodded in agreement and said she’s proud of her ongoing musical partnership with Alter. “We’ve been doing it for a while now, so we don’t have to get together and practice all the time. And when we do practice, we just learn new things because we can do it on the fly, enjoy it and have fun.”
Before year’s end, Alter will release his sixth solo album, Poetry and Protest, and start thinking about the next After Blue record.
“I think I have another one in the works that will probably be solo, and that’s just me getting the energy to start recording and mixing and all that again. I’ll do an After Blue one anytime Katie’s ready to do it,” he said.
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