Singer-songwriter Dietrich Gosser moved back to Madison about two years ago, after five years playing shows in Chicago and touring the country with drummer Dan Kuemmel. Something about returning home just felt right. It was refreshing, even inspiring, and quickly led to his latest album, Oh to Begin!, which he released earlier this month.
Gosser says other Madison-area musicians are the main reason he was able to put together the album so fast. They've been supportive, and they've created an atmosphere that encourages collaboration.
"Lots of...artists are excited to see what each other is capable of," he says. "Coming back to Madison really rejuvenated my interest in making music."
The list of collaborators includes PHOX's Monica Martin and folksinger Paul Otteson, both of whom added backing vocals. But one of the most essential contributors was fellow singer-songwriter Jeremiah Nelson, who ultimately became co-producer of the album. Things really started to come together when Nelson introduced Gosser to bass player Ben Willis. Before long, Gosser, Willis and Kuemmel were playing together. The newly formed trio then joined Nelson at DNA Studios to record the album.
"It was awesome being in the studio when the band was recording," Nelson says. "They did pretty much all of the basics live."
Afterward, Nelson and Gosser spent about six months tinkering with the recordings.
"We took those sessions and basically used them as a blueprint to fill in the rest of the arrangements," Nelson says. "We spent a long time workshopping the arrangements, adding and subtracting elements, trying out new approaches...to figure out where the songs wanted to go."
Gosser says Kuemmel, Willis and Nelson all helped him gain a fuller understanding of his ideas.
"All the synth parts and piano parts, that came from discussions [with them]," Gosser says.
Nelson's attention to the songs' messages was also essential.
"He's much more focused on the [whole] song than anyone else I have worked with recording," Gosser says. "That message isn't necessarily contained in the lyrics but in the tone."
While Gosser's previous albums had an acoustic folk sound, he wanted to make Oh to Begin! a "larger"-sounding record with more of a pop feel. Working with Nelson helped that goal became reality.
"The two of us were able to layer stuff and carve out some space. Ultimately, I think it's a fairly minimalist kind of pop record, but with some touches of lush arrangement here and there," Gosser says.
Gosser also likes how clearly the album's overarching theme comes through. He says the title track in particular captures the record's spirit, and the positives and negatives of starting over.
"There's this idea of looking forward to new beginnings while possibly dealing with the regret of the past or past joys that you're leaving behind," he says.
The album's cover art also touches on this idea. It's a photo of a child that was taken during one of Gosser's shows at the UW Memorial Union Terrace. The child is looking at the stage, and the camera focuses on a jet pack on his back.
"It seemed to fit the story of 'Oh to Begin' and the hopefulness of that phrase," Gosser says.
This sort of loose association is a part of Gosser's creative process. He says he writes songs elliptically, "with a little bit of a set story, little details that are evocative of narrative but without a real storyline."
In other words, he's not inclined to tell stories with dialogue or sharply drawn characters. As he puts it, "There's not a lot of 'he said, she said.'"
Nelson says this impressionistic quality drew him into Gosser's music right away.
"What I love about Dietrich's songs is that many have this fractured narrative quality to them. There is a storyline, but you get bits and pieces of it, not necessarily in chronological order," he says. "I think it makes it easier as a listener to wrap your own personal narrative around the song."