In late summer 2019, Austin Crane prepared to to say goodbye to Seattle—where he’d lived, gone to school, and created music under the moniker Valley Maker for ten years—to move cross-country to his hometown in South Carolina. While he didn’t know that journey would be one of the last trips he would take before the pandemic hit and travel restrictions set in, he and his wife knew the transition would be significant; that doubt informs his latest LP for Frenchkiss Records, When The Day Leaves, recorded back in the Pacific Northwest during the last few months of normalcy, but imbued with the sense of uncertainty many of us are feeling now.
Crane usually begins writing in near solitude, connecting himself with the physical world around him—also a dominant theme in the new record. But once in the studio with his collaborators and friends (like vocalist Amy Godwin, who’s appeared on Valley Maker albums since Crane released his 2010 debut, and producer Trevor Spencer) the songs expand. “Valley Maker, at the very core, is my avenue for songwriting. My music would always begin in my own music space, then spread out. I really believe in collaboration, and I’m very lucky to watch the music grow collectively,” Crane tells Audiofemme. Over the course of three weeks of recording sessions at Spencer’s Way Out music studio – a former horse barn in the forested outskirts of Woodinville, Washington – Crane and Godwin worked out their vocal counterparts, guest musicians came to fill out the lush, folky sound, and pieces of the album started coming together.
The inclusive, peaceful, and solitary space in which it was recorded belies the apprehension at the heart of these songs. When Crane and his wife returned to their deep-rooted community and family ties in South Carolina, they bought a historic 1913 home, where Crane got personal with broken wood planks – an experience related in album opener “Branch I Bend.” “The time when I was writing was very transitional, before and after the move. For me personally, it resonates a lot, continuously with the pandemic, uncertainty and being in-between,” he reveals. With touring halted, renovating his new home was one cathartic way to push through those feelings; getting his hands dirty gave Crane a sense of control, of rebuilding.
The album is airy on first listen, but lyrically profound. In Valley Maker style, his guitar-picking coupled with Godwin’s backup vocals add weight to the alluring, evocative themes. Crane sings about not only his troubles, but those of the people around him, and even some he’s never met, like the victims of the Las Vegas Massacre in “Voice Inside the Well.”
The stress of juggling the move, renovating the house, and the prepping a new album, all while teaching at the college level and researching for his dissertation on migrant rights, border violence, and inequality on all levels filter into the songs. While it may not spell out atrocities in government policies, the album is very deliberate and political. “As a person of the world, I really care about [these issues]. Some songs sound less direct, but it’s meant to engage that mystery about what’s going on,” Crane explains. In “Aberration,” he sings to an entity keeping knots in his spine, and visiting him in the night. “It’s a song about anxiety on some level, and what’s happening to people. One of the lines goes, ‘What do we do with the mad that won’t end?’ It was all the anger. While not new, it’s been taking a pretty ugly form in our country,” he says.
For Crane, the best way to deal with his empathic weight of the world is by appreciating nature. “The natural world has been a source of comfort for me, a place to find some solid ground or permanence,” he says. “It’s rooted and very real. It serves as a counterpoint to human uncertainty.” Throughout the album, he personifies his heartaches with the natural occurrences he can touch, hear, and see, like the bird songs, light on the lake disintegrating, and the earth beneath his feet. The juxtaposition provides a sense of balance and order to the human-created chaos. After a few listens, one song that really stood out was “Freedom,” with Godwin’s airy coos on the bridge serving as a euphonic moment of silence—for me, and for other people’s pain I felt listening to the record. Channeling these collective experiences, Crane allows his guitar and vocals to tell stories that might be personal, or someone else’s, or even your own, just as he intended.
The first thing he thinks about when writing a song is whether or not it is honest. Then he asks himself if he can play it multiple nights on a tour, and still feel it. The song doesn’t needs to answer a question, it just has to mean something real. “A lot of life is mysterious and unknown. The pandemic has definitely reinforced that for me,” Crane says. “The cool thing about these songs is that I can share it with people, to not feel alone. I can make a song that means something to me at any particular moment and I don’t have to have the answers. But that song enters the world, and it can mean a totally different thing to someone else.”
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