DC Musician Garrett Gleason Talks About His New Album, Well

Nina Goodman
By Nina Goodman / September 17, 2018
Garrett Gleason (Photo Credit: Chris Jay Photography)

DC Music Review's Nina Goodman caught up with Garrett Gleason as he announced his new album release, Well, that is being released on Oct 1.

Cover Photo by Chris Jay Photography

I first met Garrett Gleason at Neel Singh's Open Jam and Workshop at Villain & Saint in Bethesda.

Neelan incredible musician and passionate connector of people on the local music scene, leaned over to me as Garrett got up and said, “check this out. Garrett is one of my all-time favorites.” I was paying attention already but with that intel, my ears pricked up even higher. 

Garrett's guitar playing resonated in the pocket of the song. It sounded lyrical and effortless but was far from simple. It was steeped in musical intuition.  And what got me was watching his face as he laid it out. He's one of those people who can't help but emote the music, letting it contort his expression, radiate from him, writhe out of his body into the air. Brain off, heart on, all out. 

I've seen Garrett play several times since. He is everywhere, involved in several projects, gigging often, and pouring his soul out every time. I even bumped into him at Black Cat when some of his students were performing in a showcase and you could see on his expressive face how proud he was of their hard work.

I recently caught Garrett playing at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage with drummer and composer extraordinaire Isabelle De Leon, as part of her band The Flow.  I witnessed the connection between the players and how they supported the powerhouse sound of the incredibly brilliant Isabelle.

I wanted to know more, so I asked Isabelle about what unique quality Garrett brings to the ensemble. She said:

"Garrett and I were undergrads together in UMD’s jazz program and I noticed early on that he was one of the few musicians who distinctly had his own voice on his instrument. I always loved playing with him because he has such a unique sound and energy on the guitar - he can shred Jazz, Rock and all styles in a way that's authentic to tradition but also completely his own. We have similar styles so I always found it easy to play with him; but beyond being a great player, he's also a super reliable pro musician, which can be hard to come by at our age."

Isabelle De Leon  //  Drummer Extraordinaire on working with Garrett Gleason

I recently reconnected with Garrett at Kaldi's Social House in Silver Spring where he told me about his new album. Gracious and kind, supportive and real, passionate and talented, he is the kind of local artist I wanted to get to know. Here’s a little of his story. 

Nina Goodman: Hi Garrett! It's so great to connect with you about this new album! So let's start from the beginning, you told me you’re originally from Massachusetts. What was your musical upbringing like?

Photo by Good Foot Media

Photo by Good Foot Media

Garrett Gleason: Hey, thanks for taking the time to talk with me!

So my background. My two siblings and I always expressed interest in music. Neither of my parents are musicians by profession, but they are musical people and were very supportive of us chasing our interests and developing those skills.  

I started playing piano at age 5. All three of us siblings were actively pursuing musical theater for a bit -- plays, singing, dancing -- but once my older brother got a guitar when I was 11, I quickly shifted my focus and became obsessed with learning how to play and write music. When he was away, I would play his guitar and then lean it back up in the exact position it was in right when he got home. I stopped musical theater about a year after getting my first guitar and just pushed myself on guitar and piano.

Garrett Gleason with Cartoon Weapons (Photo Credit: Bob Justice)

Photo by Bob Justice

Garrett Gleason with Cartoon Weapons (Photo Credit: Bob Justice)

Photo by Bob Justice

NG: (laughs) I love that you would sneak your brother’s guitar. That's the mark of someone who MUST play. So what brought you to DC?

GG: I came to the DMV in 2009 for school. I studied music at University of Maryland, College Park until 2013. After graduating, I moved just outside DC and started freelancing as a guitarist, taught guitar and piano lessons, and formed the group Cartoon Weapons with Zack Be and Will Wadsworth and started gigging with them locally as much as we could.

NG: Yeah, it seems like you're playing everywhere all the time in the city these days.  I see your name on a lot of bills! So besides your older brother, who it sounds like you owe big time (laughs), who are your biggest musical influences?

GG: As a 12-year-old just getting into guitar, I was big into Metallica, Iron Maiden, and then Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Dream Theater, that whole 80's and 90's shredder thing. They inspired me to try pushing myself to play fast and write my first riffs, and eventually my first songs.

But my friend gave me the Mahavishnu Orchestra album Birds of Fire right before high school, and I was introduced to that breed of improvisational shredding inspired by group chemistry, and that took over immediately. I started listening to as much (John)McLaughlin as I could, and I found more fusion like Weather Report (Mysterious Traveller and Black Market became instant favorites) and Brand X (Masques was huge for me). Toward the end of high school, I was listening to Shawn Lane’s Powers of Ten: Live a lot and starting to dig into electric Miles Davis and late (JohnColtrane. I also became obsessed with Tera Melos and Don Caballero at that time.

Throughout college, I still listened to everything I had before but began developing a love for the indie, particularly The Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear. Reflecting on my experience as a musician, I’d point to all of those as my major epiphanic moments that changed my focuses in what I wanted to practice and what I wanted to write.

​Cover art by Jon Flanders

NG: That’s a solid, eclectic mix of artists. So now you’ve finished your second album, Well. Tell me a little more about what it's about.

GG: Well took on many forms before the studio date. It started as a collection of various songs that I wrote for different instruments paired with guitar.  The song “Invitation” was originally for guitar and saxophone and “Well” for guitar and voice with no lyrics, for example.

When working the songs out on guitar, I wanted to change the instrumentation so the pieces could be performed live with a consistent group. The instrumentation I sought, in particular for five of the songs, was saxophone, guitar, bass, and drums. I secured players for the album and then put a deposit down on a recording date at Mystery Ton Studios in Monrovia, MD (operated by the talented Kenny Eaton).

I secured Artie Sadtler on bass and Olaolu Ajibade on drums, both of whom left lasting impressions on me on first encountering their playing. However, after scheduling rehearsals, the saxophone player pulled out from the project. I frantically messaged other saxophonists to see who would like to fill that missing role, but no one confirmed by the first rehearsal. 

We played through the music that first rehearsal as a trio, and man, I loved how the music felt with guitar as the lead voice. None of the songs felt like anything was missing from the whole (except “Morning Lemon,” for which I secured trumpeters Stephanie Kaiser and John Merritt), and it was powerful to hear the core ideas of each song be enough without an extra instrument.

I did, however, panic between the first and second rehearsal, from feeling that since these give songs were not originally written for that instrumentation, they might not be my strongest five “trio” songs, so I wrote three more tunes in a night - one of which was “Slip & Fall” - and we ran those with the original five songs at the second rehearsal.

We then went to Mystery Ton Studios on the day of the session and laid down each song that day. It was an exhilarating and productive eight hours! Kenny  managed to work with us as efficiently as possible while also stressing every necessary, small detail song by song. If we chose elsewhere, the album would have a different sound and could have taken much longer.

NG: I listened to the "Slip and Fall" and  from the moment it started, boom! It's so intense and kinetic and filled with so many little hooks, riffs, and treasures. It was like that feeling when you need share something and there are so many good details that are exploding out.  

And where I could see this being played dark and moody, the major key and made me feel uplifted. And, please take this the right way, it would be the soundtrack I would want if I was zooming through the Ewok forest on a speeder bike.  

(Note to reader: It pairs so nicely with this scene from Return of the Jedi.)

I'd love to know...what were the inspirations for the album, musically and emotionally?

GG: About half of the songs on the album were written with certain people or topics in mind. “Matter” was written thinking about anxiety toward great uncertainty, and “Morning Lemon” was inspired by my girlfriend. None of the songs were written with the others in mind, but after receiving the raw mixes of the recordings, it was easy to figure which song order would make the album feel most whole. Rob Wolk did an incredible job giving the songs a cohesive sound and shaping the arc of the whole album in his mixing.

I had put names to each song when writing them, but when choosing “Well” as the album title coming up with the idea of having a giant well in a desert with people surrounding it as the cover, I changed some of the titles to fit a sort of narrative that the listener could get while listening and observing the art. I have always loved instrumental albums with album art that paints a scene from which I can make a story or ask questions about the world the art is capturing. After figuring out what art I wanted, I reached out to Jon Flanders (@j_flanartist) whose original cartoon characters and sketches I’ve admired for a while, and I commissioned him for the album art.

NG: The entire album is great. And it sounds like you called upon a lot of local artists to collaborate with you on making this happen. Can you talk about some other DC artists that excite you? Who should we be looking out for?

GG: I’m trying to listen to genres I didn’t enjoy growing up, I’m finding some gems in the scene. I’ve always liked what Stronger Sex has done - it’s catchy and a hell of a time live (they played in my garage once, and it turned into a dance party fast). I really dig Lauren Calve’s songwriting and she’s got a powerful and emotional voice for it. As far as DC groups that align with the stuff that inspired me musically, I think The Messthetics do a great job of blending that improvisational shred element I love with raw punk energy. You can’t go wrong with Fugazi’s rhythm section, right?

Garrett Gleason (Photo by Bob Justice)

Photo by Bob Justice

Garrett Gleason (Photo by Bob Justice)

Photo Credit: Bob Justice

NG: To everything you just said, yes! All great artists, although now I need to go back and do some more research on Stronger Sex.

So since you’re a playing in DC scene for some time, how do you think the music scene/community here is changing?

GG: This can all be taken with a grain of salt, as I am not a DC native. I feel like the scene’s getting less cliquey and a lot more connected across genres. The number of open jams in the DMV since I moved here has at least doubled, and that gets a lot of musicians across different genres connecting and playing with one another.

Recently, I’ve seen a whole lot of local shows that are billed with musically diverse lineups, and I think the open jam circuit has a big part in that. Audiences of different genres get to interact and experience new music, and the shows have unique contours as a result. I personally like shows that are not a full night of the same general style (although that definitely has its time and place), and it’s nice to see that happening more and more here.

NG: I couldn't agree more. So you’re in it, playing lots of gigs and jams and working with many people. Tell us, where’s your head at these days? What’s your focus right now and where are you looking to go, musically?

Garrett Gleason (Photo Credit Chris Jay Photography)Photo by Chris Jay Photography
Garrett Gleason (Photo Credit Chris Jay Photography)Photo by Chris Jay Photography

GG: I’m ready to pursue some sort of ongoing schedule of recording my own music, releasing it, booking some sort of tour for the given release, and then rinse and repeat with the next project. So after the release show for Well, I plan on booking some short tours and then moving on to the next project. I still want to book shows for that material after that process is over, and that may happen while moving forward to the next thing, but I’m finding that I’m my happiest when in tunnel vision working on a new project.

I’ve got a few ideas for the next solo release, but I’m also currently arranging and recording for a improvisational-based duet project of mine called Gentle Men, and when that’s finished, recording the next Cartoon Weapons record is the plan. But I’m feeling motivated by the music I want to make and excited to undergo this process for as long as it inspires me.

NG: Garrett, thank you so much for talking with DCMR today. It’s been great to connect and we can’t wait to see what you do next!

GG: Thanks so much for this opportunity!

Garrett’s album Well will be released on October 1 and available on all major music streaming platforms.  Album release show will be announced soon. 

Listen to the single “Slip & Fall” here.

About the author
Nina Goodman

Nina Goodman

Nina Goodman is a music lover, dancer, artist, keyboardist, and an avid ukulele player. You may even see her up on stage performing with local DC bands. Above all, Nina is a fierce supporter of the Washington DC local music scene. Nina's talents are mostly behind the scenes where she maintains and curates our event calendar and conducts interviews with local artists. If there is music playing in the DMV, you can expect to see her attending or at least making sure that our audience knows about it.