Most people can recall the feeling of a momentary cringe when hearing their own voice resounding through a foreign body. A video playback or a conference call echo can induce a dissociative shudder and the age-old question: “That’s what my voice sounds like?”
According to musician Mac McCaughan, this phenomenon doesn’t get easier—even after 12 Superchunk albums and another six with Portastatic. On his new solo album, The Sound Of Yourself, the dynamic musician and Merge label co-founder explores this phenomenon with veteran poise.
Released September 24 via Merge Records, McCaughan’s third solo effort contains boundless self-expression spurred by the silence of a global pandemic and supported by an impressive cast and dear friends and career-long collaborators.
The album concept came to him on one of those lockdown walks that McCaughan, like many, took for the sake of sanity last spring. On a walk through the woods, he was listening to a recording of Amy Rigby reading her memoir, Girl To City.
“She was talking about [how] if you’re someone who plays guitar and sings, but you’re used to just playing in your room or apartment, the first time you hear your voice come out of like a monitor on a stage or recorded in a studio, it’s different,” McCaughan explains to the INDY. “Maybe it’s weird sounding or not as natural as you thought.”
Struck by this idea, the indie-rocker got to work on what would become a deeply personal project. Until this point, he’d had no formal conception of what this project would be, beyond the simple fact that he wanted to make an album this year. As the label head overseeing 2021 release plans for much of his roster—which includes artists like Hiss Golden Messenger, The Mountain Goats, Wye Oak, and more—he worked within a two-month window to record and mix the new music, wrapping up in record time.
To discover the depth of his own voice, McCaughan kicked aside some of his characteristic indie-rocker elements that might clutter the vocal centerpieces. An intentional sparseness evokes an ethereal soundscape throughout the LP.
“One thing that I am always trying to do—and I’m not always successful—is slow down and allow more space to exist in the songs,” he says. “I tend to kind of rush things, whether it’s the tempo of the song or just the fact I’m always anxious to hear a finished recording.”
The title track is exemplary of this new intentionality. McCaughan had shaped the sounds for that song in his head and when inspiration finally struck, he crafted lyrics around the title. “The Sound of Yourself” starts with a sparseness induced by the lulling drum machine and a hypnotic bass line.
“Even when things come in, they come in incrementally and texturally, rather than ‘Here’s this guitar solo to listen to now,” he says, likening this project to an early Portastatic record. Unlike his previous solo work, The Sound of Yourself showcases a pioneering spirit through instrumental tracks in a process he describes as “more all over the place.”
“This album is me trying to incorporate randomness and accidents and end up with something that still sounds balanced and not totally out of whack, but, with enough weird things left in there to feel human,” he adds.
Best exhibited in the introductory single “Dawn Bends,” McCaughan’s venturesome approach welcomes Superchunk bandmate Jon Wurster, as well as the band Yo La Tengo, into his deceptive doom-driven track. McCaughan, who says he is “not a great bass player,” credits James McNew (Yo Lo Tengo) for the critical instrumental contribution.
“This idea of having a whole other band on a song is so, so cool, and it’s people that I’ve known and admired for so long,” he says. “I was really excited about everyone who was able to contribute.”
Trying not to pile too much on top of a simple synthesizer or drum beat goes against his natural instincts, but slow-building songs leave room for interpretation. On the other hand, he points to album-opening “Moss Light”—which features his brother Matt’s percussion—and closer “Found Cricket” as “purposely cluttered.”
The distinctive layering allows the listener to hear elements on their way in and out of the songs, like Mary Lattimore’s celestial harp. These bookend tracks conjure up ambiguity with a slow burn to balance uncharted sonic territory.
The broad list of contributors seems ironic, considering the titular sentiment. But McCaughan’s close, collaborative relationship with these artists suggests that maybe friends can know us better than we know ourselves.
Mackenzie Scott (TORRES) scorching vocals meet Matt Douglas’ (The Mountain Goats) saxophone for a groove-stricken album highlight, “Burn A Fax,” while Sabrina Ellis (A Giant Dog, Sweet Spirit) adds necessary levity to “Sleep Donor. “Circling Around” features Telekinesis’ Michael Benjamin Lerner, who teams up again with Spent’s Annie Hayden to provide shimmering vocal harmonies on “I Hear a Radio.”
The invaluable lessons he learned through these collaborations are part of why he continues with his solo artistry.
“I’m always learning things I can bring to the other projects,” he says. Writing for Superchunk, Portastatic, and most recently composing a movie score for the new Amy Poehler-directed Netflix movie, Moxie, requires an influx of influence no artist can maintain on their own.
The Sound of Yourself is also the product of being productive in a psychologically stressful situation.
“For me, being able to make music was really like a saving grace during the pandemic,” says McCaughan. Listening through the tracks, he is reminded of the sounds that brought him comfort amidst a bleak era of knowing very little for sure. Over two decades into his career, the accomplished artist fills the void between foreign and familiar across 11 transcendent tracks.
“If you’ve been making music for as long as I have, it’s just what you do,” he says. “It’s both edifying and comforting.”
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