Metaphysical ghouls, addicts, Adam & Eve, lovers, fathers, madmen and animated musical instruments … these are the characters that people Chauncey Bowers’ debut album, Rumors of Reason. His songs make listeners think, and feel, and laugh — but the laughter has bite. It startles and awakens, and makes you wonder, “Who is this guy?”
Like his songwriting heroes Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman and John Prine, Bowers is fascinated by the darker vagaries of human nature. The fifteen tracks on Rumors of Reason showcase his penchant for guiding listeners through bizarre everyday episodes. Take, for example, “Something to Cry About,” and its murderous protagonist: “You hear something funny but it’s all in your head/ … If those voices stop talking/ Does that mean you’re dead?” Or the dead man’s hindsight in “Stupid and Bloody”: “When I was born, I was stupid and bloody/ Crying with the shock of seeing the world.” Or the folk-rock groove of “God Bless Your Children” that lulls with a false sense of comfort as its aging protagonist vows: “I believe in the raging righteous/ And I believe there’s love in soldiers and whores/ But my disease it throws me down and holds me fast/ And I don’t want this struggle to last.” Or the cartoon humor of “Stray Trombone,” in which a low-rent thief tries selling a tall tale to cops while bluesy riffs suggest Jessica Rabbit might slink around the corner.
“That’s the only song I’ve ever written completely in my head,” Bowers says of “Stray Trombone,” which he composed during a cross-country plane ride. “I just think trombones are funny. Every instrument operates on the same principle, basically; for fretted instruments, you change a note by changing the length of the strings, pressing your finger down. With horns, you take the horn and stretch it. It’s the only instrument that does it literally.”
Transforming such a basic observation of physical fact into poetic humor is typical of Bowers’ songwriting skill. Another, yet-to-be-recorded gem, “Let’s Blame Bill” — which involves a protagonist tied to a bed, a psycho girlfriend with ADD and a dead body on the floor — showcases his nimble avoidance of clichés by asking specific questions and going wherever the answers lead him.
“That started with a blues riff first, and it had this mood,” he recalls. “The first thing in my head was, ‘This would be less awkward if I knew your name.’ Everything went from there. That’s a good opening line, but I didn’t want it to go to the usual place where you awaken in bed, drunk, etc. I had to make it more interesting. That was a fun song to write.”
“Something to Cry About,” which is on Rumors of Reason, arose from a phrase he often heard his parents use — though he soon discovered the song wasn’t about them at all.
“It’s funny how songs happen,” he says. “I’m in control for maybe the first half of a song, and then I’m just trying to finish the song without thinking too much about what I meant to do. It doesn’t sound authentic if you’re trying to cram in what you wanted it to be if that’s not where it’s headed.
“It’s like exploring. Even if you’re putting this up as another person, you’re still finding images in yourself. You go in, see what’s there, come out and report back. Sometimes you find your inner child, sometimes you find your inner psychopath. Either way, you report.”
His meticulous test-and-question approach reflects his past work as a research scientist, so it’s tempting to discuss his lyrical analyses within that framework — tempting, but reductive. Sure, his songs probe and examine subjects from unexpected angles, contemplating their inherent properties. But they’re also informed by the earthy wit of the Allman Brothers-loving Georgia boy who apprenticed to a shady repo man, before he left the South’s dualistic culture for the bohemian enclaves of Cambridge and San Francisco and, later, Pasadena. His worldview was further colored by attending grad school, playing folk clubs and festivals, falling in love, earning his Ph.D., getting some radio play, getting married, and yoking himself to his job 15 hours a day. Music gradually slipped away.
“I played music to perform,” he explains. “The point of music to me is to connect with somebody, for somebody else to hear it and see if they recognize it; then, well, we’re the same species, and that’s a comforting thing. On some level if I’m just playing for myself, it’s therapy or masturbation. It was worse to play scales than to not play at all. It got depressing. So I didn’t touch a guitar for probably 20 years.”
Flash forward to 2009, when he found himself stepping away from his job and remembering how much he loved playing guitar. His fingers became reacquainted with calluses as he began frequenting an open mic night and eventually became a regular performer at Kulak’s Woodshed in North Hollywood. After much encouragement from new friends and fans in Los Angeles’ songwriting community, he recorded and released 2013’s Rumors of Reason.
Now he’s starting to play more acoustic shows as well as festivals like South Pasadena’s annual Eclectic Fest. He’s also reading more; Jim Crace, Don DeLillo, Denis Johnson and “plotless fiction” writer Ben Marcus are among the novelists whose storytelling and way with language spark his creative curiosity. And he’s contemplating his next album, which will include “Let’s Blame Bill” and some songs reflecting his affection for science fiction. Songwriting and science may seem like diametrically opposed disciplines, but for Bowers they’re just different, equally valid avenues for seeking truth.
“If you think about theory too much when you’re writing, you lose this thing you’re trying to get in the first place. Someone asked Einstein one time — I’m pretty sure; it could be apocryphal, ’cause he was a big wave equation guy — but they asked, ‘Is it true you could express Beethoven’s Fifth as a series of wave equations?’ He said, ‘Yeah, but why would you?’”