As a kid in the 1970s, singer-songwriter John Vanderslice loved traversing the “dunes” in the Regency area of Jacksonville. Those barren, sandy hills left behind by mining corporations, most of which have now been taken over by development, were his giant playground.
“Really, Jacksonville framed my awakening as a human creature,” Vanderslice said in a recent phone interview. “In many ways, I connect more with that area than anywhere else.”
He went to college in Maryland and has been a musician based in San Francisco for more than 20 years, but his youth was spent in Northern Florida. He was born in Gainesville and lived in Jacksonville from ages 3 to 11 with his mom in an apartment complex on Monument Road.
“My parents were divorced, and my mom worked, so I was really very, very free as a kid,” he recalled. “I remember so clearly running around those sand dunes with my brother. There was a lot of open space. It was amazing to have that much real estate to explore as a kid.”
His career has been steady and strong, and with stints on indie record labels Barsuk Records and Dead Ocean, he has earned a healthy respect from fans, the press and fellow musicians. He also runs an analog recording studio, Tiny Telephone, which has served popular acts such as Death Cab for Cutie, Deerhoof, Mike Watt, The Mountain Goats, Spoon and Magnetic Fields.
Vanderslice’s appreciation for physical landscapes and his deep connections to places are particularly evident on his ninth full-length solo album, “Dagger Beach,” which was released in June. The moody, atmospheric musical outing was inspired — like so many great albums are — by heartbreak. Partially as a way to break through his standard creative patterns, he left the Dead Ocean record label and undertook the album as a truly DIY project. Taking that risk was necessary, he said, because he wanted to surprise not only his fans, but also himself.
A cinematic landscape runs throughout the album, evoking nature’s mysterious beauty. That element is no mistake. After the breakup of his marriage, he spent months hiking and camping in Northern California while he re-evaluated his personal and creative direction, and wrote and processed much of “Dagger Beach.”
“I was always trying to build up background textures, almost like landscaping. It was very important for me to add these colors, these hues. I always thought about it in terms of colors. I would be [using] a synthesizer and I would think, ‘I want this to be like burnt orange in the background.’ I really purposely set out to make the album sound like a landscape, colorful and cinematic,” he said.
He has added brief instrumental interludes on several of his albums to “clear the listeners’ head space,” including two on “Dagger Beach.” Curiously defying the very definition of “interlude,” he placed the second interlude at the end of the album rather than between two songs. The result makes a listener feel as if the album never truly ends, or that the album should be looped by immediately replaying it. Vanderslice said he intended the second interlude to be what comes at the end of one album and before the next. On a philosophical level, it suggests people’s stories continue to unfold after depression passes.
“I wanted there to be this sad yet proud ending to the record,” he explained. “I do think that you can survive intense depression. … That’s a beautiful thing. It doesn’t mean that you resolve it all, but you can get through it.”
The album’s title, “Dagger Beach,” a fictional geographical reference, is found in the third track, “Song for Dana Lok.” Amid a powerful set of songs about fear, loneliness and confusion, the tune provides an interesting contrast, especially when understood in the context Vanderslice gives. He said the song was written essentially as a postcard and love letter to his girlfriend, Dana Lok.
“What happens with any kind of heartbreak or terrible situation is that there’s something else that comes along afterwards,” he said. “That’s what happened to me [after the divorce]. After a year, I fell in love with someone else. That’s the human condition, you know, marching along.”
Falling in love again, though, is scary. While he felt as if he was “getting out of prison,” he also felt a fear of connecting with someone else. “I will not be undone,” he sings. The line is a perfect example of what Vanderslice has for years been doing with exceptional clarity — telling stories that expose human vulnerability.