Jake Workman on The Guest and the Ghost

Wm talks with Jake Workman about his new album + prose ebook project The Guest and the Ghost, the dearly departed band The Sweater Friends and other things musical and creative.

You may know Jake Workman as one-half of the Utah-based acoustic, quirky, funny, lovely harmonies and catchy melodies band The Sweater Friends. That group is, alas, no more, but Jake has a new project out that combines his music writing with prose writing. It’s called The Guest and the Ghost and is available at Jake’s bandcamp site (the album is available elsewhere, but if you want the accompanying ebook get it from him there).

How did The Guest and the Ghost come about? How did Henry Pickett Pratt begin to haunt your artistic mind? And related to that: why tell the story in both music/lyric and prose?

The idea started with the fourth song on the album called “Pickett.” I had several guitar parts and melodies that fit well together. I thought it would be cool to write a story with the parts and have different melodies be different voices and people. I was still playing a lot with Allyson and The Sweater Friends and it fit our capabilities nicely.

The main character in the story, Henry, came from my love of Southern Utah. At the time I had become really interested in Butch Cassidy. There are a lot of myths and rumors about his life. I had family on my Mom’s side who lived in the town Cassidy was born in and it got me thinking of a distant relative maybe passing him on the street or catching him cut through their pasture. Henry came out of this interest. As I thought more and more about Henry and decided to write other songs based on him or his point of view, the imagery I was creating did not lend itself completely to lyrics. I wanted to go deeper. Luckily I had a really creative bandmate in Allyson who supported me in this idea of telling a more holistic rendition of Henry with both song and written word.

One of the things that intrigues me about the project is thinking about the creative process for it. For example, how did you decide which aspects to tell in song and which in journal entries? Did all the journal entries get written first? Or did you alternate?

It was a jumbled mess really, but for the most part the songs came first. I mapped out a storyline once seven songs or so were written. This gave me an anchor for writing from Henry’s viewpoint but I kept changing and tweaking the journal entries up until I released everything. Some of the songs had been written for two years before everything was said and done but I added the last journal piece a couple weeks before making it available. While some of the entries are blatantly about a specific song, others were just ideas on my mind that I superimposed onto Henry. “Alone” is roughly based around Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants. “Mr. Ulacra” came out of a postmodern Spanish literature class I took. By the end of the project, the structure of a song seemed kind of constrictive in a way. I had never written anything besides research papers and it still feels a little strange to put something out there that I wrote for entertainment. It was a bedroom-guitar-player’s attempt at being an author.

What sounds informed the musical compositions and performances?

Dustin Kensrue, the lead singer from Thrice, put out an acoustic album that my brother-in-law and I listened to a lot while deciding on tones and a recording mix (Ben, my brother-in-law, recorded all The Sweater Friends stuff too, though he wasn’t in the family yet). Both Dustin and a guitar player from Seattle named Rocky Votolato have had a large influence on my music and writing. They both have stripped-down approaches to songwriting, at least from what I hear in their finished products. I feel like a truly good song is one that will still sound good boiled down to a single voice and an acoustic guitar.

What do you see as the major themes of the work? I haven’t experienced the whole thing, but there’s seem to be a strong thread of loss and landscape.

Yeah, I can definitely see loss and landscape in there. My conscious themes were forgiveness and memory. The first song I wrote (Pickett) was fueled by a talk President Hinckley gave on forgiveness. Life is full of awful things and I tried to show how decisions are our real rudders, not just the current. Second, the whole act of writing in journal format made me think of memory as a whole. What I remember and why I remember those specific things. Our brains seem erratic with what is included and what is left out. Even in a small amount of time, what “happened” can differ greatly when you ask several people who saw the same event. Sure makes for a lot of unreliable narrators out there.

Let’s talk a bit about The Sweater Friends, which, sadly, is no longer a going concern (RIP). What are some of the best experiences you had with the band? What do you feel like you and Allyson accomplished?

My favorite moment with The Sweater Friends came playing in Park City during a music festival held in conjunction with Sundance. We were halfway through our set when the power went out due to the snowstorm we had just braved. Lucky for us, we sounded the same without power, if not better, and kept playing like nothing happened. It was great. I learned a lot while being a sweater friend. Profound things, much bigger than we ever were. Human interaction, how to deal with disappointment, hard work, goal setting and attaining, ha, sounds like a mission. I feel like Allyson and I accomplished everything we decided to and got out at the right time.

I’ve been wanting to ask an LDS musician this for some time: bands form and break up all the time. Life gets in the way. That’s just how it goes. But are there particular challenges for LDS bands?

The big one that comes to mind is becoming a parent before other musicians usually do. I became a dad (purposefully) a year a go at the age of 26, which isn’t unusual in LDS culture but is unusual in our culture as a whole. Little kids do not take well to loud sounds, late nights and dirty venues. My wife sang on the album with me too so performing is unlikely with a baby in one of the artist’s arms. Being a musician parent can be done and I think the internet is creating ways for musicians to be out there without torturing their children, but it is a challenge.

The Ghost and the Guest is the culmination of a particular phase in your life. Now that you’re off to law school what’s next for you creatively?

I’d love to record and write more. Do something like The Ghost and the Guest again but probably on a smaller scale. I have been tinkering with a few ideas and am a big sci-fi fan so we’ll see what happens.

What other work by Mormon artists — musical or not — do you enjoy?

I love Minerva Teichert’s work. She is my standard for what religious art should be. Brandon Flowers needs to be on this list, as well as The Aquabats. If I want to feel like I’m a teenager again, The Aquabats get me their immediately.

Finally, what’s the best concert you’ve ever been to and why?

I saw The Living End (Australia’s answer to Green Day) years ago. Small show and an even smaller crowd but my face still feels a little melted from that night. It was personal, executed perfectly and made me love their music even more. Chris is my guitar hero, though I have never been in the situation to play slide guitar with a beer bottle. Maybe a glass bottle coke would do the trick.

Thanks, Jake!

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