The West

Running in harmony
Benjamin Gibbard says running and music are his friends.Picture: Ryan Russell.

"It's been a basement of a year," Benjamin Gibbard sings on Oh, Woe, "and all I want is for you to disappear."

The average listener would be excused for thinking that this bitter sentiment flowed from his divorce late last year from actress Zooey Deschanel.

However, during a chat for his debut solo album, Former Lives, the Death Cab for Cutie singer refuses to be pinned down on the matter, employing verbal dexterity that would make a politician proud.

"Virtually every song on the record, I’m trying not to place a drop date on them, because I think it places them too much either inside or outside of a context that is unfair," Gibbard says from Seattle, again home after a stint in Los Angeles.

The dozen songs that appear on Former Lives "span eight years, three relationships, living in two different places, drinking then not drinking", according to the 36-year-old singer-songwriter.

Gibbard will confess that the country ballad Broken Yolk in Western Sky is one of the oldest. He originally had it earmarked to appear on Death Cab's 2005 album, Plans. "I was really proud of that song, but looking back it doesn't fit on that record," he says.

Meanwhile, first single Teardrop Windows is an unabashed love song to Seattle's Smith Towers, built in 1914 and subsequently overshadowed as the city's proudest landmark by the Space Needle half a century later.

"It's a beautiful building and I wrote it out of homesickness when I wasn’t living in Seattle," Gibbard says. "I've always really admired it and I thought it would make a nice metaphor of how we take for granted the beautiful things we already have."

After working closely with Death Cab guitarist and producer Chris Walla for 15 years, Gibbard decided to take a fresh approach for this long overdue solo debut. He worked with long-time friend Aaron Espinoza of indie rockers Earlimart in the producer's Eagle Rock studio in LA.

Another close friend in acclaimed Californian singer-songwriter Aimee Mann appears on album highlight, Bigger Than Love, which Gibbard imagined as a duet between great American author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda.

In an odd coincidence, it turned out that Espinoza had retiled Mann's bathroom in his pre-muso days as a tradesman.
Gibbard played almost every instrument on Former Lives. The notable exception is the song Something's Rattling, which saw him recruit all-female mariachi group Trio Ellas.

"I thought 'This song's about getting lost in Los Angeles, why don’t I get lost in this other band'," he laughs. "I hope people dig it. I mean, I'm sure there are people who think it’s not cool or something.

"Hopefully I'll get the chance sometime to play the song with them live."

While some North American and European touring and promotion has been scheduled before Gibbard begins work on the next Death Cab for Cutie album, it is unlikely he will make it down to Australia.

After the awesome time his band had here earlier this year, when they played two concerts for the Perth International Arts Festival (and rode out jetlag at a Sunshine Brothers gig at Mojos in North Fremantle), the singer would come back in a heartbeat.

"I relish any opportunity to go there," he says. "You wouldn't have to twist my arm."

In recent years, in addition to writing and recording Former Lives and Death Cab for Cutie’s 2011 album, Codes and Keys, Gibbard has taken up running marathons.

"I think I should clarify and say I have run one marathon," he says. "I've totally fallen head over heels in love with running, and it's something that I never envisaged myself ever doing.

"Whenever I feel like I'm backed into a corner emotionally — for whatever reason — it clears my mind in a way that nothing else really can. Certainly the last year of my life, running and music have been my two best friends."

Former Lives is released on Friday.

The West Australian

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