There's something that's always been splendidly solitary about the music singer/songwriter Austin Crane has made under the Valley Maker moniker.
What started as a solo meditation on the interior lives of characters from the Old Testament has grown and evolved with other players over the years. But mostly it has stuck to the fundamental template of Crane delicately fingerpicking his angular melodies and crooning his enigmatic and contemplative lyrics with the spectral presence of Amy Fitchette's haunting, complementary vocal parts sliding in and around his own.
Much of the formula, however, is being tweaked and expanded with Valley Maker's new album Rhododendron, which is being released by the Frenchkiss Records, a major independent label that is a subsidiary of Sony Music Entertainment. Building on the gentle rock flourishes of 2015's When I Was a Child, Crane collaborated with Seattle indie-rock figures like drummer James Barone (Beach House, Tennis) and bassist Eli Thomson (Father John Misty), plus a host of session players. He also crafted four tracks with fellow University of South Carolina graduate Chaz Bundick (Toro y Moi) out in Portland.
"This record has a lot more going on sonically, a lot more layers, than anything I've done before," agrees Crane. "I really wanted this record to be a new step for the project. I feel like part of the reason I don't have Valley Maker under my own name is that I like the idea of doing something different with each record and there being a certain kind of expectation of collaboration and change every time. And even with the live shows, there [should be] an ability to inhabit the songs in different ways."
Crane says that despite the ostensible differences between them, he and Bundick have long talked about collaborating on music together.
"I remember getting together in 2011 and trying to figure out if we could make it work," the songwriter recalls. "It wasn't quite possible then. He's been on tour lot, but we'd always see each other when he came through Seattle and other places. It was just a matter of finding a time place where it can happen."
The duo finally met up for four days last year in Portland, where Bundick was temporarily living, and laid down a track a day, pulling both musicians out of their comfort zones a little bit.
"I had some demos that were kind of starting points, but then we really kind of collaboratively went from there and that's different than how I've recorded in the past," Crane continues. "I think it was fun for him if I, if I can speak for him on that, it seemed really fun for him to get to work on something that was a little more in the kind of folk-Americana sound, and [at the same time] it was way out of the realm of the sonic world that I've always kind of existed in musically. That was super exciting."
And the impact of both the session musicians and Bundick are clearly felt throughout the record. While Crane's distinctive guitar licks still anchor the record, it's often met with an equal rhythmic force, whether it's a standard rock feel or an electronic pulse. On "Light on the Ground," Crane makes ample use of '80s-sounding synths and features a droning saxophone solo in the outro, feeling more like a War on Drugs song than anything that previously felt at home on a Valley Maker track. And on "Beautiful Birds Flying," one of the Bundick-produced tracks and an early single, a stately, reverb-laden piano and other carefully layered instruments billow underneath Crane and Fitchette in a way that lifts their standard formula to new heights.
Lyrically, Rhododendron stays in the thematic lineage of the songs Crane has been writing since before Valley Maker existed, full of introspective untanglings on meaning, faith, time, and place, but with an added twist of groundedness and contemporary worry that he ties to both the politics of the Trump era and his own PhD research on migration and immigration in Europe.
"I feel like a lot of these songs were written sort of in the run up to the election and right after it," he points out. "I think a lot is that the world we're living in kind of necessitates being a bit more outward looking and engaging with what's going on around me."
In place of the relative timelessness are questions about belonging that feel more grounded in the present moment, something that also felt important to Crane as he wrote with a mind toward playing these songs live on some of his most extensive touring yet. He's had a booking agent since the spring, and he's set to play a slew of East Coast dates and a European tour behind Rhododendron.
"I feel really excited to be able to do that now in a way that is a little more sustainable," he notes, something that feels particularly germane given that he's nearing the end of his graduate work too."
He continues, "I'm in a position now where I've gotten on a larger label with some national and international resources to help grow the project. I just really want to lean into my music and playing live right now too. That has been my favorite thing to do more than anything else."