OWEN ASHWORTH, the man behind the lo-fi electro-indie project Casiotone For The Painfully Alone admits he feels a certain amount of anxiety about the possibility of starting a family.
It’s caused him to reflect on when his parents were this age and what their life was like when they began having children. It all led the Chicago based singer-songwriter to “make an album about relationships but not a romantic one, more about family and the situations that can come from family obligations and the lengths you would go for other people”.
The result is the marvellous Casiotone For The Painfully Alone Vs. Children - released this month and from which Owen will doubtlessly perform many songs when he plays the Róisín Dubh on Friday April 17 at 9pm.
For this current tour, Casiotone For The Painfully Alone will be a band comprising Ashworth (vocals/keyboards ), his brother Gordon (piano and lap steel guitar - who will open the show with his solo project Concern ), Tyson Thurston (baritone guitar ), and Nick Tamburro (drums ).
“I had been writing songs on tiny electronic keyboards as it was easy to demo and record them,” Owen tells me over the phone from Chicago, “but I always aspired to record with a band.”
Owen is originally from San Francisco and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. He later lived in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, before moving to Chicago three and a half years ago. Like many residents of the Windy City, he was overjoyed to see Chicago senator Barack Obama become the 44th president of the United States.
“There is an incredible amount of pride in Barack Obama,” he says. “On the night of the election, more than a million people here saw him speak. My girlfriend and I organised a party that night. There were tears shed. It was an exciting day.”
Music was always a constant in the Ashworth household - despite the fact Owen came late to it.
“I only became interested at 16,” he says. “My uncle had a bass, heard I was interested and he gave me his bass. I started noodling and it was three years before I wrote a song that I let anyone hear. My brother played a lot of piano. He’s a very accomplished musician. My mother played a lot of piano and sang in the church choir. My dad played the banjo, but more as a hobby.
“There was some resistance when I decided I wanted to do music. It took my parents a couple of years to come around and accept that this is what I want to do with my life and see that maybe I’m doing all right at it.”
Ashworth’s music is characterised by its sense of melancholy and melody and by lyrics which are as perceptive as they are concise - a quality that calls to mind the great American short story writer Raymond Carver.
“I really like Raymond Carver!” says Owen. “I would hesitate to compare myself to him but I was very inspired by the economy of his language. He lived in Oregon and I’ve always liked writers who lived in the same places I have.”
While it took Owen time to get the confidence to show people his songs, it also took time before he had the courage to get up on stage to perform them. That he did was the result of a sympathetic act for a heartbroken friend. It’s also the story behind his stage alias.
“I didn’t really name the band,” he admits. “I got a call from a friend. She had just broken up with her boyfriend and she was very upset. She said she needed some sad music right now and I put together a mix tape for her and titled it Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, trying to be sympathetic.
“She liked it and it turned out she booked gigs and she put me on a flyer as Casiotone For The Painfully Alone and so she forced me into it and forced me into getting out there and playing.”
Bank robbers and children
This month Ashworth will release two albums - Advance Base Battery Life, a compilation of rare tracks and covers and the new studio album Vs. Children.
Vs. Children is, in my opinion, already a contender for one of the albums of the year. A poignant, often deeply personal, reflection on relationships, parenting, and the possibility of having children, its intelligent lyrics are offset to wonderfully infectious, melodic, indie-pop.
Despite this, it actually started life as an album about bank robbers - which explains its’ delightfully curious cover of a pregnant woman knitting a long colourful Argyll patterned scarf in an valley with pine trees.
“The cover was painted by Heidi Anderson who did the covers of my previous two albums,” says Owen. “With Vs. Children I started writing songs about bank robberies - which seems to me to be the quintessential American crime - and I mentioned to her about Bonny and Clyde.
“The cover is basically Faye Dunaway pregnant and knitting. Heidi really ran with the geography of the mid-western region - Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio - she got it perfect. The painting made it easier to finish writing the songs as I had that image as a central motif for the lyrics.”
However as downloading becomes de rigeur, the day of the album cover is drawing to a close.
“It’s a shame but I guess it’s the march of time,” says Owen. “I’m a really old fashioned music fan. If they were to hang me I wouldn’t want it to be with new rope. A lot of my favourite music are the records I inherited from my parents. I love reading the lyrics on the back of the sleeve and getting up to change over to side two. I love that tactile, intimate, relationship with music.”
The bank robber theme merging with the emerging theme of parenting comes to the fore on the exuberant ‘Optimist vs The Silent Alarm’.
“I was reading this interview with a bank robber who had a secret life,” says Owen. “He would pose as a travelling salesman and carry out these horrible crimes but at home he lived a modern suburban lifestyle which he funded through his crimes and his wife and children never knew.”
Given that the possibility of becoming a parent is the theme of Vs. Children, how much is this a reflection of Owen’s life right now?
“I have been thinking about the anxiety of starting my own family and reflecting on when my parents were the same age as I was when they had me,” he says.
This is all captured in Vs. Children’s key track ‘Killers’ in which a couple debate whether or not to have children. It is a deeply poignant song and so intimate it feels like listening in on a most private conversation.
“I showed it to my girlfriend and said ‘Are you OK with this?’ as it was a really honest song,” says Owen. “There is a fear people will think they are about our relationship. Plenty of my life has influenced these songs but it’s fiction at its root.
“When you talk about things like the possibility of getting pregnant it’s a serious moment and you’re forced to evaluate the relationship. I was scared of that song but that meant it could be an important song to write. It’s uncomfortable subject matter.”
Is the last line of the song a deliberate nod to David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’?
“Absolutely,” Owen admits. “I’m not a big fan of David Bowie but when I heard the German version of that song in the movie Christiane F I thought it was amazing and I was imagining a similar kind of relationship in ‘Killers’ as there is described in ‘Heroes’.”
Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.