Opening for Sonny and the Sunsets
June 13, The Outer Space, 295 Treadwell St., Hamden, (203) 288-6400, the outerspace.net
Freedom is, as the song says, just another word for nothing left to lose. But it's a condition that most of us still aspire toward, even while at the same time working and struggling to acquire houses, cars, wealth, health, beauty and all kinds of other very lose-able things. That tension, between freedom and security (or maturity, or adult stability, or whatever else you might call it) sits at the heart of some of the songs of Kyle Field, the artist who performs under the name Little Wings.
Listen to "Shredder Sequel," the second song of a two-song story about an aging skateboarder whose body is starting to suffer from years of scrapes and jumps, off of 2002's Wonderue. ("Shredding" is slang for particularly reckless and accomplished skating.) "All of my buddies have fled/And now it's alone that I shred/I drive around every day listening to music I already have in my head," sings Field. There's a California coming-of-age sadness there. And Field sings with a creaky and weathered voice that jumps to bird-like falsetto coos. But the music of Little Wings is just as often about a type of ecstasy, about communing with the natural world, watching the elements unfold in wide-eyed (possibly stoned) wonder. Field can sometimes seem to evoke the uniquely American spirits of both Walt Whitman and Jeff Spicoli. Little Wings plays at The Outer Space in Hamden this week.
Field, who spoke with CT.com recently by phone from his home in Southern California, studied art in college. He splits his time loosely between his work as a musician and as a visual artist. (He's had shows and gallery representation around the world.) His pen and ink drawings are meticulous — almost obsessive — in their detail and control. His dense landscapes and ornately patterned backgrounds contain strange creatures, tiny animals and surreal text. His powers of observation make his best songs into poetic reflections. One of his most well-known tunes is "Look at What the Light Did Now," a song whose simple quiet beauty brings to mind lullabies and mystic folk. "Like a dead tree that's dry and leaving/Look at what the light did now," goes one line. The song, and by extension Little Wings too, received renewed attention when the Canadian singer Feist performed it with Field on her 2010 live record and DVD by the same name.
Light and the way light moves, provides heat and clarity, the way we turn to it, the way it leads us, is a recurring subject for Field. In his songs, light is "like a spiritual state," he says, "it's almost the thing that can't be described. It's like a word that could stand in for other words, too." Like "love" or "god," I suggest. And Field doesn't discourage that interpretation.
"I think the reason I use nature themes sometimes is that they seem kind of timeless," he says. "There's something that feels really open to me, to write using those simple nature themes."
But Field, 40, isn't solely a poet of light and wonder. In recent years his songs have taken on a slightly different cast, a hint of what you could call darkness. It's something that might have come as a surprise to longtime fans who may have grown accustomed to uplift and wide-eyed good vibes. His 2013 record, Last, is much murkier. (Even the record's title has possibly ominous finality to it.) Field has never shied away from the occasionally spooky effect of child choruses or spare and ultra-slow songs, which he has plenty of here. And a new word-stuffed hip-hop phrasing has crept into his singing, which sometimes makes for jarring contrasts with the folk-ish settings. Songs from the recent record, like "Doom Room," "Sunburned Eyes" and "There Goes My Light Feeling," all conjure a sense of cyclical loss, forlorn searching and even the potential danger of nature. Expanding the emotional palette of his material was something that Field says presented a challenge but ultimately seemed more honest.
"I think for a while I wanted to make positive, upbeat music," says Field. "I almost thought it was a bad idea to make any negative music, for years. Telling that secret truth was kind of a relief, that I wasn't feeling the pressure to be that overjoyful person all the time."
The hardships of being an artist, of trying to survive by making music and drawings has proved to be a little more difficult than it once seemed, says Field.
"I was younger and greener about the life that I felt that I was taking on," he says of his more jubilant early work. "I don't mean to say that I'm not as happy as I was then in life." But the newer, slightly darker songs still retain the spirit of pursuing the nature of what's real.
"The joyfulness is true," says Field, "but so is the opposite of it."