Rebecca Gates found herself holding a bass guitar, an instrument that she can play in a pinch, at a 2006 recording session in New York with Willie Nelson.
“I was pretty intimidated,” she says with a laugh. “I know Ryan Adams, who was producing, and he asked me to come in and sing some harmonies for a day for Willie’s ‘Songbird’ album. When I walk in, Ryan hands me a bass, which I can play, sort of. They’re learning the song ‘Songbird’ and I’m sitting next to Willie, holding the bass, and I don’t know what I’m doing. And Willie says, ‘Don’t worry about it, I don’t know how to play it either.’ He was just so welcoming and it was so easy to be comfortable around him. I realized he’s trying to answer the same questions I’m trying to answer, about songwriting, lyrics, arranging.”
It was one of countless moments in the last decade that led to the making of Gates’ first album since 2001, “The Float” (12XU/Parcematone Presents). The album was written and recorded in fits and starts in various locales across North America, and it touches on everything from elegant chamber-pop to slow-churn guitar rock. Gates’ dusky voice and elliptical lyrics have never sounded more haunting. When she sings, “Walk into the sea/Wash back in with me,” on the closing “Slowed Lowed Lowered,” it’s an image that lingers long after the music goes silent.
Gates is a masterly songwriter and singer. Each of her albums has something to recommend it, and a couple are considered classics – the Spinanes’ “Strand” (1996) and “Arches and Aisles” (1998) rank with the best music of the ‘90s. But she drifted away from full-time music-making after a 2001 tour.
“I never quit making music, but I was stepping away from the business cycle of putting out a record and working it,” she says. “I was just really burned out. I needed to recalibrate and see where it led me.”
She lived in Chicago for a time, and began immersing herself in her other interests. “Moving to Chicago and learning the musical vocabulary that existed, the intersection of international, academic, jazz and rock music felt really right to me,” Gates says. “It got me thinking about other ways to approach music and sound.”
She curated a group show of sound art in Marfa, Texas, edited an audiomagazine (The Relay Project), and served as event manager for art exhibits from California to Switzerland.
“Working in the contemporary art world, it was like a film shoot in some ways,” she says. “You had long days, very intense, at art fairs in places like Miami, Paris, London, for two weeks to a month. You couldn’t knock off at 5 and work on some songs for a couple hours.”
Gates also squeezed in guest-vocal work with an array of artists, including Nelson, the Decemberists, Laetitia Sadier, Ted Leo, the Minus Five, the Mekons and Califone. As often as she could, she’d play concerts, usually solo, sometimes tagging along as an opening act for her friends.
“I lost some confidence over the years because I had not played solo in a long time, but there I was playing solo in front of 2,000 people opening for the Decembrists in Boston,” she says. “Being up there by yourself being heckled and not being heckled, most people not knowing who I was, it made me realize it was fun, challenging. It was a big moment for me. And it made me think that maybe it is worth it for me to put some time into this record that I was trying to make.”
Though “The Float” was recorded over a number of years with a variety of musicians, including members of Califone, Wild Flag, Los Lobos and Tortoise, it has a coherent flow. Now she enters a music business world far different from the one she left behind 11 years ago. Gates has worked with the Future of Music Coalition in Washington, D.C., on helping musicians navigate the changing economic climate in the post-Napster era, so she knows intimately the risks involved.
“The thing I always hone in on is that just because we play music we shouldn’t be venerated,” she says. “Money won’t just walk in through the front door. But there is a real disconnect between how much music is appreciated culturally, how it helps people shape brands, and what is really happening with most musicians’ income. Working musicians are going to need someone around them thinking of this as a small business. Spending your own money on a project, as I am, is problematic. The label structure, as problematic as it was, allowed people to not have to have all these other skills to continue to play. Labels played an important role as curators and filters.”
Now Gates, like the vast majority of indie musicians, is doing most of the heavy lifting herself.
“I’m totally over capacity,” she says with a laugh. “I’m my own manager, my own booking agent. I licensed the record to Gerard (Cosloy) at 12XU. I want to work this record, engage and see what happens. If there is no interest, I get it. I’ll adjust. But if there is a chance for me to play more music, I want to know.”
Rebecca Gates: 9 p.m. July 29 at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, $10; hideoutchicago.com.