Gold Light, the recording and touring project of current Asheville/longtime Charleston musician Joe Chang, has always had folk music in its DNA. It just usually gets distracted.
From the start, Chang wrote straightforward songs with a lyrical poignancy and directness that fit comfortably in an acoustic setting, but both live and on record his tunes were often embellished. On Gold Light’s 2013 self-titled debut, that meant a combination of doo-wop retro vibes, Lou Reed-indebted pop, and Moldy Peaches-y antifolk charm. On the 2016 follow-up Visions, Chang seemed to dart wildly again, adding ’80s flourishes from the Cure and Big Country to create a widescreen Americana synthesis that was extraordinarily compelling.
Now, as he’s set to release his third LP under the Gold Light moniker this Sunday, this time in collaboration with Beau, who performs under the name Snakemusic, Chang reimagines the Gold Light sound once more. Opening tune “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” announces its intentions swiftly with a plaintive strum and a warm breath of harmonica as Beau delivers an aching country lilt over a barebones arrangement. What follows is a selection of tunes that range from the proto-rockabilly “Picture Show” with a Nebraska-esque bit of storytelling to the old-timey archetypal folk ballad “Death.”
This, again, is something different.
“I’ve always been a fan of a country, folk, old-time kind of music, and I think in a way it underlines a lot of the other Gold Light stuff,” he explains. “After the last album, I just got really down on music. Like I didn’t even know if I really wanted to play anymore really. And what kind of dug me out of that was actually Beau.”
Beau, who had been playing in Gold Light for a few years prior, suggested that the two play a country covers show as part of an Asheville benefit. The experience reignited something in Chang.
“It was us just playing, like, Hank Williams and Dolly Parton songs,” he recalls. “It just made me fall in love again with playing those types of songs, and I realized how much our voices just kind of complemented each other and how much we enjoyed singing together.”
He started writing again using that plaintive country mode as inspiration, often keeping Beau’s voice in mind and thinking in terms of country duets.
The result is 10 spare, elegantly delivered Americana tunes that round out the already broad spectrum of the Gold Light catalog (with Beau’s contributing the noir-ish “Heart of Black”).
Chang says he didn’t start the project with this kind of album-by-album eclecticism in mind.
“I thought it would be cool to just have it be my project, the name of whatever kind of music I do even if I stretched out and did different genres,” he says, before admitting that he already has loose plans to make a “stripped-down, barebones, just me-and-a-guitar record” as well as an epic pop record following Shadows in the Shallows.
“I don’t really know why I feel like I have to keep switching around,” he admits. “Maybe it’s not that certain genres wear themselves out or anything with me — it’s just that I can’t really decide what I want to do. Sometimes I feel like I just want to cover it all or something.”
Still, the vital tissue that connects every Gold Light album is Chang’s vision, which includes not only his voice and songwriting, but also a particular blend of record collection acumen and shifty sense of modernity. Traces of Visions‘ reverb-laden guitar chimes and vocal tricks dot these songs, as does a kind of 2000s indie-folk iconoclasm that lifted performers like Bright Eyes and Neko Case.
Chang, who tends toward an unassuming approach, says he and Beau are giving the album a serious go, enlisting indie PR company Clermont to help generate press as they release and tour on the album.
Even while, one assumes, he’s plotting out yet another new musical horizon.