Wes Chester gets right to the point. “I have always been a traveler, but usually not for holidays.” Born and raised in North Carolina, he left home at 16 for the Pacific Northwest, and lived nearly a decade in Canada. “When I returned to North Carolina, I took a technical job that kept me on the road 300 days a year, traveling across the US. Then I came off the road, settled down, and took a degree in Psychology which eventually led me to San Diego where I direct the Expressive Arts Institute, teaching arts-based therapists.”
The next step in the story, as it is for so many of us, is Cambodia. “My latest travels were to come to Phnom Penh in January to work with Euan Gray at Songkites Studio.” The introduction came through Carrie Herbert, co-founder of Songkites, who studied at the European Graduate School in Saas Fee, Switzerland, where Wes taught for five years and continues to return for summer schools. “We collaborated on a song there, which Carrie sent back to Euan for a mix. It came back with a note saying that he’d like to hear some more demos from me.” They met and talked in Joshua Tree, California, discussions that culminated in the January sessions for a mini-album, Travelogue.
Both as a teacher and a songwriter Wes is firmly in the art-as-therapy camp. “Historically, I have been known as a writer of sad songs, and I do think they are of great value as a therapeutic work,” he says. “They’re almost medicinal. I also think the most compelling songs have a serious lyric meaning, a lyric that the author has taken seriously, even if it’s playful. A good lyric avoids tropes and clichés in favour of something less neat and more imprecise. Life is definitely not a series of completed narratives, rather it’s one big sloppy story we tell ourselves about ourselves. It doesn’t have an ending, happy or sad, and it’s not the ending that is important: it’s the journey. Inconsequential daily events lead us towards meetings of great consequence. Poorly considered or even random decisions become a part of the fabric of our personal narrative just as much as the most well advised choices we make within the illusion of personal control of life events.”
Wes lists among his influences Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, James Taylor and Tori Amos, and while he makes no claim to sounding like any of them, Leng Pleng can report, on previewing the tracks, that the songs share a sparseness, melody and wit that you may expect from those listed above.
“My songs tend to ‘end in the middle’ lyrically. They describe states of becoming that aren’t aimed at the achievement of enlightenment. They speak about a life that is happening, becoming and passing away constantly. Travelogue is that kind of song, written about the summer community of European Graduate School, home to so many of the friends, mentors and relations who have made me the person I’m becoming. A circle of friends watching each other age.”
Then there’s the really tough subject. “Love songs! They are also not easy. I have been trying for at least half my life to solve a problem with love songs: they aren’t really about the beloved, they are about the author – that goes all the way from Rumi to Adele. I write about how you make me feel. The old trick is to address love itself, in this case with an eye that is somewhat critical yet remains hopeful. Shine is one I like to think of it as an adult love song.”
“The outlier on the record is Month of Sundays. It’s almost pathologically cheerful on its face, a love song about a person totally ungrounded by love, enjoying the ride. I did make a decision a long time ago to give myself over when love shows up; unlike death, we have a choice, at least theoretically, but it’s no fun for anyone if you fight it.”
Wes Chester will launch Travelogue at Alchemy on Saturday night with the Euan Gray Quartet and Carrie Herbert.