Music Feature

Speakeasy: From a Fountain

by Bill Chenevert
The low-fi folk adventurer takes you on a musical journey
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Douglas Kirby is an explorer. The former member of Philly’s National Eye has traveled all over the United States, collecting ideas for his own concept album, Shale and Sandstone. Its title presumably refers to the desert landscapes he’s encountered out West, where the album’s story unfolds. But Kirby is also an explorer of sound: From a Fountain combines classical instruments like the piano and French horn with offbeat effects and a collection of voices to create a unique and interesting sound, perhaps best described as lo-fi folk. His website, (www.fromafountain.com), is a giant Internet maze encrypted with mp3's and artwork, old photos and animations. It’s easy to get lost, clicking from place to place, in the same way it is easy to get lost on a road trip. We think that’s what he is trying to get at, although the album’s central characters are a clan of time-traveling Native Americans (you try and figure it out). Regardless, the record is really beautiful: unadorned piano meditations expand into much fuller arrangements, which ultimately reflect both the starkness and vibrancy of the American landscape the artist has come to know so closely.

From your website’s map of the U.S., it’s apparent you’ve done a lot of traveling. Do you have any favorite regions?
Southeastern Utah is actually my favorite. The geology is stunning, beautiful red and orange rock layers…

If our readers were to click through your map/maze, they’d probably find their way to the Philly section first. Explain your connection to the city, for those who don’t know.

I was there for six years after college with National Eye. I lived all over the city, Italian Market, South Philly, Northern Liberties, Graduate Hospital area. Finally had to get off the East Coast , cause I’m a Midwesterner at heart. I loved Philly when I was there.

Why are songs “Lo and Behold” and “Trainland” filed under the Philly section? Is there a reason?

That’s the first time anyone’s asked me why the songs are on the pages they’re on.

Yeah! It seemed deliberate, like you had a whole map planned out.
It is deliberate! "Trainland" has to do with the R3 line, that goes to Media. So when we first moved to Philadelphia, we lived in Yeaton. So to get to the city we’d take the R3. That was my first exposure to Philly. I had a friend who was really into trains, so that song is about how trains are disappearing. Generally, the more historic trains are going away.

Your album, Shale and Sandstone, is about time-traveling Native Americans, to put it simply. How did your experience of the United States contribute lyrically to your album?
Growing up in South Dakota, it gave me a sense of community and simplicity, and peace. The Lakota Nation, in SD, is a sovereign nation within the U.S. And my travels through the dwindling West, the last virgin land. These just contributed to the spirit of the lyrics as they came out.?
Your album was out on vinyl this past September. But it really took two years to record?
It did. It took two years at least in Philadelphia, starting with very simple piano demos with just the music, and I overlayed a lot of lyrics on top of that slowly. I had a bunch of friends come over and record on top of things, as soon as I got them in any shape to be worked on that way…

So you recorded in Philly. Were there any spots you went to write songs, or draw inspiration from or anything like that?
I was up in Fishtown and the Northern Liberties a lot. Wandering around kind of the more desolate blocks, around the abandoned row homes and empty lots with rubble. Definitely contributed to some of the emotions in my music.

Did you notice any similarities, then, between Fishtown and Southern Utah? It’s got that deserted feeling at times, even though it’s urban. 

I guess so, yeah, I hadn’t thought of that until now.

You said that you had some Philly friends help out on the album. Anyone we’d recognize?

Toby Leaman from Dr. Dog played guitar on one song. He came over and played some stuff, we’re friends… Nick Krill and Jon Eaton from the Spinto Band played some percussion on a song, and helped me engineer some drums. I played a lot of stuff -- these songs were all built from piano, so what’s really complex for me is piano stuff. If I lay down guitar, it’s a lot simpler. I’m somehow good at guitar. The other person who played who was really amazing was this girl named Jilly Alphen, she played the French horn. She was in a band called Rifle Nights, which was around for a while…the French horn is just stunning, it’s on a couple songs.

Your other band, National Eye, came out of Philly. What are some big differences that that band has in sound compared to your solo project?

National Eye was collaborative, so in my ears, it has everyone’s signature approach to melody, and approach to instrumentation. The structures of the songs are kinda more layered, and there’s a lot of different elements. So since I had control over From a Fountain, I can only hear my voice in there. So it gets a little lonely for my ears.

Who did the artwork for your album?

It’s special, it’s by Jesse Moynihan, he is in the band Make a Rising, from Philadelphia. He’s also an incredible illustrator. He does a weekly web comic, it’s just jessemoynihan.com. He did the cartoon in Philly Weekly for a year, so he’s a Philly Guy.

Your publicist told me that you’re the only person to have ever opened a line of credit at Franklin Fountain. I do Philly Flavors myself, but the Fountain’s good too…how often did you even go, that you were able to establish credit?

I met them early on, when they opened. And I was in there, and I just floated the idea, you know, what if I had a tab at the Fountain and I paid at the end of the month? They said, you know, we’ll think about it. A few days later I went in there and they said, we’re good to go on that! The one thing that I remember was that in August 2006, the bill for August was $200.

Any favorite menu items?
The Stock Market Crunch. But actually, the marshmallow malt is phenomenal too.

Does your band name have anything to do with that spot?
Only peripherally.
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