Half Shadow Practices DIY and Dying

Portland’s Jesse Carsten, who makes music under the moniker Half Shadow, sat down with us for an in depth conversation on his latest album “At Home With My Candles” and its surrounding themes. Carsten is as DIY as it gets, producing, releasing, and promoting his music himself while engaging with the community he has immersed himself into. His latest endeavor is released via Bud Tapes and Dove Cove Records.

Inspired by classic poets like Rilke and Federico García Lorca, and indie artists like Diane Cluck, Carsten approaches his songwriting with the experimental and environmental energy of the Pacific Northwest. “At Home With My Candles” is a poetic experience of Carsten’s epiphanies while bound to his home (an early 20th century home with original Douglas Fir floors, to be exact). The record explores the deeper mysteries that lie within our most familiar spaces, including unearthed desires and the fear of our own mortality. Carsten’s songwriting takes the mundane, universal concept of the home and asks us to question the physical and metaphysical spaces we inhabit. As a former film student with an eye for the visual arts, Carsten also discusses the visuals he edited as part of this album cycle–drawing inspiration from surrealist films like those of Maya Deren and collages by artists like Man Ray. The final project becomes an insight into the otherworldliness of our immediate surroundings.

“At Home With My Candles” is out now wherever you stream your music.

What’s your star sign, and do you feel like it reflects you as an artist? Why or why not?

I have a lot to say about this, but I’ll try and keep it brief. I’m a Sagittarius sun sign and my moon rising are both in Pisces. So, you know, that reflects me in the sense of like, Sagittarians are really outgoing in a certain way, and curious and interested in knowledge. And I definitely am all of those things. And Pisces is like a psychic sign. It’s like the sign of empaths so I definitely fit that to a tee. I’m like a sponge of emotion. I’m like an emotional sponge. So yes, definitely, that all plays into my music and in a variety of ways, I would say.

As a Portland native, how has the city’s music scene and environment shaped your growth into the musician you are now?

It was the music of the Pacific Northwest that drew me here really. When I was living in Chicago, I had a roommate, who was from Portland, and he was moving back here, and thought I would really connect with the city. So I hopped in the van, and came back and checked it out, and just kind of fell in love. It felt like a sort of creative paradise. Yeah, so I was drawn here by the music, a lot of music that was being made in Portland in the early 2000s. Very specifically around this record label called Marriage Records, which doesn’t really exist anymore. But a lot of bands on that label were my favorite bands. At that time in Portland, there was so many different artists doing lots of cross genre kind of stuff, it was like kind of a free for all. Like, you could be a songwriter, and do half your set, electronic, and then sit down and play sad folk songs. And that was totally acceptable and fun. And everyone kind of loved it. So that kind of style of things, or openness to different approaches to a particular piece of music or to a particular song, kind of is definitely still with me.

And this new record I am about to put out is indicative of this. It’s got sort of, you know, weird bedroom pop songs, and then it’s got emotional folk songs that become very orchestral and Baroque. And it’s kind of all in there. So I’m still living that early 2000s Portland inspiration in a certain way. It’s probably why I’m still here, connecting to that sort of spirit.

You describe yourself as “100% DIY” and “as alternative as it gets.” What do these terms mean to you?

So many of the artists that inspired me to get started making music were just making everything themselves. An example that pops into my head, an album I really love, is Diane Cluck’s Oh Vanille. And I found a CDR of it in this record store in New York City. And it was all totally handmade, like she had drawn and collaged the covers, and they were burned at her house and then wrapped in her own little wrapping. And I took that home and it was just like, “Oh, you can make the entire package yourself. You know, you can make the music, record the music, and put it into your own packaging, and get it to people. So I started finding more and more artists like that.

And it was just like this idea of DIY, of absolutely relying on yourself to create everything, self-reliance in terms of creating the whole project, and also connecting with people out in the world.

So I still do that. I mean, everything I do right now, working with two small record labels I mean, you’re in the room, that it was all made, designed, recorded, planned in. So when it comes to touring and stuff, too, I’m doing all my own PR for the record and booking all my own shows and I make all the posters. I design all the merch. And there’s a lot of people around me who do this too, like in the Pacific Northwest, especially. I bet Chicago too, is full of people like this right now. Just doing it all oneself and having the vision for it too. Because you it requires you to have a sort of creative vision for it, of how to do it. That’s kind of a long answer. But that’s what DIY sort of means to me.

You have to wear a lot of hats to do that.

Totally. And sometimes it’s kind of a trade off, because it’s like, “Well, I don’t have anyone funding anything.” And so the music can’t really, without a bigger label or something, the music sometimes can’t get as far. But the music video I put out is exactly how I want it to look. And it’s got the kind of vibration I want to transmit to people. So that’s a really exciting thing. And it’s a very satisfying feeling to take something from zero to finished. And have it be exactly what you want it to be.

Your upcoming album, “At Home With My Candles”, provides an introspection into domesticity during a difficult and confusing time in our lives. Can you summarize what epiphanies you’ve reached on the subject across the duration of completing the record?

Epiphanies, I’m sure I’ve had a bunch. I guess the main thing I realized doing this record is how much home holds. I feel like we have this idea… I think I set up sort of a false expectation with the name of this record, like calling it “At Home with My Candles,” you start to think of it like a person sort of in a quiet, dark space, making quiet music. And some of the music on here is quiet.

But as you know, some of it is more fleshed out and dynamic and big sounding. So, part of the reason for that is, making this record I realized just how much every home holds. There’s so much emotion, there’s so much, there’s so many hopes, dreams, visions, etc.

That these walls contain relationships, fights, cooking. You know, the whole package, the whole the whole swirling, swirling adventure of life that takes place inside of a house, an apartment, whatever. And I think making the record and indulging all the different sounds I wanted to use, kind of reflected back to me that complexity that is home. The ambivalence of home.

I mean, the past couple of years have been such a strange, powerful and difficult adventure inside of the home space. Because, you know, there’s this need to be here for safety and for the safety of others. And yet, there’s this whole world outside that is still going on despite the disaster of the pandemic, and the virus and whatnot. I feel like I discovered a lot of the beauty of home too. Like I said earlier, I’m sort of an emotional sponge. And so, having to stay home and be cut off from the community, in certain ways was like, a welcome respite for my nervous system. I feel like I’m getting to a point now where I’m like, “I’m ready to go back out.”

Your new record is coming out via Bud Tapes and Dove Cove Records. What about these labels appeals to your ethos?

Cool, yeah, I’d love to talk about this. Well, Bud Tapes is a really, really wonderful little label here in Portland. And Emmett, who runs it, who also has a wonderful band called World Record Winner, just has a wonderful intention, in the sense of making sure that music of the community makes it to people. Bud puts out a ton of tapes, and now record too, because they’re doing the vinyl LP with me.

I just love it. There’s such a feeling of community around it. And all the music on it’s wonderful. And everyone seems to just be supportive of one another. I feel like it’s helping to generate some new community connection in Portland.

Duff Cove is a really similar project in LA, which leans more towards noisy and experimental music. Sophie, who runs it, whose band is called Syko Friend has, I think, a similar intention of making sure this weird and wonderful stuff makes it to people. They’ve both been so supportive in the process. And, and it’s exciting. I just wanted to connect with some folks to get music into new music into new spaces, too. And I feel like they’re both providing a sort of community zone within which to release music. And I feel like that is a great way to make connections and new friends and new allies in the DIY music world.

‘I Practice Dying’, while appearing a bit sinister from its title, seems to embrace and accept our own mortality. How has this track shaped the way you’ve come to think about your own mortality as an artist?

Oh, beautiful question. One thing that’s true about me is I am a little sinister and dark. But I also am really into the idea of loving life and engaging joy and being connected to this tall project of living.

The song really grew out of this idea of, I do a lot of yoga. And I had one teacher that said yoga was a practice that would take us towards dying or preparing for death. Like a like a lifetime’s worth of practice towards preparing for death, because death is this, you know, terrifying and inexplicable moment, full of mystery and fear. And spiritual practices like that can prepare us to free ourselves from the fear and move towards that mysterious space with more grace and wonder.

So that was the mindset that this song was sort of coming out of. And I was literally doing yoga in our spare room. And thinking and thinking about life and thinking about the body, and how it will disappear eventually, and things like that. And making the song made me realize how certain parts of me are so terribly afraid of death. And how certain parts of me, probably the part that is chanting, excitedly, “Yeah, I practice dying,” is kind of in tune with that. Obviously, I’m not ready to die. I’m 34. I hope to live long and have many experiences. But I wanted a way to tune into that and to synchronize with that idea, so that I can learn to be less afraid of death, down the road.

That’s a healthy way of looking at it, especially during a time of mass illness when many of us have been faced with our own mortality.

I feel like if you don’t have a framework for thinking about it, then it can just be this rampantly scary thing. So many people are feeling as you’re, you know, so eloquently describing it’s, it’s true. Yeah, I sometimes… one thought I had when you were speaking was, I sometimes when I’m trying to make a decision in my life, I sometimes check with myself and see, “Will I regret this when I’m on my deathbed?” And if I say no, and it’s something I’m scared to do, I just do it.

You describe your project as “poetic,” and your song contains elements of almost spoken word poetry. Do you have any poets that you look up to, or does your inspiration come mostly from musical lyricists?

Yes. I love this question. Gosh, yes, I have so many poets I look up to. The list is probably way too long to mention them all here, but some big ones are the famous Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, is a huge influence on me. Recently, I’ve been reading the Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik,who I love. James Wright was a big influence on me, and Rocha, Diane Cluck, who I mentioned earlier, the songwriter, I see her as a poet, and I love musicians that do some dabbling in creative songwriting, pushing the lyricism to the point of poetry. That’s where it’s most exciting for me. I mean, I think that interest kind of started with like, Bob Dylan and stuff when I was younger. And now I found so many more of those kinds of people around, my friend Aaron Burgie, who does Megabog. She’s a poet, making music making songs.

While you’ve starred in all of your most recent music videos, you’ve also taken on the role as each video’s editor. This album era’s videos appear cohesive stylistically and carry a similar tone. How did you approach the visual side to your album and how does it serve the narrative?

Oh, gosh, I wish I had it near me. A lot of the imagery for this record, like for the record sleeve, and also for the videos and stuff, came out of surrealism. And there’s one picture, in particular… The album cover is based on this Man Ray collage. This image was on my wall for like three years and was just indicative of the kind of energy I wanted to evoke. I mean, it’s literally a doorway on to the beach. And something important to me about this record, and that I’ve sort of touched on already, is how grand the inner home space can be. And part of that grandiosity for me, is that because each of us has this kind of complex imagination, the home can provide portals to other psychic landscapes, imaginary landscapes, dream landscapes, things like that.

The collage by Man Ray
Album art for “At Home With My Candles”

So this Man Ray collage was indicative of that, and some songs on the record touch on it in a sort of literal way. “Moonless (Unmoored)” talks about opening a door onto a timeless shore, and “Flame Flower in the Air” does too. They both touched on that image. And the image appears in so many other people’s artwork, to like my appearance films, which have this portal between home and ocean. And I love that it suggests the vastness that each of us contains. So I would say that’s probably the central image of the album and also just something I’m thinking about all the time.

The video for “Moonless (Unmoored)” contains a lot of special effects to add to the surrealism of the song. Do you have a background in film, or did any movies inspire this creative decision?

I studied video in high school and then in college too. I wouldn’t say that I’m a great video maker by any stretch, but I really love playing with it and creating surreal and psychedelic images. And yeah, to your point, I’m definitely like borrowing this image, obviously, from Man Ray, but also from a couple of Maya Darren films where this happens. Her movie meshes of the afternoon, like she’s in it, and she smashes this guy’s face, and his face breaks into a mirror, and suddenly it’s the ocean behind him. And it’s so beautiful. And those images have really stuck with me.

And also Bergman’s films, like “The Seventh Seal,” which has lots of like, the ocean as this penultimate destiny. Also, I’ve been really into Rohmer movies, the French filmmaker, and specifically, his movie called “The Green Ray,” which is about this woman trying to have a good vacation, but she can’t do it. Because she’s trying to have like a mystical experience while she’s on vacation, but it won’t happen. She’s trying to fall in love. It’s a mystical thing. So that movie too.

The album clearly references the physical home space you occupy, but there are also numerous references to the natural world, such as in ‘Moonless’ and ‘Song For The Garden’. How does nature connect to this theme of ‘home’ and ‘domesticity’? to you?

Yeah, this is a question I’ve been trying to answer for myself, amidst doing interviews where people ask me this question, which I love. Living in the Pacific Northwest, nature is so close. I mean, the house is surrounded by Doug firs and fruit trees, and it feels very lush, just outside the window. And we can get out into nature really quickly, and be lost in an ancient forest. I feel like when I go out there, or to the beach, or we go to the ocean, it’s like this tremendous ancient ocean crashing violent ocean. I feel like I always bring it back with me. Like it’s in my eyes. And it always inspires new songs. It always inspires poetry and images and an art. So I feel like the forest and the ocean and such, through me, are kind of living in my house. They feel at one with this space. And we live in a very old house. We have a house from 1910 and it has, it has Doug Fir floors. So it’s almost literally like the forest is in the house.

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