In March 2020, the Baltimore-based Keal found that the roles he valued most in life – that of a father, partner, and middle school English teacher – were suddenly heightened and complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A self-described “sensitive, open person,” he found that he needed to pivot quickly to being a rock for those who needed him, sometimes to the detriment of his own emotions. “I had to be really, really strong, and that's not something that I've ever felt compelled to be until the last few years,” he says. Keal also had to remain stoic about the abrupt cancellation of his album recording at a cabin in North Carolina, a would-be “open and shut five-day session” with his long-time bandmates and friend and musician Matthew O’Connell (Chorusing) working as engineer.
O’Connell and his brother, Joseph O’Connell of Elephant Micah, had been dedicated cheerleaders for Small Sur during a decade that saw Keal throwing the majority of his artistic energy into work, home life, and other creative pursuits. “They were super encouraging,” Keal says of their support. “Just staying on me to keep making music.” It was Matthew who pushed Keal to begin sorting through the trove of voice memos and half-written songs he’d recorded over the past decade. With O’Connell’s guidance, Keal sculpted ten songs to completion and made plans for recording. Sharing creative leadership felt vulnerable and invigorating. It was something he’d worked for while recording previous albums but never quite actualized, mostly because of time and budget constraints. In a way, circumstances dictated Small Sur move from what was comfortable, into what Keal liked most about making music. “Spontaneity and collaborative adventure,” he says, of what he had been hoping for.
After the first months of orienting to the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Connell proposed that Keal record the set of songs, albeit in a patchwork fashion. For much of 2020 and 2021, the two collaborated to record and solicit contributions remotely. The bulk of Keal’s delicate vocals and classical guitar work was recorded in the basement choir room of a chapel on his school’s campus, with O’Connell engineering and accompanying on grand piano and Telecaster. As a player, engineer, and co-producer, O’Connell helped to craft a cohesive avant-folk album aesthetic, creating tape dubs of instrumental tracks and running saxophone takes through a half-broken Echoplex tape delay, all the while creating sounds that Keal would not have encountered otherwise.
Small Sur’s music has always been spare, intimate, and deeply felt. But with the stripping of the conventional full-band structure, Keal was able to invite in even more community, while still creating a minimalist and personal sound. Attic Room includes Small Sur’s Andy Abelow (saxophone) and Will Ryerson (bass), as well as guests like North Carolina fiddler Joseph DeCosimo, pedal steel guitarist Dave Hadley, and singer Cara Beth Satalino of Outer Spaces. Keal trusted Wye Oak and Joyero’s Andy Stack, a long-time collaborator, to process his numerous instrumental contributions however he liked. The recording choices helped “make decisions'' for how the arrangements proceeded. As Stack describes it, “There is a palpable restraint to this music that creates its own kind of gravitational pull … you must make damn well sure that the notes chosen convey the right tones, because in Small Sur, each one weighs a ton.” The album was mixed by Erik Hall (In Tall Buildings), known for his production work with Bill MacKay & Ryley Walker, Lean Year, Wild Belle, and Elephant Micah.
Attic Room pays direct homage to the more languorous corners of Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark. On “Rays of Light,” dawdling percussion threatens to fall just behind the picked guitar melody and atmospheric saxophone. At moments, Hadley’s pedal steel sounds purely Nashvillian; at others, it evokes the otherworldly, textural playing of Daniel Lanois, whose collaborations with Brian Eno and Emmylou Harris provided a guidebook for how to bridge folk and the avant garde. Keal explains that as a listener and writer, he’s interested in structures where “there is a hook or pop sensibility or a melody, but then there's no chorus and the song just sort of floats away.” On single “A Clean Patch of Ground,” drums and guitar flutter in fits and starts beneath Keal’s textural baritone. “A thundercloud unfolding / After the rain / And I’ve been falling forward / Through the forest / Without a flame,” he sings, recalling the landscapes of his rural upbringing in South Dakota. The song’s title, and monastic lyrical style, is in reference to "A Clean Patch of Ground," a poem by Stonehouse (aka Shiwu), the 14th century hermit and Zen Buddhist.
Much of Small Sur’s music is earthy and visual, originating from the same foggy medium-fi tradition as Mt. Eerie and Grouper. Keal’s songs have long been personal tracts hosted in wild settings, where an encounter with nature looms large and helps the narrator sort through the messy reality of human life. As a review of Small Sur’s 2008 debut We Live in Houses Made of Wood put it, “These are nourishing songs, songs that are as close as we city-dwellers can get to the feeling of a strong harvest.” But in the process of becoming a parent and a teacher to small children, Keal’s narratives began to foreground the communal, more than the settings or even the self.
Just as Bill Callahan and Brandi Carlile’s recent works have held an unabashedly parental voice, Keal’s songs on Attic Room take the tender vantage point of a father. Watching his young daughter navigate the world, Keal is a nurturer, worrier, guide, and champion. On “For Juniper,” written for his daughter, Keal explains to the emotional young child that her big feelings will pass. “Every little thing / Soon will fall away / Photographs will fade / Ink will flood and bleed,” he sings. The song contains a bittersweet double meaning, as Keal watches his child and family grow older. Again, Keal turns to the window for understanding of change and an acceptance of the beauty in the present. “In the autumn, I / Watch the hillsides rise / Fifteen shades of fleeting leaves,” he concludes. In the songs and story of Attic Room, Small Sur finds strength and grace among transience.