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Photo by Colin Medley

Marker Starling Reckons With Mortality on “Anchors & Ampersands”

Sophie Kemp

The Canadian musician's newest record, which features Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier, is an expansive personal retrospective.

Photo by Colin Medley

Chris Cummings has gone through decades worth of musical evolution to get here. In his latest iteration, Cummings performs as Marker Starling with his newest record, Anchors & Ampersands, as his expansive retrospective: it’s about Cummings’ 20 plus years as a musician and his relationship with music. Out this week via Angel Records, Cummings takes us through his personal archive of songs on the record, featuring the tracks he wrote when he was 28-years-old put next to songs that he wrote relatively recently with his band, producer, and collaborators of all kinds. Cummings tells me that he’s in his late forties now, and, as result, he feels that there is an “awareness of [one’s] own mortality that is ever increasing as you get older so the record is tempered with that.”

His approach to making music has evolved throughout the years and throughout Anchors & Ampersands we can see that. It’s minimalistic and that’s intentional; Cummings wanted to pare things back a bit. Throughout the record, we hear Cummings’ vocals alongside a small choir; the delicate pedal steel work of the revered British guitarist B.J. Cole; Brazilian percussionist Domenico Lancellotti on the triangle; and a small horn section. The result is a 35-minute album full to the brim with elegance and intentionality. Anchors & Ampersands takes its listener somewhere full of warmth. What we on this album hear isn’t necessarily sad but it is a bit melancholic. No one expresses this feeling better than Laetitia Sadier, a musician best known for her work in Stereolab. Sadier’s response to Cummings’ music is synesthetic and driven by deep emotion: “I find it very salvaging—it feels good to go there. It feels good to linger in those emotional places that I find both dark and really beautiful. I feel all of these dark blue and green tones mingled in together.”

Anchors is something that seems unassuming on the first listen but quickly seduces you the more you put it on. The album is full of unexpected little sonic Easter eggs—pedal steel where you wouldn’t expect pedal steel, intricate vocal harmonies that seem to come out of nowhere, and guitar that sounds almost a little bit disco. It’s not just a bit nostalgic because it reflects upon Cummings’ life, it’s also nostalgic in all of the different vintage music conventions that are at work.

In its early stages, Cummings and his collaborators conceived the record as a live in studio album. According to Cummings, the record had a previous life as something “kind of like The Beach Boys’ Party, where they have all the fake audience sounds.” However, as time passed, Cummings nixed the idea and reconceived it as a semi-live album and focused on making a record that he and his band could enjoy working on together. On “Playin’ Along 99,” that ease comes out; Cummings sings about what it is like to go from a creative burst to a period where songwriting doesn’t feel natural.

This is music that moves people, and Sadier’s relationship with Cummings’ music is an important example. She found out about Cummings through her long time producer and friend Emmanuel Mario and ever since she has gone to Cummings’ shows, worked with him on music, and had him write a song for her most recent album. Sadier’s relationship with Cummings’ is one that is full of joy. “His music is him, how great he is, and his band and how brilliant they are and how exquisite it is in the lyrics and how funny they can be,” says Sadier. “You know, it’s a wholesome experience, which is very touching to me, and makes me very happy indeed. You know you walk out of a concert by Chris and you feel like ‘I’m just so happy to be alive and to be able to experience this!’”

Sophie Kemp is a writer living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.