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Mori Mente finds menace in the sunshine

Multi-instrumentalist Courtney Jarman put out the project’s latest release, “Special Technology,” in July.

Photo by Mary Stephan Photography.

Mori Mente, the solo project of Madison-area musician Courtney Jarman, threw something of a curveball this summer with the easygoing country ramble “Sunshine Lane,” which opens the new album Special Technology. Jarman has usually applied her versatility as a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and producer to create somber and mysterious electronic pop. But on “Sunshine Lane,” Jarman pitches her voice to a husky twang and invites the listener to “hop aboard a sunshine train,” over pleasantly warbling slide-guitar lines and a gently tapped snare drum. The video for the song is a Wisconsin summer idyll, capturing lazy raft rides and rope-swing jumps into a river. In a few shots, Jarman mugs it up in a giant flower costume.

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The twist is that the song tries so hard to be cheerful that it goes right around the corner and becomes a bit unsettling. “I feel like ‘Sunshine Lane’ is pretty dark,” Jarman says. “It’s overly happy in a way that’s almost manic…a cartoon or showtunes vibe, which isn’t necessarily authentically happy.”

Jarman lets earthy and acoustic sounds come to the fore on Special Technology. That’s mainly because she’s been spending more time playing guitar lately, brushing up a skill set that already includes drums (including in the delightfully weird surf-rock band Myrmidons), keyboards, and a voice that morphs uncannily across personas and registers. “I’ve been spending less time on the computer and in front of synthesizers,” she says. “I find that it’s a little bit easier for the writing process, because I can take the guitar anywhere, and it’s just easier to sit down with it or pick it up, instead of starting up all the electronics. For me that’s a barrier to get past.” 

There’s a sense that Jarman hasn’t just learned how to put a few basic chords together, but is really inhabiting the instrument. On “For Love,” she uses a cleaned-toned electric guitar to create elegantly barbed arpeggios that fall somewhere between mournful folk and Eastern European swing. “Our Home” pairs understated acoustic-guitar figures with glockenspiel in an eerie lullaby that hints at menace. The electric rhythm guitars on “Way Back” create an ominous shuffle to complement an off-kilter trombone melody from Lovely Socialite’s Corey Murphy. Versatile Madison guitarist Louka Patenaude contributes a solo to “Sunshine Lane,” and William Z. Villain plays the slide guitar on “Sunshine Lane.” The video for “Sunshine Lane” also shows Jarman playing one of the intriguing three-string stick guitars that William Z. Villain makes and sells. Rob Murphy plays drums on four of the album’s eight songs, and Brian Grimm (also of Lovely Socialite) contributes cello on “For Love.” Other than that, Jarman is playing, singing, and producing everything.

The sonic palette of Special Technology also reflects the rural life Jarman has been living recently, on a farm near Mount Horeb. “I wanted to keep the dark vibes in there,” she says. “But yes, generally more outdoor, country-living tones have been in my life recently, so that’s what’s coming out in some of the songs.” 

Then again, Mori Mente’s songs have always occupied a space between direct experience and flights of fantasy, between day-to-day reality and dreams, between nostalgia and terror. “Everything starts from my experience, but then when I’m writing a song, I do imagine other characters and create a fictional story starting from personal experience,” she says. The trombone part on “Way Back” popped into Jarman’s head after a dream, and that same dream inspired the song’s lyrics, which hint at a grim childhood: “In the way back in the countryside / In the house where my doggy died / We were strangers.” Where the real-life part ends and the yarn-spinning begins isn’t clear, and that’s part of the allure.

One reference point for that in-between approach comes from reading science fiction and fantasy. Jarman cites British author Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World as a recent favorite. “Most cases when you read a sci-fi book or a fantasy, typically it starts from the author’s experience and then they just imagine different characters,” Jarman says. “Usually science fiction and fantasy is a wintertime thing for me, and so is recording. Summertime, spring, and fall are crazy. This winter, I want to read [Cixin Liu’s] The Three-Body Problem because everybody’s reading it and it’s always checked out.” 

There are still electronic elements on Special Technology, but they’re just a bit more understated. Gentle synth pads fade in and out of “Our Home” and Jarman creates a theremin-like whir from both voice and Grimm’s cello on “For Love.” Those elements become a little more prominent, though not quite dominant, on the closing track “When Life Was Young”—originally written by Jarman’s brother Neil for a punk band they played in together years ago in Detroit, called Manginas. Rearranged here as a swaying, mournful pop track, the song floats the listener off on a languid wave of synth hooks. 

Jarman plays bass guitar on this record as well, but plans to focus more on that instrument as she plans Mori Mente’s next recording. She’s also working on a collaborative project with guitarist Cory Dinkle, who played on Mori Mente’s 2015 release In There Somewhere. Jarman hints that she has some “silly songs” in the works, but there’s no telling, in the context of Mori Mente, whether “silly” could lead to sinister.

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