Madison musician Courtney Jarman’s project celebrates a new EP on October 20 at Mickey’s. (Photo by Amanda Swan Photography.)
Madison project Mori Mente’s new EP, Comparison (The Thief Of Joy), opens with a track called “The Dark Prince” that twists through a lofty electronic intro, layers of falsetto vocals, waltzing acoustic guitar chords, a sinuous visit from a melodica, restrained drumkit, and ever-shifting arrangements of synth that variously evoke organ, strings, and eerie bells. Multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, producer, and songwriter Courtney Jarman is the one playing and wrangling everything on the track, except for an upright bass part from former Madisonian Ben Willis and some backing vocals from the eccentric William Z. Villain. It’s a disorienting but catchy four and a half minutes, and it speaks volumes about the freedom and flexibility Jarman grants herself in this project, which will celebrate the EP’s release with a Saturday, October 20 show at Mickey’s Tavern.
Jarman learned the drums before picking up keyboards and guitars, and her drumming was a complex, powerful force in Myrmidons, a Madison trio that fused surf music and math-rock. She’s played in other local bands including Dharmonic Deluxe and Glassmen. But Mori Mente is decidedly a solo outlet, with collaborators pitching in according to how they fit into Jarman’s self-contained vision.
“I decided to start a project that I have more creative control with,” Jarman says. “I’ve been in bands where I’m writing but typically I have more enthusiasm and energy for the process than other members, a different timeline, and sometimes I felt my voice was not heard. I wanted a space where I could take my own time and make my own decisions. I love playing and writing with other people and many of the songs are collaborations, but for me it’s a more relaxing environment.”
While Mori Mente’s recordings so far almost always incorporate elements of electronic pop, spaced-out lounge jazz, and gothy minor-key melodies, the overall approach can shift dramatically from one track to the next. The 2016 EP Zenith kicks off with funky electronic hi-hats and a slinky synth-bass part, whereas the project’s debut release, 2015’s In There Somewhere, felt more like a full-band effort. And unlike either of those two releases, Comparison has just one song with vocals on it, and three instrumentals. Each instrumental has quite a bit of sonic and emotional variety unto itself: “Black Lodge” starts with mournful Fender Rhodes-like chords before summoning up eerie synths that suggest a love of kitschy vintage science-fiction soundtracks. “Serenade” centers on a guitar melody and a start-stop drum pattern that foregrounds Mori Mente’s jazz and surf-rock influences. “Golden Arrow” is pretty much a full-on electronic track, filled with glimmering synths and a frizzy drum-machine snare.
Jarman didn’t necessarily set out to make a mostly-instrumental EP, but that’s where her writing process ended up leaning.
“I tend to lean toward instrumental because sometimes I feel lyrics don’t come as naturally as a synth or other instrument,” she says. “Typically I’ll just get a melody in my head and work it out on either piano or guitar, but sometimes I’ll be just be messing around with chords. Although the drum kit was my first instrument, it’s rare that I start out with a beat for a new song.”
Jarman will be heading out on a west-coast tour later this fall with William Z. Villain, who just released a new album of his own, Stonedigger. And going forward her sonic explorations will likely only branch out more.
“Right now I’m learning bass and craving playing a rhythm instrument in a group setting,” Jarman says. “And this winter I plan to release some guitar-centered recordings.”