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“One vibrating box inside another vibrating box”: Louka Patenaude’s acoustic discoveries

The indispensable Madison guitarist talks about his new solo album, “Testing Your Patience.”

Photo illustration: Louka Patenaude plays an acoustic guitar while sitting at a table at Garver Feed Mill.

Louka Patenaude has spent more than 20 years playing guitar in a range of settings. His work in the Madison jazz community alone would make for an admirable career: he co-founded the long-running New Breed Jazz Jam residency, recorded and toured extensively with pianist Ben Sidran, and played an essential part in percussionist/bandleader Tony Castaneda’s Latin jazz ensembles. If you catch even the occasional jazz show around town, you will almost certainly see Patenaude and his blue Ibanez guitar contributing richly considered, technically accomplished lines that show a rich, experienced sensitivity to the music surrounding him at that moment. 

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Patenaude has also explored a great deal of music outside of jazz, all in a spirit of humble discovery. He’s played for years with local reggae veterans Natty Nation, and found a variety of ways to experiment with rock and country. He has gradually developed into a singer-songwriter. His band The Optimistic released a self-titled album in 2009 that put Patenaude’s vocals and writing in a shaggy rock context, occasionally veering into more folk-oriented territory. Highlight tracks like “Universal Healthcare” and “Minoan Pillars” brought across their share of shaggy, understated angst with a sly sense of humor and wordplay. The chorus of “Universal Healthcare”—”Tonight the bars will be full of your family / So put on your best and don’t ask questions tonight”—still holds up as sharp, catchy, and strangely hilarious, capturing an elusive balance of sadness and warmth. 

Patenaude dug further into songwriting, and deepened his relationship with the acoustic guitar, through several other projects and residencies over the years. With collaborators Jeff Held and Luke Sather, he formed a country group called The Fingers in 2006, all three members writing songs and workshopping them at downtown venue Café Montmartre (which closed in 2009). A few years later, Patenaude and Benjamin Bill of William Z. Villain started a loosely formatted Monday night residency at The Fountain (now closed), workshopping their solo material and welcoming guest performers. 

During that period, Patenaude began to perform the songs that would eventually make up his newly released solo album under the name Louka, Testing Your Patience. Benjamin Bill and multi-instrumentalist Ramon Gooden played with Patenaude as this body of work developed, as did bassist John Christensen. More recently, Patenaude and Christensen used a residency at Bandung’s Nutty Bar to further experiment with a mix of influences that include American folk music, jazz, Greek music, classical guitar, Erik Satie, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and flamenco. Christensen plays on seven of the album’s 10 tracks. Patenaude self-recorded much of the album at home, focusing on the rich sonic dimensions of the acoustic guitar—often multi-tracked alongside mandolin and ukulele, but just as often unadorned, mediated only through microphones and the acoustic qualities of the room, and sharing space only with Patenaude’s voice. 

Testing Your Patience begins with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” though the remaining nine tracks are originals. “It was the first song I learned to sing by myself,” Patenaude says of the Dylan song. “[That] started a pattern of taking songs that took dark or sad lyrics and reharmonizing them from their originally brighter tone to a more parallel darker sound. It felt fitting.” He ends up with a baleful minor-key lament, far removed from the fond twinge of sadness that runs through the version Dylan recorded for 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

Patenaude also likes to shift the mood and context of his own material. “Red Ferns” builds on charming, rag-like fingerpicked passages and a laid-back vocal performance. Several of its verses show up later on “Long Walk Home,” a world-weary slow burn, which makes you realize you were listening to some fairly dark lyrics a few tracks ago: “One day the Earth will line up with Pluto and Mars, / If it don’t happen fast I’m gonna sell the farm / And the life there is gonna wither and die.” One track on Testing Your Patience, “In My Tea,” first showed up on The Optimistic as a mischievous, off-kilter rock song. Here, it slows down and opens up to sizzling kitchen sounds, Christensen’s almost menacing bowed bass, and the watery swell of Josh Pultorak’s udu drum. 

“One Big Happy Now” might be the most aggressively cheerful piece of music on the album, which makes the contrast with its lyrics all the more withering: “I toppled over towers and tore apart the sea / All that I could think of was me and victory / I made my people cower and massacred the crowd / But I’m letting it go so the story ends in one big happy now / Dropping history just too heavy to carry / Mental repetitions making everything too scary / Separation’s a lie, we’re all going to die / But never you mind ’cause we’ll just come right back to life,” Patenaude sings before launching into a dazzling whirl of rapid-fire solos.

On the next track, “Moonrock,” Patenaude takes a disarming turn into full-on, unabashed vulnerability and tenderness. Cajon player Juan Medrano Cotito gives the song a gentle lift, accentuating the sadness of lines like “I’m a book of old poems sitting on your lap but you don’t read me / You’re lying in the dark drifting off to sleep.” 

For Patenaude, this album came from a long process of learning and challenging himself. “The stuff that we hear a lot of times that has the most power is because the people who are doing it are also just discovering it for themselves,” he says. “So you’re like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so exciting.’ Well, it’s super exciting for them too, because they’re probably having the same experience.”

In fact, he has another album’s worth of material written—”harmonically, getting a little weirder,” he says—and expects that to take more practice and development before he begins recording it. “This one’s a lot more stuff I have to really, really practice on and get my skills together a little bit, even more, because I don’t know how to do it yet,” Patenaude says. It might seem like a strange thing to hear from a musician of Patenaude’s experience and unassailable skill, but his openness and receptivity probably have a lot to do with the empathetic range of this album. Scott Pauli’s hallucinatory, collage-like cover art adds yet another layer of bizarre humor that somehow ends up making the whole thing even more accessible and welcoming. 

These days Patenaude says that he’s “mostly practicing,” though he has returned to playing jazz shows (including one last week with Castañeda’s Latin Jazz Super Band, as part of the Majestic’s annual Latin Music Fest) and recorded guitar parts earlier this year for baritone saxophonist Anders Svanoe‘s next album. He may play some solo shows in the spring. Patenaude met up with me in November to discuss the development of Testing Your Patience, his approach to writing lyrics, and his favorite guitar. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tone Madison: You were working on this album for quite a few years, right?

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Louka Patenaude: The whole thing with this album is that I kind of had to start from the beginning in a lot of ways. One aspect of it was, I wanted to be able to play in a way where it’s like, “OK, if I was completely on my own, what could I do with these songs to present them?” Without a band, let’s say. Ultimately it turned out that I have other instrumentation on there and there’s clearly some arrangement, but it just took on a life of its own after a while. I wanted to get it together to where I could do this stuff on acoustic guitar.

I kind of had to re-learn to play, in a lot of ways. Just being a strictly electric guitar player for a long time, the skill set on acoustic guitar is really different. I had to work things out. It was re-examining the things I knew about harmony and how to make music move without being able to kind of lay back and allow, let’s say, the bass and the drums and any other rhythm instrument to take over. There was the aspect of learning how to play—actually, tone-chasing, basically. Looking for the right sounds. This whole thing has been about sound predominantly and being able to hear the natural sound of acoustic guitars that I’m in love with, when I hear a really good one. You hear the sound of this beautiful instrument, traveling through the air, hitting the microphone, just natural. Going with that, trying not to adorn it with any extra bells and whistles, effects and things like that.

That whole process was basically getting the right instruments, researching, playing, and trying to figure out what that’s all about, and doing the same thing with mics, doing the same thing with preamps, doing the same thing with the whole recording process—and with rooms. Most of this stuff, with the exception of the drums, was done in my house and the last couple places that I lived [with] wood floors… it’s just this beautiful thing when you experience playing acoustic guitar in a room that’s just got the right resonance. “That’s it—now how do I share that with an audience?” For me it made so much more sense to just do this in my place rather than go to a studio where things are a little more sterilized. They don’t have to be, but oftentimes they are. 

It was a dichotomy between that—going for this natural sound just because that’s what was inspiring for me—and then trying to have an imagination, to try and go into this place that’s more otherworldly. It’s a fun limitation to work with. It’s like trying to achieve something naturally rather than digitally, for instance. It’s very satisfying for me, and it kind of came across OK and I was like, “Yeah, this is my direction, this is what I like.” 

Tone Madison: Across the different tracks here, you’re doing a lot of different multi-tracked arrangements of acoustic guitar and other acoustic stringed instruments. They’re subtle but put some weird twists on the songs, like the use of harmonics on “Fake Candle Chandelier.” 

Louka Patenaude: [I was] trying to be as minimal as I could get. I tried to limit things to maybe two acoustics, that kind of thing. One strumming, one maybe fingerpicking. Now that thing with the slide, that was fun. I just had two slide guitars and things going on. It’s one of those things where if you start with a limitation… that’s a great place to begin. Then, when you get the inclination that you want to break that rule, OK, break that rule. It’s OK. For me, it simplifies things and also it brings it back to just the general sound.

When I hear somebody playing and it’s just one guitar or just one guitar and one person singing, the sound of this person’s voice and the sound of the guitar are just huge, because it has all of the frequency spectrum allowed to those instruments. If you have something that’s at the opposite end of the spectrum, a George Harrison wall of sound kind of thing, however many tracks of this and that and tons of things, well, each of those instruments only gets that tiny little piece of the frequency spectrum. And of course then it’s up to the engineer to be able to mix these things and try to make it sound like one cohesive thing. That’s beyond the scope of all of this for me. 

Tone Madison: So when you’re doing some of those arrangements and multi-tracking, you’re still trying to get people to think about the different layers of sound that one instrument can produce.

Louka Patenaude: Yeah, I want to take them for a ride. When you bring in the full band sound, with bass and drums, that’s an energetic component to just bolster this whole tune. Interestingly enough, my first idea about all of this was “I just want to make an album where it’s just one guitar and one vocal, the whole way through.” But frankly I didn’t have the skills to do it yet. Now I feel like I’ve been working on it for some years and it’s going to be a very different thing on the next [album]. But for that one I was just like, “I’m not quite there yet. I’m gonna keep working on that skill. But what I do know how to do is put it all together, and I know what different instruments should do and when stuff should happen.” 

And this is the miracle of having multi-track recording at home, which, for a person with a normal budget, you could only really do that since 2000. Having that opportunity to lay things down, listen to it, put yourself in the imaginary place of the listener, to be able to listen to it objectively, and just ask yourself, at every moment, “Is this moving me? Is it distracting me? Is it boring? Is this happening, or am I almost there?”

You’re trying to get the feeling that you want out of it, and you just don’t stop until you do. And then when you do it, you’re like, “Yeah, I went on a three-and-a-half minute ride on that song, and I felt in it the whole time,” that’s the best. And I would hope any listener could have that experience too. That’s what you want to give them.

Tone Madison: And there is some experimentation here. For instance, “In My Tea” uses these water sounds, and percussion that sounds like water too. John Christensen’s bowed bass on that also gets the space to sound big and rich.

Louka Patenaude: It’s frying sweet potatoes, by the way. My wife was frying them up and I was like, “I gotta get that!” So I put the mic up there and just kind of let it go for a while. Oh, it was great. But isn’t it weird, the drama that it brought to it at that moment? Who would have thought? But you have to try.

Tone Madison: Parts of that song are rather dissonant, but in a way that feels playful. 

Louka Patenaude: That’s a fun aspect, too. When it comes to harmonic richness, sometimes dissonance, I find it really well to be used like a spice. Then you can feel it, you can tweak it. For me, if it’s that way a lot, then I don’t feel the individual components of it that much… a small thing could have a big impact. That was the ideal. When it comes to this stuff where it’s folky, kind of…but then you get some of these weird tweaked harmonies, I thought, well, that’s a good way to convey the emotion of the whole thing, this intensity and drama. 

Tone Madison: Before you started The Optimistic and The Fingers, had you done a lot of writing in a singer-songwriter vein?

Louka Patenaude: No, not in a way that was condensed down to just singing and playing guitar. I came from a rock-band environment, all the way from back in high school. I played drums in a rock ‘n’ roll band called Sourmouth. You would have never heard of it, but we played O’Cayz Corral, the Paramount…we played Club De Wash once. We were in high school. Somehow they let us play. It was crazy. It was like “Oh yeah, you’re not of age, but since you’re in the band, you can do it.”

Tone Madison: You play some drums on this new record too.

Louka Patenaude: That’s right, I play drums on the record. Again, with that stuff, it’s all about just keeping that groove and then once something would happen, make it count. As opposed to lots of drum fills. Because it’s not about the instruments, it’s about, does this serve the feeling that you’re trying to go for. My meager, simple drum skills worked out OK.

Tone Madison: There are moments in your drumming here where some playfulness or raucous energy comes through. 

Louka Patenaude: Right, and that’s what I wanted, like on “Inside Out, Upside Down,” it’s just sitting in one place until that last chorus, then I unleash the ride cymbal. That kind of thing. “OK, now you’ve woken up.” That’s the deal, so that everything is an event, rather than just passing over all the time… it’s literally like a character that you can introduce in a movie or a book. “Oh, a new character showed up. What is this character all about?” That kind of importance is what I wanted for any musical element, and if it doesn’t have something like that, get rid of it, because the silence is golden. Silence is really valuable. If it’s not worth breaking the silence, don’t bother having it.

Tone Madison: Even when you have multiple layers going on, it does seem like you make a point of leaving lots of breathing room in these tracks.

Louka Patenaude: And the air, you know? It really has a lot to do with the space…. I would record acoustic guitars with two microphones. One thing up close, so that you could really hear the clarity of it regardless, and then one microphone probably just behind [my] left shoulder. You’re playing and you hear the space, but you’re also gonna be able to hear whatever’s bouncing around the room. When you mix it, you can put them together, you can pan them, you can say, “Oh, that mic’s not serving this, let’s get rid of it,” which I did on a couple things.

That’s a lot of space in the mix already: One guitar with a couple microphones. At that point, you don’t need a lot of other stuff. That’s why stuff like “Red Ferns” would be an example. Most of that is just one guitar, except when the second guitar comes in. And that’s all you need, is just one guitar and the room that it vibrates in. One vibrating box inside another vibrating box.

Tone Madison: Speaking of “Red Ferns,” there are a few different moments on the album where you bring back a lyrical idea or a melody from a previous track. “Red Ferns” and “Long Walk Home” share some entire verses in common, and “Fake Candles (Reprise)” draws on the melody of “Fake Candle Chandelier.” I was wondering about the structural choice of that and how it ties things together. 

Louka Patenaude: The idea just kind of came as I was playing around with the different progressions. What I felt about that was that the lyric [of “Red Ferns”] is clear to me. There’s a certain longing in it, a certain alienation…put in the musical context of “Red Ferns,” if you weren’t paying attention to the lyric you wouldn’t even know. It’s like you’re just kind of happy-go-lucky. That irony, I love. Frankly that’s the beautiful irony of blues in general, if you think about it. You’ve got this just heartbreaking story, and yet this music that’s keeping you going and feels really good. Then you’ve got something like “Long Walk Home,” [which is] actually a much more appropriate musical context to deliver that. So I just was like, “You know what, both of these gotta be there.” It’s kind of like you’re seeing an image and someone takes the filter off, or black-and-white versus color. I’m sure there’s a much more astute way of putting it that I don’t know about. But something that just flips the whole thing [where] that same thing suddenly, I don’t know if you could say it means something different, but it definitely felt a lot different.

It’s kind of up to the listener to interpret [the songs] for themselves, which I love about music. It’d be great to make a movie of it and all the imagination is done for you. That’d be cool, but I really like the idea of when you can let the listener pick that up. It’s kind of like when you try to interpret a Leonard Cohen song—”what’s he talking about?” And then he won’t tell you either… it’s up to you to enjoy it and make it your own.

Tone Madison: The chorus of “Long Walk Home” begins with the lines “I can’t stand when people say / ‘It is what it is, it’s always been that way.'” I wonder where that comes from for you, because that definitely sounds like a line different people will interpret in different ways.

Louka Patenaude: I can’t really narrow that down. What it feels like to me is that it kind of is broad, because you can make a huge list of things that you probably feel that way about… maybe the main things about it is this desire to make things better, yet all the forces in your environment, even the global environment, seem to say “No, you don’t get to do that. You don’t get to change. It’s not worth your time. You just keep doing whatever you’re doing and don’t worry about whatever it is.” 

I don’t have intentions with lyrics, really. They just come, and then you go with the flow. I don’t have backstories to songs. I can’t say that this is something that I lived… it’s just not how I operate. There’s the idea, and I recognize the energy of it, and “OK, I’m going with that.” And that’s really it. Because if the energy feels right, then you know it’s genuine. Do you have to know all the details of the reasons or some story about it? It does feel vague in a way.

If you’re in the zone, so to speak… and you kind of expel onto the page or expel into the air this thing, here it is. And then, if you go back and you start the editing process—well, if you’re in the flow in the editing process, you’re just right back in it. That same energy can kind of continue in with the process. I just try to be there until it feels like I can listen to it or read it or whatever and I feel all the way through that there’s nothing that was distracting or nothing that was keeping me from being in the flow. Then you can go and see what that whole story was about. It’s almost like I didn’t know what I really felt until this stuff came out, and I look at it like, “Oh yeah, now I know that that is something that I’m feeling.” 

Tone Madison: You’ve played music in a lot of different genres and settings over the years. How did that experience shape your songwriting in a solo context? 

Louka Patenaude: In any particular musical setting, there’s a focal point, and every sound has a particular function. When there’s a lot of music happening, a lot of activity, a lot of rhythms, a lot of notes—for instance jazz has a lot of notes, where you have to look at it in kind of a different way. Whereas if you have a singer-songwriter type of situation, you might have just a couple notes that can be very powerful. Not that that can’t happen in jazz, but in jazz it tends to be kind of like you’re looking at an image that’s pixelated. All of the notes, each one is just a pixel in this much larger image. Whereas you listen to one note, for instance, and that can be the whole image. It’s kind of like zooming in, zooming out, I would say. 

For jazz, you’re zooming out in a way and a lot of stuff is happening, and you hear and feel this larger picture. When there’s fewer things happening, it’s much more intimate, most certainly. And also, you can have a solo saxophone jazz record, and now each note, you can hear the breath in it, and you can hear the little details that you just aren’t going to hear when there’s a full band in there. 

You can certainly apply that analogy of zooming in and zooming out to any music, I suppose. But for me it felt like when there’s a lot of things happening—well, it’s kind of like money. If there’s a lot of money, then one dollar isn’t worth as much. But when there’s not a lot of money, then of course one dollar is worth as much. And it can be the same thing with music. If you get a really good note, whew, it can feel really good. If you are kind of in the zone, more like a Coltrane kind of thing, well, maybe the whole song is really one note. I don’t want to get too corny with it, and it kind of seems a little esoteric, but it feels like one flow from the beginning to the end. 

Tone Madison: One thing that has always been a signature of yours, and it’s in the cover art, is this blue Ibanez Voyager electric guitar. Whatever setting you’re in, it looks unusual—not the stereotypical guitar you’d expect at a jazz show, or a reggae show. How long have you had that and how did it become your go-to instrument? 

Louka Patenaude: In 1993, I had a catalog and I had been working in landscaping, so I was able to make some money. I was in high school. I was like, “That guitar looks like a sports car, man.” So I bought it… My original musical fire was hearing Van Halen and absolutely being elated by that and very attached to it. So I got into that for a while, and of course shortly after, the jazz bug hit and I went deeply into that, so I left that thing alone for a long time.

As a result of some over-practicing and over-playing and just generally ignorance about how my body works in relation to the guitar, I got some real bad repetitive stress disorder, tendonitis and stuff like that. I had to switch to something with light strings, so that thing was there. That’s what I had, so I just started playing it. 

Then I started playing jazz with it, and it just brought up this whole other thing that I could do that I didn’t hear in jazz at all. It’s almost like by having this special, different kind of tool, I could do a different kind of job. It worked for me—a lot of aspects of it worked for me, tonally and functionally. And yeah, you’re right, the way that it looks is unique, and I was kind of just attached to it. And the weirdness of it, being next to a guitar that’s more designed like it’s from 1920 or something, I like that juxtaposition. That’s actually pretty genuinely where I am—somewhere in between that.


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