Chris Bathgate: Choking Down A Salt Year

Music Features Chris Bathgate
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Hometown: Ann Arbor, Mich.
Album: Salt Year
For Fans Of: Frightened Rabbit, Alexi Murdoch, Josh Ritter

“I’m just choking down a salt year / and sugar’s all I’ve longed for.”
—“Salt Year”

When Chris Bathgate uses the phrase “salt year,” he’s not just talking about one bad year, a rough patch of four seasons, 12 months or 365 days. His “salt year” was the darkest period of the Ann Arbor-based songwriter’s life—the tumultuous several-year period following his third record A Cork Tale Wake that turned his world upside down.

He won’t go into much detail, referring to personal demons, depression, failed relationships and musical expectations. But his latest full-length effort Salt Year cathartically expresses it all, similar to the way Bon Iver’s mythical debut For Emma, Forever Ago cried out in all its heartache and pain.

If Justin Vernon’s escape came in the form of an isolated cabin, Chris Bathgate’s release came in the studio. At a time where he immensely struggled with his own existence, creating Salt Year became Bathgate’s haven from everything falling apart around him outside of the studio. For Bathgate, making Salt Year was more important than making ends meet. “I was obsessive in trying to finish it and making sure that it represented the way that I felt accurately,” he says. “I was prepared to starve to do it.”

Even with some backing from his record label Quite Scientific, the songwriter’s meticulous and obsessive recording tendencies required him to take on another full-time job at a local non-profit to pay for the bulk of his studio expenses. “Imagine having a lot of money coming in and it immediately going out into the recording,” he explains. “I was pouring every resource I had into the record, not just financially, but emotionally as well.” Bathgate spent hour upon hour feverishly demoing, recording and rerecording parts in the studio, all in the pursuit of perfection with each and every note. He doesn’t see as being a perfectionist, but more as a musician trying to capture every detail. “When I demo a song, something will happen in that demo where there’s some sort of magic. When you sing a verse for the first time or you play a lick for the first time… you can never recreate that.”

It’s these moments that define Salt Year. The record’s 11 songs are the embodiment of melancholy. The drums defining “No Silver” express the frustration and anger stemming from what Bathgate describes as “one of the shittiest days of [his] life.” On “Poor Eliza,” the final minute’s fiddle part was meticulously reworked countless times, creating an emotional mini-orchestra. The music underscores the despondent warmth and desperation found throughout Bathgate’s songwriting.

During the making of the record, Salt Year added stress to an already taxing own personal life. While the album provided an emotional release for Bathgate, it also made his ongoing struggle a tougher one to overcome through all the added pressures involved. “[It’s] that stress of choosing between items on the shelf and getting that fiddle track finally done,” he states. But when asked if he would do it all over again, Bathgate barely even hesitates. He doesn’t say it in as many words, but he doesn’t have to.