In March 2020, Aaron, Plain & Tall was close to finishing basic tracking for a new full-band record. Then the pandemic hit, the recordings were shelved, and singer/guitarist Aaron Cottrell embarked on an entirely different album, writing and recording all of the parts for Both Sides to Me in the midst of stay-at-home regulations.
“When the shutdown happened, it was like, ‘Well, I’m going to have three weeks to myself,’” Cottrell said, and laughed. “Then of course that three weeks turned into two years, so fast forward to me pulling out my hair and trying to teach myself what compression does and all of that fun stuff.”
Cottrell will release the results of these months of experimentation to streaming services on Wednesday, Nov. 9, followed by on Friday, Nov. 11.
Most of the songs comprising Both Sides to Me were written before COVID hit, save for “Deep Yellow,” which Cottrell wrote in a fit of frustration, dismayed both by the overall political climate and the inherent selfishness he witnessed in how some responded to the pandemic, refusing to take simple steps such as wearing masks to protect those more at risk from the virus. Belying Cottrell’s frustrations, the song unfolds congenially, building on loping drums, patient guitar and his soft-cornered vocals.
Elsewhere, tracks delve inward, beginning with the album opening “The Forest,” which Cottrell described as a journey into the id, ego and superego. “You start unlocking feelings and emotions in your brain that you didn’t before,” he said. “And so, a lot of this album is an exploration of that idea, finding new places within yourself: thoughts, feelings, emotions. It’s just general self-discovery, I guess.”
These explorations carried into the creative process, with Cottrell taking advantage of the extended time in solitude to delve deep into new sounds, inspired in part by the hours he spent absorbing diverse records by the likes of jazz pianist McCoy Tyner and pioneering South Korean rock musician Shin Jung-hyeon.
“With this particular project, I kept reminding myself: You’re really not going to have an opportunity like this again, where you don’t have social distractions, and you can take your time to do this the way you want to do it,” Cottrell said. “I was just in my own apartment, in my own little world, and it was like, ‘What else do I have? Okay, I have a mandolin, and it’s out of tune, but I’m just going to play it anyway and we’ll see if it sounds cool.’ It was literally just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.”
This patient process bleeds into tracks such as “My Past Life,” which unfolds languidly over seven-plus minutes. “I remember nothing of my past life,” Cottrell sings at the onset, delivering his words atop wisps of guitar and heartbeat-steady drums. As the song progresses, though, the music grows wilder, mimicking the sensation of clawing deeper into a dense jungle. “Holy Mountain,” in contrast, feels wide open – a ragged, joyous spiritual shaped partly by Cottrell’s experiences growing up in the church.
“It’s not something that’s this deep wound or anything like that, but it’s something that’s always in the back of my mind,” Cottrell said of his religious upbringing. “We weren’t speaking in tongues or anything like that, but also the church I grew up in didn’t love dancing, so whether or not I want to, it’s a lens I see the world through in a lot of ways, even though I don’t follow it anymore, and I don’t believe in it. … When I woke up this morning, I was thinking about the song ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children,’ and I don’t know why. It’s just there and there’s nothing you can do about it. A lot of times, these [songs] are a way to make sense of, or at least express, my ongoing relationship with the religious experience.”
Other songs have less deeply personal roots but still surfaced ideas that proved valuable during the lows of the pandemic. Such was the case with “The Plant that Wouldn’t Die,” a haunted, largely instrumental number inspired by a hardy house plant that managed to survive even Cottrell's complete lack of a green thumb.
“This house plant, I felt like it was on the verge of death so many times, and it sounds so stupid, but literally I would give it just a little bit of water … and it was exactly what it needed, and it always amazed me,” Cottrell said. “And I think you can take that as a bit of a metaphor for our lives, as well. A little bit of mental nourishment might be all we need to get through a patch of depression or anxiety.”