Where William Blake Meets Orchestral Pop: An Interview With Astralingua

Astralingua, the duo of Joseph Andrew Thompson and Anne Rose Thompson, will be releasing their new album Safe Passage in March. It’s a musically and lyrically lush work, bringing in everything from nuanced arrangements to a William Blake-inspired song, and its expansiveness makes for a wholly immersive listening experience. We talked with Joseph via email about the process of making the album, turning William Blake into music, and more.

“A Poison Tree” was inspired by a William Blake poem. What did the process of turning this into a song involve?

It was really kind of magical the way it worked out. When we got the idea to adapt the poem and include it on the album, I went to my shoulder bag and got out an old copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, one I’ve had since I was about 16 years old. I thought back to a time in college when a friend and I used to pass the book back and forth and take turns reading the poems in different voices. Suddenly, I remembered an old song I had started back then and had played for this friend one night in between Blake poems. It had a cool melody, but I was dissatisfied with my lyrics and left it unfinished all those years ago. Anyway, when I thought of it, I wondered if maybe somehow it might work as a starting point for “A Poison Tree,” since I had begun writing it while in a Blakean state of mind. I sat down with guitar and poem and amazingly, Blake’s lines fit really well, with but a few modifications to the melody. So well in fact, I wondered if maybe this marriage had been my true intent back then. In any case, I wasn’t willing to re-structure his words to any great degree, but also didn’t really have to – I repeated the second line of a few couplets where the song structure wanted 3 lines instead of 2. I didn’t want to add too much “other” material, more just create a body of music over which to sing the poem. I kept the form simple (ABAB) and made sure the melody had enough pause and space for the consideration of each line. I’ve always read the poem in a voice much like Montresor’s in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”: a gloating, gleeful reveling in a revenge plot successfully executed, and I wanted the vocals to convey that.

For how long had you wanted to base a song on one of Blake’s works? Are there other literary works you’d consider doing something similar for?

Since I first read Songs of Innocence and Experience, I’ve always imagined the poems set to music, but wasn’t necessarily determined to do so myself. Blake did after all call them “songs” and I’ve read that he would often sing his early works at social gatherings. I think it has always been in the back of my mind that I might one day pen the music the way I hear it, but it wasn’t really until I was writing Safe Passage that I gave it concrete consideration. Were I to only do one, “A Poison Tree” was the natural choice, as it’s always been a favorite of mine and fits well within the within the overarching themes of the album.

As far as other literary works – I’m not sure. I think it’d be rewarding to try to do something with a Kenneth Patchen work, but I have none in mind at the moment.

What is the process like for you in terms of determining the orchestration and arrangement for a particular song?

I write the basic song first, usually on guitar – the chord changes, song structure, basic melody and harmony. Everything else is an afterthought. There are some lines here or there that I hear in my head all along and that are later assigned to a particular instrument, but all in all, they come later. After a song is written I start considering the other instrumentation. It’s then about showing and developing the inherent music already within the structure. How do I reveal the beauty or power of these chord changes or this turn-around? How do I build the right ambiance and with what timbres? That’s really when things move from songwriting to composition. I try to treat each song like its own musical world. Let it be what it wants to be, which often results in great variance in instrumentation.

For example, with “Plunge” the song wanted excitement and vibrancy. Nothing does that better than string ensemble.

I imagined “A Poison Tree” as something a band of minstrels might play before a royal court. A theatrical piece of sorts to entertain a king, yet still leave him with something to ponder. So, I chose mandolin, lutes, and cello, hoping to create that impression.

We tried out different instrumentation for “The Troubled Road” but they all seemed to clutter the space. We wanted the vocals to sound ‘disembodied,’ and in the end, a cappella was all that would work. That left a lot of space in which to build a cool soundscape, using non-musical sounds to evoke mood.

And so on.

Your social media pages include an image with the definition of the word that gives your group its name. Which begs the question: where did you first encounter it?

We actually made it up ourselves. I’ve seen it used by a few other entities since then, but for us, it was a word that we came up with during a brainstorm for a band name. We wanted something that would suggest to would-be listeners that our music is slightly cosmic, slightly spiritual, and more than just entertainment – a vehicle of communication. We are always asked what it means (and how to pronounce it), so to help, we defined it and created the dictionary entry banner for our social media pages.

Safe Passage includes everything from the Blake reworking mentioned earlier to a song called “NSA.” How did you decide on what the album’s thematic reach would be?

We honestly didn’t have a thematic concept or reach in mind when we started work on it. The album grew organically. The only premise we had was that it would be purely acoustic. Thematically, it’s just what came out when I sat down and began writing it, with each song considered independently from the others. I don’t write with any intention other than to write something new, or at least new to me. If I start an idea and it begins to remind me of something I’ve heard before, I scrap it. It will only bore me. But when I stumble on an idea that’s novel, I explore it. It’s like a trickle of water that wants to flow, and I work on removing obstacles so it can become a creek or river. Each song becomes what it becomes. The decision is not to decide. Or to make quick, true, intuited decisions, and move on. In the end, once we had enough material for an album, the songs themselves decided the thematic reach.

After finishing Safe Passage, was there anything about the album that surprised you?

If anything, maybe the cohesion of things, which as I mentioned, wasn’t originally intended. In the beginning of the writing, we thought we were just going to make a simple acoustic EP. After the first few songs were sketched, we threw around ideas for a title, but nothing stuck. I also knew I had a lot more to write. So, I said, “let’s just keep working, and it will all eventually become clear.” After about the 8th song, I turned to Anne one day and said: “This is becoming a concept album.” I looked at what we had thus far, looked for what they had in common, and the title “Safe Passage” came to me and described it perfectly.


Photo: Lisa Siciliano

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