One Saturday in April, at a Manhattan recording studio strewn with vintage lamps and masked technicians, the singer Liv Warfield’s face was clouded in focus as she layered harmonies into the outro of a rousing soul quantity. She noodled for some time, attempting to work out which notes so as to add subsequent. “We might have to go to the rafters,” she concluded.
The session engineer performed again the observe, and Warfield set to work, reaching into the higher elements of her vary. On the opposite aspect of the glass separating the recording sales space from the console, the producer Ray Angry stood and yelped in approval: “No Auto-Tune in this session!”
The music, known as “#NewBornAgain,” feels of the second, with lyrics that reference Covid-19 and its historic antecedent, the influenza pandemic that swept the globe a century in the past (“It’s like we’ve been here before/When 1919 stole the show”). Warfield, a former member of Prince’s New Power Generation who has launched two alt-R&B albums of her personal, wrote the lyrics herself. But she labored, not directly, with collaborators from a earlier technology: the writers of an outdated hymn of the identical title (minus the hashtag), on which the music relies.
This kind of dialogue between previous and current is a central function of “Public Domain,” a undertaking that Warfield was introduced into by its creators, Angry and the visible artist Katherine McMahon. With help from a large forged of collaborators, Angry and McMahon are taking songs from the public domain — a category of inventive works whose copyright protections have expired or been in any other case forfeited, making them freely accessible for public use — and reimagining them for the current second.
Arriving Monday, “#NewBornAgain” — a stomper with sonic references together with the Staple Singers, Prince and the bluesman R.L. Burnside — is the primary single from what is going to finally change into “Public Domain,” the album. Warfield’s rewrite strips the unique of its spiritual overtones, altering its uplifting message about rebirth by religion to one in all exasperation, a plea for reprieve from the punishing cycles of historical past. “Reliving the same stories, circling through time/Where are the superheroes we thought would save our lives?” sings the songwriter J. Hoard, who additionally contributed vocals to the observe.
Angry, who has labored with Christina Aguilera, Ja Rule and Solange, met McMahon years in the past by a mutual good friend. But the 2 didn’t develop a inventive partnership till final summer time, after they staged a efficiency known as “Free Clean Money” at Guild Hall, an arts middle in East Hampton, N.Y. That piece concerned dousing $1 payments with Lysol and handing them out to guests — each a reference to public worry about viral contamination and a salutary gesture for an financial system wherein cash is, of their estimation, neither free nor clear. Angry scored the efficiency with a composition impressed by the continued Black Lives Matter protests, bringing the subject of racial injustice into dialogue with issues of financial inequality and pandemic anxiousness. Both mentioned that their collaboration felt novel and thrilling.
After the efficiency wrapped, McMahon fell down a “rabbit hole of dorky research” into copyright legislation and works within the public area. While shopping a number of such texts, which have been written earlier than 1925, she was struck by how strongly they resonated, regardless of the temporal distance between her and their authors.
“The language and the syntax is a little bit different, but the heart and the humanity is there,” she mentioned in a telephone name from her Manhattan condo. “In the world we live in now, we’re constantly feeling driven to create content. But I like the idea that there’s all this content that exists already. What if we go back to it and see how our experiences today compare?”
For McMahon, who’s primarily a painter, enterprise a music undertaking is one thing of a inventive leap. At the current recording session, she was a quiet however targeted presence, with a notepad in hand and pen tucked behind her ear, scribbling in between takes. While Angry heads up manufacturing and preparations for all of the songs, she’s performing as extra of a inventive director, choosing supply materials and rewriting lyrics, or guiding different collaborators as they conceptualize up to date variations of outdated texts. “Katherine really knows what she wants,” Warfield instructed me, and McMahon agreed: “I definitely had a vision early on,” she mentioned.
That imaginative and prescient is conscious of at present’s societal challenges. Like “Free Clean Money,” “Public Domain” seeks to deal with big-picture structural points exacerbated by the pandemic. One music reworks Irving Berlin’s 1924 ballad “All Alone” with new lyrics about racism and discrimination in America, penned by the gospel singer Jermaine Dolly. The undertaking additionally examines the extra private plights that many have skilled over the previous 12 months, like loneliness and substance abuse — as in “#AlcoholicBlues,” a recent tackle a Prohibition-era tune (the entire songs are titled with hashtags). Overall, McMahon mentioned she’s sought out texts that would “speak to the existential dread of modern life.”
The undertaking is taking form towards a backdrop of heightened public curiosity within the authorized guardrails that shield possession and use of musical works. Lately, music trade heavyweights — together with Taylor Swift, who’s presently rerecording the elements of her catalog she not controls, and Bob Dylan, who bought the publishing rights to his total catalog — have made headlines for nine-figure enterprise offers involving their copyrights. With their undertaking, McMahon and Angry are taking an extended view of music’s life cycle, and contemplating the worth that it retains even when it’s not a monetary asset — that’s, its potential to create neighborhood, provide inspiration and immediate reflection. And in re-authoring and constructing on the work of different creators (one thing that musicians do on a regular basis, with or with out formal permission), the undertaking applies strain to the notion that an concept might be possessed by a single individual.
In Angry’s thoughts, considerations about possession are secondary to considerations about equity. This considering is on the coronary heart of Mister Goldfinger Music, a brand new label he’s beginning; he plans for “Public Domain” to be its first launch. Motivated by a few of the shady offers he’s witnessed throughout his a few years within the trade, he’s striving to develop clear, moral enterprise practices that provide up-and-coming musicians with the data and infrastructure they should develop.
“I really want to empower artists to be brave and make the music that’s on their hearts and collaborate with people that they normally wouldn’t,” he mentioned.
With “Public Domain,” he’s made good on his mission to foster collaboration. “Ray is just pulling people out of the hat,” Warfield mentioned. After the “#NewBornAgain” session, he and McMahon despatched by periodic updates about new folks signing onto the undertaking; the increasing roster presently contains the Roots’s Black Thought, the guitar wunderkind Eric Gales, the roots-rock bandleader Marcus King, the drummer Daru Jones, the artist and musician Lonnie Holley, the jazz singer Melissa McMillan and extra.
“There’s strength in numbers,” Angry mentioned.