Thomas Comerford's musical career has been a gradual reshaping of his life, a stream that has grown to carve a new path in the bedrock.
The Chicago-based singer, songwriter, guitarist, avant-garde filmmaker, college professor, husband and father juggles a lot of roles from day to day, with priorities and interests shifting as the years go by. Now in his early 40s, Comerford seems to have found a balance that makes him happy.
“I feel like I'm just really fortunate, because I get to be a dad, I get to make music ... I feel like my film production has slowed down in the last 10 years, and I'm OK with that,” he says in a recent phone interview. “I feel like, in a way, music has sort of come to the foreground for me.”
That wasn't always the case for Comerford, who “played the guitar for a while” as a child but set it aside in high school and only became interested in writing his own songs in college.
“I didn't ever plan on becoming a songwriter,” he says. “I used to write fiction, I used to write poetry ... so a lot of those instincts I used to use in creative writing, I channeled into songwriting.”
He describes how his young son, Henry, recently decided he was “ready to record his album” — about a dozen songs made up on the spot.
“He sang each of the songs for me,” Comerford says and laughs. “I wish it were that easy for me.”
Punk band: But Comerford's songwriting trajectory began taking shape in 1999 with the formation of Kaspar Hauser, an eclectic jam with variable members that has since settled into a punk rock niche.
“Kaspar Hauser, from about the year 2000 to about 2007, was really unpredictable,” he says. “So any song that I wrote, I would bring to that project, and it would get performed by whoever was available, and the material could vary from loud rock to real quiet, introspective stuff.”
Even with the band's musical diversity, though, Comerford was still writing pieces that just weren't the right fit for the raw, in-your-face sound that came to dominate Kaspar Hauser's live performances. In 2010, he took the material he had set aside, gathered some friends and kicked it around just to “see how it goes.”
“It went really well, and I started writing new material just to play with the group I had put together,” he says. “It was an amazing experience. It gave me a whole new way to think about how to write.”On his own: In October 2011, Comerford released his solo debut, “Archive + Spiral,” a collection of eight songs put together with a handful of friends.
“Doing the solo record really sort of opened up the possibility for these songs to be anything,” he says.
It's a statement that's true not only for Comerford the songwriter or Comerford the performer, for what he envisions apart from his work with Kaspar Hauser, but also for his audience.
“I'm really interested in imaginative experiences,” he says. His writing process is fluid, with the things he comes across in his daily life providing the inspiration for bursts of creativity that he then shuffles around until they associate themselves into an entirely different shape in his mind. “Even if there's a more declarative section of a song, the lyrics don't necessarily dictate” a meaning. The lyrics, he says, are “often somewhat ambiguous. They kind of allow the listener to sort of soak in it and have their own associations.”
In that sense, Comerford's music is less about trying to tell listeners something than it is about trying to make them feel something.
“I think in a way, each song will have a mood or an idea that's related to a mood or a mindset that I want to try to capture and maintain,” he says.
The fragmentary images on “Archive + Spiral” leave room for listeners to immerse themselves in sensation, carried along by the comfortably mellow grittiness of Comerford's voice. It's a bit country-folk, a bit slow rock, the sort of album that warrants kicking back in a favorite chair, eyes closed, and letting the music roll through memory and imagination.
In the moment: The individualism of the moment is present in the live performances as well, Comerford says.
“When I go see a band live, I like to think of it as ‘this is a completely unique moment; I'm interested in this being completely different from the record,'” he says. “I want it to be what it is at this moment, and I sort of really thrive on that in terms of what I'm interested in as a performer but also as a music lover. ... I think that keeps things exciting.”
So when Comerford plays York's First Capital Dispensing Co. on July 23, he can't entirely predict what will happen.
“It's really different every time,” he says. “I feel like it's my job to sing my guts out ... and if I happen to be chatty, that's cool, but if not, that's fine, too.” He laughs. “I like to sort of not plan it.”
The show is part of a lightning-fast tour Comerford has squeezed into his summer to spread the word about the album as he comes off a month of recording new material with Kaspar Hauser and working on material for his next solo work.
“I'm thrilled,” he says. “I'm glad it's worked out for me to come to York.”
See the show
Thomas Comerford will be performing as part of the Free Breakfast series on Monday, July 23, at First Capital Dispensing Co., 57 N. Pershing Ave., York.
Live music starts at 9:30 p.m. and goes until after midnight. Expect Comerford to take the stage around 10:30 p.m. There's no cover charge.
For more information, call First Cap at (717) 854-1714.
To learn more about Comerford and stream the album online, visit http://thomascomerford.bandcamp.com/album/archive-spiral.