I didn’t play any instruments, but I had years of songs in my head, songs I’d written while driving around my hometown (L.A.) and walking around just about everywhere else I’d been. Songs I wrote to cheer myself up after a hard day of work or playwriting.
One cold night in 2003, at a downtown variety show in the West Village, I sang a few of these songs for an audience of strangers. When I awoke the next morning to find that it hadn’t killed me, I decided to do it again.
I hear music in my head when I’m writing a song, and from the start, that’s how I sang: as if a band of smashingly talented, super-sensitive, snack-loving musicians was playing alongside me. And it warmed my heart when, after my first shows, people began coming up to me to say things like, “I could hear the band. I could hear the whole arrangement.”
That’s where the idea of the Orchestra came from: the mouths of strangers who said they could hear the band I’d been hearing in my head for years. I turned it into a joke, I’d say “Hi, I’m Ethan Lipton, and this is the Ethan Lipton Orchestra.” And people would laugh because there was nobody there. But I wasn’t exactly kidding
Then something glorious happened: Living, breathing musicians started playing with my imaginary Orchestra. There was Eben Levy and his guitar, and Mike Stumm on uke, and Lem Jay Ignacio, who came from L.A. to play keys on our first CD, recorded one raucous night at Ariana Smart’s Low bar in DUMBO and released on Home Office Records. Others sat in, and the Orchestra became a mutable organism, changing lineups from show to show. And for the first time, I started writing songs with the knowledge that human beings other than myself would be playing them
Ian Riggs later joined us on bass and Vito Dieterle came aboard with his sax, and after putting out a second live album (Baby, I Feel the Same Way), it seemed there was only one thing left to do: We decided to start a band.
Mr. Softy was the first studio album by that band, which features Eben, Ian, Vito and myself. Now comes Honker. I wrote the songs and we arranged the music as a foursome, just as we did on Mr. Softy. And once again, producer Huck Bennert helped witch it into a record.
I think Honker is our most sophisticated album yet, the most subtle and soulful of the bunch. And intimate, I hope. I tried to leave more room for the band in the compositions, and they rose to the challenge, filling that space with virtuosity or, sometimes, more space. Eben took a huge role in shaping the overall sound of the album and composing extra parts, and he’s a big reason why the album feels as modern as it does, even as it skips through various styles from the past. And Ian and Vito both did a ton of work on the arrangements, Vito making sure we didn’t settle for anything easy, Ian making sure we stayed true to ourselves. We also invited some new special guests to join us this time: Gary Seligson on drums; Matt Berninger, Cynthia Hopkins and a chorus of middle school students on vocals.
In short, Honker is the work of a band that’s been playing together for five years — a band that sounds a whole lot better than the one in my head ever did.
Thanks for your support. Stick with us. We’re not done yet.