The cover of Caleb Landry Jones’ debut album says it was recorded in 2019, which is technically true. But the story of Jones the musician is actually more than a decade in the making, as is The Mother Stone, an anthology culled from over 700 songs he’s compiled since first writing music at the age of 16.
In the intervening 14 years, Jones has kept his ballooning catalogue close to the chest while becoming better known for his acting. He broke out properly in 2017 after stealing spotlights in critically lauded films like Get Out, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and The Florida Project. Although his reputation has become tied to unnerving characters like Get Out’s Jeremy Armitage or Twin Peaks’ Steven Burnett, Jones himself came across unequivocally disarming when we spoke a few weeks ago. He frequently broke into animated voices when telling stories, akin to the modulation he employs throughout The Mother Stone, and was modest about his work, poking fun at the haphazard origins of his songs and their tossed-off naming conventions. Not only does he still use a flip phone, but our conversation got delayed while his dad was using his line.
Like all of us, Jones is holed up at home as we wait out a global pandemic. Perhaps unlike many of us, he is spending his self-quarantine on his parents’ farm in Collin County, Texas. Specifically, he’s spending much of it in the barn, the unassuming site where he has recorded the vast majority of his unreleased works. That barn has become something like Jones’ equivalent to Wilco’s Loft, a launching pad for his music born out of both the convenience it offers and the mystical creativity it inspires. He’s found the setting insulating from the seeming chaos of this moment. “Well, I don’t know, coming out here you’re kind of in quarantine automatically,” he muses. “I mean, I know what’s going on I suppose because my dad gets the Wall Street Journal. Other than that it just seems pretty normal besides the fact you know it’s not a normal time.”
You may have gotten a glimpse of this outpost earlier this crisis, when he held a livestream from the farm. As he does in normal times, Jones is consistently writing new music, and after showing viewers around his cluttered, cozy set-up, he played some of what he’s been working on. As he recalled, “I was told we wanted to do this a few days before, and I thought, gosh, well, the only thing I can do right now is probably what I’m making in the moment, because I knew I’d remember those chords.” The event was as casual and unfussy as he is — a stripped-back ramshackle display of his manic, expansive tunes.
Although this period of nationwide shelter-in-place has been a unique moment for music fans to see their favorite artists play off-the-cuff versions of their songs, it felt particularly special to see Jones put on a lo-fi concert from his rocking chair. This is in part because he hasn’t yet held any live shows for this upcoming record, but also because the bare performance was essentially the polar opposite of the actual sound of the grand, carnivalesque The Mother Stone.
The most immediately striking quality of the album, out May 1st, is its unhinged ambition. The Mother Stone is the rare contemporary rock record that is shooting to be in conversation with Wish You Were Here or In The Court of the Crimson King. The collection is strung together of multi-suite vignettes, a composite of mish-mashed movements that span the range of languid, airy strummers to revved-up riff runners, typically throughout the same song. But the album is also very much it’s own thing, and of its own moment. There are heavy nodes of Side B Abbey Road, but also the claustrophobic FM rock of Alex Turner-adjacent acts like Mini Mansions or Alexandra Savior.
Jones never stays on one idea for too long, and at over an hour of music that leaves a lot to sink your teeth into here, granted you chew fast. The first song and lead single “The Flag / The Mother Stone” is almost a mini-album unto itself, placing adjacent a glittering orchestral march with a jagged desert rock acid trip that stretches to seven-and-a-half minutes. The next song, “You’re So Wonderful,” is a theatrical romp, filled with exaggerated vocal affectations and dramatic rhythmic swings. After 15 tracks the cumulative effect can be overwhelming, music that very much beats to its own drums, leading you off the map.
You find your bearings after a few listens, when you can begin to more easily pull out individual details. A wide variety of instruments fly in and out, colliding and scraping against one another as they wrestle for headspace — vintage Casio keyboards, worn out Yamahas, sidewinding strings. It is a magnificently cluttered collage of sounds. Among the highlights is “No Where’s Where Nothing Died,” which starts serene before catching fire, like a shooting star burning out into a big bang. It’s all fettering percussion and pluming melodies that ignite into a massive brass-backed choral chorus, one that’s blown out even further for its late-album reprise. Other tracks like “The Hodge-Podge Porridge Poke,” however, don’t waste a second to launch into their cathartic cacophonies from the jump.
The grand scale of the album is not the result of methodical intention, but rather uninhibited instinct. Jones’ songbook managed to grow so quickly by giving little time to second thoughts as he recreated out loud the sounds in his head. “The first moves are the most important, I’m finding,” he says. “More or less you hear the song in a way, like in a dream how you hear it far away, not necessarily close up. And then the closer you get to it, the closer it gets to you.” He laughs at the abstract description he offers, but completes the thought anyway. “And you either do those things that fill this picture out that way, or you destroy and have to wipe the slate clean a bit to rework it.”
What defines The Mother Stone as a departure from Jones’ previous music is the introduction of collaboration into this songwriting process. After many years of recording almost entirely by and for himself, Jones found himself in Los Angeles with enough money between movies to book his first real time in a studio. Unable to get back to his parents’ barn anytime soon, his goal was simply to get down the songs he’d written while working on the films. The realization of a proper debut album only came after Jones was connected with Nic Jodoin at Valentine Recording Studios through his friend Danny Lee Blackwell of the Seattle band Night Beats.
“I told him just a few songs because I didn’t know how much it was going to be and how it was going to work out, since we’d never worked together before,” Jones recalled. “But I was hoping it’d be a record, and sure enough after a few days we just kept going.” From there, Jodoin brought into the fold Drew Harrison, who arranged the string and horn pieces that strut across The Mother Stone. The expanded sound meant further musicians, and all told over 20 people played on the record, from woodwinds to second and then third guitars. He credits the strength of the music as a result of “getting to have so many other great musicians come in and spill their guts a little and then give out, and then come back in and do another spill out and give back out again.”
It’s fitting that the record in which Jones let the most people in is going to be the one that he lets out to the most people — his first album for public consumption, or at least his first not released via MySpace. Back then, at the age of 17, Jones was constantly fretting over reception, wondering, “Oh, how many people listen to me, how many people approve of what I’m doing?!” He shakes his head at that feeling now. “It was exciting to get validation, but at the same time it kind of got a little sickening too,” he notes, chuckling when he adds: “And I was always checking to see if an ex listened to it.”
He recognizes that temptation for immediate feedback is still within him. “You’re always curious if it moved anything at all, outside in the world,” he says. “Or if it just sat there and didn’t, and took four breaths and died.” But rather than to validate his art, his desire for people to listen now is mainly to preserve the opportunity to release more. Because Jones will always be writing new music; the difference he tells me now is that he’s part of a team advocating that it needs to be heard. And as more and more people catch wind of his one-of-a-kind musical perspective, it’s going to be harder to keep those other 685 songs to himself.