Ian Coss has always been prolific. In the 10th grade, he bought himself a mic and a recording device and two years later released his first EP, a collection of Christmas-themed originals morosely titled (if the songwriter’s memory serves) “Ian Coss Presents: A Holiday Warning, And Other Songs of Disillusionment, Loneliness And Loss.” In the years since, there have been eight Christmas EPs, numerous collaborations and one solo album. Yet the singer-songwriter’s latest, “An Act of Imagination,” written during the two years he spent in Asia after college and published by Coss's Fashion People Records, feels like a debut of sorts.
“I think with this record more than others I tried to be very deliberate about what I was doing,” says Coss (who has the guitar in the photo above). The arrangements on “An Act of Imagination” are careful and unassuming, designed to augment the small, internal vignettes composed during Coss’ profound and often dislocating experience living abroad.
Coss, who will celebrate the release of his new album on Dec. 14 at the Lilypad in Cambridge, grew up in Northampton and now makes his home in Boston. After graduating from Wesleyan University, he received a scholarship to study Indonesian gamelan music in Bali, and then moved to Japan to teach English. The material on “An Act of Imagination” was written during those two years. Coss pointedly characterizes the songs not as precise autobiographical records, but rather imaginative riffs on the fleeting emotions of a stranger in a strange land.
“[The album] is an account, in a way, but it’s not of the things that you might expect,” he explains. “It’s not about the memorable things I saw and did. It’s sort of about the insecurities and the little moments, the down time. Sort of about the unremarkable pieces that have been spun into something more dramatic or outlandish.”
Coss is a gifted lyricist, adept at weaving even the most mundane details into flights of fancy both brooding and transcendent. On “Empty Chair,” he captures the existential tedium of the 9-to-5 grind with droll poetry that toes the line between humor and despair: “There’s nothing worth working towards/ No pain and no rewards/ Someone is dying and somewhere someone is bored.”
On the album’s title track, he crafts a sweet meditation on a long distance relationship that manages to eschew sentimentality and excavate a strange, difficult truth about love: “And every love letter just makes you seem more far away/ But I’ll keep on writing anyway/ And that’s when loving starts becoming/ An act of imagination.”
The album is anchored by a succinct rhythm section provided by Alex Chakour, a bassist with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and drummer Bill Carbone. Violinist Michael Vitale brings a light touch to expressive string arrangements.
“An Act of Imagination” is perhaps best encapsulated in the song “One Night,” a wistful number written around an intricate finger-picked riff inspired by the guitar stylings of Mississippi John Hurt.
“For me, guitar playing and songwriting have always had a very kind of therapeutic effect,” says Coss. “I come up with a little lick or diddly, and on a lonely night when I’m by myself, I’ll just play it over and over again, and it’s just soothing. And it just feels right. This song very much developed in that way over a long period of time. Just something I played around with and hummed along to. And that’s what the song is about, too. It’s sort of about the lonely nights.”
Appropriately, the music video for “One Night”—debuted here—was directed by Sam Gold, an American puppet artist whom Coss met in Bali. Gold shrinks the singer’s lanky frame down to two dimensions, a wizened-looking shadow man with a guitar strapped to his back. While Coss’ doppelganger sleeps, his suitcase, fan and television escape the spartan bedroom and cavort in a luminescent dreamland.
“One Night” depicts a scene that Coss found himself reliving over and over on hot Balinese evenings. He would come home to his apartment, exhausted, and take a cold shower. Then he would collapse on the couch and flip through the television channels until he landed on an American film, usually an action flick starring Steven Seagal, and let the soothing sounds of lurid Hollywood violence lull him to sleep while a window fan moved the thick air sluggishly around the room: “One night/ Put the fan on low/ Find a bad movie on TV/ Watch it with my eyes closed/ Well it’s not like this is what we meant to do/ But it’s what you do when everything else falls through/ Just to pass the time/ There’s nothing wrong with being by myself.” In Coss’ telling, the hardest part of adventure is the stillness, and the restlessness, of being alone.
This article was originally published on December 11, 2014.