An indie-rock arranger finds harmony in concert music, songs and business
Last fall, Joshua Stamper  had to write an artist statement for the American Composers Forum Subito Grant. He wanted the grant to fund a short tour of the Northeast with his current ensemble: Stamper on guitar and voice, Paul Arbogast on tenor and bass trombones, and Mike Cemprola and Jon Rees on flute, alto flute, clarinet, bass clarinet and saxophones.
Stamper, 39, is no stranger to working with woodwinds and brass. He studied composition at Hampshire College with Pulitzer Prize-winner Lewis Spratlan and spent nine years teaching music at the prestigious Suffield Academy. Since then, he’s written in the jazz and classical idioms for strings and winds, chorus, jazz combos, and percussion ensembles.
But at the core of Stamper’s artist statement was a hang-up. While his early musical impulses were songs played on guitars, he took the academic route as an artist. In the intervening years, he came to wonder if songs and concert music could play nice together.
This is a surprise when you consider that Stamper has made a name for himself as a go-to arranger and collaborator for notable indie songsmiths such as Danielson, Twin Sister, Sufjan Stevens, Ben + Vesper, Robyn Hitchcock and others.
He has a day job, too. Stamper is the label manager and an in-house arranger and composer for the Philadelphia record label Sounds Familyre . It’s there in the music-biz trenches that he and label head Daniel Smith wrangle with 21st-century questions about how to keep Sounds Familyre in the black in the age of Spotify.
Stamper was awarded the Subito grant. Maybe it’s because his artist statement ended with this resolve: He learned that there are no boundaries between the poles of his musical history. He figured it out while writing and recording his 2011 album, Interstitials. There Stamper’s stately baritone and gentle guitar fingerwork take center stage, though it isn’t until the woodwinds and low brass enter, seemingly from all directions, that the music feels whole.
Seven Days spoke with Stamper last week in anticipation of his ensemble’s performance at the New City Galerie on Friday, May 11.
SEVEN DAYS: Does the arranging work you’ve done for other people inform the direction you take with your own songs?
JOSHUA STAMPER: Yeah, definitely. When you’re working with other people, part of the fun of arranging pieces is trying to get inside a particular artist’s aesthetic and make sure it’s consistent with their vision of things. But at the same time, they want to collaborate for a reason, they want to have somebody else’s voice to inform what they’re doing. Even though the composition process is a fairly solitary experience, in that sense, I guess there’s a collaborative element in that working on their music has influenced my own thinking and hearing.
SD: In addition to being a composer and arranger, you’re the label manager for Sounds Familyre. What are your responsibilities?
JS: Well, frankly, it’s a lot of facilitating dialogues between manufacturing plants and all this super-boring stuff. It’s interesting, though, to have a much better sense of how this whole mechanism works for making records. What’s involved, not just on a logistical level, but what it means to make music in a society where the modes of music consumption have changed so dramatically.
SD: How do you engage with those questions at the label?
JS: The running theme is “How do we do this in a way that’s financially viable?” I think the model from 15 years ago — you press up a ton of records, you press up a ton of promos, and you blast everybody in the world with free promos and you spend tons of money on marketing campaigns. It used to be the kind of thing where you get a really strong review in Rolling Stone or Spin or Pitchfork, and once that review happens you’re in good shape; the record will be in position to do really well and [you’ll] actually pay off the record and make some profit. But that just doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. So I think for us, that has meant really trying to dispense with that old model and just go by what is actually affordable. That means, for some releases, we do an only-digital release, and for some it means we do some physical side of it, too. But we’ll only do LPs for this one, with download codes, whatever.
SD: It’s a very complex situation, and it’s interesting to hear how different people deal with it.
JS: It is complex. And in terms of online versus physical, I stumbled upon this blog post by this guy Gabriel Kahane. He was articulating the challenges I really relate with. I remember my very first music purchase, and it was a tape, and it was on a recommendation of my high school jazz teacher. He recommended, “You should get some Miles Davis.” And I was like, “OK, great.” So I go to the record store and I buy Saturday Night at the Blackhawk Vol. 2, and I was all excited, and I put it in my tape player and hit play. Thirty seconds in I was like, “I totally wasted $12. This is sooo frustrating.” It sounded like elevator music to me, and I was like, “What a rip-off.” But because of the fact that I had shelled out 12 bucks for this, six months later I put it in the tape player again. Still sounded like elevator music. A year later I put it in, and I was like, “Huh. This is interesting.” And on and on. And now when I listen to this record, I can’t believe how cool it is.
And the point [Kahane] was talking about was having to listen to it again because you’ve spent money on something. Whereas today with all these services, like Spotify or MOG or whatever, that incentive is just not there. Because something doesn’t float your boat the first time, you just move on to something else. There’s really no reason to stick with any music that doesn’t reveal its treasures until the third or fourth listen. And there’s a lot of music like that, that you have to really sit with to let it work on you.
Joshua Stamper plays the New City Galerie in Burlington on Friday, May 11, at 7 p.m. $5.