Ross Fish: The Pelican Curse

Ross Fish on his creative approach and new project, The Pelican Curse 

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Picture it: There’s a sailor, identified maybe by his sailor’s hat or his white-striped shirt, standing on a salt-licked beach. We see his back; he’s gazing oceanward. The sun in the foreground is frozen on the precipice of setting. The sky is cloudless, a watercolor of oranges and pinks and dashes of purple. The scene is lit, almost bright, though darkness is lurking. Waves crash from blue to white —  their movement a perfect loop. Above, in the distance, a flock of pelicans soars static across the scene.

One of these birds, our sailor hopes, is his wife, who, long ago by magic misunderstood, morphed into a wandering pelican. He stands and watches, praying for one to fly his way, to perch by his side, to be his wife again. Our sailor — as he does every day — looks to the clouds and shouts: “I dwell; where hath my love flown to?”

This image, imagine it perhaps as a repeating film clip or an acrylic in motion, is the ethos behind Ross Fish’s latest musical project: The Pelican Curse, a reel-to-reel, 9-track ambient album produced on modular synths, released through Bridgetown Records.

I went over to Ross’s house the other night to make dinner and talk music, to hear his story and pick apart his creative approach. We sat on his new couch and Courtney, his girlfriend and roommate, sat alongside. A painting of hers — a self portrait in many shades of blue — stood behind us, watching.

I asked Ross when he first knew he wanted to make music: “There’s videos of me in first grade, dancing and shit,” he said. “Before that I was banging on pianos. In third grade I took up violin.” Music was and is his primary form of expression, the way the wordless mechanisms within communicate with the world around him. But music assumed another role, quickly and at a young age.

“My mom got breast cancer when I was seven but she got better,” he told me. “Right when when she gets better my brother gets sick. He dies in ‘03. My dad gets sick six months later and dies in ‘07.” For nine years — from ‘99 to ‘08 — Ross lived stuck in an endless cycle of grief, of battles lost and lives taken, of foundations shook and questioned.

He was subject to constant stress. “I’ve spent a lot of time in pediatric cancer wards. I watched my father and brother die, physically die, their actual moments of death.” Through this trauma there was one crutch that kept him standing.

“Nothing helped but music. Specifically,” he said, “writing my own music.” Composing grew into a form of catharsis, a way of dealing with inexplicable pain. Having a legacy of music, seeing a catalogue of things he had created — no matter how rushed — was a way for him to combat an overriding sense of mortality.

“For a while,” he said, “I was frantically releasing music just so I would have something to show.” This need to create fostered urgency and and a young prolificness: At just 24 he’s produced 9 full-length projects. He’s released rock albums, played in metal bands, country bands, even made a pop song that stumbled its way onto MTV.

And his music, he admits, is still shaped by this frantic mortality. His projects — this latest one included — don’t come refined, despite polished sound. They are produced, recorded and shot out. They are not meticulously primed and pruned like, he says, Radiohead tracks or Shostakovich compositions .

His projects are constrained and propelled by self-set deadlines. These benchmarks provide evidence of continued survival, of existence:I commit to the idea that by this season, this month, I want to release an album of this many songs.”

Ross Fish's work station

Ross Fish’s work station

I first met Ross at a restaurant we both worked at. I was new in town. He was a quick friend. Someone that, despite —  and maybe because of — early trauma, exuded life. Passing by him behind the bar, at the server station, you quickly felt connected. In conversation he slips from obnoxious, hilarious impersonations — his stereotype-toting rendition of his mother, an upper class New Jersey Jewish woman, is both beautiful and painful — to pointed verbal essays on artistic responsibilities. He listens to you, too.

And there’s a darkness to the dude. You can feel it in his music — he shot me the names of a few of his inspirations, I made a playlist, played it to a friend and together we sat silent, stoned and somber for hours. You can sense it too in his sick jokes — I remember once, shortly after we had just met, I had in quick succession asked about his brother and then his father without knowing either had died and somehow he ended up teasing me and somehow we both fell into a strange and comfortable laughter.

During our talk he and Courtney got hungry. We moved from the living room to their small kitchen. There’s a moment I remember viscerally: he’s making mac-n-cheese, scooping Velveeta into a cast iron pan and he looks at me. “I’m going to die from cancer,” he says and he smiles and I’m not sure if he’s joking.

These days, though, Ross lives with an eery sense of comfort and stability, inhabiting a world that isn’t cracking at its seams. He’s living in Savannah where it’s easy: cheap and small and friendly and bursting with art. He’s moved in with Courtney — one of my first memories of him was on New Year’s day, I asked him to reflect on his past year, to which he responded: “It was awesome. I found love.”

He quit the restaurant job — and it’s early hours and constant stress — in order to make time for his music and he’s staying afloat working sound gigs around town. Of his leaving the restaurant he said: “This is my first time making job decisions as an artist. This is the first time I’m balancing making art and living. I feel young again, like an ignorant child at the bottom of a ladder.”

I asked him how this new sense of peace and his new free time have affected his creative approach. He said they’ve have allowed him to see his art in a new manner. The things that helped him get by as a child, that helped him persist as a prepubescent kid in a family falling cancerously apart, these things have bound themselves to his core. Creating music slipped from therapeutic to essential, from a coping mechanism to a reflex, not unlike breathing, sleeping, fucking, eating.

“Now I’m making music because I have to,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do with my life and time.”

“Creating this album was the most religious experience I’ve ever had,” he said. “I worked on it every Sunday for months. I’d spend the entire day working, tweaking — twelve, thirteen hours — and at the end of the day I’d have one track. Five to seven minutes to record, ready to go. From that I’d chop off the best four to five minute section. Nothing edited or refined.”

In reel-to-reel recording, there is no fine-tuning, no editing, no layers added or sounds muted. He initially labeled each track “r2r” with the date attached by an underscore, only later changing the names to fit the short poem he wrote: “I dwell; where hath my love flown to?” There is no post-production. What you hear on his album is what he heard as he recorded it — there is no discrepancy, despite a calming cleanliness that might suggest otherwise.

The album is chronological; track one was the first he made, track nine the last. In this sense this project is nothing more than a documentation, a musical diary of a few months in time. In it you can hear progression, hear the new soundboards he’s built, hear his comfort with his new tools crescend and coalesce. When he listens to it he can relive moments and emotions, reminding himself of his presence.

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The album is a collection of long hours spent creating sounds with a single image in mind — our sailor longing for his pelican wife. It’s an image that binds these tracks together, providing a concept. It’s an image of suspension and of purgatory. Of waiting, of undefined time.

It’s a portrait of eternity, one that has no conclusion. The image this artist projects to stave off an incredible sense of end.

When listening to this project, you get lost. Tracks seep into one another. Moments in a song aren’t defined or compartmentalized. It’s ambient. At times it sounds like sparkling stars and at others like lurking predators, soft jumbled static and looping waves. It’s what you can listen to while you focus, while you create. It’s music for people who spend twelve hours at a time on a single, minuscule task with no true hope of resolution.

It’s music for those, like Ross, who want to — even temporarily — evade any boundary of time, hide from ticking clocks and shy away from looming alarms. It’s for those of us who seek to do and exist in momentary endlessness.