Sometimes, all it takes to make music is a little emotion. When Stranger in the Alps‘ Steve Kolowich conceptualized his new single, “Black Box,” some of that emotion came from the sky.
“For a lot of us, being in an airplane is the closest we are to dying,” says the 29-year-old singer-songwriter, who lives in Mount Pleasant.
But it’s not really a fear of flying that inspired Kolowich to write “Black Box.” It’s his fear of losing control of his life. He says he was thinking about a friend’s grandmother who had aphasia, a disorder that affects communication. “The last couple decades of her life, she couldn’t really communicate, although she was very much alive,” says Kolowich. “When communication fails, and there’s this silence, this failure to connect or understand, that’s the most terrifying thought.”
Aviophobia did factor into the song’s mood, however. Kolowich says he felt moved by an anecdote he read in a 2013 New York Times Magazine cover story about author George Saunders. The writer described being on an airplane that almost crashed; he heard terrifying noises, and the cabin filled with black smoke. Gripped with fear, the master of the English language could only bring himself to repeat the word “no.”
“You write during times of lucidity. You think you have it figured out,” Kolowich says, “and then you can get jarred off of that pedestal pretty easily when you’re seized with panic.”
Last March, amid the frenzy surrounding the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Kolowich sat down on his couch to transcribe a flurry of thoughts into song. “It starts with me and my guitar,” he says. “It’s just me working out the words and the melody.” After a week and a half, he had a rough cut, and enlisted the help of his producer and roommate, Louis Weeks. The two headed to Clean Cuts in Baltimore, recorded Kolowich’s guitar melody and filled in the rest with ambient synth tones.
The end result has the soul of a folk song, but all the spaciousness and slight creepiness that ambient music creates. “I like the idea of having rhythmic pulse, something a little synthetic,” says Kolowich. He says “Black Box” is “a little more ambient and electronic, and a little poppier” than the usual folk fare.
Grim lyrics like “Eat your breakfast/Mind your checklist, and your angle of attack/Look for pieces/Feel for pulses/Try to bring them back” conjure images of a plane crash and a rescue attempt. But don’t look for a direct connection to events or an overarching narrative, says Kolowich. He prefers to dwell in the realm of feeling—a place as wide open as the sky.