The Ghost in You: Billy Polard talks video games, the suburbs, and the challenges of home-recording
The Ghost in You | photo courtesy of the artist
Billy Polard is the man behind The Ghost in You. As mysterious and fleeting as that moniker is, Polard’s music is also mysterious – riddled with the intimacies and unknown emotions that surface when making music solely for yourself. His two most recent full-lengths, 2012’s Wet Wood and 2010’s self-titled effort, layer acoustic guitars with sweeping synths and heartbreaking, vulnerable lyrics, a combination that has earned him comparison to Red House Painters and early Bon Iver.
The Ghost in You was chosen as The Key’s contribution to tomorrow night’s Communion showcase at Underground Arts, where Polard will be making a rare live appearance on stage. Ahead of the concert, which also features Vacationer, Pearl and the Beard, Bear’s Den and more, we caught up with the Glenside, PA resident to learn what goes on behind that ethereal moniker and how he approaches bedroom recording.
The Key: Take us back to the beginning. What got you interested in music?
Billy Polard: I loved music ever since I was a real little kid. Growing up watching movies, film score was always a really important part of a movie to me, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. I would watch Jaws probably about once a month from the age of 5 through 11, and even then it affected me in the way that just two notes could set the entire feel of the picture. Now, John Williams is a brilliant composer, but I think things like that subconsciously helped me realize that great music doesn’t have to be complicated.
TK: When did you begin creating songs?
BP: I would hum melodies all the time as a kid before I knew how to play an instrument. I have vivid memories of me and my little brother climbing the tree in our front lawn and singing like insane monkeys. I’d come up with a melody and we’d take turns singing a verse. I played drums in grade school, but the classes weren’t teaching us to play Nirvana songs and I didn’t become a rock star in one day like I had imagined, so I quickly quit that.
My actual song writing didn’t start until I was 11 or 12 when my older brother got an acoustic guitar from my uncle. I would take that thing whenever he wasn’t around and teach myself how to use it. He was right handed and I’m left, so for about 4 years I played improperly with the strings upside down. [Eventually] I was allowed to get a left handed bass. I didn’t like the bass much, so I bought junk guitars and found trashed ones and restrung them left handed. It wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 for Christmas, that my dad surprised me with my first left handed Yamaha acoustic. An instrument I still treasure and used to record both my albums.
TK: Your lyrics stand out in each song and are very poetic. Do you do any other forms of writing?
BP: I actually hate writing in general, I dread it. Stories, poems, lyrics. I don’t enjoy it, but once I start, the words just seem to flow out of me. When I hear my songs played back now it’s a strange feeling, like someone else is singing, because I don’t specifically remember writing them. I’ve never looked at my lyrics as anything other than part of a song. I don’t do any other types of writing except for songwriting.
TK: Where do you find inspiration for your lyrics and your overall sound?
BP: I’m usually inspired to write music whenever I hear a great song. It sets a fire under me. Sometimes it’s almost a jealousy I get from hearing great music that motivates me to write. I’d wish I had written that song, or it will inspire another idea altogether. I think artists in general are competitive deep down inside, even if it’s themselves they’re competing with. I want to create something for people to enjoy, but I mostly try to write for myself.
I don’t really think about my lyrics or sound. I don’t set out to write in a certain genre. I just play whatever comes out of me naturally. I have been in bands before that were a contained style, but I didn’t enjoy writing for them because it didn’t feel natural. I wasn’t writing for myself and listening to those songs now, I can hear it. I’m a left handed musician who can’t read music or tab, so I just write what I’m capable of.
TK: How has living near Philadelphia influenced your music? What’s your favorite thing about living in Glenside (musical or non-musical)?
BP: I have a strange relationship with Philadelphia. There’s a tremendous art and music scene there, but most of the time I just wanna be by myself or with a small group of friends or family and Philly gets pretty crowded. I love where I live. I love the suburbs. It’s what I know. I live in a tiny one bedroom apartment with my girlfriend right in the center of Glenside. I have Main Street Glenside on my right and Keswick Village to my left. My surroundings don’t consciously influence me, but they are a part of me so I suppose they’re a part of my writing, too.
TK: Who are your favorite musicians? Do you listen to any other Philadelphia-area bands in particular?
BP: Sometimes it takes me years to really discover a new band. Most of the music I listen to now, I have been for 20 years or more. Music has always been very personal to me so it depends on my mood. I could hear a song in my friends car and not care about it, then a year or two from now hear it on my headphones by myself and fall in love.
[Musicians I like include] Mike Kinsella, Jeremy Enigk, Josh Caterer, Davey von Bohlen, Blake Schwarzenbach, Chris Conley, Matt Pond, Evan Dando, Johnny Rzeznik, Samuel Beam, Walter Schreifels, Dean and Gene Ween, The Ramones, Billy Corgan etc. I could go on. As for specific Philly bands, I can’t really think of any. Do the Bacon Brothers count?
TK: As a home-recording / DIY artist, do you have to get creative with your approach to creating and recording sounds?
BP: When I first started recording songs for The Ghost in You, I was using a cassette 4 track. My first album was recorded entirely with that in my upstairs bedroom. I was also living at home for most of that time, so not only was I limited to the amount of tracks I could use with the 4 track, but it’s also a more “quiet” sounding album because I played and sang softer trying not bother or wake anyone. I was working an overnight job stocking shelves, so a lot of that album was recorded very late at night when I had off.
TK: What’s your current recording set-up? How has it changed since your early recording days?
BP: With the start of Wet Wood I had an iPad and an iTunes gift card from Christmas collecting dust. So for 5 bucks I bought the Garageband app. I still record the same way, except now I have more tracks available and the audio is a little sharper. Plus I was in my own apartment by that point and felt comfortable singing without worrying about having to be quite or wake anyone, which allowed me to have more freedom.
I recorded Wet Wood sitting on my bed. No plugs or wires, just playing my acoustic and singing into the built in microphone on the iPad. The only part I didn’t record in my room was the sample at the end of the album, which I recorded at a park at the tail end of summer one afternoon of children playing in a pool.
TK: What do you do when you’re not recording in your bedroom?
BP: Lots of movies, cartoons, drawing, and food, and when it’s nice out, driving aimlessly around on my scooter. I’m a huge horror and animation nut. I like playing video games sometimes too. I’m strictly a Nintendo fan. My girlfriend plays Playstation games where you shoot people and chop off their heads, but I like to jump over mushrooms and turtles and save Princesses. Actually 3 of my music videos were made using an animation program called “flipnote” that was on the Nintendo DS. I got to be interviewed on the now cancelled show, “Nintendo Week” in New York City for animating those which was a real blast. They also ran a little piece in Nintendo Power Magazine. I guess I’m more of a Nintendo fan than I let on.
TK: I’ve heard from other solo / DIY musicians that re-creating their recordings for live shows can be challenging because they often play every instrument on their tracks themselves. Is that the case for you as well? How will the instrumentation of your live show differ from what you used in the recordings?
BP: That is true. I didn’t even want to play live initially because I thought it would sound too different. But there’s always a basic guitar and vocal song at the core of my recordings, I just can’t play all the little details live.
Sometimes it can prove challenging when playing a song live that has an overlapping vocal track or harmony on a recording, but I just have to get creative with their placement and find a way to fit the parts in at different times. The end of “home is here” has two different vocals simultaneously, so when I play it live I quickly switch off singing both lines. Also with not having the piano and bass etc to play live, I try to change the strumming patterns or hum when it’s possible to give the song more depth. The albums have a very different sound, but I enjoy playing live too. It’s another beast altogether.
TK: Your last full-length was 2012’s Wet Wood, followed by a handful of singles last year – what’s next for you?
BP: In a couple months comes the release of I Saved Latin, a double CD tribute to filmmaker Wes Anderson from from American Laundromat Records. Over 20 artists were asked to record a cover of a song featured in a Wes Anderson film. I recorded a cover of John Lennon’s “Oh Yoko!” which is in the movie “Rushmore.” Matt Pond, Juliana Hatfield, Frank Black of The Pixies, and tons of other amazing artists all contributed. I don’t know how I got so lucky to be a part of it.
I am slowly working on a third album too. Any song I wrote or recorded after the release of Wet Wood is just another track for a new record. I hope to have a new album before the end of the year. I find it best to write when I am in the mood and not just for the sake of writing. It takes a little longer, but to me it’s a more enjoyable way to record. In between that, I’ll be recording a live album which should be finished and out in a few months, hopefully. That will be recorded and released by Kettle Pot Tracks.
Tickets and information for tomorrow night’s 21+ Communion Showcase at Underground Arts can be found here.