I originally met the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Alex Rainer in 2011, when he was living in Boston and had come by our house with my younger daughter. As luck would have it, a couple of folks from North Carolina were also visiting that night, and one of them happened to be the folk and bluegrass guitarist and mandolinist Danny Gotham. I knew next to nothing about Rainer at the time, except that he was the lead singer and trumpet player in a Boston-based reggae band. I figured he’d be uninterested if not appalled by the bluegrass jam Gotham and I started up after a few drinks, but in fact he asked to borrow one of my guitars and in no time had blended right in. At one point, when I laid down my mandolin, he picked it up, studied it for a moment or two, tentatively formed a chord, then joined us on whatever bluegrass warhorse we’d embarked on. I found out later that it was the first time he’d ever had his hands on a mandolin. Shortly thereafter, he acquired one and, in a day or two, became more proficient than I was, though I’d been playing the instrument for years.
There are plenty of musicians on both sides of Rainer’s family. His paternal grandmother played cello in the Westchester Philharmonic. And his father, in addition to being a classically trained pianist who studied with the likes of Murray Perahia, Alexander Petruska, and Nadia Boulanger, also played and taught violin and eight other instruments. But his interests were not limited to classical music. He loved blues and bluegrass and was an aficionado of Pete Seeger, whom Rainer met when he was young. His mother comes from Poland, and on her side there were five organists and the prolific composer Józef Furmanik, for whom a festival of sacred music in the Polish city of Kozienice is named.
Whereas he received extensive instruction in the classical repertoire on both piano and trumpet while growing up, Rainer taught himself to play stringed instruments, starting around the age of fourteen with guitar. After I recently watched the livestream launch of his new album Time Changes, which I noted was attracting viewers from various parts of the country, along with others in Poland, Slovakia, Sweden, and the UK, I asked if he used learner’s manuals to tackle a new instrument. “Not really,” he said. “I mean, I remember that I had a book about the guitar, but it didn’t do much except name all the parts and tell you how it was tuned. But knowing scales made it easy for me to figure out chord formations up and down the neck, and the rest was just trial and error.” Though I am not in his league musically, I’ve jammed with him many times over the last few years, and during these sessions I’ve seen him play acoustic guitar, mandolin, mandola, the fiddle, the harmonica, and a biscuit cone resonator. He recently taught himself banjo, too. My suspicion is that if you stripped a car down to its chassis, strung wires between the axles, hung beer bottles from the wires and dumped a bunch of BBs into each one, he’d find a way to play music on the apparatus.
The result would no doubt be impossible to categorize, just like the music on Time Changes. I’ve listened to the album in its entirety on several occasions, and my ears hear plenty of Greenwich Village folk influence, the American primitivism of John Fahey and Robbie Basho, some blistering, edgy bluegrass bass runs, lots of lovely major seventh-soaked jazz textures, a hint of gospel, Mississippi John Hurt-style fingerpicking, the kinds of recurring patterns you hear in Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, and the additive rhythms so prevalent in the compositions of Philip Glass.
One of the most distinctive aspects of Rainer’s music, I’ve always felt, is the interplay between what may seem the quiet simplicity of his lyrics and his dramatic melodic ideas. Even in the most wistful numbers, one has the sense that disruptive forces are at work. In “The Animals,” the album’s opening song and perhaps its most delicate, a shimmering guitar intro belies the plaintiveness with which the singer addresses personal loss:
won’t you bring me back
you’re the one I’m counting on
. . .
Now, who can I turn to?
Must they bear witness?
Ah yes they do
Except for what he calls a couple of “sonic accoutrements” on an analog synthesizer and three or four notes on a keyboard, Rainer remains content to let the lyrics resonate over the single acoustic guitar—perhaps because his voice, which the liner notes describe as a baritone but which nevertheless can achieve a lilting sensuousness not normally associated with that vocal timbre, is itself a formidably expressive instrument.
Rainer readily acknowledges his admiration for early Bob Dylan lyrics. But as an undergrad he was a literature major and seriously attuned to the poetry of Robert Frost. The connection makes sense, as so many Frost poems are driven by narrative, as is a song like “Proof,” one of the strongest on the album and a fan favorite at live performances like the one my wife and I witnessed last summer:
I remember the days when we all used to rob houses
houses all night long
And I remember the night when Jimmy ripped his trousers
running from the cops
his blood pooled up and the level started rising
closer to the roof
. . .
And I remember when we would stand next to air vents
hearing people talk
and we slowly became accustomed to the secrets
the lies, and the shock
Between his 2016 album Pulaski and Time Changes, Rainer completed a graduate degree in music composition and studio production at SUNY-Purchase. Though he admits that he learned a lot over the course of the program, he doesn’t look back on the period with particular fondness. He was living in Brooklyn by then, working part-time as a music publicist, selling vegetables on Saturday at the farmers market in Union Square, then riding the train to and from the university. He also experienced some upheaval in his personal life, and not long before he was to go on a tour of Eastern Europe both of his parents became seriously ill.
“I just had this sense,” he said, “that time was moving on, that big changes were happening in the country as well in my own life.” In the summer of 2019, he played shows in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, and it was on that tour that most of the pieces on the new album came together. “Essentially, I laid the groundwork for the album a year ago, right after I got back from Europe. I started the recording sessions up in Boston, then finished them when I got back down here.”
The day I interviewed Rainer via Skype to discuss Time Changes, New York City, along with much of the rest of the country, had been locked down for several weeks. When Governor Andrew M. Cuomo issued the lockdown order on March 20th, there were roughly eight thousand confirmed coronavirus cases in the state. By May 9th, the day of our conversation, the total had risen to more than 333,000 statewide, with more than 21,000 deaths. Our younger daughter lives in Brooklyn, not far from Rainer, and she had told me weeks earlier that she was hearing ambulances all day and all night.
On the personal front, things were difficult for Rainer. He could not risk visiting his parents, with whom he is exceptionally close, due to the fear that he might unknowingly be carrying the virus and pass it on. There was nowhere to go: restaurants, cafes, and bars were battened down, and it was unsafe to gather with friends. “I’m working from home now,” he told me, “and I never see anybody except my cat.”
No live music performances had taken place since the lockdown began, and this affected him in more ways than one. Not only could he not perform; neither could any of the classical musicians, conductors, and opera singers represented by the publicity agency where he’s been working full-time since shortly after finishing graduate school. He told me that his agency, which is arguably the best in the business, representing performers like Gustavo Dudamel, Wynton Marsalis, and Joshua Bell, along with the august Warner Classics record label, had been compelled to institute pay cuts. The company’s director, whom he described as a visionary, was “working like a beast” to figure out what could be done.
“We deal with a lot of top-level management companies,” he said. “And all of them have furloughed almost their entire staff. It’ll be down to just the founder and maybe one assistant. Every morning, I get up and read music industry news. And it’s so depressing. Just yesterday, Jordan Hall, up in Boston, announced that they’re closing to outside groups for the entire next season. What that means is that many of the orchestras and groups that I know who depend on that venue—they’re not going to have any place to play. This is how they get their money. And there’s no other support system. The arts are the absolute last thing to be considered at a time like this. It’s almost criminal, the way they’re neglected in this country, whereas in France, Macron extended benefits to freelance musicians through August.”
What did he think the musical landscape would look like in, say, a year?
“I have no idea,” he said. “The Met Opera is the biggest performing arts organization, if not in the world, then in the United States for sure. Just two days ago it furloughed forty-one more members of its staff. Top-level organizations are crumbling.”
I mentioned that my wife and I often buy season tickets to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. We prefer Friday afternoon matinees, at which we—who are in our mid-sixties—are often among the younger people in the audience. How likely was it, I couldn’t help but wonder aloud, that in the absence of a vaccine, people in their seventies and eighties, who constitute the core audience for classical music, will feel safe at the BSO or the New York Philharmonic?
“If those venues are even open,” he said, “most people, understandably, are going to be scared to go there. And small clubs, like the ones I typically play in? Many of those could just vanish.”
Nevertheless, he told me, he was already planning another album. He’d been writing some new songs. He had a room full of instruments, some of which I could see on the screen of my iPad as we talked, and he could play all of them himself, and because he could sing in different registers he could do his own harmony vocals, and he had recording equipment and the know-how to operate it, and he could handle production and do his own publicity.
Most importantly, he felt the need to make music. “Without music,” he said, “I’m sure I’d go crazy.”