It was a willingness to venture into the unfamiliar that inspired David Merulla to pick up the guitar. About 10 years ago, he dove in more or less cold and bought an electric and acoustic guitar at the same time.
"I wrote all the time," Merulla says, "and got to this point where I was like, 'OK, I think I want some sound behind these words.'"
The guitarist-singer-songwriter of the "mostly solo" local act Autumn In Halifax --- the new album, kites w/ broken strings comes out November 4 on local imprint Carbon --- started out "hell-bent" on capturing the dissonant abrasion of Sonic Youth. But he found that he was able to create something equally powerful, and more original, with the low volume and restraint naturally afforded by the acoustic.
Listening to the skeletal guitar lines that quietly zigzag across the new album's vast spaces (which in turn only highlight the unpolished wrinkle in his voice) you can hear how Merulla's sense of exploration still drives his playing.
"We're really quick to think that the only way to get better at a craft is to do it all the time," he says. "I disagree with that. I think you need to live life a little bit. If taking pictures is your thing, don't just look at photography books. I think a lot of people wait to get things perfect before they start. You should be willing to make a few mistakes and not wait for a perfect opportunity."
Unsurprisingly, Merulla continues to be heavily inspired by Smithsonian Folkways' Anthology of American Folk. The album, overflowing with bare, unadorned music made between 1926 and 1934, had a profound impact on artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
"I cannot get enough of the ghosts that float around on that set," Merulla says.
At times, he inhabits his own music with such a gentle touch that he may as well be a ghost himself. His playing also moves forward at an unhurried pace almost unheard of in this day and age.
The arrangements, which feature light electronic touches and playing and recording by members of Kill Me Tomorrow, Bartender's Bible, and the Black Heart Procession, leave ample room for echoes. Echoes in the spaces of buildings, echoes that span the rural American West... echoes of a tree-lined Rochester street bracing itself for the cold.
Merulla and his wife, poet-visual artist Sally Bittner Bonn, spent six years in San Diego before moving back here last year.
"Whenever you say you're moving back," Merulla says, "just the language that you use implies surrender. But in a lot of ways, we moved back to a brand new city. We were able to look at it through completely different eyes."
Merulla stresses that he's grateful for being able to connect with the arts community here immediately upon his return. When not working his full-time job as an "office jockey" at Strong Hospital's Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, he curates at the A\V Space. Walking through the South Wedge neighborhood he and Bonn call home, Merulla enthuses over the possibility that the Door 7 gallery may be moving there. He finds enthusiasm for the arts to be low sometimes, but also counters that our winter gives local art vitality.
In fact, though it was made in San Diego, kites conveys a sense of winter beyond just lyrical references or even mood. At times, you get a sense of having to shield yourself from a brisk wind blowing through the music.
That may be what Merulla would want you to feel. He goes out of his way to infuse his work with creative energy he gets from (either taking in or doing his own) photography, film, literature, painting, graphic design, etc. But it is arguably his tactile sense that shines through the most.
"How can I make something that typically looks cold and sterile almost human?" Merulla asks. His more-than-passing interest in architecture gives his new album a distinct sense of shape. Initially he was attracted to buildings strictly for their visual appeal. While living in San Diego, he began to take photos of buildings to watch how light and shadows played against their structure.
"The more and more I got fascinated with it," he says, "it became just glass and steel and structure, and I became fascinated with trying to give it life. I wanted to try to give it emotion, give it heart, to make it breathe and not just view it as structure."
kites is full of architectural references. Merulla explains the song "water + wire" as a "conversation with architecture."
"Elegant genius let's build something beautiful / the gentle texture of water and wire / mercury heart fixed on silver / you can find the sounds on the street / elevations and perspectives / linear lines."
"I use particular language that is typically viewed only in architecture terms," he says. "But it starts with, 'How do I take a structure and communicate with it in a way that's different?' I'm just fascinated by it. As a writer, as a musician, how can I give myself to that and have a communication with something that I don't really know that much about, other than that I'm just attracted to it?"
Merulla feels our schedules have gotten too compressed. Life has become rushed. The art of communication is disintegrating. As a remedy, he has attempted to create something you can touch, something with body.
"You can't hold an e-mail," he says.
Autumn In Halifax (joined by guests Andy Gilmore, Chris Reeg, Kelli Shay Hicks, Chad Oliveiri, and Will Veeder), Nod, Hilkka, and Will Veeder play Friday, November 4, at Monty's Krown, 875 Monroe Avenue, at 9 p.m. Call for ticket info. 271-7050. 21+over.