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Unsubtle Magic

by Ziemba

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1.
All the gushing water At the cemetery On a rainy day In February Someone left the sprinklers on And all of us are crying And the leaky faucet in your hospital room Tried to tell the handyman What a coincidence But he was busy And didn’t understand All the gushing water In the irrigation canal We ran alongside and smelled the air
2.
Silent night and the whole world’s sleeping I’m wide awake watching you Stars in the sky are crying with me There’s nothing I can do Will it be only lonely Christmas? Will it be only lonely Christmas? Silent night 'cept the machines’ beeping lights All is calm in your room Tender and mild I adjust your pillow Can you hear me singing to you? Will it be only lonely Christmas? Will it be only lonely Christmas? Will it be only lonely Christmas without you? Sleep in heavenly peace x2 Sleep in heavenly peace (I love you) Sleep in heavenly peace (I miss you) Sleep in heavenly peace (I wish I) Could have saved you
3.
Long before the setting sun fell We knew that god had brought us hell Long before the doctor came to tell We hung our heads and closed our ears Hey he cried, why would I lie? The day he died, that final sky Funny how the birds kept singing then My head somehow below my chin And I will sing my final will and testament Oh god help me find words for this Try to find a saint to tell Oh holy night, oh living hell Will you haunt me? Pray you’ll haunt me now Will you haunt me? Will you haunt me now? Long before we said goodbye the last time We held the beads we spoke the lines Now and at the hour of your death We try to grasp what we have left You can go, I whispered low I’ll be ok I promised on that day But now I don’t know Will you haunt me? Pray you’ll haunt me now Will you haunt me? Will you haunt me now?
4.
Fear 04:51
Fear, what am I hiding from? Fear, something in my nature I don’t know I want to disappear, the day’s stale air And feel, the world of feelings but I don’t know how to hold it What’s the point of writing this stuff anyway To falsify control, that I can change, only I’m to blame Or something in my nature that I can’t escape Another set of bad days and sad days, why is time so cruel The minute that you take out a lifeline, beauty with a beer, been afraid to write about fear Tides are turning sun comes up another day more bridges burning In the city there’s a feeling change is coming change is coming In the morning I give myself pep talks to make a chance for change The name change came and went time kept on going by Fear, sometimes the only way I can deal, is by telling myself that I don’t care, someday I’ll feel better, watch someone tell me Everything’s ok
5.
Set in Ice 03:20
Heaven only knows how I made it through Heartstrings to my fingers they can play it too Rain on the towers falling gently by the hours The woman lies aching she’s set in ice Don’t know how many miles I can make it in Haven’t seen those diamond aisles and I can barely swim Rain on her wedding, she loved me long how soon forgetting Now the windows have shuttered set in ice Living by myself for so very long Get up every morning just to sing these songs Rain on my rooftop don’t know if it ever stops But my city lies waiting, set in ice
6.
A Nightmare 03:05
The ceiling’s falling down, pull the rocking chair down the stairs, Penny running loose A nightmare, a nightmare, a nightmare 17 degrees, timing how long I can go without air, I learned the rule of threes And I’m scared, I’m scared There must be something buried here, part of you might die here, a part of you I’ll never know There’s something secret here, part of me might die here, a part of me no one will ever know The house already dead, the bed’s too heavy to pull down the stairs, and there’s no peace with ghosts everywhere, everywhere, everywhere
7.
Sandia Crest 04:25
Long since winter now and almost winter again We go to scatter Aunt Annie’s ashes on the Sandia Crest Scared for holidays and the way the present colors the past I hope someday to love Christmas and believe in magic again Believe in magic again, drifting like white flakes in the wind Will I gaze to the sky on a cold winter night and wonder Running down the stairs, the lights around the bend I can remember Aunt Annie’s atlas and the world as it was then The last time I heard her voice before she lost her soul Oh goodbye to the swirling sky swallowed by the stars Oh wonder are we truly gone when we go?
8.
Time doesn’t freeze just cuz you want it to Of all the things I want, most of all Christmas with you And it’s so cold, snow makes the world look new Time for a holiday, time to stop feeling blue Pa rum pum pum beats the time marching on The grown up things we do when we are moving on Time doesn’t heal all of the deepest wounds Some just get deeper still over a 1000 moons Oh, it's just like snow to cover the world, pretend that nothing ever happened Oh, it’s just like snow to cover the world, pretend that nothing ever happened Time doesn’t leave anyone left alive All of the things we love we will lose by and by It’s like the snow blanketing all the world Only to melt away, cycling new old new old new old new old always Stop, let me in, or I’ll never see you again Stop, freeze the time, I don’t surrender to this life Melt away just like snow, time won’t freeze, just let it go Time won’t freeze cuz you want it, all you love you’ll lose
9.
I'll be home for Christmas, You can count on me Please have snow, and mistletoe, and presents on the tree Christmas Eve will find me, Where the love light gleams I'll be home for Christmas, If only in my dreams
10.
A year and a day measuring the ways to bring you back through subtle magic Trying not to fixate on unhealthy habits while counting the days marked with unsubtle magic Rest in peace centerpiece Whether waterlilies float on the Raisin River in summer All of your siblings except for one are floating, floating In the cosmic stream of immaculate eternity Dreaming in French, wondering what career to have next Keeping it up, but it’s making me sad Alone with myself, talking to sunsets, looking for friends, reading the news, That’s what I’ve got, that and the blues Rest in peace centerpiece Whether waterlilies float on the Raisin River in summer All of your siblings except for one are floating, floating In the cosmic stream of immaculate eternity

about

The holiday season is a horrible time to be grieving. Family gatherings and omnipresent nostalgia can amplify a loved one’s absence, becoming constant reminders of what is lost. René Kladzyk -- the songwriter, producer, vocalist and pianist behind Ziemba -- is acutely aware of that feeling. After Kladzyk’s father suffered a stroke in December 2019 and died on January 2, 2020, Christmas associations were radically and permanently transformed. Ziemba’s new full length album, Unsubtle Magic, navigates the holiday season through the lens of grief; journeying “a year and a day” from the initial loss through the following Christmas, a grim anniversary.

“Time doesn’t freeze just cuz you want it to,” Kladzyk sings on the album’s third to last track, a soaring winter anthem that doubles as a childlike tantrum, lamenting the irrefutable nature of change. “I don’t surrender to this life!” belts Kladzyk while an insistent chorus counters “all you love you’ll lose.” The music gets bigger and bigger, featuring a horn section carving out subterranean tunnels of sound, and then poof! It’s all gone. Only the piano remains with a stubbornly melancholic refrain.

Kladzyk’s piano sits at the beating center of the musically eclectic album, bearing influences ranging from zany New Wave to baroque pop to 1970s art rock. “It was my dad’s piano, and was in my childhood home growing up-- the first piano I ever played on,” said Kladzyk, describing the process of recording the upright Steinway at her home in El Paso, Texas, with her vocal mic carefully propped above the belly of the piano. Much of the album, like the piano itself, carries traces of the musical legacy of Kladzyk’s father, including a cover of one of his songs: Set in Ice, penned in December 1974 while he worked as a touring musician under the moniker Aurel Roy. “My dad quit playing music when my mom got pregnant with my older sister, and he really didn’t talk about that chapter of his life much. But it brought him so much joy when I began pursuing music in earnest,” Kladzyk said. “He was my biggest fan and most trusted advisor, the person I shared demos with for honest, sometimes brutal feedback.”

Kladzyk’s dad was “really into Christmas -- he thoroughly inhabited Santaness,” and cultivated a deep love of the holidays and holiday music in Kladzyk, who has released annual Christmas mixes for the past decade, and made a winter solstice EP in 2015. “A lot of my earliest singing memories are singing Christmas carols with my sister year-round when we were little kids — something that would have been pure torture for anyone other than my Dad. So Christmas music has always occupied a big part of my musical consciousness,” Kladzyk said. “And as an adult I’ve always been the person making the campaign for Christmas music.” But although much of Unsubtle Magic takes place in a Christmas-tinged world, the album focuses more on the evolution of grief than it does on the ‘most wonderful time of the year.’

While early songs of Unsubtle Magic are marked with vivid descriptions of the immediate aftermath of Kladzyk’s dad’s death (Gushing Water, Only Lonely Christmas), later songs grapple with depression and the destabilizing nature of losing a parent (Fear, A Nightmare). In what Kladzyk called an “almost chronological” album sequence, Unsubtle Magic closes with a return to the holiday season via a campy, post-punk rendition of I’ll Be Home for Christmas, and the existential solitude of winter in the album’s title track. Kladzyk’s writing is immediate and cutting, with musical arrangements that emphasize the volatile emotional minefield of a great loss. Will You Haunt Me pairs tensely staccato synths and lilting vocals with a description of the realization of her father’s imminent death. “Oh holy night oh living hell,” she sings, narrating a panicked inner monologue at the hospital.

In “unfortunate pandemic style,” this is the first Ziemba album where Kladzyk never stepped foot in a recording studio: all vocals, synths and piano were recorded at her house in El Paso. Full band tracking happened remotely, with Kladzyk virtually attending sessions. At one point there was concurrent album tracking in three states. Players include many past Ziemba collaborators: Don Godwin (of Too Free, Clear Channel, Gauche, Beauty Pill, Zlatne Uste) who mixed the 2020 Ziemba album True Romantic was “the hero” of Unsubtle Magic. He played drums, bass, full horn sections, ample sleigh bells, and mixed and co-produced the record. Jay Heiselmann (of Grooms, Roya) contributed guitars; he plays in Kladzyk’s country band Rhinestone and co-produced part of the 2019 Ziemba album ARDIS. Chris Gaskell, who also played on True Romantic, played bass, and longtime collaborator Elizabeth LoPiccolo played flute. Megan Gould (of David Byrne, Philip Glass, Giannis Markopoulos, Lou Reed) and Liam O’Brien (of Lizzie No) contributed strings. “Even though it’s a full band record, it’s also a very solitary record,” said Kladzyk, explaining how most of the songs were born out of a year of living alone in the extra-isolating circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kladzyk, who works as a journalist at an El Paso news outlet, spent much of the past year reporting on the tremendous death toll caused by COVID-19. The scale of human loss in recent years weighs heavily on the record and shaped Kladzyk’s intentions for making it. “I used to think that I only wanted to make music that was uplifting or that had fundamentally positive messages that I was espousing. I don’t really feel that way anymore,” she said. “There have been times when I've been so overcome with sadness. I’ve really needed music that could commiserate with me and tell me that I’m not alone in those feelings. And so that’s what I’m trying to do with this -- offer these songs up for other people who need someone to commiserate with them in their pain.”

But like much of Kladzyk’s discography, Unsubtle Magic is fundamentally hopeful. “Scared for holidays and the way the present colors the past / I hope someday to love Christmas and believe in magic again,” Kladzyk sings wistfully on the track Sandia Crest, recounting a starlit walk spent scattering her aunt’s ashes. The songs became their own medicine, a “Christmas music immersion therapy” for Kladzyk to reframe the anniversary the next time it comes around.

“I remember at one point driving back to the hospital when my Dad was there-- he was still alive but we knew he was going to die -- and I remember hearing a Christmas song on the radio and it triggering this cascade of painful feelings: like nothing would ever be good again, I would never be the same person again, this giant piece of my heart and my childhood and who I was, was now lost forever. And some of that’s true. But I remember feeling like, ‘Oh I don’t want this to be the case and Dad wouldn’t want this to be the case.’ So a lot of these songs stem from the desire to come to terms with this new world without my Dad, to still be able to celebrate and experience joy without him.”

credits

released December 10, 2021

All songs written by René Kladzyk with the exception of Set in Ice, written by Frank Kladzyk, and I’ll Be Home for Christmas, written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent.
Produced by Don Godwin and René Kladzyk
Mixed by Don Godwin
Mastered by Sarah Register
Recorded in El Paso, Texas; Takoma Park, Maryland; Los Angeles, California; and Brooklyn, New York.
Released by Sister Polygon Records
Cover art by Dian Liang, design by Robert Beatty

Vocals, piano, synths: René Kladzyk
Drums, bass, trumpet, tuba, trombone, tons of sleigh bells: Don Godwin
Bass: Chris Gaskell
Guitar: Jay Heiselmann
Flute: Elizabeth LoPiccolo
Strings: Megan Gould
Strings: Liam O’Brien
Barks, doggie door swings, running across wood floors during very quiet takes: Penny

Special thanks to Don Godwin (!!! You’re amazing), Daniele Yandel, Anna Kladzyk, Adri Perez, Aidan Wachter for gifting me that magic microphone, and the choir of guardian angels: Frank Kladzyk, Marie Josephine (Ziemba) Kladzyk, Kathryn Brown, Thomas Kladzyk, Joan Lundahl Sr., Anne McCann, and Woody the wonder dog.

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Ziemba El Paso, Texas

The world of feelings

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