When you talk about Beirut, you're really talking about Zach Condon. The 25-year-old is the lead singer, sole songwriter and main musical force behind the critically acclaimed six-member outfit that has garnered a loyal following among indie rock fans, despite the fact that its music global folk that relies not on guitar but on ukulele and brass falls outside the mainstream even by the generous standards of indie music. On Beirut's new album, The Rip Tide, out this week, Condon refines his international sound and turns it into something much more simple even poppy.
At 16, Condon dropped out of high school to pursue music. He traveled through Europe, "fell in love with" Balkan folk music, wrote a song called "Postcard from Italy" (while in France), came home and by 2006 he had made an album. Gulag Orkestar, was recorded in his bedroom at his parents' house in Santa Fe, New Mexico but the music Condon produced sounded distinctly Balkan. "Santa Fe is a tourist town and it also has a really unique Hispanic and Native American culture, but I didn't belong to that," Condon says. "I had access to one very real thing and one very fake thing and I grew up in this void. I wanted to belong to a culture but I didn't have one." And so, he simply adopted one. Fittingly, he named his project Beirut.
Condon has since released two full length albums and one EP, slowly shedding his Balkan sensibilities in favor of French chansons and later Mexican funeral music (you know, as you do). On Gulag, he played almost all the instruments himself, but he needed other people to help him play live. Originally just a rotating series of supporting musicians, Beirut's other musicians including trumpeter Kelly Pratt, who has also played with Arcade Fire have become permanent fixtures, though the music is still written by Condon. Beirut's music feels like it comes from another era, and its latest album, The Rip Tide is no exception. But this time, instead of drawing on the traditions of another culture's music, Condon just rediscovered his own.
"I was back home for a little while and one night I stumbled into my little brother's room," he says. "It turns out he'd archived all the demos I recorded as a kid, when I was 15 through 17. There were hundreds of them. I used to try to write a song at night." Condon sat on the floor and started sifting through his old, poorly recorded songs. "I was just plugging in CD after CD and going 'Woah! I forgot about this!'"
"East Harlem," The Rip Tide's first single, is one of the rediscovered tunes. Condon says he wrote the melody when he was just 17. "It's funny, listening to those songs I realized that it's the same stuff that's been in my head the entire time the same chord progressions I just didn't know how to put it to paper or properly record it yet."
The Rip Tide doesn't spotlight one cultural music genre the way Beirut's previous albums do which is probably a good thing, since Condon says he's tired of being pegged as "the world music guy" but it does have a similar sense of nostalgia. Condon writes wistful song about places he hasn't necessarily lived ("East Harlem," "Goshen," "Payne's Bay") and time periods he hasn't experienced ("The Peacock" imagines life as a soldier in what seems to be World War II), but the tight, nine-song album also contains several personal moments Condon says are definitely not made up. "Santa Fe," an ode to his hometown, is surprisingly lighthearted for someone who seems to have mixed feelings about the place.
And so, Zach Condon, the musician who once recorded an album with a 19-piece Mexican funeral band, has found himself in the unlikely position of having created a pop album: a collection of brief, charming melodies so effortless and intimate you'll want to play them over and over again. (And yes, the trumpets and ukulele are still there.) "As a teenager I felt like everything I experienced wasn't very relatable or exciting," Condon says. "So I developed this sort of wanderlust as I tried to find my own identity." With The Rip Tide, Condon has finally created a sound that he can call his own.