Personal politics 

Nathan Carter examines his Civil Unrest

In his quest to be perfectly candid, Nathan Carter sometimes finds himself writing songs so personal they scare him. The local “anti-folk” musician who calls himself Purrbot has recorded two albums that focus on relationships, but his soon-to-be released Civil Unrest delves into the political and social realms surrounding those relationships.

For instance, “Shhhhh” addresses cultural customs that discourage too much affection between fathers and sons, and the lyrics are so intimate it’s hard to believe anybody in the history of folk, even the overtly sensitive Cat Stevens of “Father & Son,” has pushed the subject so far. Carter sings, “I want to kiss my father/I want to hold his hand…We’d look so bad! We’re already so subpar.” Call him honest or call him a masochist, but lately when Carter finds himself tapping into issues that make him uncomfortable, he steers straight to their heart.

“Basically I made a rule for myself,” he says. “If it scares the shit out of me then I have to perform it live for as many people as possible.”

Which is why Carter felt compelled to play “Shhhhh” for his father. As it turned out, his father appreciated the gesture, but for Carter it’s still one of the scarier songs to perform.

“I imagine certain people would be horrified, like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Carter says laughing. “But no, I don’t mean I want to make out with my dad, that’s not what this song is about. My dad and I probably consider ourselves fair-weather social activists and still I can’t kiss and hug him goodbye. That’s weird and it’s sort of unacceptable to me.”

For Carter, the unacceptable also includes the rash of downtown Missoula assaults last fall, some of which were allegedly directed toward people the attackers believed were gay. Civil Unrest’s first song, “Come Out! Come Out!,” which features backup vocals by Carter’s roommate Molly Madden, is about those violent scenarios. Despite his soft tenor and minor-chord acoustics, which Carter defines only half-jokingly as dirges, there’s an edginess, even some anger to the song, as on most of the new album.

“My other albums have been more subversively political in the sense that, well, I’m a queer man writing about queer issues,” Carter says. “My intentions then were to be political but I wasn’t talking about it. I was explicit about the relationships, but I wasn’t commenting about the environment in which the relationship is had. This album does.”

Other songs, like “Work and Play,” speak to the heartbreak of adulthood when the responsibilities of work take their toll on childhood friendships, and in “Empty Threats,” a song smoldering with regrets about unfulfilled activism, Carter sings: “I am full of empty threats, passive aggressions/I am counting down the days until 2008.”

The politics of everyday life have become so seeded in Carter’s philosophy that his motto on the social networking website MySpace states that he’s intent on “changing the world by holding hands in plain view.” It’s an apt motto for the “anti-folk” genre, which combines the politics of punk rock with a gentler musicality meant to appeal to a larger demographic.

“The word ‘anti-folk’ sort of implies that you don’t like folk music,” says Carter, “but it’s not that. It’s more like Woody Guthrie minus the sing-a-long thing.”

Anti-folk also has a reputation for self-mockery, which, while not a prominent Purrbot characteristic, can be found in the form of a few ironic twists of language in Civil Unrest. Even with a little sardonic humor to shield him, Carter admits to difficulty performing his charged songs live without losing his composure.

“And conversely,” he says, “it’s hard when you’re really happy and you have to sing songs that are really, I don’t know, not so much negative but sad.” He pauses, then laughs and adds: “Not so much sad as horribly depressing.”

Carter’s wry humor is intermittently leavened with moments of sheer excitement about the release of Civil Unrest. This is the first time since Purrbot’s 2004 inception that he’s worked with a record label, the local Firefly Sessions. In addition, he already has more than 10 songs ready for a future recording. As Carter continues to write, he says he’ll continue to create personally political songs, but that he’s looking toward other challenges as well, including one in particular.

“Like, how do I write a happy song that’s not cheesy, stupid, clichéd and boring?” he says with a grin. “I’m working on that one.”

Purrbot plays his CD-release show Saturday, Aug. 26, at the Crystal Theatre at 8 PM. Screech Owl opens. $6.

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