Citizen Kane is not your typical, straightforward film noir–but it would certainly ignite the style and tone of the sub-genre which would become prominent in the late-1940s and ’50s. Released in 1941, the motion picture was Orson Welles proper debut feature film and contained many of the devices which would characterize the format: voice-over narration, flashbacks, a central air of mystery that is only answered in the finale frames, tilted camera angles and chiaroscuro. The crime drama focuses on the death of a publishing tycoon who dies suddenly, leaving news reporters and police scrambling to make sense of his final words. “I must confess. I must answer this in a way that I loathe–I must admit that it was intended, consciously, as a social document,” Welles, who portrayed titular character Charles Foster Kane and also directed the picture, once told a reporter about the intent behind the story. What Welles may not have realized is the flurry of film noir which would soon hit the marketplace, from 1944’s Laura and Double Indemnity to The Woman in the Window.
Such landmark films not only forever changed the scope of cinematography but poured over into other avenues of self expression, including music. In singer-songwriter Kyle Motsinger‘s harrowing new video “Far Away,” premiering today, he not only pays homage to another one of the era’s defining accomplishments, 1942’s Casablanca, starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, but he utilizes classic film noir tricks. “‘James Bond’ and ‘Casablanca’ heavily influenced the video. I loved both the images of a man walking down a dark street in a trench coat and fedora and a man being tortured for information. The song feels like a confession that has been beaten out,” Motsinger tells B-Sides & Badlands.
“Far Away” is the title track to his long-awaited debut album, streaming in-full below.
“The song is about being trapped inside your head and how that makes us feel like we’re really ‘far away’ from those around us even when we are physically there. I wanted to show what it feels like to be trapped inside your head,” he explains. “You feel like you are being held hostage and you’ve been beaten and bloodied. The wailing saxophone solos also made me think of Film Noir so part of the video is perhaps leading up to the capture on the dark, desolate streets of the city.”
In the nearly-five-minute visual (directed by Tyler Milliron), Motsinger, who hails from Central Illinois, is seen tied to a chair with a strand of rope wrapped around his neck. Filmed in the early hours one Sunday morning, on the streets of Midtown Manhattan on the West Side, Central Park West, and near City College in Harlem, he frames the distressing and moving site of John Lennon’s death, the Dakota, as a reflection of his own turmoil. “There’s something really beautiful and haunting about that spot with its gas lights and shadowy doorway,” he notes. Meanwhile, the gritty inside shots were filmed in Milliron Studios in Midtown, Manhattan.
“[Tyler] shot the hostage scenes in front of a green screen. The makeup design is by Kenneth Griffin. He really threw himself into the project and made me look convincingly bruised and beaten. It was a quick two-day shoot and it was edited in an afternoon. The video knew what it wanted to be so it was a great process,” he says.
Motsinger’s weighty emotional performance commands the entire screen. The anguish is palpable. “The man in the chair is essentially me. I was reliving the moments I sing about in the song. It also really helped being tied up and looking like I did. I really started to feel it.”
Motsigner first began recording his album, Far Away, way back in September of 2015 and finished mastering a year and some months later. “I crowdfunded a bit of the album, but the majority of the album was funded by my survival jobs (waiting tables at catered events ), so it took a bit longer. I was recording it instrument by instrument. That was cool because each person brought something to the table,” he says.
The record is stacked with 12 songs in lo-fi definition, sometimes clanging against each other, theatrical in its sweeping upheaval and an intimate snapshot of his staunch personal identity. Songs like “Invitation,” “Try It” and “Safari” lurch briskly from his lips, often exchanging digestible pop for inky drama. Elsewhere, there is simple beauty and rawness in “Armour,” decorated with brassy horns, and the piano balled “In a Different Way.” Later, on “Dinner’s Getting Cold,” he delights in sexy saxophone and funky phrasing. “I’m sick of sadness,” he avows over top plunky piano and a tense percussion line. “It isn’t so much a ‘complete life’s story’ as much as it is a look at a few years in my life where I felt like I needed to face my demons so that I could move on,” he says. “I needed to look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are? Figure it out and own it.'”
Now, at 30, Motsinger admits it finally came time for him to dig into his soul and evaluate his destiny. “I feel like a new chapter is beginning so it is definitely a point where I need to look where I’ve come from and where I’m going,” he says. “This album was really about facing the harsh truth of who I was. As I would write about that I felt the flood gates opening. I felt myself becoming aware of my faults and my strengths and I was able to embrace both my dark and my light.”
“Nothing Stays the Same” is a dreamy piano-based ode, rather dark and gloomy, as he drifts from his youth to suffering the loss of a part of his soul. It’s an apt bookend to his journey, which wields a certain echo, a soft reminder of his storied past. “The hardest part [about recording this album] was having to babysit and cater to pay the bills. I wish I could have been able to focus on writing. It also might have been the best part,” he concedes. “I didn’t sit around wishing something would come to me. I just wrote things as the mood struck me. I would be taking the train downtown to work, and I’d have an idea that I would start typing in my phone. I was also going through a very hard breakup as I was going into the studio so making the album was really the one thing that was keeping me hopeful and determined.”
The lead single and album opener, the groovy ’60s-bent “Midwest Boy,” was a primer for a theme which is welded throughout the record. “The theme of owning who you are is definitely woven into the album. It was important to me to both show my insecurities and fiercely declare who I am,” the singer says. “Several of the songs are me saying, ‘This is me.’ It may sound simple, but accepting who you are is anything but.”
Motsinger’s stylistic flourishes are eclectic, to say the least, zipping between throwback soul to adult contemporary pop and thundering soft rock. “I grew up listening to 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s pop/rock and musical theatre. As I got older, I started getting into artists like Tori Amos, Kate Bush, and Fiona Apple. I realize that I’m late to the party on those artists, but when I heard them I felt a deep connection,” he says. “My writing is an amalgamation of what I love. I think even individual songs are hard to pin down because I don’t set out to write a specific style of song most of the time. I just write and let whatever styles want to shop up together become the song. I really love throwing things into a sonic blender to make something sweet.”
Take a listen to Motsinger’s debut album and get a track-by-track breakdown below:
“Midwest Boy”: When we recorded it, I knew it had to rock. It’s fierce. You say an inviting, friendly ginger in the video but there’s anger and defiance there.
“Invitation”: I took a ballad I had written years ago and turned it into a flirty uptempo. I wanted something fun on the album, but it’s very genuine. My musical theatre background definitely shows through on this one with the ragtime breakdown in the bridge.
“It’s Classic”: I had it with someone who wasn’t giving anything back in our friendship. I thought it was so classic of them that they were behaving that way. With that thought, a seed was planted that became the mix of classical and funk that you hear.
“Flares”: I was at a staff training for a camp for teens that I work at every summer. The woman training us said that some of the kids would have past trauma that could “flare up” during the week. I started thinking of our negative past experiences as little flares that shoot up in the sky in front of us and make us remember them. I wrote the majority of the lyrics on the way home and raced to my keyboard.
“Far Away”: I wrote this song in college about someone I liked who was being really distant. Years later, I came back to it and realized the song wasn’t bout someone else being far away. It was about me being far away.
“I’m”: I walked out of my apartment on a beautiful spring day, and I was wearing a fabulous outfit. This was another moment of me saying, “I’m gay and I don’t care what anyone thinks of that!” I wrote the song as a fun gay pride song but a statement that I won’t be judged for being who I am.
“Armour”: This song started from a breakup I had five years ago. As time went by, the song evolved based on my experiences. The verses show that passage of time and the lessons learned.
“Try It”: Well, this is my sex song! The sound of it was a result of me trying to set a mysterious tone. There is also something a little holy about your first time so the Hammond organ felt right.
“Safari”: I had a cool marimba sound on my new keyboard, and I came up with the idea of writing about a safari. The prey on this safari was not an animal. I was hunting for myself.
“In a Different Way”: I wrote this song very quickly about my ex and I. This song also evolved as things changed.
“Dinner’s Getting Cold”: I wrote the music of this for a musical I was once writing. I rewrote the lyrics because I wanted to write another uptempo for the album. I wanted it to be a light after the dark. It’s me saying I’m going to move on from my past. I liked the idea of dinner getting cold as a metaphor for opportunities that won’t last forever. If I don’t go for this, I’ll miss my chance.
“Nothing Stays the Same”: This started as a song based on a poem in Edgar Lee Master’s ‘Spoon River Anthology’ but become much more. It’s about growing up and the loss of innocence. My uncle heard it before he passed away from cancer. It made him cry, and he loved it. It’s for him and for anyone we’ve lost.
Far Away is out now.
Top photo credit: Michael Young