Bryan Simpson is very much a man on a journey.
You can hear it in conversation with him, as the Fort Worth native starts thoughts, back tracks and works to precisely articulate what he’s feeling.
These days, that’s a lot — embattled, unnerved and uplifted, the 38-year-old singer-songwriter is wrestling with nothing less than what he says is “the topography of [his] heart changing.”
In 2010, Simpson walked away from Cadillac Sky, a progressive bluegrass group that had just released a critically acclaimed record, Letters in the Deep, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, and days away from embarking on a run as an opening act for Mumford & Sons. (Although Levi Lowrey stepped in to replace Simpson, Cadillac Sky dissolved for good in 2011.)
“It was difficult and I feel like people who were closest to me in that situation … those relationships are certainly far better than they were at that time now,” says Simpson, by phone from Nashville. “Cadillac Sky was … we were a band, but we were certainly heading in directions of — it never was created to be self-seeking. It was heading down a slippery slope a little bit.”
The seemingly snap decision was anything but, arriving two years after what Simpson now describes as “the spiritual and emotional shift that happened within me in 2008.”
Electing to embrace religion (“the God of the Scriptures made a believer out of me” is how Simpson puts it) and embark on a path of intense soul-searching, Simpson, who moved with his wife to Nashville from Fort Worth in 2009, has spent many of the past five years in self-reflection, unsure for a long time if he would ever return to making music.
Now, he’s poured much of his internal conflict into an ersatz new group, The Whistles and the Bells, and its arresting, self-titled debut record, which hits shelves Tuesday.
The self-produced and Vance Powell-engineered LP contains a dozen songs that are vivid and wonderfully wooly (there’s an abrupt, delightful shift during Ghost Town that should plaster a big grin on any music lover’s face) and defy simple, easy categorization.
“We want these sort of bumper sticker truths that are about four words long,” Simpson says. “Life just ain’t like that. Certainly, this record deals with my relationship with God, which pours out into my relationships with every other person on the planet. … God is intricate, and there’s a lot to that relationship.”
It’s heady stuff in casual conversation — more than once, he apologizes for getting rhetorically tangled up — but Simpson is a man of his convictions, determined not to make art for art’s sake.
“I think there’s something less than personal when we paint with broad brush strokes — am I really saying anything of value?” Simpson says. “If I do art for the sake of everybody liking it, I know the art’s going to suffer.”
The Whistles and the Bells, therefore, is a rarity these days — a record with something profound on its mind, unafraid of dark corners and uncomfortable honesty.
“Musically, at least, people know me from an acoustic, bluegrass, folk kind of world — there’s songs on the record that don’t fit well in that sort of schematic,” Simpson says. “I had to take ownership of that — just because that’s what I’d done [in the past], that doesn’t mean it’s what I have to do.”
That Simpson and his collaborators (Matt Menefee, Byron House and Adam Stockdale, among others) are able to convey these weighty themes with such clarity and such a light touch speaks to their formidable skills as musicians.
“There is a lot of me and my last few years in the music,” Simpson says. “It’s me trying to tap into a deeper community with people, a deeper conversation. I feel the way to do that is by exposing all the scars and faults — not that I’m doing all of that, but I’m trying to get at the root of it as much as possible on this record.”
Simpson plans to let the album marinate for a few months before undertaking any extensive touring, allowing, as it were, The Whistles and the Bells to unfold like a blossom, gradually revealing its beautiful complexities.
Or, put another way, Simpson wants listeners to undertake a journey of their own.
“I am hoping the music will at least start conversations that wouldn’t have been started before,” he says. “I believe there’s a voice inside each of us that we can quiet a lot, but I feel like that itch needs to be scratched.”