Private Playlist: Ambient accordionist Walt McClements drifts into musical abstraction

Walt McClements. Photo by Rachael Pony Cassells

Private Playlist is a listening session with Southern California’s most notable musical figures in their private creative environments.

Quite often, when an artist reverts to using their government name, it comes with speeches about going "back to basics" and "rediscovering" oneself. That is, unless you ask Walt McClements. Prior to decamping from New Orleans to LA, he held court as a multi-instrumentalist in larger ensembles like Dark Dark Dark, Hurray for the Riff Raff, and Why Are We Building Such A Big Ship?. In 2012, McClements branched off into a scaled-down project under the name Lonesome Leash and issued his first cassette, "I Am No Captain." Having established his own creative base of operations, McClements then returned to collaborating with Weyes Blood, Tara Jane O'Neil, and Mirah, among others.

After nearly a decade of Lonesome Leash’s idiosyncratic, song-driven avant-pop, McClements is releasing "A Hole in the Fence," his first solo album under his own name. Rather than a reclamation of some idealized purity, the album pushes him further into unexplored terrain. The project shares sonic forms with drone, ambient, and contemporary classical music, amounting to what feels like a gently autobiographical tone poem. McClements paints an emotional map of marginalized lives and spaces, performed entirely on solo accordion (with a single dab of organ). It also represents his first purely instrumental work. Perhaps the closer one gets to the truth, the less there is to say.

For his “Private Playlist,” Walt McClements pilots an ambient excursion from Allen Toussaint’s minimalist funk to the deceptive lightness of Mary Lattimore.

“My playlist starts with songwriters who create gorgeous atmospheres around their songs, then it drifts into instrumental music which also tells stories.” — Walt McClements

Songwriting was a primary interest of mine for quite a long time, but I've been drifting into textures and the abstract. And in making this record, partly it was this realization that I was allowed to create music like this. And then, when starting to construct it, [asking]: "What stays compelling about this, even though there are no words to hold onto and minimal changes?" My playlist starts with songwriters who create gorgeous atmospheres around their songs, then it drifts into instrumental music which also tells stories.


Tara Jane O'Neil's "Where Shine New Lights" beautifully blends a songwriter record with an ambient record. There are these amazing soundscapes that drift into songs, and everything is crafted just perfectly: the ambient sections, the songs, the lyrics.


I lived in New Orleans for 10 years, and obviously Allen Toussaint is rightfully revered as a legend there and worldwide. The whole "Southern Nights" album is amazing, of course, but I always come back to the title track, because it's so different from the rest of the record. The production is so sparse and ambient. It's got cascading piano and strings, what sounds like a dulcimer, and a very light tambourine anchoring the whole thing. I've wanted to listen to it every day since I heard it in headphones for the first time.


Mabe Fratti is a Guatemalan cellist and multi-instrumentalist living in Mexico City. [In the liner notes] about this song, she says: "Even though the song sounds uplifting, the lyrics are about an attempt to find things to hold on to in the present when you fear something in the future." And I feel like [in] this song, and the whole record, there are obviously a lot of complicated and anxious feelings and explorations about communication and stuff, but it's [a] very joyful exploration of that process. She uses words like she's breaking them down, repeating phrases and turning them into atmosphere. It works really well in the context of her music, conceptually, and [in] the questions she's addressing on this record. 


I met Mary Lattimore maybe five or six years ago when we were both playing with Weyes Blood, and I've been a big fan of her music ever since. It's taught me a lot. It's been an inspiration for me to make instrumental music as well. What I take from it is balancing a certain levity or lightness with a ton of depth underneath. You peel the layers and there's this huge world. Additionally, the way she uses her instrument: She plays the harp and I play the accordion, which both have connotations about what kind of music they're played in. Sometimes when I'm thinking about what I want to create with the accordion, I have this desire to fully obscure the source. And it's really cool to watch Mary embracing the “harpness” of it while creating new forms.


I got into Kali Malone's "The Sacrificial Code" a few years back, and it's maybe the first record of its kind that resonated with me so deeply. It's this very slow, droning music on organ. And it's the most nervous-system-comforting record that I've listened to in a long time. I've put this record on when I've been sick on an airplane, and I feel like it cured me. I put it on to work, I put it on to walk. It really enhances the background of an environment, but if I want to pay attention to it as an active listener, it's extremely rewarding as well.


Ruth Mascelli is part of this amazing no wave band called Special Interest in New Orleans. This is the first solo project they're putting out under their own name, and it's very minimal electronic music. The narrative also really compels me, [based around] queer spaces and hidden worlds. The words Ruth says around this record are, I think, really beautiful: "Partly, this record is an attempt to connect to the current of queer history flowing through those spaces." "Missing Men" is the closing track, and it feels very much like a slow, beautiful, electronic gay dirge.

Check out KCRW’s other Private Playlists:

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Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad on finding solace in Gil Scott-Heron
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Madame Gandhi on Fela, feminism, and the bravery of Brian Eno and Jon Hassell
Alice Bag is doing the live music withdrawal dance
M. Ward is listening to music by his influences’ influencers
San Cha believes we can create, no matter our circumstances
Bob Mould seeks artful inspiration from Janelle Monáe, Elliott Smith, and the Byrds
La Santa Cecilia's La Marisoul finds hope for the future in music
Pete Tong is comfortable with musical melancholy
Go Betty Go’s Nicolette Vilar shares music that’s honey to her ears
Mary Lattimore is communing with musical kindred spirits
Ndidi O selects music for a melancholy autumn
Julianna Barwick recommends music with emotion and experimentation
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The Koreatown Oddity is raising his daughter on a colorful musical diet
Dante Elephante is slowing down his life with sides of vinyl
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