Before he moved to Portland near the end of 2015, multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney set up a temporary studio in the basement of his apartment near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It was probably originally intended for storing tools or Christmas decorations, but Carney crammed the tiny space with instruments and recording equipment.
Carney was frenetic as he walked around that studio, showing me his setup during an interview late last year. It was just like one of his sax solos: he practically hopped from one instrument to the next, performing in bursts.
If you have good taste in music, Carney is probably all over your collection. He's played with artists as diverse as Tom Waits and the B-52s. If you were alive in the '80s, you heard his distinctive solo on the Waitresses’ “I Know what Boys Like.”
"I recorded it like three weeks before I moved out of New York, and I had a really bad sinus infection," Carney says. "They kept going, ‘Do another one man, you almost got it.’ And I’d be like, ‘BLAH!’ Because I was pissed off. It came off like, 'rat neh neh neh.'"
Carney was asked to join the band -- the group's leader, Chris Butler, had played with Carney in the Akron-based punk band Tin Huey -- but he turned down the offer.
"So Mars Williams took the gig [with the Waitresses] and they did a video with Mars lip-syncing my solo," Carney says. "I was so upset. ‘That’s me -- he’s going to get all the wealth!'” (Carney now laughs at the thought, and says he and Williams have been good friends for years.)
In recent years, Carney’s main income has come from playing gigs at local restaurants, as well as recordings he's made at home. There in the dark apartment studio is where he recorded parts for the soundtrack to the Netflix series Bojack Horseman, songs he wrote with his nephew, Patrick Carney of the Black Keys. It’s also where he recorded the bass sax part that would become the backbone of St. Vincent's 2014 single, "Digital Witness." (Carney's sax was sampled for the keyboard riff on this track.)
But the majority of his home studio recordings have been self-released -- including a piece that he now considers one of the best songs he’s ever written. It came to him after a moment of tragedy: the Charleston Church Massacre, which took place on the evening of June 17, 2015, when a gunman killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, including the church’s senior pastor.
"I was watching the news and when they arraigned the guy, the victims’ families were there, and they were all like, 'I forgive you,'” Carney says. "I just lost it. I was crying, and I was thinking about John Coltrane’s 'Alabama.’"
Coltrane wrote the song "Alabama" in response to the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church by the Ku Klux Klan, an attack that killed four young girls. Wordless, the sorrow Coltrane felt from the tragedy is palpable in his playing.
"People are always saying I post that song [on social media] too much, because I’m always posting it after a tragedy," Carney says.
With a face full of tears and Coltrane stuck in his head, Carney went downstairs and began playing.
"I was just in a trance and I got my bass sax, which is pretty big, and I recorded a thing. It was just going to be a bass sax, but then I was like, 'let me just add baritone'...and I just went from there," Carney says. "I played the whole family of saxophones until I got to the highest one, and then I was like, 'Oh, this is pretty good.'" He laughs.
When Carney was happy with the final product, a three-minute track called “Lament for Charleston,” he did what he usually does with his own songs: he posted it on his Bandcamp page and shared it on Facebook.
"I post tons of my music and I get, 'Hey, that was pretty cool.' But this time the reaction was immediate," he says.
The song hit a nerve in a lot of people, including Carney’s old friend, the British multi-instrumentalist David Coulter.
"I cried after hearing it," says Coulter. "It was this amazingly, overwhelmingly beautiful and moving piece that was just like this big scream, and it just kinda said everything that I was thinking and couldn’t put into words."
Coulter knew other people had to hear this composition, and passed it on to his friend David Harrington. Harrington is the founder of the Grammy Award-winning Kronos Quartet -- probably one of the most recognizable groups in the world of classical music -- and much of what Kronos plays comes from outside composers, sources that vary from Philip Glass to Jimi Hendrix.
"Since 1973, Kronos has worked closely with composers," Harrington says. "I can’t tell you where the next piece might come from and I don’t want to know. What I want to do is have Kronos ready for music that we feel we need to jump into, that our audience has to hear."
At the time Carney released “Lament,” the quartet was preparing for the Terry Riley Festival at SF Jazz, a series of sold-out concerts attended by thousands, and what Harrington describes as the biggest event Kronos had ever worked on. But after Coulter played the track for Harrington, the world-renowned violinist wanted to jump on it right away. After receiving permission from Carney, Harrington asked a composer to work overnight to arrange a version for the quartet to play at the festival.
That plan shifted slightly -- the arrangement was ready in time, but "we didn’t have the brain cells available to do it at the Riley Festival" in the end, says Harrington.
Instead, the quartet prepared the piece for the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz. And this time, they invited Carney to join their rehearsal.
After running through the song twice, Harrington asked if Carney would join them onstage at the festival to play their version of his composition.
"I was really surprised I didn’t cry when I was doing it," Carney says.
Since that performance, Carney has moved to Portland, thanks to the rising cost of living in San Francisco. But his experience playing with Kronos was a perfect sendoff, he says, after living in the city for 28 years. Carney says he's known the feeling of validation before, but that moment onstage was unlike any other experience: It wasn't just a job. He had written a song to combat the sadness that followed a national tragedy -- and people not only wanted to hear it, they wanted it to be heard.
And then there's this: Carney, who turns 60 on Jan. 23, says writing "Lament for Charleston" fundamentally changed the way he composes music. Instead of crafting each note, he improvises completely, letting his heart write the song.