Time and Temperature and the art of failing

Joel Oliphint
joliphint@columbusalive.com

Since 2013, I’ve had an 11-track Time and Temperature record in my iTunes library titled “Unknown album.” Years ago, I’d been communicating with singer/guitarist Val Glenn about the songs as she was putting the record together. Labels were interested in the music she made as Time and Temperature, and so was I; 2010 album Cream of the Low Tide remains one of my favorite Columbus releases.

But then Glenn moved to Minneapolis, and the record seemed to disappear. The untitled album collected digital dust until 2017, when some of the songs resurfaced on a quietly released 2017 EP, Trade. Then, recently, the rest of the tracks showed up on another under-the-radar EP, Trade II.

“In the last few weeks, one of the people who ran one of the labels that I had been talking to back in 2012, 2013, we had been emailing back and forth just to check in,” Glenn said. “We were catching up, and he mentioned at the end of his email, ‘I saw that you did end up releasing Trade on your own. That's cool. But what happened to the rest of the songs?’ And I was like, ‘What songs?' … It had been so long that I'd forgotten about the rest of the songs.”

Eventually, after some digging, she discovered the songs in an old Dropbox folder and uploaded them to Bandcamp. Glenn, though, isn’t merely forgetful. It took her years to get past the painful process of making the songs on Trade and Trade II. She had purposefully moved on. Glenn wasn’t even sure she wanted to talk to me about the songs, much less release them. In fact, for a time, she was convinced she'd never make music again.

“2013 was the most traumatizing musical year of my life,” Glenn said. “It was just soul crushing.”

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Of course, the initial idea behind the Time and Temperature album wasn’t toxic in the least. The conceit was ambitious, but simple: Glenn wanted to make an album of pop songs. “I was investigating my ideas about what pop music is. … There's something so hypnotic about a good pop song. It makes you stupider in this way that's enjoyable. It’s almost like a drunk feeling in your brain. A good pop song gets in your brain and in your body in that way,” she said. “Some of that had to do with the moment that we were collectively in with music. … It was this moment that was like, ‘Whoa, this person that I met at an art space in 2007, who was playing a toy instrument from a thrift store, just made this super polished, digestible thing.’”

Making a pure pop record was also a way for Glenn to overhaul her creative process. It would force her to collaborate with new people and experiment with other recording and writing methods. “I was trying to push aside this role of me being a guitar player and think of myself more as an arranger [rather than] thinking of Time and Temperature as just like, ‘Oh, a girl and her guitar,’” said Glenn, who now wishes she’d pursued those ideas on her own with a four-track recorder rather than gathering a bunch of local musicians “for this big, Brian Wilson-Columbus moment. Aiming for that seems so ridiculous now.”

In initial recording sessions, Glenn worried about some iffy takes that seemed glaringly subpar, but she was assured it could all be fixed through editing after the fact, so she convinced herself that this was just the way the sausage was made. “I just thought, ‘Well, these are pop songs, and this is how you make pop music. It’s doctored,’” she said.

Plus, the studio had become a revolving door of musicians, many of whom Glenn had never met. “On paper they’re very accomplished, proficient musicians,” she said. “But you don't know them, and they don't know you, and they don't know the songs.”

Over time, Glenn realized the album wasn’t going to work, but at that point she  felt too far into the process to abandon it. “I know that you can't be absolutely precious about things, but I think I was pushed in the direction of, ‘It's going to be OK. Don't sweat the small stuff now.’ But it never got to the point where I felt like it was OK,” she said. “And at that point I was burned out.”

To make matters worse, Glenn was in talks with labels that, for the first time in the life of Time and Temperature, were excitedly waiting on a finished product from her. “I sent it to them, and they're like, ‘This is it? Really? Well, this is very different than what we were expecting.’ And I'm like, ‘This is what I have. This is what I've been working on for the last eight months to a year. There's nothing else,’” she said.

One label asked for a lo-fi EP first, which led to Fur on Fur, but that didn’t satisfy, either. In the end, Glenn realized the labels wanted Cream of the Low Tide, Part II, and instead she’d given them an attempt at a pop record that had left her even more dissatisfied than the labels. With one record, she’d managed to disappoint a bevy of local musicians, multiple record labels and herself.

Glenn moved to Minneapolis around 2012 and returned to Columbus in 2014, but she hasn’t written a song for Time and Temperature in four or five years. She put Trade and Trade II on Bandcamp mostly because so many people put so many hours into the songs, and “they don’t sound lethal,” she said. “I don't have any kind of emotional or ego attachment to these songs. If people hear them and they like them, I allow them to like them. I don't have anything good or bad to say about that. And if they don't like them, I don't care.”

Glenn did eventually return to music, though, after Saintseneca bandleader Zac Little asked her to play bass on a tour. From there, she fell in love with the bass, embracing the backseat role the instrument often takes. Glenn also started another project, Calico Boy, writing and recording and (occasionally) performing pop songs without the Time and Temperature baggage.

Artists don’t typically talk about their albums as complete failures. And, to be fair, Glenn knows she is her own worst critic. I, for one, have listened to “Unknown album” plenty of times; I’m particularly partial to “There’s No One After You,” which may not fit Glenn’s original vision, but is beautiful nonetheless. (You can also find an old Daytrotter session with alternate versions of a few Trade songs.)

But Glenn sees the Trade debacle as a cautionary tale for artists, and one that taught her some tough lessons. Some of them are practical, like making sure she learns the basics of recording so that she can document her musical arrangements herself, but also so that she can better communicate her artistic vision to others. Also: Make demos and keep everything, but don’t share everything. And don’t rush the recording process. “If no one asks you to do it, then you can take your time,” she said. “There's no reason to put unnecessary pressure on yourself. Take the time to be prepared as much as you can.”

Other lessons are more philosophical. Those are the hardest ones. “Sooner or later, the longer you commit to making art, you will fail by your estimation. Regardless of what other people think, you will feel like you have failed. And that's very painful. It hurts. But you change, for better or worse, and after that existential bout, you remain an artist,” Glenn said. “Even when you get sick of yourself, you get through it. And then, on the other side of that, you are still an artist.”

Val Glenn of Time and Temperature and Calico Boy