Conrad Keely has released nine albums with his band …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, but with his new solo album, made here in Cambodia, he’s as enthusiastic and excited as a kid looking to show off a new creation made from Lego.
“Wanna hear some of it?” the scruffy-haired 43-year-old says at the home studio of his Phnom Penh flat before rushing into the next room, coming back clutching an iPad and plugging it into his speaker system.
“I just did a lot of this stuff in GarageBand [Apple’s music production software].” He scrolls through the demo tracks. Their names read like chapters in a Paul Theroux novel: Landing in Madrid, Drive to Barcelona, Zagreb, Landing in Bristol, LAX.
“This one!” he exclaims, and plays a file labelled, “Drive to Kampot”. It begins on a pounding, hot piano line. Then a chunky guitar chirps in, followed by some heavily reverbed, In the Air Tonight vocals. “I’m alive today!” he wails on the track.
“There’s the vocals that I did in the taxi. You can hear the wind,” says Keely. That song, inspired by a last-minute jaunt to Kampot, made it onto the album Original Machines, set to be released January 22 through German label Superball Music. Some of it was also composed in a room at Kampot’s Villa Vedici guesthouse.
Keely – who was born in England and never became a US citizen despite growing up in Texas and speaking in a Southern-tinged accent – relocated to Cambodia last year after a visit while travelling through the region with his Thai father the year before.
“Immediately I was attracted by [Cambodia]. It’s hard to put my finger on what, but I just fell in love with everything,” says the boyish songwriter, surrounded by synthesisers, an electronic drum-set and broken-stringed guitars. His Irish mother, who lives with him and helps with the care of his 2-year-old son, Caspian, has just brought over a glass of iced tea.
“We didn’t have honey so I put in maple syrup,” she says warmly before disappearing into the next room with Caspian, who is nursing a head-bump. “Thanks mom!” Keely yells after them.
Here, among graphic novels and art supplies (Keely loves Japanese anime and portrait painting) and the toddler's toys, is where he recorded most of Machines. Other sections of the album were recorded while on the road in the US and Cambodia, on buses, in dressing rooms and even in a private taxi en route to Kampot.
“I just wanted to really get that sense of travelling in the record,” he says. The 29-track LP is very much a product of his life-affecting change of environment – the work of an experienced artist happily displaced in a new country.
In some ways, Machines is a milestone for the long-time songwriter. For one, it is the first record he has completed outside of his band where he wrote most of the material. For Keely, it was like stepping foot onto an alien planet.
“The band is its own entity,” he says. “Anything I write is filtered. I have to think in that kind of persona. But to write stuff for myself took me out of it. It was really liberating.”
Musically it is new territory as well. Whereas Trail of Dead churns out heavy, guitar driven, slap-in-the-face rock, Machines proffers a more electronic fair – less like Fugazi and more like Bjork and Depeche Mode, two influences cited by Keely for the album.
“I’ve always loved that style of music, electronic stuff, but I’ve always been in a rock band,” he says by way of explanation. But the album was also a test for the songwriter.
“I wanted to see what it would be like, to see what kind of stuff I would write if it wasn’t for the band,” he says.
Keely says he plans to tour with the new material, but is still working out how to perform the compositions live: he might put together a band or just create electronic loops to play along to solo. In November he completed a mini tour in the UK, Germany and Paris, performing the songs on an acoustic guitar and piano.
After so many months playing in Phnom Penh – Keely often plays open mics or sits in with local bands like the Kampot Playboys – he felt well-prepared for the shows, something he attributed to Phnom Penh’s less-than-attentive audiences.
“Playing here is so hard! The crowd is never listening to you. They’re always drinking, smoking, having conservations. You’re just kind of background noise to whatever happens to be going on,” says Keely.
“But that is why playing out here is so important. This is my testing ground [as a solo artist]. My trial by fire.”
Conrad Keely will launch Original Machines with a solo gig at Meta House on January 22. The album will be available for purchase via iTunes. An accompanying music book, featuring photos, artwork, travel stories and handwritten lyrics by Kelly will be released a week later.