Thomas Comerford, filmmaker and singer-songwriter | Chicagoans of Note | Chicago Reader

Thomas Comerford, filmmaker and singer-songwriter 

“To me that's kind of the magical part, bringing the songs to various people to work on them together.”

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PHOTO BY THOMAS COMERFORD

  • Photo by Thomas Comerford

Thomas Comerford, 49, is a filmmaker and singer-songwriter who started the group Kasper Hauser in 1999. He's currently mixing his fourth solo album, and this week he releases the single "Our Valley," written late last year and recorded during the Illinois stay-at-home order in March and April.


As told to Salem Collo-Julin

Before I came to Chicago, I lived in Iowa City for three years. I was in an MFA program there and I studied film, but I was also interested in audio production. I had been writing music for a while. I started writing songs when I was in college in upstate New York—started in '88 and was out by '92. I had a couple of groups, but sometimes just the idea of putting something in front of people and having it be judged was terrifying.

I would trade tapes with friends. Actually a big inspiration for me was this singer-songwriter named Lisa Marr, of the band Cub. I became buddies with her because one of the places I lived before that for a little while was Las Vegas—that was a pretty cool little music scene there. I met Lisa at an in-store that Cub did in Vegas, and we got along really well. I would write stuff and record on a handheld tape recorder, and I would send it to her and she would send a tape back or some of her demos or whatever.

But coming to Chicago, and having been inspired by so much music that's come out of here—it was exciting. So I arrived here in 1999, and that's also when I started working. I've been, I guess, an artist first and also working, because I've never held a full-time gig. I teach film and video production and history, looking at nonfiction movies . . . a range of different things.

Within that first year of being here, I played my first live show, going under the name Kaspar Hauser. I'd been real shy about performing in front of people, so that was a big plunge for me. I had to sort of kick myself in the butt to do that. That's when I really started to get excited and inspired by the possibility of not just the writing process but also bringing the songs to various people to work on them together. To me that's kind of the magical part, bringing people into it and then seeing what happens.

I mostly grew up in northeast Ohio, in the Cleveland area. My parents were from that area, and we ended up landing there when I was six. Then I got out of there and moved around a lot in my early 20s.

"Our Valley" was a song that happened very quickly. I was in Cleveland around Christmastime last year visiting my dad. We went on this walk together in this area called the Valley. It's this series of parks and whatnot. My dad walks a lot, and we went out for a walk there, along the Rocky River. It was just the two of us. My mom passed last June, so it's been a difficult year.

It's hard to articulate exactly what happened on the walk, but I guess I just felt very moved. I also thought about this idea of a valley as a safe place but also kind of a low place. I think I started writing it while we were walking, actually. I had some of this imagery, and then I started playing around on the guitar. I remember dinner was being prepared, and I was quickly trying to just get some stuff figured out and recorded so I didn't forget anything. I was late arriving to dinner because of that.

And then I just had a very rough demo, pretty much by New Year's. I shared it with the live group, and we learned it and played it at a couple of shows in January and February of this year. We actually played a show on March 13 at the Hungry Brain, and at that point we were wondering if we should do that. It was basically the last night—everything kind of shut down after that.

By early April, I really wanted to try to find a way for us to work together. I'm fine with the format of streaming concerts, but I'm not really interested in doing a solo show that way. I think it's hard for me to play completely alone. I just want to hear more stuff going on around me. And I knew it would be difficult to try to do something live across multiple feeds, because there'd be a time lag.

The group that I did the single "Our Valley" with (with two exceptions) are people that went on the road with me last summer, and then they've been sort of my main crew since then. I thought, I am pretty comfortable with overdubbing. If I record this with a click track, everybody can add their pieces and then we'll see how it goes. As people started adding their parts, I was really taken with how things were coming together. So we mixed it and thought it merited an official release.

  • For this quarantine video, Thomas Comerford and his bandmates shot footage of themselves performing along to "Our Valley" in their homes.

I thought it might be cool to have a video to go along with it and asked the band if they could shoot video of themselves performing. By the end of March, I had participated in a lot of Zoom meetings, and I liked this idea that even though we can't be together in the same place we can at least have images of people performing the song—kind of coming together musically.

Originally the song was going to be called "The Valley," and then I was thinking about walking with my dad and the experience we were sharing while grieving. He and my mom had walked those very same paths for the last 50 years together. I saw a connection as far as this space or a state of mind that is shared.

I've gotten so busy with the production of my own music in the last ten years. I still keep my feet in the media stuff, teaching and making music videos. I was about to start working on one for Azita, actually, but two days before the big shoot—that's when everything kind of fell apart. We're still going to make that video, but I'm just not sure when.  v

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