IT WOULD BE a mistake to characterize Mid Dream as Mike Sempert's LA album. Yes, the Birds & Batteries frontman moved there not long before Mid Dream was released. Yes, there are echoes from the LA canyons (Laurel and Topanga) in Mid Dream's calmly exquisite sheen, harking back to the classic '70s singer/songwriter era. And yes, those are the waves of Hermosa Beach crashing at the end of "Recovery," the album's stunning closer.
"People are like, 'Oh, this is your LA album!' because it sort of resonates with a really classic era of recording that took place in LA," Sempert says, "and I'm flattered to be associated with a lot of that music, but this record was [largely] recorded in Oakland before I moved."
And while it's a solo effort—the first released under Sempert's own name—in many ways it's a worthy supplement to the songs he released with Birds & Batteries over the course of four albums.
"I had been writing songs as Birds & Batteries for a long time," he says, "and when B&B first put out a record, it was sort of a combination of a lot of different sounds. It had this folky Americana side to it, and it also had a synthy, electronic side to it. As I developed the project, I wanted it to be a bit clearer about what it was. So I started focusing on writing synthy stuff for Birds & Batteries, being a little more on the experimental pop side. And as I was doing that, I was still writing more folky Americana kind of music, but I was finding myself putting it aside, putting it in a pile. The stuff from Mid Dream is actually many years of sketching... and there are a couple of relatively new songs as well.
"It's a long time coming in a lot of ways," Sempert continues, "and it's the result of about a decade of songwriting, but what was nice about this project is that there wasn't an agenda with it. These were songs that came about on their own and that I liked enough to want to record. It just unfolded, whereas with Birds & Batteries—especially toward the end—there was a real intention of making, like, this undeniable pop music or something. You feel that pressure when you're touring a lot and you're trying to really make a living with the band. Mid Dream was the opposite of that. There wasn't that pressure for me—it just came about naturally."
From the opening track, "Mollusk," a modest finger-picker that's subsumed by gorgeous strings and horns that catapult the song up to the firmament, it's clear that Sempert has created something special. "Oceans of Rock and Roll" turns a standard rock progression into a hymn in praise of the elusive, mysterious power of music. ("Don't try to ascribe some kinda meaning to this," Sempert sings.) And the beautiful "Recovery" starts as a no-nonsense, unassuming ballad, but evolves into a slow, fiery, guitar-driven coda, turning its basic chord progression from meditation into confession into absolution.
"'Recovery' was the last piece of the puzzle," Sempert says. "It's a really personal song, but it's inspired by something that happened to a friend of mine last summer. He got really badly hurt, had a kid, and his sister was diagnosed with cancer—basically, all these things happened to him at once. He wasn't able to work, and his wife was this really heroic figure to me, because she held it down and she took care of him. And he's a lot better now. The song is from his point of view to her; it's his way of saying, 'Hey, I'm leaning on you, you're my strength.' When I was writing it, it was very poignant to me, [with the line] 'All our dreams are coming true'—there was no way of knowing if that would be the case for them. But it did turn out okay for them.
"I'm making it sound like it's this very selfless piece of writing," he continues, "but ultimately their story resonated with my own feelings about my wife and my situation. Though writing about someone else, I managed to do something that felt truer than other things that were more from my perspective. It's sort of liberating to think about other people in a way. I'm sure that most people, when they hear the song, will think it's related to something that happened to me."
Whether Sempert's the protagonist or not, the album's filled with admirably simple songs, told directly, with unguarded emotion placed front and center. They're filled with love, desperation, hope, and compassion. Unlike those LA albums of yore, the songs on Mid Dream aren't glazed over with the sound of cocaine and managers and gobs of studio time. Rather, Sempert has made one of the most heartfelt albums of the year, and one of the best.