‘Once,’ Speed the Plough

DON STERNECKER

Toni and John Baumgartner of Speed the Plough.

While we shelter from this winter’s chill, music can keep us connected, and also take us away from the jarring noises of television news anchors. Speed the Plough’s “Once,” the sixth song from the band’s “Before and After Silence” series, does both. We’re glad to be premiering this SoundCloud link, where it can be heard. It also will be released on Bandcamp on Dec. 4, just in time for Bandcamp’s fee-free Fridays.

Written by John Baumgartner and produced by him and his wife and bandmate Toni Baumgartner, “Once” welcomes you to get lost in its gorgeous, moody melody and to meditate on its lyrics about lost love, loss and change. It fits perfectly into NJArts.net’s series Songs to See Us Through, which offers artists an outlet during this time when venues are closed due to the coronavirus.

John and Toni, who live in North Haledon, started to create some new music in January with Speed the Plough co-founder Marc Francia, breaking the band’s hiatus. But by March, the pandemic was surging and lockdown prevented in-person recording sessions. Adapting, as many of us have had to do during these unprecedented times, they launched “Before and After Silence” — “after the schools closed and we started to recover from the shock,” John said — with a little help from their friends, who recorded their parts in their own spaces.

Speed the Plough has been releasing one song in the series, per month. They will continue to do so until the spring, followed by the release of a physical album.

They initially aimed to record 10 songs, but creativity got the best of them and now more are expected. “I can safely say there will be more than 10 … I found a few more co-conspirators to continue,” John Baumgartner said.

Written four or five years ago, “Once” was recorded early this year with Francia on guitar, Toni on vocals, soprano sax and flute, and John on keyboards. They then sent the track to John Demeski (son of The Feelies’ Stan Demeski) to add drums, and to their son, Michael Baumgartner, to add guitar.

ARIEL GONZALES

Speed the Plough in 2018 (from left, James Payne, Michael Baumgartner, Toni Baumgartner, Ed Seifert, Dave Weckerman and John Baumgartner).

Later, with masks in place, they met for a recording session at Mix-o-Lydian Studio in Delaware Water Gap, Pa. Ed Seifert played mandolin, and together with a bass part sent by Brenda Sauter (of The Feelies and Wild Carnation) via Dropbox, the song was created, overcoming the limiting forces imposed by the pandemic. I continue to find joy in artists’ efforts to find ways to overcome social distancing measures so they can safely have their music heard.

John Baumgartner’s dramatic keyboard introduces us to the wrought tale of people looking for meaning in life and love. The song encourages ruminations about people we’ve lost, unrequited loves, and people we hold on to. We hear Toni Baumgartner sing:

Once you walked away
You were so gone, nothing to say
Twice you came back to me
What you were on took you away
Once I had a dream right there in my head, something well fed
Twice I turned back to see if you were just laughing at me
Turn to the page where the words are just right
You can read it again and again if there’s light

John said he and Toni thought of “Once” as “one of my typically confused in-and-out-of-love songs, but since the virus hit, almost every song seems to have some new connotation. Most of the new music I’m hearing is borne from a sense of profound loss or from an equally profound political rage. I did try to reclaim a little sense of hope from the end (of the song) with the line, ‘I’ll catch up some day.’ ”

There is a warm, mysterious and hypnotic quality to the chorus that reminds me of Pink Floyd’s haunting sound in “Brain Damage” from The Dark Side of the Moon, though with less rock ‘n’ roll.

CINDY STAGOFF

Ed Seifert plays on “Once.”

The roster of participants for “Before and After Silence” has been fluid. “Toni and I are the only constants,” said John Baumgartner. “The lineups have pretty much been dictated by the songs and the participants’ willingness … Upcoming songs include Stan Demeski, Scott Anthony (Fond Farewells), Matt Davis (Campfire Flies), Matt Piucci (Rain Parade) and another song with singer Mayssa Jallad (Safar).”

John Baumgartner said “Before and After Silence” has been “an antidote to the funk we were falling into” because of the pandemic.

“The spring and early summer of 2020 were hard for me to play my instruments and be creative — I was weighed down,” said Toni. “So when I had this project to work on, I jumped in head first to work on my parts. I had a goal and a purpose.”

The lyrics of “Once,” she said, “resonate with me as a theme of acceptance, forgiveness, love, and lost love. While I did not write the words, I feel them when I am singing and playing.”

Like Toni, I return to the the chorus again and again, looking for its multiple meanings. “So many times, I have re-read the words to understand the meaning — as in life and the meaning of life,” she said. “When I am singing it, I talk to my loved ones who are no longer here.”

The words in the chorus encourage her to think about “our existence in the world and how we will all end up. Wondering how we will be when we get older — thinking of my parents and how they were in their old age. Will I be reading the page over and over again looking for meaning because I don’t understand anymore?”

CINDY STAGOFF

The Campfire Flies (from left, Deena Shoshkes, Jon Fried, Ed Seifert, Matt Davis, Toni Baumgartner and John Baumgartner).

As I’ve heard in the songs she performs with The Campfire Flies (a collaborative group also featuring John Baumgartner, Seifert, Davis, Deena Shoshkes and Jon Fried), Toni wrings a lot of emotion out of her instruments.

“The soprano sax part came after I figured out how to express longing with the instrument,” she said. “The flute part doubles the sax to give it more warmth and tone depth and Michael Baumgartner adds so much flavor with his guitar parts.”

Seifert described the recording process as “a different way of generating a new Speed the Plough track. I think the diverse influences and ideas are a great strength of the band, especially when the general atmosphere allows any of us to try anything, knowing that we’ll get a true and honest answer about what works and what doesn’t.”

The recipe works well with “Once,” a timely song for these contemplative times.

For more on Speed the Plough, visit speedtheplough.com.

NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series is designed to spotlight songs relevant to the coronavirus crisis and encourage readers to support the artists who made them (and won’t be able to generate income via concerts at this time). Click here for links to all songs in the series.

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