The project Johnny Hamil calls GaV7d (“gawd”) is wildly ambitious, but it was inspired by a simple sentiment.
“I grew up making music with my friends, musical buddies who dig this certain sound and have their own voices,” he said. “I like weird, bizarre music. And that’s what this whole thing is about.”
The V7 in the project’s name refers to Mr. Marco’s V7, the instrumental avant-garde band Hamil founded in the 1990s. Marco is Marco Pascolini, the band’s guitarist.
GaV7d is a project in five stages, and each one comprises 15 songs Hamil wrote over the course of several years.
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One stage of the project, which Hamil calls “Thanks for Everything,” involves vocalists singing lyrics to each song. It includes “For Those Who Breathe,” in which all 26 vocalists involved in the recording sing as a group.
Three other stages of GaV7d are instrumental versions of the album, all songs re-imagined by different ensembles: Punkfunkpolka, NoirCartoonJazz and FreeExoticaMiddleeastern. The fifth stage is Hamil performing the album’s music, solo on bass.
Hamil has finished recording “Thanks for Everything,” and Sunday night at RecordBar, he and many of his musical friends will perform it live to celebrate the album’s release.
For each song, Hamil gave the vocalists demos and plenty of room for rearrangements and reinterpretations. And he encouraged them to give the songs a specific flavor.
“V7 is a formula: It’s everybody’s voice,” he said. “Everyone has a distinct sound to express. That’s what I wanted with (GaV7d).”
But he had clear ideas of where he wanted songs to go. Hamil recalled the recording of “Goodbye My Friend (Tony B)” with vocalist Tony Ladesich of the Hardship Letters getting the sound Hamil wanted.
“Goodbye” is a dark, eerie ballad bathed in dissonance. Ladesich gets vocal help from Kyle Dahlquist; in the background, Christian Hankel delivers impassioned spoken word.
“At first Tony was like, ‘I can’t sing this at all; this song is wrong for me,’” Hamil said. “Tony is very particular in how he writes songs. I thought he was going to walk out.”
Instead, Ladesich submitted to Hamil’s wishes, because Hamil is “such a cheerleader for the people he is into.”
“Johnny was so encouraging to me about it, and as much as it’s sort of hard for me to hear my voice on it because it’s not something I would sing (and) in a way I wouldn’t sing, it seems to be exactly what Johnny wanted and needed,” Ladesich said.
“He kept working it and working it,” Hamil said. “We’d go back and forth: ‘That sounds good; no that’s the wrong way.’ He changed the melody in a beautiful way and the vibe changed. But he ended up going to a new place. He sounds like Leonard Cohen, the phrasing and everything.”
“It was a great, if scary, experience,” Ladesich said.
Anna Cole sings lead vocals on “For Those Who Breathe” with Steve Tulipana, who wears his best Tom Waits voice.
“What I remember most is how unusual his writing style is,” Cole said, “and how I enjoyed the challenge of getting it just right. His enthusiasm mixed with his very thorough understanding of how he wanted that particular track to sound was pretty impressive.”
The list of vocalists is pretty impressive, too, a who’s who of local musicians, including Rex Hobart, Mikal Shapiro, Kasey Rausch, Betse Ellis, Katie Gilchrist, Amy Farrand, Cody Wyoming, Matt Tady, Jason Beers, Erik Voeks, John Stevenson, John Bersuch.
“Johnny deserves a medal,” said Erin McGrane. “I don’t know how he organized such a gigantic group of musicians.”
McGrane and Jeff Freling, who perform as Victor & Penny, sang the upbeat, poppy “The Privilege (For Anne),” a tribute to the late Anne Winter, former owner of Recycled Sounds, a record store and local-music nerve center. It closed in 2006.
“Privilege” is one of two tributes on the album. “Drank You Away (For Abby),” performed by Howard Iceberg and Greg Todt, is in memory of Abigail Henderson, a local songwriter and musician who died in August 2013.
McGrane was one of several friends of Winter who submitted to Hamil memories and stories about her and her store. Hamil used those memories to write his lyrics. He chose Victor & Penny to record it.
“Johnny approaches music with such abandon and love and freedom and really gives 100 percent,” McGrane said. “When you’re working with him, you have to be there, too.”
McGrane and Freling were on the road at the time Hamil was recording tracks for “Thanks.” The night before the recording date, the two had a gig in Oklahoma City. So they arose before 4 a.m. to make their 9 a.m. studio appointment.
“That’s how much we wanted to be a part of this,” she said.
In the studio, though, Hamil wasn’t quite hearing what he wanted, so tweaks and alterations were administered.
“He’s very serious about his music and has some specific ideas in mind and we hadn’t quite captured what he wanted,” McGrane said, “so we did some last minute re-arranging. It all worked out great.”
Hamil said one of the many things he’s proud of is how the album showcases so many Kansas City singers and musicians, including Chad Meise, who recorded the album (with help from David Gaume and Paul Malinowski) but plays guitar throughout.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize what a good guitar player he is,” Hamil said of Meise.
He played a big part in the production of “Breathe.” It includes every vocalist singing in a “We Are the World” style. Each part was tracked separately, recorded after the singers had recorded their other contributions to the album.
“I’d sing (the chorus) to them and ask them to sing it in a voice they’d created for the record,” he said.
The chorus lasts nearly 90 seconds, and Hamil and Meise spent a couple of hours sculpting the track so each voice is discrete.
“I remember the ‘We Are the World’ video when they’d go to different voices,” Hamil said. “That’s what I wanted. So each voice peaks and if you know a voice, you’ll recognize it: ‘That’s David (Regnier), that’s Folkicide.’”
The album ends with a reprise of “Breathe” — its chorus only, a barrage of voices that render something as creepy as it is pretty. The lyrics lament a “world of dirt” and “world of hurt,” but within the gloom there is hope and creativity, which is what inspires Hamil.
“It’s horribly dark, but it’s also horribly light,” he said. “And that’s kind of who we are. I mean, I’m an optimist. I’d be the last guy standing on Earth and I’d be ready to create and do something interesting. That’s the beauty of art, the special thing we all have.”
Johnny Hamil and many of the more than three dozen musicians involved in the “GaV7d” project will perform music from “Thanks for Everything,” which will be celebrating its release starting at 7 p.m. Sunday at the RecordBar, 1020 Westport Road. Admission is $7. It’s an 18-and-older show.