Back in the 90s, there was a unique phenomenon happening in the realm of new age and contemporary instrumental music. As they approached a mellowing middle age, prominent rockers from legendary bands found success releasing albums that showcased a gentler – and more importantly, deeper – side of their artistry on their chosen instruments. Since launching his independent solo career in 2004 with Beg Borrow Steal, Chris Haugen has followed impactfully in these graceful footsteps.
Though the Bay Area acoustic slide guitarist was never in the limelight the way Craig Chaquico, Jon Anderson, Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain have been, his rock and roll bona fides include work or collaborations over the years with the likes of JJ Cale, Derek Trucks, Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir, Melvin Seals of the Jerry Garcia Band, producer Ted Templeman and cultural icons Ken Kesey and Sean Penn. Haugen recorded a random solo guitar demo in a yoga setting and sent it to top New Age label Real Music, which loved it and later licensed his critically acclaimed 2015 release Falling Water, Shimmering Strings.
Five years on, his gorgeous and relaxing yet sonically inventive myndstream debut First Light puts those shimmering strings in the service of soulful melodies, lighthearted, inviting rhythms and lush, ambient landscapes that offer key reminders that inner peace is just a few notes away – even during a challenging time of global anxiety. Though the new seven track collection has less specific Eastern-tinged yoga music references, it would still fit in perfectly as a soundtrack in that core environment. Chris says, “This album is a deep meditation steeped in hope and vision, with the intent of bringing a sense of calm and connection to listeners.”
With this calming though often percussively dynamic work, Haugen joins many of his genre compadres in releasing recordings in the cauldron of 2020 that they could have scarcely imagined when recording these before we even heard of COVID-19. That doesn’t make them prophets. It simply means their music, always a source of enlightenment and peace in the midst of trials, is more necessary than ever as a way through to, yes, First Light. The guitarist says, “This album is a deep meditation steeped in hope and vision.”
From the lilting, deeply immersive opening title track, driven by a haunting motif and a unique darkness and light string duality, through the lightly rhythmic, ambience and sunlight filled “Path of Light,” he creates a journey that offers not only sweet respite from the darkness (the transcendently atmospheric “Peaceful Dream”) but also the boldness and courage to embark on a new way forward (the meditative, contemplative “Wanderlust”) when it may seem all hope is lost. Serving as a kindly understanding musical spirit guide, Haugen invites us to venture “Beyond” these temporary troubling moments with flowing, purposefully rolling movement.
If you know the geologic term “Fjord” – a long narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs, created by a glacier – you’ll understand this brief but impactful song (which eases from a stark opening through a lively ambling groove) as an open door to confronting our deepest fears (i.e. falling into an abyss) and choosing to cross with resolve and ultimately, joy.
Like all great socially conscious artists, Haugen wrote and recorded First Light from a very personal place that can now resonate universally. It took a long time to make because he was serving as a caretaker for a loved one for almost two years – and then the label was sold and there was a period of reorientation. At times, it was difficult to connect the dots. Then toward the end of the recording, he was able to see the through line. The album now speaks to him (and by extension, us) as a deep meditation through the ups and downs of life; even though it is sometimes choppy going, it all makes sense.
The triumphant cover art of his silhouette before the image of sun on the ocean is a direct reference to surfing, one of the great passions of his life. But unlike the Beach Boys whose references are very direct, Haugen realized its metaphorical value. The song “First Light” is that time in the early morning when you wait for enough light to paddle out into the surf. Now with all the turbulence and unrest in the world, the notion of dark turning into light has taken on a deeper meaning. When Haugen stays connected to the ocean, his language of music is always more fluent. His invitation to join us there at first light – which includes a softly caressing invitation to experience the “Waves” as he does – couldn’t have come at a better time.
“I often get feedback that my music has helped people through chaotic times,” he says. “I have had several people tell me they played my music while giving birth, or in other meaningful life moments and transitions. That means the world to me, and I think, ultimately, that is what all good music does - it brings us together and helps us to identify with higher energy and connection. If I can contribute to that in my own way, whatever that is, to put it simply, I am honored.”
Listen to First Light here: https://open.spotify.com/album/4tylyHYKl4A84e3Jco8gnI