“These first two days have been pretty full-on,” Alec Ounsworth says. Wrapped in a winter coat, he peers out of the window in the second-floor green room at Philadelphia’s Johnny Brenda’s. At the busy intersection of Frankford and Girard in Fishtown, groups of people meander on the corner, hop in cars, hurriedly cross the street. Ounsworth has been to this venue before. The words escape him in describing the only city he has ever called home; there’s nothing else to compare it to. On the hoodie underneath his jacket is a sticker of a monster-type creature with its arms outspread, a gift from one of his young daughters.
It’s just 45 minutes before Ounsworth is set to take the stage here for the second consecutive night, the first two dates of a tour celebrating the latest album for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the musical project he’s been the mastermind and primary creative force of since 2005. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have just a week prior released their fifth album The Tourist, an astoundingly musically self-assured collection given the lyrics’ uneasy messages and delivery. In the green room, Ounsworth is, after all these years, still anxious before hitting the stage.
“If I didn’t have nerves before, even if I was the most resigned,” he says, trailing off. “If I found this easy, I think this would be a little more… It’s more like the nature of running around and getting ready, it’s not easy.”
At 10pm, the lights in the venue dim and Ounsworth steps on stage in a navy blue pinstripe suit, bought secondhand at a vintage shop in San Francisco and a brown cap purchased in Japan—“when I got it I thought it looked like Elmer Fudd, but I’ve grown to quite appreciate it”—any remaining nervousness is masked by the few beats of drum that trigger “Better Off,” a cut from The Tourist that begins the set. Trickles of guitar and synth glimmer throughout the entire song, but it’s Ounsworth’s voice that is the wave that builds and crests, opening the room to both his and the album’s emotional conclusions.
The Tourist, written and produced by Ounsworth and mixed by Dave Fridmann, is jittery and tense with bursts of sonic release. Verses are like pursed lips, desperate to reveal a secret, while choruses hurtle the truth into the air, each note a molecule that fills the emptiness, the result of an exercise in loaded lyricism within constrained time. Rhythmically, The Tourist skits and skirts while decorated in synths and harmonica. From its opening track, “The Pilot,” the album reveals a play on control, the push and pull of being in the driver’s seat: “Can I get up to be the tourist? Or am I the pilot?”
“There are certain things that you can do to control a certain situation, but you have to resign yourself or accept the fact that you have no control over things certain people do,” Ounsworth says. “If you imagined that you could control every given situation, you’d have to put a lot of faith in other people that you have around you, and that’s not easy. When you speak to question that faith, it’s pretty hard.”
When important relationships in his life were strained, Ounsworth turned to his lyrics to unpack his emotions. “You see, it’s no good trying to be someone you’re not,” he wryly declares on “Unfolding Above Celibate Moon (Los Angeles Nursery Rhyme).” Veiled with darkly poetic allusions to ambulances, medicine, and visiting hours, there is redemption in being in flux, much like life as a tourist.
But for all The Tourist achieves both personally and professionally, Ounsworth still revels in the fact that he’s shielded himself from the trappings of fame which usually accompany so much commercial and critical success. His entire career has been marked by a general disinterest in the internet and his band’s coverage within that world.
“I wish I were able to learn a bit more about myself from it,” he says. “It was nothing that I didn’t already know; it was nitpicky things. I feel like I’ve already been through self-critique which is far worse than anything anybody else can do.”
At this point in Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s history, fan support, rather than headlines, is paramount. A quick scan of the crowd at the two performances shows there are many whose faith in this band never wavered. What began as a group that built momentum at the same time as did the blogs who covered it, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah maintained a following by largely ignoring music’s fast fashion mindset that emerged over the last decade. Living room tours showed Ounsworth’s dedication to longtime listeners; the 10th anniversary of the band’s debut was marked by the album being played live in full.
At the first synth hums of “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” to the guitar strums of “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood”—both from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s 2005 self-titled debut—fans leap and bound with joy, harnessing the nostalgia of their younger selves, still able to revel in the joy of letting go to the songs that soundtracked moments of importance, or, better yet, unimportance.
That reaction isn’t lost on Ounsworth—he grins and chuckles recalling the exuberance from the night prior—but the weight of that record in regards to his entire repertoire is as meaningful as a first impression, a first look. That primary offering is the hook and what follows determines who hangs on for the long haul.
So despite the onslaught of content, obsessive categorization, and need for constant visibility in today’s oversaturated digital marketplace, the desire to create music that rises above it remains. Ounsworth seldom reads anything written about him and spends his free time with his daughters, watching soccer (he’s an FC Barcelona fan) and constantly moving toward what’s next—musically, that is.
“I have a good handle on what I want. It depends on the album,” he says. “Out of life? That part, I don’t know. Albums, I have a better understanding.”