For the uninitiated listener, California’s nine songs might take some getting used to. The album’s first track, “California Gold,” opens with sparse, folky instrumentation—jaw harp twang and plinky banjo chords—soon punctuated by a fuzzed-out, pitch- and time-corrected voice. Shouts of “There’s a lot of activity here!” and “This is gonna be a big deal!” pop in and out, panned left and right in no discernible pattern. The track, while not unpleasant, sounds like a study in low-effort entropy.
Yet those voice samples have their own peculiar backstory, revealing how much more is going on in the song and in the collaborative album it belongs to. The distorted, enthusiastic declarations that “this is gonna be huge!” are those of Huell Howser, the television personality whose long-running KCET show California’s Gold explored the history, nature, and culture of the state. “There’s something about his show that feels very California,” says Jonathan Grant, the Los Angeles–based TV writer and comedian who wrote the song. “He named the show California’s Gold because California, we have that history of the gold rush, but…the real California gold is the people of California, the sunshine and the atmosphere.”
California is a product of the Our Fifty States Project, a 17-year effort to write and record an album for each of America’s states. In 2003, then–relatively unknown alternative-folk songwriter Sufjan Stevens released the album Michigan, a tribute to his native state, and promised to write an album for each of the other 49. But after a critically acclaimed follow-up for Illinois two years later, he abandoned the project. A few years after that, Stevens admitted that his ambitious scheme had been a PR stunt.
Yet the project was finally completed in late May, and not by Stevens. Instead, the near-Sisyphean task was accomplished by hundreds of volunteers, many of them comedians and artists from Los Angeles’s Upright Citizens Brigade and Pack Theater, and helmed by Joey Clift, an L.A. comedian and TV writer. Clift, who is not himself a fan of Stevens’s work (he tells me that it’s simply not his thing), had been kicking around the idea of finishing Stevens’s project as a comedy bit for several years when COVID-19 and California’s stay-at-home order effectively shut down the state. After the TV show he was working on stopped production because of the pandemic, Clift recalls, something occurred to him as he was driving home: “Not only am I out of work, but all of a sudden all of my friends who are creatives, writers, musicians, etcetera are now also out of work…so we have all these creative people that just have nothing but free time.”
He put out a call for song contributors on social media and within 24 hours had received about 200 responses. TV writers, comedians, actors, a Southern California women’s professional wrestling champion, and several professional musicians, including Stelth Ulvang of the Lumineers, contributed songs. Over the course of two months, working 40-plus-hour weeks, Clift finished what Stevens had started: an album for each state—for superlatively tiny Rhode Island, a double album—plus four extra records for Puerto Rico, other U.S. territories, Washington, D.C., and the moon. (Asthmatic Kitty Records, Stevens’s label, said that the artist was unavailable for comment.)
Several of California’s tracks, for all their irreverence, are personally felt explorations of the state’s places and people. Jewell Karinen, an actor and social media strategist, contributed the song “Proctor Valley Road,” an homage to the street in Chula Vista where she was raised. “This came from the heart,” says Karinen. “It was a tribute to the place I grew up and a lot of my favorite memories of growing up there.” The punkish ukulele-and-voice performance doesn’t take itself too seriously and brims with self-knowing adolescent angst: “Not afraid of trouble now / Dancing in the roundabout / Bright headlights on Proctor Valley Road,” Karinen sings. This inclination to memorialize California with a wink and a smirk rather than a paean undergirds the 24-minute album.
“The project is for everybody that was expecting an album to honor the place that they’re from that didn’t get it,” says Clift, referring to the mission (if one can call it that) of Our Fifty States. “What I love about this project is that you’re getting nonprofessional musicians, in a lot of cases, commenting on themselves, so it’s the difference between a biography and an autobiography.”
California is a deconstruction as much as a celebration. “Kirsten Dunst is at a party at my house / I saw Danzig dressed as Mickey Mouse,” raps L.A. actor Daniel Weiss on the ’90s-inflected track “Dropping Names Like Bombs.” Most of the names dropped in the song are, of course, celebrities the Calabasas native has seen in person.
It’s hard to pin down a genre for California, which lies somewhere between a pastiche and a mélange of California’s musical and cultural history. Nadia Osman, who wrote “The Gargantuan Life of Griffith J. Griffith,” suggests it could be described as “What if Weird Al hired a bunch of other musicians and they all collaborated to dunk on one guy?” Sophia Rafiqi, the sole non-Californian who worked on the album—she contributed the self-explanatorily titled “California (Is Too Long) ((upanddownwise))”—tells me, “I think it would have to be American folk, mostly because a bunch of average joe, for lack of a better term, American people wrote all of the songs.”
WHAT THE FOLK
In 1954, the International Folk Music Council identified three elements of the genre: “continuity, which links the present with the past,” “variation, which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or the group,” and “selection by the community, which determines the form in which folk music survives.” California certainly has its own special continuity with the past: it is both the culmination of a previously attempted artistic project and a collection of songs deeply indebted to California’s history. Likewise, the album contains plenty of individual creative variation, much of it played to comic effect. And while it remains to be seen how, or whether, the album will be selected “by the community,” the project is immortalized digitally on Soundcloud.
Folk can be “sort of a vague term,” says Jeff Place, curator and senior archivist for the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at the Smithsonian and a producer for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Place cautions that we don’t yet know whether these eclectic songs have staying power. “The trick is if there’s maybe one in there that somehow catches on and is remembered 100 years from now and the author is forgotten,” he says.
But, Place adds, the question of assigning folk as a term is “where you get bogged down.” Folk music is, at its heart, “just community-based music, and community-based music can be any type of community.” He recalls being told by Pete Seeger in the mid-’90s that folk music would one day encompass rap and hip-hop. “What happens if you have a community which is based on computers?” asks Place. “If you have three singer-songwriters living in different parts of the world all working together and creating something, how does that fit in these definitions? It completely changes.”
California may be fairly light on pickin’ and grinnin’, but it is a self-confident exploration of a place and a community, and a communal continuation of a once-solo project, created by artists working together while stuck in their respective bedrooms. Whether it winds up on any critics’ year-end lists is beside the point.
“Any thought that this project has become more art than comedy is a delightful surprise,” Clift says, laughing. “An unintended but delightful surprise.”
The album doesn’t exist to offer a sublime artistic measure of the state; that’s been done before and better. Rather, it’s a collective exploration of what it may mean to be Californian, an exploration undertaken in the midst of a world-historical event by a bunch of sincere goofballs with tongues placed firmly in cheek.
Sam Schuman is Alta’s editorial intern. He is a student at Oberlin College (’21), where he studies history, English, and French and edits Wilder Voice, a literary magazine.