Producer and composer John Mark Lapham, who was a member of mid-'00s band The Earlies, now records eerie, atmospheric music as Old Fire and just released his second album under the name, Voids. “I was feeling the brunt of a relationship ending, and the emptiness it left behind,” says Lapham of the origins of this album. “Over the course of compiling the album, I lost both my parents, and the pandemic started. These recordings were born out of that loss, and that isolation. The title Voids was a natural fit.”

The album features lead vocal turns from Bill Callahan, Julian Holter, and Loma's Emily Cross and Adam Torres, as well as instrumental contributions from Thomas Bartlett (Doveman), Thor HarrisJoseph Shabason (Destroyer, Fresh Pepper), Semay Wu, and more. You can stream the whole thing below.

We talked to Lapham about Voids, the twists and turns it took, in some cases 10 years in the making. He breaks down every track on the album for us. Read that below.

old fire - voids


1. All Gone prelude
All Gone came together towards the end of the Voids sessions. As with so many of the tracks I put together for Old Fire, it came to be because I had such a large surplus of material recorded for the track that follows it, "Blue Star," and the track after that, "When I Was In My Prime." I had to start taking away elements from those tracks to give them room to breathe, and quickly realized that there was something there that could make it worthy of its own place on the album. I also wanted there to be a collage of sounds from other songs on the album to serve as a sort of entrance into Voids. So many of these tracks share the same DNA, be it vocal noises, steel guitar drones, or woodwinds, that I really see the whole album as one long piece of music divided up into 12 sections. "All Gone" serves as a sort of harbinger for everything that is to come, utilizing vocals loops from Emily Cross, synth tones from "When I Was In My Prime," and other noises that are peppered through the album.

2. Blue Star (ft Emily Cross)
Blue Star started life as a short instrumental, initially quite dark and menacing. I created a skeletal version with sampled drums, bass and synth drones then sent it to Christian Madden (my fellow bandmate from The Earlies). He played a really dirty organ riff that reminded me of ‘60s instrumental bands such as The Ventures and The Vaqueros. It seemed like it was always going to be an instrumental until I had Alex Hutchins, one of the collaborators that I work with on Old Fire, record some spaghetti western-style guitar riffs on it. It suddenly started reminding me of Nancy Sinatra, and it was then that I started looking for a female vocalist to sing on it. I spent a solid couple of years searching, reaching out to a few different singers but nothing developed. Randomly one day I heard a song by the band, Loma, and I literally stopped what I was doing as soon as the vocals began. It was the exact voice I was imagining for "Blue Star." I did some research and discovered the singer’s name was Emily Cross. I reached out to her and to my surprise she wrote back soon after and said she was up for listening to a demo. From there it came together quite quickly. We sent lyric ideas back and forth until we came up with something that we were both happy with. The song is about people who are close but hurt each other so badly, so brutally, that they are reduced to something resembling a wounded animal.

3. When I Was In My Prime (ft Bill Callahan)
I found a Nina Simone record at a vinyl sack sale at Abilene’s only used record store, The Record Guys. It was a compilation that contained her version of "When I Was In My Prime." The original was by Pentangle. Her version was so haunting and delicate, I wanted to try and capture the same atmosphere while trying a different approach. Initially I had imagined a woman’s voice, and approached a few vocalists, including Cosey Fanni Tutti. She replied with a kind message but nothing developed between us. I kept working on the backing and over time, the music shifted somewhat and I began to hear an older man’s voice, one that was weathered and weary. I first tried getting Robert Wyatt on board to sing the song. Through a few emails to people I knew in the industry I got his home address and wrote him a letter. (There was never a response so unsure if he got it…) After some time, I asked my friend, Thor Harris, if he knew of any singers that fit the bill and he mentioned that he had just been working with Bill Callahan and that his voice would be perfect. He was totally right.

I ended up recording a very sparse, traditional demo with Bill with just his voice and acoustic guitar. I tried building onto this arrangement but began to feel it needed something a little less bright and more rugged, like it was forged in the earth. Thor had an instrument he made himself that he refers to as his “Hurty Gurty” and played some drones from it under Bill’s voice. Once I heard that, the rest of the arrangement seemed to be obvious to me. I got with Alex Hutchins and he played some beautiful guitar over it, along with double bass by Chris Simpson and drums by Robb Kidd and Joe Ryan.

4. Corpus (ft Bill Callahan)
I’ve had fragments of this track kicking around for over a decade, dating back to sessions for recording material for my 4AD project, The Late Cord. It started off with some swampy, dirty guitar loops and tribal drums. Years later, after Old Fire sessions commenced, I revisited those original ideas and started adding softer elements to it, brush drums, and more gentle atmospheric textures. Eventually I got Christian Madden in to add some Rhodes, and Alex Hutchins on guitar. This is when it started to show where it would eventually end up, and gave some indication of what vocal would be right for it. I reached out to Bill after we worked on "Prime" and he quickly came up with a set of lyrics he wrote over his acoustic guitar. His composition was quite light and fragile. When I took his vocals and added them into this arrangement I had been building, they became something a little more darker and mysterious.

The final piece of the puzzle was having my trusted cello player and arranger, Semay Wu, come in and add her haunting strings. It took over ten years to arrive at this version and it went through many incarnations.

5. Love Is Only Dreaming
This track was born from a lyric from Donovan’s album, A Gift From a Flower to a Garden. It began from some samples I took from the track that follows it, Dreamless. Building it up it struck me that this would make a nice introduction to that track. This song also serves as a gateway from the first quarter of the album into the next section, it felt like a good jumping off point to lead into "Dreamless."

6. Dreamless (ft Adam Torres)
Dreamless came together faster than any other track on this album, and is the shortest, most concise composition I’ve put together for Old Fire. It sprung to life as I processed some guitar loops recorded by my guitarist, Alex Hutchins. I started taking fragments of what he sent me for other tracks and found that they were leading somewhere entirely new. I sent him some references for additional guitar to go on top of this first arrangement, specifically a song by The Motels called "Total Control." It was something that I had been listening to around this time and knew I could transpose some ideas from it over to this new composition. After a couple of afternoons of piecing various snippets of Alex’s material together, it started to sound like a good foundation for a new track. I got together with Christian and worked out a chorus, adding Rhodes, harpsichord, mellotron flutes and some bass synth. At this point it felt time to find the vocalist. As I listened to this instrumental backing, I kept hearing Peter Gabriel’s voice in my head. I wanted to find someone who had that emotional resonance in their voice, someone who could really make you feel the words. I spoke with Thor and he suggested that I reach out to Adam Torres. Adam had worked with Thor and Bill in the past so it seemed like perfect symmetry that he’d be involved. I was a big fan of his Pearls to Swine album and knew what he could do. Thankfully he jumped on board right away and came up with some beautiful lyrics.

The initial inspiration came from this place of isolation that I had been feeling living alone during the pandemic, a feeling of existing without a source of love in your life.

7. Don’t You Go (ft Bill Callahan)
Covering John Martyn’s track was first suggested by [former 4AD head and This Mortal Coil founder) Ivo Watts-Russell. Sometime around 2010 he made me a compilation CD of his favorite John Martyn tracks and that’s when I first became a fan. Years later I had been having conversations with our mutual friend and composer, Stefano Guzzetti, about working together on some ideas and Ivo thought "Don’t You Go" would be a good track for us to take on. Originally we had talked with Caroline Crawley (from the band Shelleyan Orphan) about singing it and we were all set to make it happen until her untimely death in 2016. A couple of years later I picked up this idea again and decided to take it in a different direction with Bill Callahan singing. I asked Thomas Bartlett if he would come up with a piano arrangement and several days later he sent back something so beautiful and haunting, it was perfect for what I was going for. I recorded a few tracks for it, and then finished it off with some synth parts by Old Fire regular contributor Robin Allender. I very much have Ivo to thank for bringing John Martyn and this song to me.

8. Window Without a World (ft Julia Holter)
This track came about in a very unexpected and seemingly random way. I had sampled a vocal of Julia Holter’s and had it sitting around on my computer for quite some time. As I was working on "Don’t You Go," I started hearing her voice over the top. I started singing her song over our John Martyn cover while I was in the shower (where most of my best ideas happen). I tried laying the vocal over some guitar for Don’t You Go and they fit perfectly. I rearranged things and "Window" was born. This was particularly exciting to me as I had been trying to speak with Julia about us doing a collaboration for this album, so this was the perfect way to have her voice be a part of it. This track features Robin Allender on guitar, Christian Madden on Rhodes, Joe Ryan on drums, Audrey Harrer on harp, Joseph Shabason on sax, xylophone by Thor Harris and a special vocoder choir at the end by my good friend and collaborator, David Stith.

9. Voids 1: Uninvited
Uninvited was the first song to come together for this album and in many ways served as a blueprint for the rest of the sessions. I had an abundance of steel guitar tracks from my friend Bob Hoffnar that he recorded for a remix project that I was working on at the time. I took some loops out of those recordings and started layering them. I then reached out to Joseph Shabason (who as fate would have it would become my labelmate on Western Vinyl some years later) to improvise some saxophone on top of these loops. I then worked with Thor Harris on some xylophone and Wayne Robert Thomas for some ambient guitar textures. I had such a surplus of material that I started resampling, resequencing and adding more elements to it all until it turned it into a suite for the last half of the album. The remix that those steel guitar recordings originated from never got released, but I’m thankful that I took the time to work on it as so much of this album sprang from those sessions.

10. Voids 2: Memory
This was the first limb to grow from "Uninvited." I wanted to highlight Wayne Robert Thomas’ guitar that he recorded for "Uninvited," and use more steel guitar from Bob Hoffnar. I used those two elements as the foundation and added some synth and mellotron for the end. It’s basically a deconstruction and re-imagining of "Uninvited," like looking at it from a different angle.

11. Voids 3: Father as a Child
I came up with this title after finding a note written by my dad after he died. It was written to his dad when he was a kid. He was pleading for him to not cut down his favorite tree. His voice was so sweet, naive and innocent, a side of my dad I had never seen prior to that. It reminded me how he was so much more than his role of father, that he had lived different lives before that, and how all of us are more than the box we put each other in.

12. Voids 4: Circles
I purposely wanted the end of the album to serve as a release, an emergence from the twists and turns that came before it. I took some sounds from other passages of the Voids suite and created new loops, adding woodwinds and synth. I got in to the studio with Robb Kidd, a drummer whom I’d worked with on my other recording project, MIEN, and had him lay down some free jazz percussion. I spent a lot of time refining this one, creating layers and building it up until it felt like it was going to explode. It’s a culmination of everything that preceded it, so it needed to sound as if it could burst at any moment. It’s an escape from any sense of despair or death that came before it, like a soul climbing out of its body.

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