Jacco Gardner is a self-proclaimed dreamer. And not the inspirational-quote-on-a-bumper-sticker type, either. The 27-year-old Dutch singer/songwriter is much more of the literal kind.
Not afraid to indulge the strange mélange of imagery and ideas in his subconscious mind, Gardner is steadily parlaying it into a music career.
His debut, 2013's Cabinet of Curiosities, was the culmination of a dedicated collection of ideas, melodies and fragments over an eight-year span. With nods to Syd Barrett, Donovan and Arthur Lee as spiritual guides, the album's baroque-leaning psych-pop created an impressively cohesive dream state, despite the varied source material.
It's followed by Hypnophobia, released in May via Polyvinyl, an album that both continues and expands Cabinet's specific world, but one that only took a year to make.
"I'd never really written so much new work in such a small amount of time," Gardner told CityBeat, while driving between tour dates in Boston and Montreal. "I really had to find the sweet spots of being inspired, or force myself to experiment. The first album was really an accumulation of old work. The new album is a little more in the moment, and perhaps a little more personal, because it's reflective of things that are happening now. And it was actually more of a challenge."
He was up for it. Gardner not only plays every one of the instruments (except drums) on both albums, he also handled all of the production duties at his own studio north of Amsterdam.
Jacco Gardner plays The Casbah on July 1
"The Shadow Shoppe" resides in Zwaag, a village that's part of the city Hoorn, and boasts fewer than 5,000 residents. The studio not only houses the instrument collector's impressive arsenal, it allows the self-sufficient artist to easily escape into nature and recalibrate his inspirations when needed.
"It's been interesting," says Gardner. "With Hypnophobia, I really started looking into where my ideas come from. I wanted to try and find the essence of it. And it became a bit like a personal research project. It was a time where I rediscovered a lot about myself. I think it's a lot harder to discover those things if you involve a lot of people."
Gardner also continues to refine the way he makes music. Hypnophobia was born by sampling the sounds of the many instruments he owns onto a "little MIDI keyboard," and then using the downtime during his rigorous touring schedule to experiment with them.
And that, in turn, helped to change Gardner's live show.
"When the first album was released," he says, "I hadn't thought about the live situation at all. It was a process that really changed along the way. The people on stage have changed. The instruments I play on stage have changed. And thankfully with this new album, it seems I've found the right set-up. It was even written a little differently with the live situation in mind. Everything is just a bit more compatible."
What hasn't changed is Gardner's dualistic love of both vintage equipment and modern technology. He may record snippets on his smartphone and manipulate samples to get ideas, but he still lugs around an impressive array of acquired instrumentation.
Among the things he's picked up while on tour that found their way onto the new album: An upright piano acquired from a church, a Wurlitzer purchased in Glasgow, a vintage Harmony acoustic guitar, and the Optigan—a keyboard made by Mattel in the '70s that uses pre-recorded discs to make sound.
"Every song demands that I work out a little puzzle," says Gardner. "It's easy to change and improve the ideas that you demo to yourself. And then I bring those ideas to the studio and build on them with real instruments. It's a very visual and modern way to work. I like the idea of blending all of those elements, and I like changing my approach. It's a very hand-in-hand process."
Currently at the front end of a Hypnophobia tour that runs through the end of the year, the singer, producer and multi-instrumentalist surprisingly has no real plans for what's coming next.
And while he'll undoubtedly use his recent sample-refine-repeat process during the long stretch of performances ahead, Gardner's not earmarking it for anything in particular.
"I don't have anything planned," he says. "But I do like the number three. I think that's a good number of albums to have. And if I did have fun making a third, I might even feel like making a fourth. But who knows? I'm just going to continue to put myself in new zones with the hope that new music will come out of it."