Noah Plays his Guitar, Photo Credit: Sammy Watts, @watts.photo

Sometimes all an artist needs is a feeling. Then soon enough, an album is on its way. For Chicago guitarist Noah Toritto, it was an itch, a gnawing anxiety, a fierce desire to create. As he watched his creative outlets – concerts, band practice, studio sessions – close their doors during the pandemic, he heard his guitar call out for composition. Roughly a year later, the pandemic rages on, yet Toritto’s album I Know Fish Can’t Really Hurt Me sits polished and perfect, its jazzy melodies ready to drop on March 5th. However, with no studio time and strict social distancing, one has to wonder, how? 

I was lucky to sit down with Noah, as well as the album’s violinist Seamus Masterson and bassist Jared May to talk about how they put together a project during the pandemic. I asked the three Chicago musicians about how they all came together; what inspired their unique, blues-rock-jazz fusion; and what the message of this loose, laid back album was. Each musician provided a new perspective on the pains of performative art, the lessons they have learned about their love for music, and the adaptations that kept them sane in the age of quarantine. But mostly, they sat back, laughed, and shared stories of a sound like no other. 

Noah Toritto (left) and Seamus Masterson (right) during a Case performance. Photo Credit: Mike Heinz, @fot0boy

Coming Together to Overcome the Circumstances

It all starts in a dilapidated old art gallery. Surrounded by crumbling walls and a bowing floor, Noah Toritto, a gruff, grizzly-looking 20-year-old, sat rehearsing for his first-ever solo guitar gig. This was March 6, 2020, right before any soul knew what would soon strike the world. Toritto was strumming his Gibson ES-139 when all of a sudden he had an idea:“Dude, get out your phone and record this,” Noah urged his nearby friend. He played a simple, yet soothing, four chord progression that would eventually turn into the album’s opener, “Beginning of the End.” 

Then came the lockdown. The pandemic restricted Toritto from getting rehearsal time with his friends, fellow members of the indie-rock band Case. Case was started by high-schoolers Cale Zepernick and Seamus Masterson, who eventually added Charlie O’Neill, Jabriel Martin, and Noah Toritto to their roster. It champions a light-hearted Chicago swing, crafted mainly by a unique synthesis between lead guitar, trumpet, and violin. The Case name, in fact, still holds power over progressive music fans in the windy city thanks to their breakout hit, “Days on a Wire.” 

In this sudden absence of productivity, Toritto reached out to Seamus Masterson, a wiry 21-year-old violinist, to talk about “his ridiculous fear that he was losing his musicianship.” After an insightful discussion on this irritating anxiety, Noah decided it was time, and the stress “just went away as [he] began to write.”

Toritto and Masterson, a Georgetown University Junior, formed a close bond in Case while collaborating for many hours on the chemistry between their two instruments. Seamus also happened to be “an amazing string player,” in the words of Toritto. “So when I was originally writing the project, it was a no-brainer that I was gonna have [Seamus} play,” Noah praised. Though the decision to recruit Masterson was easy, finding bass was a different adventure.

Jared May, the 21-year-old bassist whose headset held back a neat, jet-black man bun, joined in a more circumstantial fashion. May attended Lane Tech High School with Noah, and the two met in a sophomore year Music Theory class. Despite their talent, they remained very ‘non-musical’ friends for most of their relationship. “Jared and I never even discussed the prospect of making music together until the past year or so,” said Toritto, “but something just lined up, and I asked, ‘I need some bass, are you interested in doing it?’”

With a cemented core, Toritto, Masterson, and May were ready to rock and roll. They would eventually be joined by drummer Charlie O’Neill, whose masterful percussion usurped the original MIDI-made drums, and saxophonist Ben Laughlin, the tenor solo aficionado. The group still had a long way to go and many challenges to face, but, in time, their improvisation, trust, and patience in production proved their talent was something special. 

Seamus plays his violin. Photo Credit: Grace Coudal

Trusting the Process

I Know Fish Can’t Really Hurt Me started as a four song EP, destined to be done by June 15th, 2020: Toritto’s 20th birthday. Then it became six songs, then seven, before finally settling on an even eight. Throughout the whole process, however, the musicians never once played together live. In true quarantine fashion, strings of Zoom calls, emails, and virtual dialogues fueled the creation of this album. The unique circumstances meant these separated artists bridged both physical distance and mental styles to create one, collaborative project. “It was both so much of an individual endeavor and also a reactionary, ‘fitting-in,’ effort…I had to be able to bring myself into the role but also be able to react to whatever was written,” May described.

It is truly incredible how these musicians managed to create such cohesive sound across such great distance. Toritto, an Indiana University student, would start with his written composition and send it to each of the artists. They would add their instrument and return it to Noah, who would insert it into the mix and evaluate how it fit with the larger tune. Masterson especially loved this back-and-forth: using his creative license to improvise and revise his sound until it simply stuck. The string player in fact trained in the Suzuki method, a technique in which musicians learn by ear instead of notes and sheets. “It was like creative freedom,” said Seamus, “I had the potential to send Noah anything. It could be something I do in one minute, or I could sit down and build my writing skills, trying to come up with harmonies and get better.”

One might think it odd, then, that Noah Toritto is the main name on the project. If each artist was writing on their own, whose album was it? Well, Noah still did most of the composition, and–importantly–he mixed it all together. Placed in the Toritto Family living room is a master computer on which Noah would work for hours, matching and tweaking each track, having the final say on what stayed. Some fit, some fell short, but he never failed to experiment with each separate sound. “I couldn’t see a downside of allowing all those things to coexist together on this album. It makes a more diverse project. It makes it sound like a true group of musicians who are collaborating together to make this one experience,” said Toritto. 

The location of this computer also facilitated experimentation. Having autonomy over their time and space boosted the natural progression and development of the project. As Masterson pointed out, “The fact that Noah had access to the mix throughout the entire process made it easier to say, ‘oh throw it in, let me just see how it sounds.’ It’s different when you’re in a studio and everything you do is timed. You really have to think hard about what you play.” 

As each track transitioned from one artist to the next, the album began to solidify. As mentioned earlier, “Beginning of the End” came first, a smooth introduction on which Noah shows off an unstoppable guitar solo. Next came “Girl from the River,” a jazzy, bossa nova jam driven by O’Neill’s poignant percussion and May’s blissful bass. Both May and Toritto also noted this song as their favorite to play for its gentle groove. They followed with “The Breaks,” a light rock ramble that rolls along with impressive synchrony and features a spine-chilling saxophone solo by Ben Laughlin. 

Eventually they created “Jackson feat. Kasia Baranek,” where choral, cinematic, and symphonic features seem to meet; “I Know Fish Can’t Really Hurt Me,” the swirling, narcotic namesake of the album; and “Hustle Bustle feat. Clara Mikhail,” a toast to classic jazz tradition. As the album took shape, the artists’ mindset was altered, “I think it became a lot more optimistic as the writing process continued,” said Toritto, “corresponding with these guys every day, hopping on zoom calls, it just felt good to be working on something.”

The names of the final two songs, “Overwhelmed” and “The End,” ironically sound the least optimistic. However, their sonic qualities contradict their titles. “Overwhelmed feat. Natalie Simon” hides a certain confidence in its piano, and it was in fact the last song the group wrote. By the time they reached this point, May recognized how, “The confidence was at an all-time high. We knew that whatever we made was gonna be a fun song…We kind of went with the momentum.”

“The End,” the final song on the album, is pocked with violin plucks and closes the project with a bittersweet fade into silence. It is a cinematic reflection of the first song, “Beginning of the End,” and marks the completion of a circular process, both of the artists and the audience. Hinted at by the title of the intro, you knew this moment was coming the second you pressed play, yet its resolution leaves you wanting more. I believe this represents the itch inside Noah Toritto, the calling of the creative process. Though it is satisfied for now, with an album on its way, it never truly stops. The next endeavor is always awaiting, and the truist of artists cannot turn it down. In the words of the musician himself, “I’m gonna work really hard to not have that ‘stop’ happen again moving forward. Well, we’ll see what life throws at me.” 

 

Noah Toritto - Photo #2
Photo Credit: Sammy Watts, @watts.photo

The Future Lies Ahead

When asked, Noah struggled to identify a genre for this project. It may technically be jazz fusion, though at times it sounds like classic jazz, and some songs I would even classify as rock and roll. It’s hard to put a label on this album, yet for some reason it has a powerful familiarity. The music’s relatability reflects the relatability of the anxiousness that led Noah to create last March. “It is a very unique album but I think everyone will find something that makes them feel at home,” Toritto said. 

I Know Fish Can’t Really Hurt Me is a project for 2020 survivors, for all those who had it rough, who faced a difficult reality. Noah Toritto came to a crossroads, identified a drive within himself, and took the road that rekindled his creativity. It is a fantastic journey, and it was not a solitary one. The group of incredible friends and impressive musicians found a way to work together across great distance and grave circumstances. In these artists’ isolation, they found each other, and that defined their creative experience. 

Each individual seemed eager for the day they can play together, live, in front of fans. I’m sure their ragtag symphony will only grow sweeter in real time, and I can guarantee I’ll be at their first show. In the meantime, we know Noah refuses to slow to a stop, but make sure to keep an eye on Seamus Masterson, Jared May, Charlie O’Neill and Ben Laughlin as they take on their own creative pursuits. Their abilities to communicate and collaborate helped make this project what it is, and these Chicago boys have a bright future ahead. They each developed in solitude, yet grew the most from the friendship they fostered. 

On March 5th, I Know Fish Can’t Really Hurt Me releases on all streaming platforms. It is a fantastic and unique collection of tracks that shines like silk for all twenty minutes. It is easy to play, and play again, and play over and over until your ears start to predict each pluck of a string. This may be Toritto’s first full length project, but it has the real and refined sound of an artist who puts their feelings into notes. With cinematic swells and heart-stopping solos, it holds honest musical power. I recommend leaning back and listening, reminiscing on the obstacles we have all overcome in this past year.