Frank Ene has been writing songs and making music since he first picked up the guitar.
"My mom bought me a Hamer guitar when I was 12," Ene said, from his home in San Francisco's Mission district. "The minute I got my hands on it, I started playing chords and writing songs. I practiced so much, and so hard, that I hurt my fretting hand. It's still sore all these years later. These days, I don't play that much. I consider myself to be a songwriter and singer, more than [a] musician. I can play a few notes on the piano and bass guitar, and I know my way around a drum machine and my guitar, but it's more to create a mood, a vibe. Hopefully, people can get into that."
Before he embarked on his solo career, Ene played guitar in Pure Bliss, a band that veered between bright pop and slabs of rhythmic noise. He also added his fretboard talents to Fall of Troy and toured with the Fresh and Onlys. After the breakup of Pure Bliss, Ene said he entered a period of self-isolation and soul searching. During that time, he composed the seven songs that appear on No Longer, his debut album.
The music on the album occupies a sonic space that's spooky, ambient and profoundly moving. Often desolate and uplifting at the same time, the songs explore frustrated love, self-destruction, unsatisfied sexuality, depersonalization, loneliness and despair.
"I was depressed, in an altered state, depersonalized," Ene said. "I don't know what happened. Actually, I do know, but I don't want to get into it right now. I was doing things to myself that I shouldn't have done and that changed my brain chemistry. I don't know what to call it. I was literally afraid of existence, of life, of the sun, I had to call in to work a few times and tell 'em I wasn't coming in. I know what happened, but I can't describe it.
"Before it hit, I was a vegetarian, doing push-ups and drinking alkaline water. Afterward, while I was composing the songs for the record, I was drinking belts of bad scotch and bourbon and eating pizza for every meal. When I listen back to the songs, I'm not bummed out by what I hear, but it brings me back to how I was when I was writing. Closing the blinds, chain smoking and drinking cheap booze in my pigsty of a bedroom.
"It took a month to create each song. Not because I wasn't productive, but I was out of my mind at that point, as you can tell by the lyrics. It still lingers. I look out to what we see as reality and sometimes, I don't know what to make of it. I know I'm not the only person that feels this way, but I know how Frank feels and this shit's brutal sometimes."
With a few exceptions, Ene played most of the instruments on No Longer. His work is impressive, adding shadings of sound that intensify the despondent mood of the lyrics. A mid-tempo funk groove drives "Drown," an ode to loneliness, delivered by Ene's whispered vocals. Atmospheric electric guitar chords, sparse descending piano fills and evocative backing harmonies from Adrianne deLanda fill in the background. "Ides Underneath" is a subterranean meditation on lost love. Ene's understated vocal is highlighted by washes of grinding guitar noise mixed down into a constrained howl of anguish. The tension between Ene's almost inaudible vocals and the winds of subtle sound that dance around his poetic lyrics creating a mood of alarming tension.
"I didn't sit down to write with a set idea in mind," Ene said. "I do know that I decided I wasn't going to rely on the usual sounds associated with a guitar, bass or piano. I was thinking, 'Let me soundtrack my life, as I do when I walk down the street. What does it sound like when I'm shopping for groceries, or sitting in my room?' I'd play these songs for people and ask them what genre they'd put them into and they'd say, 'I don't know.' Is that good or bad? We'll see.
"When I went into the recording studio I had the songs in my head, but no demos. The arrangements weren't mapped out. I knew I wanted a bass line, a drum part, a sax part, but I concentrated on the overall sound, the trembling of vibrations. I let things happen in the studio, without thinking too much about it."
Ene made the album at the Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco. It was engineered and mixed by Jacob Winik, who also gets co-production credit. Ene said it would have been a different album without the input Winik supplied during the recording process.
"It took five days of recording with Jacob and my future band mate, Wymond Miles from the Fresh and Onlys, playing second guitar on several tracks," he said. "Jacob had some specific ideas about tone, reverb and timbre. I'm a very prideful guy, but sometimes you don't have all the answers; you need a little help. I brought in my own apps, my own guitars and pedals, my own gear. Jacob said, 'Why don't we just use what we have here?' I realized all I needed to proceed was a sound mind, metaphorically and actually. I had an epiphany. I decided to trust Jacob and set aside my ideas of a particular outcome.
"We created a huge sonic space, which was my aim. I wanted it to be like a ketamine hole you could fall into. If I had to use weird sounds to get my point across, that's what we did. Jacob manipulated the reverb and delay in a dub-like fashion. I've been bummed out by my voice in the past, but he helped me capture the voice I hear bouncing around in my cranium. I love the sound of my voice on this record. It was a trip. I didn't overthink anything. I just went by the seat of my pants and it was fairly easy."
Although he gave into his instincts during the recording process, Ene said the process of writing the lyrics was more thought out.
"The words always take a little bit of time," he said. "My favorite songwriters are Serge Gainsbourg, Leonard Cohen and Alain Bashung, all great lyricists. I'm not there yet, but that's what I aspire to. While I was working on the lyrics, I was reading Napoleon Hill, Neville Goddard and a book on the Kabbalah. That's why I didn't spell out the name of G-d on the credits that come with the album.
"I'm impressionable, so all that stuff filtered into them. I didn't have a muse at the time, so I had to create someone to riff off of. A lot of the words were just stream of consciousness, with no filtering. They rhyme, but there's no set rhyme scheme or meter. I was exploring the boundary between rhymes and prose."
Ene was planning to tour to support No Longer, but the pandemic gave him some time to think about the way he's going to recapture the sound of this album.
"I want to move away from the rock-band thing," he said. "I've done that since I was a teenager. It's time to try something new—what that is, we'll have to see. The vocals are intimate and it can be hard to convey that in a live show. I've done some gigs karaoke-style with backing tracks, but I'm not married to any idea. I want it to be a performance that will work for the audience and make me feel excited about what I'm doing, even if it doesn't equal commercial success."