The song that will likely make you a fan of Kristin Andreassen is also the one that gives her new album its title. “The Boat Song (Gondolier)” is what dreams are made of, specifically Andreassen’s.
It has the sing-song ring of a nursery rhyme, right down to a chorus that borrows from “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” On paper, it must have read like an unruly diary entry, beginning with a fluid stream of memories:
When I was a girl,
I wished I was a boy.
I had a dog,
I wished it was a horse.
We lived by the freeway,
I thought it was the ocean.
Sounded like a seashell
In my sleep in the night.
Andreassen later delivers the most revealing line of all, what might as well be her artistic mission statement: “I was a tour guide of my own heart’s desires.”
The entirety of “Gondolier,” Andreassen’s new sophomore album, has a soft, impressionistic vibe, like a watercolor painting set to music. Andreassen, who comes to Club Passim in Cambridge on Wednesday, wrote the songs in seclusion on a remote island, and accordingly they deal with the elements and the splendor of nature. She sings about rainstorms, fish, and water, while sometimes rooting her originals in the traditional folk music she grew up admiring.
It’s a bold statement from the 38-year-old singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, who spent the last several years in secondary roles. She collaborated with Sufjan Stevens and Jeffrey Lewis and played with her own ensembles, the string band Uncle Earl and the ethereal folk trio Sometymes Why. The latter is a project with Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still) and Ruth Ungar (Mike + Ruthy), which Andreassen considers a bridge between her early work and where she is now.
“In a way, I really needed the time and white space to create the new album,” she says. “I was in my own weird corner of the folk-music world working pretty hard for years. I was always touring and playing locally and at festivals and not giving myself time to recharge.”
Taking a circuitous route to music, Andreassen has an erratic resumé that bears the hallmarks of someone with broad interests who can’t harness her various passions and talents.
At McGill University, she studied history, English, and community economic development. She got her start in the arts as a professional clogger in a dance company. When she landed in Brooklyn a few years ago, she began hosting an old-time jam session. She and fellow folk luminary Laura Cortese cofounded Miles of Music, a weeklong music camp held on an island in New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, the same place Andreassen wrote her new album.
“My weird story is that I thought I would just have a normal job or save the world or maybe be a journalist,” she says. “But this opportunity to be a musician came about, and it was really speaking to my heart.”
When Andreassen finally committed to music, she pursued it with abandon. She mopped the floors at a dance studio in Washington, D.C., in exchange for tap lessons. She did similar trades for guitar and fiddle lessons. “I could either go to school for music or I could organize my own school for a year,” she says.
“Gondolier” arrives long after the first blush of 2007’s “Kiss Me Hello,” her debut solo album of homespun folk-pop ditties recorded in her kitchen. Buoyed by the sleeper hit “Crayola Doesn’t Make a Color for Your Eyes,” the disc featured sparkly, sprightly songs that now feel worlds removed from the murky beauty of her latest work.
She kept good company on “Gondolier,” with a supporting cast of musicians who added subtle but sublime details, from O’Donovan’s vaporous backing vocals to the understated guitar lines of Chris Eldridge (Punch Brothers) and Jefferson Hamer and woodwinds played by Alec Spiegelman (Cuddle Magic).
On the production end, Andreassen enlisted Robin MacMillan and Lawson White, both of whom are percussionists and producers. MacMillan was onboard for seven of the 10 songs, and Andreassen credits him with encouraging her to record them and eventually helping to define the album’s aesthetic. He, in turn, gives all the credit back to her.
“The truth is, the biggest lesson I learned from working with Kristin is that the best ideas for production are built into the songs,” MacMillan says. “If a color comes to mind while you’re working on something, it’s really a cue the song is sending.
“Whether or not it’s a departure from the first one, I would hope this new record showcases the mysteriousness of what she’s doing,” MacMillan adds. “At first glance there’s a simplicity and childlike quality to the lyrics, but layer after layer, you’re drawn in to the mysteriousness of it and realize it’s strangely crooked and dark and not what you expected.”
Even after a thoughtful, 45-minute phone interview with Andreassen, there’s more to tell, so she follows up with an e-mail. She had forgotten to mention that “Crayola Doesn’t Make a Color for Your Eyes” was filmed with kids in Brighton, back when she was sharing an apartment in Watertown with O’Donovan and Cortese.
“You might as well know that I was also an Amtrak sleeping-car porter and a school teacher in the Canadian Arctic before the universe finally authorized me (at age 23?) to start being an artist,” Andreassen writes in that e-mail. “As a child, I didn’t know anyone who played music or made art for a living, so it just took a while to discover that option on my own.”