Nathan Bajar’s Playroom sounds like home. Not a quiet, cozy home but a well-lived-in home with children running up and down the stairs, phone calls being interrupted, and the constant hum of the TV soundtracking a noisy family dinner. Even in the background of our phone call, I can hear the constant shuffling and chatter of his New Jersey home.
Once you look past the prickly lo-fi production, the picture becomes more clear. The cover, shot by Bajar himself, features a man speaking into a microphone surrounded by portraits and flowers. The man is Bajar’s brother, and he’s speaking at their father’s funeral. It’s a kaleidoscope of preserved memories, from the album cover, to the photos of Bajar’s father in the background, to the album’s theme itself: growing up.
For 28-year-old Bajar, his treasured family stories, traditions, and his own conflicts are directly intertwined with his work as both musician and photographer. His portraits, featured in various publications, exude a warmth not aided by hastily applied filters, but rather a raw and amateur intimacy found in disposable cameras, polaroids, and iPhone camera rolls. In one particular photo taken in 2016, Bajar’s father is seen carrying a bouquet of roses and baby’s breath to deliver to his wife on Mother’s Day. The photo looks as if it was taken in the spur of the moment, eager to capture a simple frame in a larger story free of the confines of perfection, and Playroom is much like that.
Perfection has plagued Bajar’s mind, as he held off on applying to the prestigious Berklee College of Music for guitar playing after being intimidated by the talent pool. Instead, he turned to photography as his main focus, studying it at Montclair State University. “I was like, ‘Oh shit, you can become a professional musician?’” Bajar recalls, “Maybe I’ll just take pictures because if I take pictures, I can still be around music.”
In between his growing photography career, Bajar began the recording process in 2016, inspired by his friends making beats in their bedrooms. From there, Bajar combined his guitar playing, as taught by his father and uncles, with the production skills he learned himself. At first, the project was intended to be something for himself, as a way to feel accomplished for writing, producing, and releasing music like his favorite artists such as Stevie Wonder and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. However, the passing of Bajar’s father in the summer of 2018 became a turning point in the recording process and his family dynamic.
“I started to see my parents as human beings,” Bajar says, “Growing up, there was a clear line between parent and child. When my father passed, I thought of my mom as a human, and it opened up a lot of conversation. Learning stories from their past made something click in my brain, and I just kind of obsessively started writing and recording music for like two months.”
The result is a beautifully disjointed, densely layered album full of love, from multiple perspectives of mothers, wandering boyfriends, and himself. Bajar’s songs are lyrically simple, which is rather fitting in the context of the rich sounds he creates around the words, As Bajar tells me, “I’m just not really comfortable with how I write.”
On the contrary, the small stories he tells in each song are almost universal, not constricted by flowery language and metaphors. There’s a welcoming earnestness and eagerness in his voice as he whispers treasured family anecdotes or sings about love over layered guitars, vocal tracks, and drums. It’s all the same to him, holding his work close to his heart.
The title track “Playroom (Lover’s Paradise)” is an introduction into his home, a place of comfort that holds all of his memories. He recalls his childhood homes being a revolving door of family members visiting from the Philippines, with this constant company becoming the norm in his life, full of love and support.
On “Mia’s Song,” Bajar croons “Finally alone / No more crowded rooms / I just want to be / Next to you,” over a wave of multiple vocal tracks and a plunky guitar. It feels like an afternoon at the beach, drowned out by the environment, enjoying the company of someone you love. A lot of the album follows this path, at times being so sonically overwhelming that it evokes the feeling of a fever dream, or at the very least a contact high.
And then there’s “The Table,” the most instrumentally bare song on the album. It’s a psychedelic tribute to his father, echoing into eternity with Bajar’s vocal effects. It’s sound resembles a dream, and in many ways, death can feel like one. The lyrics, “Father time won’t you please / Tell the reaper / He’s come a little early / This doesn’t seem all that right” are a haunting retroactive pleading deeply resonant to anyone who’s been stricken by grief. Despite the disjointed subject matter present throughout the album, Bajar is able to weave such heavy emotion into what sounds like a deceivingly upbeat album, understanding when to pull back and when to say more.
Throughout the album, Bajar understands listeners will connect his sound to his photos, even if those aren’t his conscious intentions. He recalls hearing a lot of comparisons of his warm photographs to the airy, lo-fi production of his songs, saying, “I don’t consciously do that. It just so happens that the music sounds the way it sounds because that’s just how I know how to make music. However, there is a connection between the photos I’ve taken and the music, but it’s just a feeling.”
In particular, Bajar chose a photo he took of his father fixing a radio as the back cover of the physical release, completing the circle his father started in inspiring Bajar’s love for music. Such a moment is due to his self-imposed duty as his family’s historian through photography. “I have always had this weird fascination with collections of photos, and I’m hoping that in the future when I’m gone, someone stumbles onto these pictures and is like, ‘Who are these people and why are these photos here?’” Bajar ponders. This almost obsessive fascination with storytelling, documentation, and the preservation of it could be seen as a symptom of being raised by immigrant parents, whose wealth of stories and memories may not always be preserved themselves. Bajar uses his music to reimagine these histories, aided by his photographs, and gives a second life to them, including his own father forever preserved in the back cover of Playroom.
Bajar’s album, at first listen, is a chaotic and overwhelming mesh of various influences, ideas, and instruments. However, much like a picture search in a coloring book, it reveals more upon each listen. The layers come apart to reveal a simple, heartfelt, and honest attempt at telling the story of home and all of its intricacies.