I love and respect a lot of songwriters and bands. I could rattle off at least a hundred right now without even blinking but there a special few whose music not only do I enjoy, whose music has inspired me creatively, but who have also reassured me that it’s ok to be me.
Growing up the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Elvis formed a foundation of sorts for my creative and spiritual identity. They were so bold and ambitious in how they fearlessly brought different styles together to form something uniquely their own. Brian Wilson’s drive to elevate his music beyond pop into the sublime and spiritual, how he wanted to touch the divine has given me profound comfort over the years. I have always marveled at the intimacy, honesty, and vulnerability with which he approached his writing.
The Beatles were so headstrong and ambitious in their refusal to remain in any neatly painted sonic or stylistic boundaries. The fact that they did not anoint one of themselves to be the “lead singer” was mind-blowing….as was the way they rotated instruments.
With Elvis, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t sing and he refused, as much as he could in his circumstances, to limit himself. Whether it was rock, country, gospel, or rhythm and blues he tackled it with a bravado that is still unmatched. His voice got better with time and right up to the days before his death he was churning out some of the most compelling vocal performances that have ever been captured.
Then, as the 90s gave way to the 2000s, I found another “Big 3” of sorts.
I still remember my friend David asking if I wanted to hit the record shop to pick up Ian Moore’s new album, Ian Moore’s Got the Green Grass. Dave had mentioned Ian before and I’d heard “Satisfied” and liked it but I was coming into this album pretty much blind.
From the first notes of “Four Winds” I was entranced. The same album had pensive, breathy folk, contemplative ballads, incredible renditions of one of my favorite Beatles songs, one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, Many Rivers to Cross by Jimmy Cliff, and one of the most down-and-dirty, filthy blues songs ever.
That album had everything I loved. It had everything I wanted to do. It was a game-changer for me because all of the sudden I found someone, a modern artist, making the kind of music I was trying to make.
I began going to every show. I believe it was the second show at the now closed Fabulous Satellite Lounge that I encountered the next of this trio of artists.
A guy and his guitar took the stage and welcomed us to the “world of gangster folk…where it’s not about kicking ass. It’s about stroking ass….gently.”
Jeff Klein, now of My Jerusalem, played one of the most compelling solo acoustic sets I’ve ever seen. I saw him twice on back-to-back nights and was then fortunate enough to catch another set he played with Ian in Austin at the Saxon Pub. I got a copy of his first full album, You’ll Never Get to Heaven.
Even the album title spoke to me. Again I found someone who was making the music I longed to make. I saw him perform that first night and raced home and began writing new material. I was stretching, searching for chords and melodies. His and Ian’s music were like some kind of scavenger hunt that was trying to lead me to a more mature, more ambitious sonic vocabulary. Armed with the assurance that I could say what I wanted to say made all the difference to me. There had been so many times I stopped myself short of writing any given lyric, of trying to combine a particular set of chords or writing one song in a particular style that maybe didn’t gel with what I’d written previously…but now I realized I could in fact do it.
Then one day I took a job at Guitar Center and a coworker invited me to their place to listen to music after work.
She put on an album that made me literally sit up. The first note of “Kinder” off This Euphoria by Davíd Garza went off like a bomb in my head. It was like a sonic big bang. There was a wall of sound that harkened back to my beloved Phil Spector albums with a relaxed harmony and fuzzed-out guitars. I had to hear more.
We listened to that entire album and when I showed up to work the next day I told another co-worker about what I had discovered. Elated and surprised that I’d not heard of Garza before, he ran out to his car and brought me a cassette that I never gave back. Haha
It was Culture Vulture by Garza under the pseudonym DAH-VEED.
Between that incredible album and Kinder, again I found myself entranced because it was all there. Contemplative jazz, soaring vocal melodies, pulsing drums, a cacophony of fuzz and cymbal crashes. He was combining traditional Mexican and Tejano rhythms with jazz and blues. Those next few years were spent digging deep through Ian Moore’s, Jeff Klein’s, and Davíd Garza’s catalogs.
I went to every show I could get into. I even emailed Jeff and was bowled over when he sent me a copy of his EP that included the songs he performed at that first show I attended.
All three of their careers are marked by a rigid commitment to making their music on their terms. Davíd has explored everything from folk and blues to rap and trance. He’s jammed with everyone from Hanson to Fiona Apple.
During one ridiculously hot and sweaty night at the Continental Club where he was simply incendiary, he stopped his set to ask “Hey is anyone else hot? It’s kinda hot in here. You guys wanna go outside and get some air?”
He proceeded to lead us outside and performed campfire style for about 45 minutes before going back in to melt our faces back off.
Every album Ian Moore has made has been another one of my all-time favorites. Perhaps more than anyone he has assured me that yes, compelling, emotive, pensive, lush songs can have fiery guitar playing and it not sound shoe-horned.
Jeff’s songs are at times so brutal in their honesty, so blunt in their message that he elevates the profane and gritty to a poetic artistry.
Each completely unique from the other though their careers have crossed paths along the way, they share one thing for me…they make honest music without constraints whether those that would be placed upon them by others or those they may be tempted to place on themselves.
That means something to me.
It was liberating. All the artists that symbolized that to me up to that point in my life were of a completely different era. As much as I absorbed every note of Pet Sounds or obsessed over every backwards track of Revolver, no matter how many times I watched Elvis’ “Comeback Special” or listened in awe to tracks like “Hurt” or “You Gave me a Mountain” they seemed like Greek Gods. I couldn’t aspire to that. They were other-worldly.
With Ian, Jeff, and Davíd, I had contemporary artists, from Texas no less, that were out there…doing it. I was buying tickets. I was standing a few feet away from them as they performed. With each show, with every song, I was picking up bits of bread along the trail. I’ve never touched their level of craftsmanship or skill but their music has provided sign posts showing me the way and letting me know it’s OK to try.
When I struggle to find the words, when my fingers can’t seem to find the notes, when my heart can’t seem to find the beat, I run to those albums. They’re food for my soul, for my creative ambitions, and are proof that I’m not crazy.
It’s not crazy to want to write honest music. It’s not crazy to want to take everything I love, every style, every artist who has inspired me, everything that has brought me joy and pain and grief and doubt and laughs and throw it all into a sonic stew.
It’s not crazy to want to be yourself, or to be willing to share that truth through music.
It’s not crazy but it is essential. That kind of ambition, that willingness to dig deep and to give yourself license is critical to songwriting and to living life. We should all be so bold.
If you haven’t had the pleasure to listen to these three guys do yourself the favor. All three tour and release music regularly. Jeff’s band is called My Jerusalem and Davíd and Ian continue to work under their own names. You’ll thank yourself for digging into their catalogs.
For my part, I give thanks to them for inspiring me in so many ways.
Until Next Time,
Be Well and Kind