There are artists who are known for being shy and reclusive — for producing their best work while holed up in their room, or in a cabin in the woods, or on a solo bender.
And then there are those who feed off the energy of an audience. The magic of a live performance is in the interaction, right? In the knowing that, though you're just a face in a crowd at a venue like thousands of others across the country, the experience you're having with a musician live on stage is unique to that evening; whether it's a drum coming in a millisecond later than it did the previous night or banter that changes based on what the band drank backstage.
With Or Without, the fourth self-released album from East Bay singer-songwriter Tom Rhodes, has taken the concept of a live album — the attempt to capture that specific face-to-face, performer-audience magic — and distilled it like a fine whiskey. Created over the course of four separate live performances in November in front of intimate studio audiences at San Francisco's own Coast Recorders, the resulting music sounds like you've been snuck into something secret and awesome: There's a particularly liberated-sounding husk in Rhodes' voice (one could guess he falls into the latter camp of artists), an excitingly un-tucked feeling behind pedal steel man Tim Marcus' guitar, and the overall feeling of the band playing directly to you; this album would be particularly welcome on a solo road trip.
Perhaps relatedly, Rhodes has traveled extensively, and also swerved between genres a good deal. Ahead of his show with fellow local alt-country/folk heavyweights The Lady Crooners (who also appear on his album) and Kelly McFarling this Wednesday, Aug. 13 at the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse, we caught up with Rhodes to hear about the inspirations for this album and, of course, his favorite foods.
SF Bay Guardian How and when did you first start playing music? Who are the songwriters you look to for inspiration? What's the first record you really remember loving?
Tom Rhodes I have been playing music for as long as I can remember. As a very young child I remember my mother teaching me piano, singing at home and at church; instruments were all over the house and I was never told that I was too young or clumsy to experiment with them. My mother is a classically trained singer and multi-instrumentalist (she played the oboe, clarinet, piano, and guitar) and my father is an incredibly passionate music collector. So I wound up in this perfect environment for creating a child who would grow up to be a musician: A kid in a house filled to the brim with instruments and parents who were constantly listening to music on top of the line stereos, and discussing that music with parents who really dove into it themselves. My dad’s record collection numbered in the thousands, we had a room that was filled with shelves of records and I would play them all the time. Then it was tapes, then CDs.
The music that I came of age to was so diverse that I can’t begin to list even my favorites…it’s everything…they all had pretty equal weight, but the first “songwriter” that I remember falling in love with lyrically and musically was (and still is) Paul Simon. It’s really a toss-up between him and the older Jackson Browne stuff for me when it comes to a benchmark that I have always tried to get close to. The first record that opened up huge doors in my head as far as songwriting goes was Paul Simon’s Graceland. It has this scope, and tenderness, and insight that continues to this day to have new and deeper meanings to me, and it was like nothing I had ever heard.
SFBG From your bio, it sounds like you've lived all over. Do you think your style has changed with geographic location? How are you influenced by the place you live? What led to the fuller band sound on this album?
TR Living in lots of places has definitely affected my style. Everywhere I go I try to find the music that makes that spot special and dig into it. In the Bahamas I would follow around the musicians in the Calypso bands trying to figure out how their crazy rhythms worked. In New Orleans I fell in love with Zydeco and Second Line…I played with local cats and tried to catch their vibe. I’ve busked everywhere I have lived, and I always check out the local buskers…they will tell you where the heart of the city is quicker than any overpriced bar. San Francisco is a bit different on its influence on me. It has been less musical and much more intellectual. For the first time in a long time I have had the social freedom to explore some concepts about humanity and myself by being surrounded by other people on a similar quest. San Francisco has such a diverse and transplanted population that it’s style seems to be more about what you’re saying than how you are saying it. That has rubbed off on me a bit.
As far as the fuller sound on the album, that has come from the amazing musicians that I am surrounded by. The musicianship in the Bay Area is top notch right now, and some very special stuff is going to start emerging from it very soon. I look at SF as a town on the brink of being a center of music in the next 5-10 years.
SFBG Can you tell me a bit about how the way this album was recorded, using live sessions? How do you think it affects the overall sound/feel of a record?
TR This album was a concept before the first note was recorded. The concept was to create a record that would be the most real and honest piece of art I had ever made.
The record is self-financed, and even the crowd funding was done in a way that didn’t ask for donations but rather I asked people to hire me to do work with the knowledge that the money I made was going into making this album. I wanted to walk away from the process with a piece of art that I would pay $15,000 for, and I have it.
To create that we had to do everything the hard way (i.e. the right way). I brought in Charlie Wilson (SonicZen Records) to help me build a band around these songs that I had labored over for almost three years and record them live in a top shelf studio. We rented out Coast Recorders for four days, invited in a small audience each night, and played the album for them live. We took the best takes and that’s the record that you hear.
Recording live is very hard and very risky, so it is very rare to see artists attempting it these days, unless they are trying to make a record on the cheap. There are so many variables that can go wrong (you can lose your voice, there can be technical issues that take up recording time, the band can make mistakes, some small thing can be out of tune) and if any of them happen, you wind up with a bad sounding album and no back-up plan. Most records are tracked separately these days to avoid that, but to me it takes all of the real life out of it, and it tells me almost nothing about the person who recorded it.
Another thing is doing it in front of an audience. I am a live performer by trade really, I spend 90 percent of my time in music with a guitar strapped to my chest and singing to real, live, human beings (and sometimes my dog). Performing is what I do best, so why go into a studio and do anything other than that? I find tracking vocals in a booth takes all of the emotion out of it for me, and I have to put it back into the music in some fake kind of way. Why not just do it the right way and record it? (The answer most producers and engineers would tell you is that most people can’t do that. They make too many mistakes, don’t know their songs, it’s hard to isolate the voice and guitar from each other to edit them later.) One of the amazing things that Charlie Wilson did in this whole process was to not back down from those challenges.
So in the end we have this album. It is exactly what I wanted. It is a collection of songs that say exactly what I want them to say, and it doesn’t just sound like what we sound like when we play as a band… it IS us playing as a band. Performing these songs with our hearts wide open. But when someone hears the record I hope that they don’t hear that it’s live, I hope that they FEEL that it’s real.
SFBG How do you describe your genre, when forced to? (Sorry.) There have been some pretty real shifts from album to album -- is that conscious/intentional/inspired by anything in particular?
TR I’m ok with this [question] now…This album is Americana. It’s a weird term, but it’s where this record sits, probably the last one too. The stylistic shifts aren’t just from album to album, they are from song to song inside of those albums. Those shifts aren’t actually purposeful (other than being strongly guided to have more of a rock record for “No Apologies”) as much as they are a byproduct of the way that I write. I don’t write music to fit a genre, I just write the songs that come to my mind in the most effective way that I can to get the idea across. Sometimes that requires a completely different feel than other songs that I write. Each song needs to be served to the best of my abilities, regardless of what sort of music is expected of me. I grew up listening to and learning such a diverse collection of music that I have a pretty broad pallet in my head to choose from. It’s actually pretty coincidental that this album has such a singular vibe that way. Even on this album there are some genre swings; “Dying is Easy” is what I would call an R&B tune, “Nobody’s Listening” is pretty poppy, but the band and the circumstances gave this record a much more specific vibe, and we recorded it live so we couldn’t go back later and alter that feel. Not that I would do that in a million years.
SFBG Plans for the coming year?
TR This year is all about trying to spread the word about this record. That is the absolute hardest part about being an independent musician, just getting in front of new eyes and ears. There are some big shows lined up, some tours in the works, music videos to be released…hopefully I can find people who can help me with that. That is my goal for this year, find a team of people who can help to spread this music around. I think that this album has what it takes, now I just need to show it to the world.
SFBG Where in the Bay do you live? What's the one Bay Area meal/food item you couldn't live without?
TR I live in the East Bay, in the Emeryville/Oakland area. There is a Mexican place out here that has the best burritos in the area, called Chili Jalapeño. It’s a hole in the wall, but I honestly daydream about their food.
SFBG Other Bay Area bands you love?
TR I love The Lady Crooners (not just because they are on my album!). They have some of the best harmonies in the business, and they make me smile every time I see them. Con Brio is an absolute must-see if you like to dance. Quiles and Cloud destroy me with their tight two-part harmonies and dark beautiful songs. When it comes to local songwriters, Lia Rose, Andrew Blair, Kelly McFarling…there is an awesome scene in this city right now, it’s bubbling under the surface, and someone smart is going to come along and figure that out. When the top blows off of the kettle I just hope to be around to see it.
Tom Rhodes, Kelly McFarling and the Lady Crooners
Wednesday, Aug. 13, 8pm, $17
Freight & Salvage Coffehouse
2020 Addison, Berk.
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