By Emily J Ramey
Written for David Jacobs-Strain
Expounding upon classic themes of broken hearts, winding roads, and flashbacks of Oregon summers, David’s newest work, Geneseo, is a collection of contemporary songs in keeping with longstanding folk traditions of Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie. “I try to make art that you can dance to,” says David, “but I love that darker place in my mind where Skip James, Nick Drake, and maybe Elliot Smith blur together.”
The album plays with traditional refrains and modern execution, balancing silvery slide guitar with warm bass and resonant drums. Imperfect vocals, conviction saturating every note, harken back to an age that has provided much of David’s inspiration, of one-take recordings, singing for supper, and the hard-won American dream that raw talent will endure. “I’m fascinated by the way that rural blues inscribes movement and transience,” the young songwriter explains. “There’s a crossroads where a thing can be both enchanting and dangerous.”
Those familiar with David’s previous studio work, Stuck on the Way Back, Ocean or a Teardrop, Liars Day, Terraplane Angel, or his live follow-up, Live from the Left Coast, will recognize his characteristic casual harmonies, incandescent lyrical motifs, and complex guitar work, but there’s something new and exciting in this compilation, perhaps a result of the overwhelming fan support he received by funding the album with Kickstarter. “It feels great to have people stand up and say that it means something to them.”
29-year-old David nurtured his musical abilities early while growing up in small-town Oregon: “I got my first guitar for $10 at a garage sale when I was nine years old.” Something struck with a chord with David, who began playing street corners and farmers’ markets in middle school without the burden of formal musical training. “I don’t read tablature; I don’t read music. I play totally by ear.” He found inspiration among his pioneer blues heroes as well as current acts like Lucinda Williams and Taj Mahal, all the while developing his own class of cool, undulating refrains.
The Stanford dropout was playing festivals across the country, including the prestigious Newport Folk Festival, by the time he was nineteen and has been featured at a dozen since, including Merlefest, Telluride Blues Festival, Philadelphia Folk Festival, and Seattle’s Bumbershoot. He’s taught at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch, and at fifteen years old was the youngest faculty member ever at Centrum’s Blues and Heritage workshop.
On the road, he’s shared the stage with champions of the folk, blues, and jazz communities, musicians like Lucinda Williams, Boz Scaggs, Etta James, The Doobie Brothers, George Thorogood, Robert Earle Keen, Todd Snider, Taj Mahal, Janis Ian, Tommy Emmanuel, Bob Weir, T-Bone Burnett, and Del McCoury. But Geneseo, more than any of his previous recordings, feels like a confident step into his own, fleshing out a distinctively contemporary niche among sounds and influences of a bygone era.
Geneseo began as an experiment. Camped out in a converted 19th century church, Strain recorded guitar and vocals on a laptop, rarely using more than one microphone. “It was winter in rural upstate New York. We had very little daylight but endless old instruments to try.” A road trip to Los Angeles brought in drummer Scott Seiver (Pete Yorn, Flight of the Conchords), and bassist Jon Flaughers (Ryan Adams) and David Immergluck (Counting Crows) on pedal steel as well, after a chance meeting in a Hollywood bar.
“All the songs were written, but I didn’t have a budget or a plan,” David explains. “I couldn’t stand waiting, so we just started recording ad hoc.” Caitlin Carey of Whiskey Town sent harmonies and fiddle tracks by email, Band of Horses’ bassist Bill Reynolds Dropboxed a track for the impressionist blues closer “Josephine,” and long-time collaborator Bob Beach recorded harmonica solos in Philadelphia. By spring, the record was an overwhelming collage of sounds and parts. To pare the record back down to its organic core, David enlisted Beau Sorenson (Death Cab for Cutie) and Billy Barnett (Frank Black, Cherry Popping Daddies): “Everything that would fit on twenty-three tracks was moved to analog tape, then we turned off the computer screen and mixed as if it were 1953.”
Despite his youth, David Jacobs-Strain is cultivating, without hesitation or pretension, a presence among the founding greats of our time. “Music is the only job I’ve ever had; I have no back up plan,” he declares. “I’m going to put everything I have into this… or I’m going to try.”
David’s new release will be available June 25, 2013. For more information about David and Geneseo, go to http://www.davidjacobs-strain.com.