Tasty New Music — ambient waves, indie rock “for a lost soul” and StClair’s smooth jazz & elektropica
Musicians will not be denied as they’ve been creating during the pandemic and the results are bearing fruit now in many tasty waves — here’s a random sampling.
I ran across a young musician, Nick Sadler, with his mask on, and happily grinding on a skateboard on the street. Before the pandemic, he and his musical partner Ben Braden — part of the duo Strange Hotels that was founded in Portland, Oregon in 2018 — were performing every Tuesday at Good Times at Davey Waynes in Hollywood. Previously, back in Portland, they used to appear regularly at the Crystal Ballroom — in December 2018, they actually performed at the venue supporting Billie Eilish as part of 94.7’s December to Remember event. I looked at the video for that event, and Strange Hotels were rock solid tight, performing “Jacknife” to an enthusiastic audience. I also discovered that their song “C’mon Forget It” appeared in the third season of Viceland, and they had been busy, performing live in LA, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Boise, Minneapolis and many places in between.
This year, the duo plans to release new music every month while attempting to book shows, even with everything still up in the air. I asked Sadler how he and Braden segued from a band to a duo, and yet are able to sound like a full band: “Ben and I were in another band together for 10 years with two other musicians. We toured all over the country and managed to eventually make a little money from shows and licensing our music in commercials. When that band finished, we thought how much cheaper and easier it would be logistically if it was only the two of us. So, we made an album together as we’d learned how to produce and engineer, but we had to figure out how to play the music live. We messed around with having pre-recorded tracks playing in the background but it just didn’t feel right. We were too used to being able to improvise on stage, and often had to play shows that were three hours long. So, Ben got some foot pedals that control the low octave of his keyboard, and started learning to play guitar while playing bass with his feet. And we got some vocal processors that allow each of us to sing with harmony on our own. Now, one person can sing lead and the other can do backing vocals with harmony. After about three months straight of rehearsal, we had a live set with no backing tracks or metronomes that sounded like four people.“
I particularly enjoyed their tune, “Ambient Dreams,” which got me into an ambient mood, recalling a quote from a story at Pitchfork about the Best Ambient Albums of 2020, which suggested: “In a year in which many of us found ourselves staring at the walls for long periods of time, the notion of ‘wallpaper music’ no longer seemed quite so trivial. More than any other genre, ambient frequently offers a kind of emotional blank slate, and its very featurelessness suits listeners in search of wildly divergent things: solace, transport, or even simple numbness.”
That got me looking up a publicist’s recent pitch on Nashville singer-songwriter Jackson Wooten, whose debut album A New Child will be released on February 26. His newest single “October Song” was recorded in Nashville, and produced by Jason Bennett. Wooten’s previous singles have been included in Spotify’s Chill Pop and Apple Music’s New Singer Songwriter, Acoustic Chill, and Wax Eclectic and he earned press features from American Songwriter, Young Music City, and Substream.
Affected by the pandemic, indie folk singer-songwriter Wooten recalls, “I spent a year and a half writing and recording these songs while grappling with my depression, existentialism, and then the isolation of the pandemic.” “October Song” is a gorgeous piece of music — poignant Jeff Buckley-like vocals bursting out of very catchy and heartfelt atmospherics. Check it out on Spotify — you’ll feel transported.
By the way, UK musician, sound designer and conceptualist Brian Eno may have first officially coined the phrase “ambient” in the sleeve notes of his 1978 opus Ambient 1: Music For Airports — defining it as music “designed to induce calm and space to think.”
This next act with the spacious guitars and bold music reminded me of St. Vincent, and her own very unique stylings. Paper Citizen’s newly released single, “Scratching The Surface,” the title track of the upcoming album (due April 23) actually kicks off with some ambient-sounding guitar but then breaks into a cool rocker. Paper Citizen is self-described as “Indie rock for a lost soul in a new world, “ and is led by ambitious Singaporean singer-songwriter, violinist, guitarist and music producer, Claire Gohst. She claims her new single is a commentary on the fast-paced world we live in, technology being a driving force of this change, and the idea that we are often passengers in our own lives. Can we still cut through the static to reach one another? “Scratching The Surface” imagines a new world where women are not only heard, but also make their identities known and celebrated.
About another song, “Won’t Be Losing Sleep,” off her upcoming LP, Gohst also talks of the quarantine, saying, “I’ve had an ongoing battle with anxiety and depression. Playing music, especially with others, has always been the best therapy and treatment. It stabilizes my mood and helps me communicate which helps me to stay present. I really miss that a lot. I’ve been struggling to connect with others during quarantine. But grateful for friends, computers and guitars. strange times call for learning new ways of collaborating.”
Finally, a longtime musician friend of mine, Michael StClair, who delightfully calls his genre of music “elektropica,” also has a new LP coming out this year, called Shining. “Funky Señorita” is the first single off Shining, with two other singles to follow — “The Cat,” a smooth jazz piece with a Jobim-feel, featuring Cuban pianist Pablo Cardenas, and “Look at Me Now,” a Brit-jazz take on Ella Fitzgerald by Frangelica. All three singles underscore StClair’s myriad of elektropica influences.
As an international entertainer, StClair has worked with a long list of talented artists including Paul Saunders, Micah Barnes, jacksoul, Elan Trotman, Percy Sledge, Ben E. King, Eddie Bullen, Ian Thomas, Etana, La Bomba, Erroll Starr, Del Shannon, Dianne Heatherington, The Coasters, The Drifters, The Crystals, The Presidents and Odaymara Pasa Kruda. StClair has also produced releases for The Arsenals, Juno award winner Otis Gayle, J.V. Dixon, Kiran, Matt Maxwell; and, he’s worked on TV and radio jingles, and various demos and soundtracks. The top 10 hit “Shady Day” he co-wrote with Jacksoul (BMG) won him a SOCAN award in 2005.
StClair, who is now based in Victoria, British Columbia and has successfully created instrumental music (Pacific Dub Co at SoundCloud), along with award-winning songs, says of his elektropica music, which has Afro-Cuban-Latin influences and includes smooth jazz: “Elektropica music is a product of me being UK-born with Jamaican roots. So, the first music in my DNA is Afro-Cuban-Latin, music that connects to me. Elektropica sums up where and what I’ve been through as a human — I don’t have the blues from the Delta, and not everyone who is black is into hip-hop. But elektropica is a combination of influences that I hope will connect with many others.”
StClair, who is now based in Victoria, British Columbia, has used some diversely talented musicians to tell his Shining album story, including pianist Jon Zirkle. Under the JVZ Music umbrella, this producer/musician has released a variety of excellent electronic music that can accomplish what Eno said it was designed to do. Zirkle offers: “The music titles suggest a connection between the surreal, the natural world, and the human condition. The music itself weaves an emotional tapestry illustrating moments lived, dreams imagined, and memories reflected.”
StClair’s own instrumental, smooth jazz tune, “The Cat,” will be released on July 12.
Michael StClair’s “Funky Senorita” is available on major streaming sites, including: HearMeNow, Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon Music, Pandora, and Deezer. And, downloads also available at Bandcamp.