Time to expand your minds, people. Time to get in touch with your inner revivalist, and stretch them genres. Los Angeles and bluegrass. I know! Meet Rose’s Pawn Shop. You can almost feel the burn. And judging by the company this band keeps (simple folk like Jack White, Conor Oberst, Jamieson “Junior” Brown, and Flogging Molly—LA Irish punks, more stretching needed there, too, I’m afraid—you can do it!), there’s something coming in the air, something big and rootsy. Yes, there be a few urban legends already floating around about how this band got it’s name, but that’s not important right now. It’s not about who stole what, or where it got pawned, or not. What’s important right now is the sound and this band’s stage presence—they can punch holes right through the darkness. RPS is out on a mini tour for their current record, “Gravity Well” (Self Released, 2014). I caught up with them and did my stretching in Portland, Oregon, at Mississippi Studios.
A rare sighting at the Mississippi Studios of Seattle’s The Maldives, a band still driving hard on their latest record, “Muscle for the Wing” (Spark and Shine, 2012). The ten-year mark is tough on bands, a testing time. And the road tests everyone, mile after mile. In a time of too many choices, too much “new” arriving every day, it’s a good thing to have bands you can count on. The Maldives is one band that powers on past the easy comparisons and empty predictions, to stay the course and do what they do. No small talk and no goodbyes. Tough as train smoke.
There’s a plaintive thought in an as yet unreleased new song, “Rest,” by the recording artist Sam Fowles, that speaks of being in the wind, longing for shelter, but accepting there are places we still have to go, so we go anyway, hoping for rest, traveling on. The Swiss poet and Nobel Laureate Hermann Hesse famously wrote about the moment he ceased to question the stars and began listening to the teaching of his own blood. Hesse said we should all let ourselves be carried away, “like the clouds in the sky.” He was a poet, and a romantic seeker, so being carried away was his way of saying we’re over-thinking everything in our modern lives. He wrote, years ago, that the world then was losing its way, which of course it did, many times, with tragic results. Hesse worried that we were losing touch with something elemental that we all possess, but give little credence to. He believed that something was our only real chance at the finding the truth.
Like poetry, for those who write songs, who speak only through their music, they have to let themselves be carried away by it, alone with their tentative explorations, without the strength of bands to back them up, in the wind, to find out what they need to say, and to say it the best way they can. To connect, and to be free. It’s the journey of the wandering heart, the journey of the life tested, the risks taken, the loves and wounded hearts. It’s what Hesse argued was the only real path to personal and spiritual awakening.
Since 2007, recording artist Sam Fowles has been adding his light to another band, traveling some of the same dusty roads poets travel, with his musical clan, the Portland, Oregon-based Parson Red Heads, a tightly woven little group who, to an outsider, almost feel like a group of childhood friends who came of age making music together because it’s what they did with their time. When a group like the Parsons releases so many cohesive LPs, three full-length collections and at least seven EPs and live records, each maturing them as a band, it’s easy to think of them as one force rather than the result of synchronicity between several gifted contributors who could easily all have successful solo careers.
Fowles, as a founding member of the Parsons, has forged an almost blood-brother relationship with Evan Way, the principal songwriter for the band. Together, they’ve invented a stylish retro, psych-pop sound that’s perfect for Portlandia: hip, sensual, personal, and somehow aged to fit with a town that isn’t fully in agreement with modern life. They like it that way. As a band, they have an electric sound pushed by Way and Fowles with their guitars. With Evan Way as their primary singer as well, Fowles’ vocal role has been folded into the Parsons’ overall sound. On stage, the Parsons have always been as comfortable trying out new songs as well as backlist favorites. So there’s history there, more than seven years, as seekers, risk takers, and dreamers.
Now, as a journeyman performer, Fowles has stepped into the light, to take some of the biggest chances of his career: to make a solo record that speaks about who he is as a songwriter. Simplifying his sound, he’s also moved his new solo work forward with acoustic guitar. For the first time, his voice is center stage as well: honest, searching, confessional. His synchronicity with the spiritual and mystical songwriting of Bill Fay, an artist he has covered live in performance many times, combined with lyrics filled with a kind of letting go feeling from the likes of Bill Callaghan, Fowles is performing a body of new songs on his own letting go, and being carried away.
Hesse would be proud. Tender, open, and vulnerable, these new songs from Fowles’ new solo project make their declaration: Sam Fowles is a recording artist and a seeker prepared to explore new territory, wherever it takes him.
[Sam recently played live at Mississippi Studios in Portland, Oregon, where I took these pictures. He opened for The Maldives and Rose’s Pawn Shop.]