With the worldly pop of his Brand New Towns, the singer-songwriter becomes the fifth Denton act to be signed by the British label Bella Union. The label, headed by Simon Raymonde, has found a treasure trove in the small college town, most recently with the psychedelic folk sounds of the group Midlake.
What’s going on in Denton? It’s a tight-knit community, and there have always been a lot of bands. Now that Midlake is doing well, the spotlight is back on [us].
You initially studied jazz and classical guitar. I went to the University of North Texas with [the members of] Midlake, and Norah Jones was there. After a while I felt like school wasn’t really where I wanted to be. I moved to New York to pursue playing jazz and got turned on to a lot of stuff. I got to tour in Turkey and Spain and record Arabic music. I studied with Nelson Gonzalez, who’s considered by many to be the best Cuban guitarist around. Every once in a while I pick up the Cuban guitar and go play, but I focus mainly on songwriting now.
Is it fair to say that most of these bands that come from Denton were all music students at the university? No. I’d say most are probably not.
The university itself is known more for its jazz program. Is that still the case? Most majors are business majors, and it is kind of a commuter school, although it is starting to make the slow transition to being more of a non-commuter school like the University of Texas at Austin. When I moved to Denton, it was a lot smaller than it is now.
A small town with a lot of bands usually means there’s nowhere for anybody to play. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in Denton. Well I think the proximity to Dallas and Fort Worth kind of makes it special—you have the major airports and the major thoroughfares. That’s what makes it a stop for people or bands who don’t want to play Dallas. They’ll want to play Denton, which is like the Austin of North Texas. People will be like, “Well it’s only thirty miles away. I’ll drive to see that band.” So that’s why we have the venues that we have.
How did Simon Raymonde (of Bella Union) get involved with Denton originally? Were you in on that? No. It started off with Lift to Experience. I don’t really know how Lift to Experience got their deal, but I do know that SXSW played a part in that.
Well it’s been very fortunate for all these bands, particularly for you and Midlake, who seem to be getting a lot of attention right now. How old are you? I’m thirty years old.
What influences your work? And what made you turn to writing songs? I came full circle. Some of the first music I can remember hearing is Steely Dan. My dad listened to Willie Nelson as well as Spanish songs, and my mom played guitar and sang. I started playing guitar and singing when I was five or six years old. I was playing “Red River Valley” and songs like that because of my teacher. I remember thinking, “I never want to sing and play guitar to do this.” And then I focused on guitar and being an instrumentalist. Later, I got back into singing and started to play songs. It was kind of a long road, but this feels right.
You don’t sound anything like Midlake, but one common thread I noticed between your music and theirs is that it is a lot more sophisticated than most of the indie rock out there. Is that the university’s influence? It’s hard to say. For me, I’ve always enjoyed composition and composers like [Gustav] Mahler. I feel pretentious saying that because it’s like, “Oh look at me. I listen to classical music.” There is a way the arranged parts work together.
This album you have out now, Brand New Towns, is your second. Yeah. It’s my debut release on a label that isn’t my own label, isn’t a vanity label. I did have a label called Basement Front Records, and I have put other records out on that.
And you made this record at home? I recorded instruments one by one, one track at a time: accordion, violin, vibraphone, guitars, voice. It was all digital, recorded on a Mac desktop.