By Michael Hoinski
(LSM Oct/Nov 2014/vol. 7 – Issue 5)
Alejandro Rose-Garcia was destined to be the one and only. In 2007, the Austin native, who grew up in an artist commune on South Congress Ave. and matriculated Austin High School a few years behind the blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr., was living in Los Angeles and pursuing acting. He was making appearances on TV’s Friday Night Lights as the character “the Swede,” a lifeguard who was the fleeting object of desire for Coach Taylor’s daughter, Julie. One weekend, Alejandro jetted back home to Austin to catch some live music at the Old Settler’s Festival, unaware that his big break awaited him there on a different sort of stage.
While passing through the campgrounds, Alejandro and his buddies encountered a tripped-out hippie who randomly spewed gibberish at them, ending with something about “spooky wagons.” They laughed it off, giving each other their own goofy names, like “Spinster Jones,” “Solomon Doors,” and “Droopy Weiners.” Alejandro had been writing tunes in between auditions in L.A. and occasionally playing them to friends in private, but on the night of this serendipitous encounter, he lost his inhibition, grabbed his guitar, and crashed a song circle, playing for a crowd for the first time. One really drunk guy came up afterwards and enthusiastically asked him, “What’s your name, man?” Alejandro was surprised by the reaction. After giving a brief thought to the run-in with the hippie, he declared, “I’m Shakey Graves.”
That christening and trial by campfire set the actor on the fast track to becoming one of the most-buzzed about homegrown Austin musicians since, well, Gary Clark, Jr. In 2011, he self-released his Shakey Graves debut, Roll the Bones, an enchanting, low-fi blues-folk collection featuring Alejandro playing all of the instruments. Despite giving it away essentially for free online through Bandcamp’s no-minimum, “name your own price” model, he netted big returns, including around 60,000 downloads and, more importantly, a rising national reputation for having the ability to fingerpick with precision an archtop guitar while simultaneously stomping with fury a kick drum embedded into a suitcase.
“That little bit of time that it takes to find that album on the Internet, and the sort of mystery of it, I feel kind of played into a story that helped people really, like, come to Shakey Graves,” Alejandro, 27, says. “I feel like everyone that found it literally felt a little bit like they discovered it.”
The album and raves for his dynamic performances earned Shakey Graves slots at Pickathon, the Newport Folk Festival, South by Southwest, and, most recently, the Americana Music Festival. As momentum swelled in advance of his highly anticipated sophomore album, And the War Came, Alejandro was destined to bring the one-man band to the mainstream. That doesn’t mean one-man band in the sense of a bedroom techno-wizard who manufactures sounds. Alejandro was a one-man band in a purer sense: a singer and multi-instrumentalist in the busker style, sweating through his white tank-top undershirt and Stetson cowboy hat for enough money to buy his next meal. And then “Dearly Departed,” the first single, came out in July, in advance of the new album’s Oct. 7 release, and it was a … duet.
“I never really set out to be a one- man band,” Alejandro insists. “That was just the most effective way to present my music to people and it sort of turned into its own thing. I really felt like this is a crucial pivot point and if I didn’t make the change now, it would be a lot harder to dig myself out later. The story of this album is me reminding myself, or rediscovering, that I never really wanted to do this alone anyway.”
That rite-of-passage theme is set with And the War Came’s lead-off track, “Only Son,” a tender number with Alejandro on acoustic guitar, singing about relinquishing his self-importance at age 10. That was the year his parents, both of whom had remarried, each had a daughter with their new spouses, making him a big brother.
Musically, Alejandro’s realization that one is perhaps the loneliest number freed him up to allow others into his creative process. Among them is Austin’s Chris Boosahda, a drummer who plays live with Alejandro and co-produced the album with him. For “Dearly Departed” — and two other songs, “Big Time Nashville Star” and “Call It Heaven” — Alejandro enlisted the Denver singer Esme Patterson. Alejandro had been toying with the chorus to “Dearly Departed,” walking around his empty house in the wake of a break-up, singing, “You and I both know the house is haunted/You and I both know the ghost is me.” Later, while in Boulder, Colo., for a Halloween show at the Fox Theatre, Alejandro and Esme (whose band, Paper Bird, was sharing the bill) pounded out a draft of the song on the front porch of her house the morning of the gig, and debuted it that night.
“Dearly Departed” has a jaunty, handclap beat and an anthemic, singalong hook — hallmarks of the breakout hit “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers. Maybe it’s easier to make that association now that Shakey Graves has signed to Dualtone Records, the
Nashville label responsible for taking platinum the Lumineers’ self-titled debut album and for winning Texas stalwart Guy Clark his first Grammy for his 2013 album, My Favorite Picture of You.
Alejandro originally thought it might be better to independently release And the War Came, a relatively ebullient offering whose variety makes it seem like he is still trying to find his voice. But the Dualtone deal gave him the best of both worlds: he had the autonomy to cultivate his own image while also joining a musical family that includes his friends, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope, providing safety in numbers.
“I can’t help but refer to this career, and the way that this lifestyle is, as … an analogy I always come back to is warfare,” says Alejandro, who took the album’s title from President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
“When I meet other people who are doing their thing, it’s like meeting another battalion. You’re all fighting in the same battlefields. There are similar ways to do it, but everyone fights differently. At the end of the day, it really comes down to you and your team and your allies.”