Shakey Graves: The Best of What's Next

Music Features Shakey Graves
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Hometown: Austin, Texas
Members: Alejandro Rose-Garcia (guitar, vocals, percussion)
Albums: Roll the Bones
For Fans Of: Justin Townes Earle, Gary Clark Jr., Lead Belly

I first met Alejandro Rose-Garcia in a forest. The Lone Bellow had just played a killer set at The Woods Stage on the last day of Pickathon Indie Roots Music Festival, a relatively small gathering outside Portland, Ore. By that point, late afternoon on the third and final day of the festival, everyone knew the name Shakey Graves.

Even though he wasn’t playing until that night, the man-known-as-Shakey-Graves was already dressed in his now-recognized stage garb: slim-fitting slacks rolled at the ankles and a tight white tank. He spent a good half an hour chatting backstage about Bruce Springsteen, his hometown of Austin and how to keep track of all the people he meets. Engaging and friendly, his sharp sense of humor brightened conversations, even as he happily responded to catcalls (of which there were plenty at Pickathon) and shouts like “Yo, Shakey!”

“I think it’s rad,” he declares during a phone call a few weeks after the festival. “It makes me more comfortable than people calling me my own name if they don’t know me. It sounds intuitive, because you do know me as Shakey. Not like, ‘Hey, Alejandro!’ Then I’m like, ‘Oh shit, is my mom here? What, am I in trouble?’”

Personal experiences aside, Rose-Garcia tells me during our interview that he’s starting to look at his burgeoning career, “like B.C. and A.D.” Before the festival, he admits, “I was sort of feeling lost, like ‘where do I go from here? How do I move forward? What’s the next step for me? What kind of music am I going to play? Where do I even want to be?’”

“After Pickathon,” he begins, throwing in an “A.P.” to keep up the metaphor, he realized, “I can’t really be afraid. And if I’m not bringing it, then that’s about the only thing. There’s ways to make people pay attention to you, and not manipulative ways. Don’t cheat it and don’t be scared.”

As Shakey Graves, Rose-Garcia plays a gnarly composite of blues and folk as a one-man-band of epic sonic proportions. The sound emitted from his hollow body guitar, mildly distorted amp and suitcase drum belie the young singer’s lean frame. He fingerpicks while keeping time with a double-pedal kick drum, hitting a snare fitted into his suitcase drum and a tambourine fashioned to its side. And when he sings, Rose-Garcia unleashes an unearthly howl. Gritty groans and sexy moans carry his stories of both accepting and trying to overcome personal challenges masked with old-timey Western imagery.

However, this sound is a huge evolution from his first full-length album, Roll the Bones, which was self-released in 2011 and landed him a spot as the official busker of the Railroad Revival Tour with Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Mumford & Sons and Old Crow Medicine Show. Much more mellow than his current live performances, Roll the Bones highlights Rose-Garcia more as a lo-fi singer-songwriter, playing acoustic guitars and occasionally taming his growl to a whisper.

When I call him post-fest, Rose-Garcia is taking a break from recording his next album. He has a house to himself in Austin and has converted it into a personal studio with a 1979 Tascam 8-track reel-to-reel recorder. He’s been inviting friends over to jam and excitedly tells me, “I’ve been sitting on the floor for the past three days drinking wine and playing music.”

There’s a Hammond pipe organ from the ‘80s and a lap steel, some violins and of course, the now-famous suitcase drum. “This is music house!” he exclaims. “Music house is going down!”

Although still early in the process, Rose-Garcia divulges, “The next album will be bigger,” emphasizing the latter half of the word, “than my live show. He continues, “I’m trying to do that to encourage myself to come up with new ways to play music live. Hopefully these songs will either have to make me go to looping more or have minimal accompaniment or something like that.”

The still untitled LP will be released at some point in 2014, with an EP or live compilation possibly dropping before that. In between bouts of recording, though, Rose-Garcia has upcoming gigs at Austin City Limits and tours scheduled with Shovels & Rope and fellow Pickathon performers like JD McPherson and The Devil Makes Three.

“See that’s a great thing that happened at Pickathon. They approached me backstage and introduced themselves. They were like, ‘Hey what’s up? We’re Devil Makes Three!’ And I was like, ‘Excuse me?! You’re what?’”

This is what Rose-Garcia means when he explains his excitement to get back to being a fan of music. He geeks out over opening for Robert Plant earlier this year and raves about sharing a stage with Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré (exuding, “He’s like the Hendrix of the Sahara!”) during a jam at the Edmonton Folk Festival. Rediscovering the pure enjoyment of music has helped focus his own aspirations and plot his next goals.

“It’s this coming back to my roots thing, which was been awesome. After Pickathon and everything, I’m like, there is no time. You might fall off the mountain or a bear might eat you. All of the songs I’m intending to make aren’t going to get made if I don’t start making them.”