Inching up on a year since venues were temporarily shuttered, Asheville-area musicians continue to release new music — much of which was written and recorded prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but paused until creators could get a better sense of the altered industry. Xpress spoke with four such solo artists and groups about their first-quarter releases, three of which share the same producer.
Released on Jan. 29, Jon Charles Dwyer’s Junebug is a gorgeous collection of Americana originals, fortified by full-band instrumentation that provides a thoughtful complement to the singer-songwriter’s warm but knowing vocals and confident acoustic strumming.
The artist’s second full-length work is produced by Cliff B. Worsham, one of Dwyer’s biggest supporters since he and his wife moved to Asheville in 2017 and whose creative partnership Dwyer believes is less a choice than something “written in the stars.” In addition to Worsham’s sonic expertise, Dwyer brought in his former Appalachian State University bluegrass professor Rebecca Branson Jones on pedal steel guitar and another former Boone connection, Alex Travers, on fiddle. Rounding out the collaborations is celebrated indie rocker Jessica Lea Mayfield.
“I asked [Mayfield] to sing on ‘Good Folks,’ but she got back to me after listening to the record and informed me that she also wanted to sing on ‘Shame,’” Dwyer says. “I of course gratefully responded with a resounding, ‘Please!’”
The two went on to film the forthcoming video for “Good Folks” outside Los Angeles — the kind of trip that Dwyer yearns to take again once pandemic conditions improve to where he can perform live without putting attendees at risk. Until then, he’s content to keep his skills sharp in a more private setting.
“I work the front desk at Empire Tattoo, and we don’t open until noon. I love to come in early before anyone gets there and sing,” Dwyer says. “It helps. I miss it all, but I’m grateful for all that’s here.” joncharlesdwyer.bandcamp.com
Return to the cosmos
Worsham’s involvement on an Americana album may raise eyebrows for listeners accustomed to his prolific work in hip-hop and electronica under the moniker MOTHER HOOD, but the artist is upfront that the eclectic credits are an accurate reflection of his interests.
“People get caught up in genre, and I feel like it’s so limiting,” Worsham says. “I go from listening to bubblegum pop-punk to the heaviest hardcore metal to the grimiest hip-hop in a day.“
That sonic openness has been evident throughout Worsham’s successful partnership with local hip-hop artist Davaion Bristol in the duo Spaceman Jones and the Motherships, whose The Loops of Life, Vol. 1 EP is slated for a Tuesday, March 9, release on a limited run 7-inch vinyl. Vol. 2 arrives in June, at which point the entire EP will be released digitally with a bonus track.
Though written before quarantine, the lyrics on The Loops of Life reflect a strong sense of survival, inspired by Bristol feeling significant upheaval in his life on a professional level, being in between jobs, as well as as other personal matters. Add to those crises the tempered appreciation for the tremendous creativity that he and Worsham funnel into each track, and their latest project forms the exciting nexus of numerous stresses and inspirations.
“We haven’t been the most celebrated outside of Asheville. We are kind of a bubble phenomenon right now,” Bristol says. “There were some competitive juices flowing, wanting to be the best, and feeling like we had been putting out so much quality work — and to only be recognized and celebrated in the place that we are from is a little bit frustrating to me. So, I wanted to step it up a little bit.” spacemanjonesandthemotherships.bandcamp.com
Worsham likewise crafted the beats for local hip-hop artist Tyler “Musashi Xero” Jackson’s new EP, Clean Plate Club, a concept album loosely built around themes concerning cuisine.
“I just love food and the art of it,” Jackson says. “I love to cook, I love how it brings people together. I see a lot of parallels between it and music.”
The rapper’s distinct gravelly timbre pairs nicely with Worsham’s sonically dark production and builds on what Jackson calls their “natural connection” that’s existed from the start of their friendship. And while the project’s thematic intentions are evident across songs with names such as “Bones,” “Reservations” and the Bristol collaboration “Leftovers,” Jackson was careful to tap into his “knack for writing with specificity” and keep the conceptual tie-ins loose rather than take a “more overboard” approach as he did on his single “Strawberry Fields.”
Clean Plate Club also marks Jackson’s first album since recovering from a fortunately mild bout of COVID-19 in the fall. Though he’s always “created music with a sense of urgency,” he feels that his experiences in 2020 have helped grow his artistry in numerous aspects.
“The ways in which life has changed and the long-term effects on how things have been altered that we’ve yet to fully see have surely continued to push me to focus,” he says. “However, the last year provided me with the opportunity to look up from the hustle and develop new parts of myself and expand who I see myself as, which has been rewarding and illuminating.” musashixero.bandcamp.com
Hustle Souls’ Daydream Motel may not feature Worsham’s involvement, but its high-energy songs, slick production and rich soulfulness would likely make him proud. The quartet’s latest upbeat EP (out Sunday, Feb. 14) is a welcome respite from the pandemic’s daily fears and uncertainty. Yet the collection is very much a product of the past year and was scheduled to be recorded a week before statewide stay-at-home orders were implemented.
“There were times when the general daydream lightness of the album was in obvious conflict with the outside world, and what we were doing felt trivial in comparison,” says frontman Billy Litz. “But some of the most jubilant music of all time has come in response to what I can only imagine to be very difficult situations, so maybe joyous music isn’t always just an escape from a miserable situation but can serve as a rebellion against it — and maybe the recording of this music gave us the chance to break the negative loop or attraction to dwell in the misery of a situation.”
Litz, Chris Everett (guitar), Jonathan Taylor (bass/vocals), Kevin Scott (drums/vocals) and producer Eric Sarafin — whom Litz calls “the fifth member of the band” — did their best not to “think too much about the world crumbling around [them] outside” and managed to settle into the groove of tracking Daydream Motel fairly quickly.
Adjusting to an existence where they’re not on the road two-four days a week, however, has proved more challenging and forced the bandmates to take on new jobs to earn a living.
“We still practice and have written basically a whole new album, but the only time we have found to practice that works for our new schedules is 8 a.m. on Mondays, which is pretty early in the musician world,” Litz says. “I know for myself, I had to come to peace with the fact that making music in front of people cannot be my identity or where I get all my purpose and joy in life. It’s really frustrating to let go of a plan you have spent years of sleepless nights trying to build for no fault of your own — like, really frustrating. But I realized that my joy for music is personal and will always be there.” hustlesouls.bandcamp.com
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