The future’s bright for the young Angeleno And an old song plays in his head Far as he knows. . .
These lines from the title track of Sam Outlaw's debut album Angeleno could almost serve as a haiku-like artist bio. Outlaw is a southern Californian singer-songwriter steeped in the music and mythos of west coast country, absorbing the classic vibes of everything from '60s Bakersfield honky-tonk to '70s Laurel Canyon troubadour pop and refashioning them into a sound that's pleasurably past, present and future tense.
“The music I play, I call 'SoCal country,'” says Outlaw. “It's country music but with a Southern California spirit to it. What is it about Southern California that gives it that spirit, I don't exactly know. But there's an idea that I like that says - every song, even happy songs, are written from a place of sadness. If there's a special sadness to Southern California it's that there's an abiding shadow of loss of what used to be. But then, like with any place, you have a resilient optimism as well.”
While he explores those shadows on the title track and the elegiac “Ghost Town,” Outlaw mostly comes down on the side of the optimists through Angeleno's dozen tracks. Opener “Who Do You Think You Are?” breezes in with south of the border charm, all sunny melody wrapped in mariachi horns, while “I'm Not Jealous” is a honky-tonker with a smart twist on the you-done-me-wrong plot. “Love Her For A While” has the amiable lope of early '70s Poco, “Old Fashioned” the immediacy of a touch on the cheek, and the future Saturday night anthem “Jesus Take The Wheel (And Drive Me To A Bar)” shows Outlaw has a sense of humor to match his cowboy poet nature. Throughout, producers Ry and Joachim Cooder frame the material with spare, tasteful arrangements, keeping the focus on Outlaw's voice. And it's a voice that indeed seems to conjure up California in the same way as Jackson Browne's or Glenn Frey's. Easy on the ears, open-hearted, always with an undertow of melancholy.
Upon releasing her 2014 album, Ease My Mind (Kingswood Records), singer-songwriter Michaela Anne garnered considerable acclaim for her introspective songwriting. The New York Times praised the "plain-spoken songs of romantic regret and small-town longing" and the Village Voice listed it among its Top 5 Country Albums of the year. Since then, however, this once-solitary diarist has transformed herself into a gregarious storyteller. Michaela Anne has discovered her inner extrovert.
Bright Lights and the Fame (Kingswood Records), recorded at Farmland Studio in Nashville, is full of sharp observations and easy wit, with several upbeat numbers tailor-made for the dance floor of the nearest honky-tonk. While there are gentler, more personal aspects to it that recall her earlier work, Bright Lights and the Fame displays a newfound brashness, starting with the album's cover image, in which Michaela Anne sports a bedazzled denim outfit, a vintage find that's perfect for catching the spotlight.
Having recently relocated from Brooklyn to Nashville, Michaela Anne took advantage of the many collaborative writing opportunities Nashville has to offer as she developed her repertoire for the album. She'd met the Grammy-nominated producer Dave Brainard (Brandy Clark, Jerrod Nieman) after opening for singer Clark at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan and co-wrote two tracks, strikingly different in mood, with him: the heartbreak ballad "Everything I Couldn't Be" and the up-tempo "Won't Go Down," a deceptively barroom-worthy number about the lines the narrator just won't cross. Michaela Anne and Brainard had a lot in common: they both were raised in very disciplined military families but were drawn to the more freewheeling world of the musician. The song reflects that intriguing dichotomy in Michaela Anne's own life: "It's about being a bit of a square. I have boundaries. When I was a teenager, I was afraid of getting in trouble but I was attracted to the people who would. I always dated the bad boys. Dave and I were talking about treading this fine line. It's a pretty autobiographical song."
Their collaboration also illustrates the two sides of Bright Lights and the Fame. It's pensive and tender on songs like the rueful "Easier Than Living" and the soul-baring "Stars," but upbeat and swinging on tunes like the two-stepping title track and the hell-raising "Liquor Up." Explains Michaela Anne, "My intention was to be honest with my songwriting but not just in a super-reflective way. I wanted to try and show the fun, free-spirited side of it as well. We can have all of these different parts to us and still be one person. You can want to go out to a bar and not worry about anything, but also sit and think, how am I going to buy a house and raise a family? I want to have all these different things and to reconcile that, to be deeply intuitive and emotional and self-aware, but also to throw caution to the wind at some point and pursue what some might call irrational dreams."
Bright Lights and the Fame was produced by Dan Knobler, a guitarist who'd often performed live with Michaela Anne. He had run the successful Mason Jar Music audio-video company in Brooklyn before opening his Gooseland Palace studio in Nashville, where the album was mixed. When it was time to start recording, Michaela Anne and her band mates worked together in one room, cutting basic tracks live at Farmland. That gives the album a feeling of immediacy, a congenial spontaneity, as if you're in the bar while Michaela Anne and her cohorts play. But she spent considerable time doing pre-production, even heading out for a string of gigs with Knobler before they hit the studio: "Between shows we'd woodshed songs, going through my repertoire, taking about arrangements. We had so much prep before we got into the studio that it was a very natural progression. We had a real understanding of each other, a respectful rapport, and we were able to bring out the best in everyone." She took an equally careful approach to overdubs, spending a couple of months to add more instrumentation and vocal harmonies.
Along with producer Knobler, a few more Brooklyn ex-pats join Michaela Anne on Bright Lights and the Fame. Punch Brother Noam Pikelney plays banjo on "Worrying Mind" and singer Kristin Andreassen co-wrote "Luisa." Other guest stars include singers Cory Chisel and Erin Rae, and Rodney Crowell, arguably the progenitor of today's Americana sound, lends his distinctive elder statesman's voice to the rollicking "Luisa."
In fact, Crowell was an accidental inspiration for "Liquor Up," a good-natured exhortation to let the good times roll: "I had written most of that song in New York and I think it was the night before we started rehearsals, my husband was watching a video of Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band from, I think, 1978, when Rodney was in the band. They were playing 'Feeling Single, Seeing Double' and I was in my office and I could hear it from the living room. I said, I want a song that has that vibe. It's a really fun song, and it has such interesting lyrical content. Plus, I'm obsessed with the movie Urban Cowboy; I've watched it a million times. I love the music and the dancing -- the two stepping. So I went back to my notebook, picked out that song and finished it. I wanted to have an original song in my set that would make me want to dance. And to write it from a female perspective, about just wanting to have fun tonight."
Given her dad's military service, Michaela Anne's upbringing was an itinerant one. As she recalls, "Growing up, I felt like a chameleon. I wanted to quickly fit in wherever I could. I would look around and figure out whom I needed to be friends with to survive. And that informed my musical tastes, I liked everything. Depending on who I was hanging out with, that's what I listened to. My dad loved country and so did I, but I also listened to pop and hip-hop. I was a typical kid of the nineties and the early oughts." Coming on her own to New York City, she enrolled in the School of Jazz at the New School in Manhattan, thinking that jazz, which she loved, was where her talent lied. "But I very quickly realized that was not for me. " A chance introduction to the Brooklyn-based folk-bluegrass guitarist Michael Daves, who tutored some of her fellow students as part of their curriculum, changed her musical path forever. "I went to his house and we would transcribe harmony parts from Bill Monroe records. He taught me bluegrass harmony and we would sing together. And then he helped me pick out my first guitar and he taught me how to play it."
That's the circuitous way Michaela Anne found her voice and her calling as a musician –and earned a diploma. And with her move to Nashville in 2014, she may have found a home.
"I was in New York for ten years and I still feel like a New Yorker in many ways," Michaela Anne admits, "but a lot of things about New York were stressful for me. A lot of my more introspective, self-reflecting songs probably dominated my records because that was what was dominating my mind. Moving to Nashville was kind of a dream experience, almost like I was experiencing my younger days. It's such a vibrant, intimate and creative community. People actually want to get together and play music together every day and write songs. You go out and see the same friends you saw the night before. You start to get to know people. You go to a local bar and see the songwriters who wrote George Strait's biggest hits or you run into Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. You can't help but be inspired and changed."
Bright Lights and the Fame clearly reflects Michaela Anne's experience in Music City: It welcomes you in. Her work is candid and convivial, heartfelt and fun, like a night on the town or an intimate conversation with a friend. You're definitely going to want to hang out a while.
Jaime Wyatt’s newest release Felony Blues, whose title is a nod to records like David Allan
Coe’s Penitentiary Blues, is largely an autobiographical collection of convict love stories,
prison songs, and honky-tonk laments.
Wyatt is a striking figure with an old soul and a voice like a force of nature. Regardless of
genre, the Los Angeles-based Wyatt is a dynamic performer, who sails naturally between
vintage ‘60s and ‘70s country/rock ’n’ soul anthems and heartfelt country ballads of love
and corruption. Country radio station 95.3 The Bear recently named her, alongside Sturgill
Simpson and Margo Price, as “one of the country artists you may not have heard of, but need
Wyatt got a record deal at the age of 17, with multiple soundtracks and movie placements,
but after a second deal went down the tubes, she developed a drug problem.
She got busted for robbing her dealer and took a plea deal for eight months in jail, a felony
strike, six months of treatment and three years felony probation. “I stayed out of trouble
most the time in jail, by singing songs for people and making them laugh,” says Wyatt.
After she served her term, Wyatt, become enthralled with the music of Merle Haggard and
Johnny Cash - who had similar struggles with the law and substance abuse. She studied
country music and toured in folk and country bands up and down the West Coast.
“I met the hit songwriter John Durrill, who recommended I cover “Misery and Gin,” a song
he wrote for Merle Haggard in 1979. A dear friend and supporter gifted Jaime with a session
at East West Studios in Hollywood, CA, to record with producer, Mike Clink (Guns N’Roses),
and this track closes the record.
“For the rest of the record, I tracked in between constant touring, whenever I had a dime or
a guitar to trade for recording time at my bass player, Drew Allsbrook’s studio in Van
Nuys. I joked about calling the album Nickel and Dimin’ for this reason.”
After completing the record and looking for a label, Wyatt met Forty Below Records head,
producer Eric Corne (John Mayall, Walter Trout). Corne fell in love with the songs and
agreed to remix the record and release via Forty Below Records.
The musicians on the record include top notch Americana and country pickers John
Schreffler Jr and Ted Russell Kamp from Shooter Jennings band; Gabe Witcher of the
Punch Brothers on fiddle; fellow Angelino country songwriter Sam Outlaw (who features
on the duet “Your Loving Saves Me”); and long time friend and drummer Freddy
Bokkenheuser, now the touring drummer for Ryan Adams.
Most songs on Felony Blues are inspired by reckless life choices. “From Outer Space” was
originally written as the title track for her last EP, produced by Mark Howard (Lucinda
Williams, Tom Waits). “After playing the song on tour, a couple different band members
helped to give it a 2-step feel and worked up a lot of harmonies,” explains Wyatt. “It is about
feeling alienated and cast aside by society. And about feeling unable to have a normal
romantic relationship, as a touring musician.”
“Stone Hotel” is the story of how Wyatt was convicted for strong-armed robbery. She sings
about how the LAX courthouse made an example of her, acknowledging that it was a drug
house bust, in the lyrics, “Judge said young lady, you never felt the blues, no not yet. And
that DA called for restitution for a hustler out on bond.”
“When I was researching how to expunge my felony, I got a chance to read the minute
orders on my case from seven years prior,” says Wyatt. “This felony has always been a
source of shame and embarrassment. I hit the streets after jail looking for jobs and no one
would hire me because of my criminal record. I eventually got a job at a bicycle shop but
couldn’t receive a promotion for the same reason. On the bright side, it has prompted me to
tour consistently and work hard to make money on the road.”
The other prison song on the album is “Wasco,” which was inspired by one of Wyatt’s
cellmates in LA County Jail, who was writing a guy up at Wasco State Prison, near
Bakersfield. “The cellmate had never met the guy” says Wyatt, “but they were planning their
wedding via love letters back and forth between correctional facilities.”
“I’m hoping that the theme of the record will raise awareness about the judicial system in
America, since I’ve been branded with a felony, I know first hand how the system will keep
you down. Like the words of Merle Haggard: ‘I paid the debts I owed ‘em, but they’re still
not satisfied.’ Wyatt identifies as a - “branded woman.”
Wyatt grew up on a tiny rural island in the northwest with horses and animals. “I was
heavily influenced by my southern hillbilly grandparents Papa Brown and Nana Lo” says
Wyatt. “My first job was a at horse breeding farm, where I listened to 90s country music on
the radio. Both of my parents were also singers and songwriters in the 80s”
Wyatt spent much of last year on the road, playing clubs and festivals throughout the Pacific
Northwest, Southwest and South, such as Wildwood Revival, Bandit Town, Chinook Fest and
Long Beach Folk Revival Festival. She can frequently be found at the iconic Grand Ole Echo in
her hometown of Los Angeles or playing spontaneous gigs at her favorite vintage clothing
stores. An extensive tour in support of Felony Blues is in the works.