The standard image of the blues guitarist is often a middle-aged ruffian with deep life experience in his or her eyes and a scowl on their face. This might be the reason why teen blues prodigies haven’t been all too common. Joining the scant ranks of Derek Trucks, Shannon Curfman and Jonny Lang who, decades before him, grew to prominence with the scent of Proactiv on their six string, Xander Marsden enters that enviable high school blues set at 15 with his new self-titled EP.
Like those alumni before him, his entry into an often purist blues community is met with suspicion and shifty eyes posed directly at his age. How can a teenager sing the blues when they ain’t got that life experience? How deep can their experience be, for crissakes? On the surface, the lyrics for his new single “Town Sleep” might not satisfy those qualifiers (it’s about insomnia) but his guitar slinging posits him well in that world. With searing tones that truly belie his age, you’d never know he probably wrote this shred when he was supposed to be doing algebra homework.
“I felt overwhelming stress from balancing school life with my music life,” Marsden explains about the track. “I had to keep up on things when I really just needed some sleep.”
While naysayers may immediately think, “What does a 15 year old know about stress,” the truth is high school is incredibly stressful especially when your folks move from one town to another right when you’re getting your bearings straight. Entering into an already established social pecking order, the “new kid” syndrome might possibly be the biggest life challenge a kid may ever face. Marsden’s folks created this earthquake in his life when they uprooted the family and moved a few towns away. “The social environment that I was in changed a lot,” he explains, “and those changes exhibited themselves in these songs. With that kind of change comes new emotions, new ideas and new perspectives, so I was excited to see where those ideas would take me.”
While his music may be based in the blues, his vocal tone and melodic ear for hooks seems a bit better served in indie rock, closer to something like Fountains of Wayne or maybe even a laconic Kurt Vile. It’s an interesting marriage of genres but Marsden makes it work.
“I wrote [“Town Sleep”] because I wanted to capture a moment and a mood that was defining my life at the time,” he replies, returning to his songwriting. “I was pretty overwhelmed with stress and was constantly exhausted but still wanted to be performing at my best. The song was a reflection of how I dealt with stress and exhaustion.”
“The wick is burning like it’s in my head / The ticks clicking like I’m already dead,” he sings, documenting the plodding monotony of insomnia and its battery of thoughts and images. “I feel that this song does a good job of conveying a mood through a groove and its lyrics,” he says. “I also feel this song relates to the challenging times we’re currently living in. Hopefully everyone can find a way for it to relate to them.”
Capturing the dizzying stresses of high school and conveying them in lyrics that can be applied to that universal feeling of being trapped in the oppressive societal climate that we’re living in with the pandemic, politics, and racial tensions makes Marsden’s music not about age, but experience. And that’s where the connector lies that transcends the age gap in the blues world.
“I really want people to take their own interpretation of my songs,” he says. “I feel like my music is an expression of a feeling more than a specific story, so I hope the listener can find ways in their minds to find their own feeling or even meaning.”
While his youthful face may not have that old Buddy Guy or John Mayall scowl, he’s got that deep life experience of an old soul… even if he has to counterbalance it with algebra.
Photo credit is Ashton Herman