Writer’s Room: Shakey Graves

Photo by Greg Giannukos

In 2014, Austin singer-songwriter and guitarist Alejandro Rose-Garcia — a.k.a. Shakey Graves — released his Dualtone Records debut, And The War Came. Its winsome duet with Esmé Patterson, “Dearly Departed” — along with Graves’ leading-man looks and charming stage presence  — lured audiences to his energetic folk-blues performances, during which his heels thumped a suitcase-turned-percussion rig while drummer Chris Boosadha pounded away. Since earning the Emerging Artist of the Year trophy at the 2015 Americana Honors and Awards, Rose-Garcia has expanded both his band and his musical palette. His new album, Can’t Wake Up, is a theatrical, Kinks- and Disney-inspired dream-pop fantasia. Complete with a big bad wolf.

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Did the album direction evolve as you worked on it, or did you have a vision at the outset?

I had a vision, but initially I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a different side project. Between the last thing I put out, and what our show was looking like and the music I was writing when I was left to my own devices, I knew I had to break the structure a little bit, or the assumption, because I was still getting booked on folk bills. Sometimes it was a strange fit. I have no problem with being typecast, because obviously, I’m the one who wears the cowboy hat, and that was an important way to brand myself in my own mind, and, early on, to have an identity. … It goes both ways … Some of the headlines or catchphrases coming out are like … ‘Shakey Graves packs away his cowboy hat.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m wearing a cowboy hat now!’

As thoughtful and planned out as this record [is], it’s also very instinctual; I didn’t know [what it was] until it was all there. I had imagined it and knew how I wanted it to make people feel, but it wasn’t like I was sitting on a big chunk of songs to pick from.

I can tell there was a lot of production, and attention to sound.

I don’t get tired of playing with stereo and messing with sonic space. That’s an early trick I learned to get a little to go a long way. Especially vocal tracks, going back and forth, and with percussion, just smashing a bunch of claps and snaps and stuff, but in different regions of the ear. I love percussion; it’s obviously a big part of my show, in a more stripped-down way. But I used this record as a great excuse to get better at stuff that I like doing. Playing bass, playing drums.

The album has several fairy-tale references. How big an influence was Disney on you as a child?

A lot. It started with fairy tales like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and a lot of mythology. I was raised hearing that stuff. So I perceive everything through a folklore window, or storytelling. Disney expanded on that. That was his intention; the early Disney works are just fairy tales and fables brought to life. That is at the heart of what I do, in a sense that those stories are usually quick morality tales or important survival tactics that are taught to children at a young age through some sort of dark-veiled analogy.

True, like Hansel & Gretel.

Yeah, like don’t trust strangers. Don’t go to someone’s house if they say it’s made out of candy, because they’ll eat you.

And don’t trust wolves at your grandmother’s.

Yeah. Don’t do that! Be discerning. And be innocent, too. The hero in a lot of those tales is accidental, just bumbl[ing] through — the fool, so to speak. Those are the characters in my songs, too, I’d say — or myself as a character.

How are the songs translating live?

I’ve never recorded something that sounds the same live. There’s some that are close, and some that don’t need to be. It’s a lot of abstraction. Like what elements, when you take them away, [make] the song cease to feel the same? And what elements are we just resting on because that’s what we think the song is built out of? Because sometimes it’s not.

You’ve turned audiences into duet partners for “Dearly Departed” — another device for doing more with less. And by making them participants, you break down the wall.

That’s what I’m interested in … I’m presenting these songs to people. It’s not just tumbling them out, but really trying to be thoughtful about how I show them.

You mentioned you considered a side project instead. Like what?

I’m not sure. It would have been us, but an alter ego.

Alter-ego projects can be fraught.

For sure.

Like Chris Gaines.

Oh, I adore Chris Gaines! Chris Gaines was almost the best alter ego. It wouldn’t be so Chris Gaines, but if and when I do that, I don’t want to half-ass that, either.

You’ve got something in mind.

I do. I can’t reveal it because the surprise would be lost.

This album has a dreamy quality. What do you dream about these days?

I’m dreaming about making more stuff. I’m dreaming of a world where I don’t have to self-promote and hustle everything that I make. I don’t mind it, but I would like to just make stuff and survive and be able to eat. I would be good with that. Have songs, make stuff, eat food.

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