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Interview with Bryan John Appleby: A Gem in the Emerald City

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Seattle streets are smeared with plaid as pearl-buttoned nomads move from Capital Hill to Ballard and back, itching for a new audible mistress to coddle their lust for good music. But if we’ve learned anything from nine hours of landscapes and battle lore, it’s that not all who wander are lost, and many, including myself, found what they were looking for one evening at Porchlight Coffee in a man who needed no more than a guitar and a nine o‘clock shadow to sand our souls with grit from times gone by. KEXP’s Hannah Levin felt similar sentiments when she heard Bryan John Appleby at a Conor Byrne open mic, casting him as a recent One to Watch for Seattle Weekly.

Appleby’s light, calming voice adorns his rustic folk melodies like the feather on the dusty road he sings about in ‘Cliffs Along on the Sea’, a track from his new EP, Shoes for Men and Beasts, available on itunes and at all his live performances. The smallness of the space may have aided in the room’s hush, but as Appleby shared in song about the one who fills his cup, the only other sound was that of those trying to pinch through the door of a coffee house filled to the brim with off-center music lovers.

Such silence is a rare occurrence in my almanac of show-going, especially for a local singer/songwriter whom no one paid twenty dollars to see. While singer/songwriting is probably the most sincere method of making music, it’s also one of the more difficult ways to seem sincere. My feet were wet with disappointment last August as the ‘Chads’ behind me drowned out J. Tillman’s (of Fleet Floxes) gutting introduction to Phosphorescent at The Crocodile with memoirs of how they like to work out after sex. Correspondingly, Appleby was kind and insightful enough to share his thoughts with me on the ‘nail bitings’ of the Seattle folk scene and the view from his side of the scruff:

James Germain: You wrote on your myspace page that while you listen to classic ‘rootsy’ heroes like Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, and Bob Dylan, you don’t think your songs sound like theirs, but you like the way their songs make you feel. Do you find yourself more inspired by listening to other artists, in a Pet Sounds-begot-Sgt Pepper sort of way?

Bryan John Appleby: I absolutely draw from the creative wells of other artists. I don’t agree with the statement that there is nothing new under the sun. Musical innovation is around, but I’ve never felt compelled to be the trailblazing, novel artist. I’m more of a collector. I write my best when I’m reading lots of books and listening to lots of bands and songwriters. I gather this melody and that chord progression and that picking pattern and this lyric style and I blend ‘em up, and that’s how I write a song. As it concerns with those old timers like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie and such, they are one layer of sediment and it is good for me to remember that I am building on that foundation. I don’t sound like them. They did that part. So I build something new, like a wall or an attic, but I keep in mind the rest of the house: the foundation, the floorboards, the garden… or at least I try to.

JG: I’ve heard many local and touring musicians describe Seattle as being a tough and often skeptical crowd for live music. Do you empathize, and is there a particular ‘chord’ you use to strike with an audience?

BA: Well to be fair, I’ve only really ever played in Seattle, so I don’t know what the rest of the world is like concerning audience reception. But as far as I know, the crowd seems to want someone to engage with. Every time I watch a singer, I think about this: is the audience in the room with that person or is he just playing songs to himself? What are her eyes doing – are they engaged? It’s almost like picking a fight. Like daring a person to take in your song. Johnny Cash had it. He kept his eyes open and looked people straight in the face. Nothing flashy. Just hold steady with some conviction. I watch this in singers. I try to do it. Sometimes I do. Sometimes they get away from me.

JG: With Seattle championing artists like Fleet Foxes and The Head and the Heart, it’s seemingly developing a reputation as a runway for modern folk acts. Do you find it hard to stand out as a singer/songwriter of folk timber, or is the chronic revival of the genre working in your favor?

BA: Seattle has been really great. I don’t know the guys in Fleet Foxes, but the thing that I really love about The Head and the Heart folks is that they didn’t over think it. They weren’t trying to write radio hits or blow up. They are some very genuine guys (and girl) that happen to write some songs that people happen to really love. Everything else just came. And every time we play songs for each other at the Conor Byrne open mic or wherever, we aren’t competing. We are sharing our creations and we all feed off of that excitement. It’s a really positive, encouraging community with those guys, and a bunch of others like Shenandoah Davis, Campfire OK, and all sorts of folks. We are rooting for each other, not competing. So more and more, I just want to play well-crafted, semi-traditional, yet atypical songs with my friends, regardless of what the current trend happens to be. I only want to think about the songs and not about getting ahead of the pack. I’ve tried this with prior bands and it is really exhausting. If these songs resonate with “the masses,” great, but I’m trying not to look for that.

JG: When I saw you perform solo at Porchlight several weeks ago, you were completely unplugged within a small coliseum of devout listeners. It felt like a rather appropriate arena for your songs and style. Do you prefer a more grassroots performance environment over stages, monitors, and hanging lights?

BA: I like ‘em both. The funnest thing thats happened to me this month is that four of my friends are now backing my songs as a band. This is really fantastic because I now have the option to make my shows really venue specific. I love playing solo in those very intimate environments at eye level. But I also really love a packed room with a lot of noise, and then meeting that noise with a five-piece rock band. Whether the presence descends from on high or softly moves among them, as long as we can all feel something, then great. These experiences are equal but different. I plan on booking both kinds of shows every month. The real trick is making a large venue show feel intimate, or a little living room feel epic. This is what I want to learn next.

Bryan John Appleby is playing with Travis Ehrenstrom and Noah Gundersen (of The Courage) at Fremont’s ToST on November 23, and with Ghost of Kyle Bradford (another local favorite of mine) at The Tractor on November 30 in Ballard. As Appleby is quickly gaining the speed needed to take off, be sure to see his set before tickets cost twenty dollars.

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