By ERIC SCHELKOPF
For his self-titled solo debut, Chicago musician Peter Joly has enlisted the help of some top local musicians, including Jon Williams, Josh Piet (The Hoyle Brothers), Charles Rumback, Joe Adamik (Iron & Wine) and Gerald Dowd (Frisbie).
Joly will perform at 9 p.m. Nov. 26 at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave., Chicago. Rachel Drew, who also performs on the album, and her band the Bitter Roots are also on the bill.
Tickets are $8, available at www.ticketfly.com.
I had the chance to talk to Joly about the new album.
Q - Great talking to you. Of course, you will be celebrating the release of your solo debut album on Nov. 26 at The Hideout. In sitting down to make the record, what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them?
Wow, this question covers a lot of ground. Believe it or not, the inception of this new record was a few years back in 2012.
I had done the rounds performing and recording with two separate bands, Big Breakfast and For Pilots, since arriving in Chicago in ’93. Both projects were very positive creatively and personally.
It had been well over a year since For Pilots released "Fortunate" and so I had plenty of new songs to start working on a new record. I’m always writing, so until now I have always had enough new material to start a new recording project not long after finishing the last one.
I’m sitting on at least six or seven keepers for my next record as we speak!
Anyway, there was something personal that I’d been trying to achieve with those past recordings that I just wasn’t getting to. I absolutely wanted to get very acoustic. I also wanted to create more space in the music, a challenge when you are playing with a band. Plus, the guys I was playing with at that time (Paul Ovnik on drums and Jamie Wagner on bass) are great players - so you gotta kind of turn them loose and let them play!
We were styled as a three-piece original rock band, so I didn’t feel I could impose on a band, the necessary restrictions musically to achieve my vision of a primarily acoustic record with a lot of space. It didn’t seem fair to them in that setting.
One day I got a call from Jon Williams; he had heard through the grapevine that I was ready to do another record. Jon was one of the first musicians in Chicago I’d worked with. He joined Big Breakfast when it was just myself and a bass player and together we built that group and did what we did.
We’d fallen out of touch a bit since the amicable Big Breakfast split, both busy doing different things with different people. I was driving around one day and my cell rang and it was Jon.
I pulled over and we talked for about half an hour. Jon suggested that it was time I did a solo record. I had written all the songs recorded by both previous bands, so maybe now it was time to just buck up and own it!
In a figurative sense. Jon agreed to be on board to help me, for as long as it took, to accomplish my vision. That was the day I decided to do the solo record.
Our goals were very simple: to make a record from beginning to end that, when finished, I could stand back and say - there’s nothing about this that I don’t love or would change. To say, “this is the record I’ve been trying to record for over 20 years.”
So in that sense, yes, I think we accomplished our goals.
Q - Several local musicians are featured on the album. How did you connect with them and what do you think they brought to the record?
Jon’s role throughout this project was that of producer. He got to sit in the big chair! I mean we agreed that I had ultimate veto power creatively, but Jon was steering the ship and the acting captain.
So, he initiated all the musician choices. Jon’s extremely connected and respected throughout Chicago as a top notch player and collaborator.
He first recruited Josh Piet of the great country band The Hoyle Brothers on upright bass. Josh is one of the best upright players in the city- so when I heard he was in I felt we were really on our way.
We took a somewhat unique approach to recording this record, after some admitted trial and error. Our first run at it had me on scratch guitar and vocal while Josh recorded his bass parts. The thinking was that maybe we’d get some of my live stuff that we could keep, but if not once we had good takes of Josh, I could go back and perfect my parts over his bass tracks.
We’d gotten pretty deep into the process after getting great takes from Josh, I’m talking about a year in- before deciding to scrap all that work and start over from the beginning.
I just couldn’t perform good takes of my tunes that way and I hated everything, literally every song, that I had played. That was a sobering day in the studio. So we sat down and started all over.
Our new approach started with getting primarily live solo takes of all the songs; all my guitar and vocal parts, the way I was hearing them in my head, then build upon that. Once that was accomplished, Josh came back in and redid all of his parts, and voila! We were on our way.
I especially enjoyed this process because of the freedom it gave me to perform the songs unencumbered by the restrictions imposed playing as an ensemble. I know that sounds odd but I believe this approach is what gives this record such a unique feel. Somehow it worked in this instance.
After we had these basic tracks all finished (again), Jon started recruiting the rest of the musicians who would really breathe life into this record. I couldn’t be more humbled by the folks who performed on this thing and made it what it is; all so accomplished and talented.
Jon considered each song individually; who might be a good fit where? We used three different drummers- all top tier in their peer groups: Charles Rumback, a leader in the thriving Chicago jazz music scene. I’d known Charles peripherally over the years and had worked together with him once or twice.
Charles has this quiet grace about him that translates into his incredible playing. I liked him so much the first time I’d met him that when Jon told me he was in I knew he was a perfect choice.
I had never met Joe Adamik or Gerald Dowd prior to this record although both of their reputations preceded them. Among many other accomplishments, Joe had recorded and toured with Iron & Wine.
I must admit I felt somewhat intimidated meeting him that first day we worked together over at the MINBAL recording studio. He’s just so accomplished and talented.
He couldn’t have been nicer or worked harder at giving each song he performed on the perfect percussive touches. It was inspiring to be part of his process and to have had the opportunity to watch and hear him work out music.
I feel the same about Gerald Dowd. Although Gerald was brought in closer to the end of the project and ended up performing on just one track, I feel no less blessed to have had his participation.
As well as being an in-demand drummer, Gerald is a successful singer/songwriter. So he brought those additional sensibilities to this essentially singer/songwriter record.
I met Rachel Drew at a monthly residency that I play. She came and performed some of her original material and I was blown away by her voice. When the first singer Jon had enlisted, (Jackie Rae Daniels), moved to Seattle mid project, I suggested to Jon calling Rachel.
She accepted the gig and made my day! Rachel now fronts the heavy hitting The Bitter Roots. She and her band will share the stage with me at the release show Nov. 26. I couldn’t be happier about that bit of synchronicity.
Gabriel Stutz played pedal steel on one tune, “God in Love in June,” off my new record. Listen to that song and there’s no way you’ll disagree.
That one contribution, on that one tune, makes a huge difference to the listeners overall takeaway from the record. His playing made that song in my opinion.
In much the same way I feel [good] about Daniel Gillespie who played fiddle on “Midnight Rain.” Daniel came up with this beautiful string part that just lassoed that song, tightened it up and brought it home.
One of the most repeated compliments I’ve received on the record is “that string part in ‘Midnight Rain’ is so beautiful man.”
Q - I understand that you wrote the song "God In Love In June" after hearing that June Carter Cash had died. How did she inspire you as a musician?
I wouldn’t say she inspired me as a musician at all, although her folks stuff, The Carter Family stuff, was inspirational to me. Now Johnny Cash, he’s a different story.
As much as you can love someone through their art without knowing them as a person, I loved Johnny Cash. He just laid it out there, scars and all; take it or leave it.
Of course he became beloved for who he was as much as for how great his music was. The movie "Walk The Line" had come out not too long before June’s death.
The best thing that movie did, in my opinion, was to portray June’s salvation of Johnny’s seemingly certain demise and his undying love for her for doing so. It really schooled the public about that.
So, when I’d heard she had died my first thoughts were of him and the deep sadness he was certainly experiencing. So that song is really about him much more so than her.
Q - You play on a regular basis at the Friendly Music Community in Berwyn. Do you feel like you have become part of a larger music community through playing there?
I do. Rob Pierce over at the Friendly Music School and club has done some amazing things in such a short period of time. Really all of the new Berwyn music venues should be very proud and stand tall for the massive cultural contributions they have given that community.
There’s this whole recent and ongoing organic, cultural thing happening with live music right now in Berwyn. I mean there’s always been the great Fitzgerald’s Nightclub- the real flagship of the Berwyn music scene.
But you know what we all found out? There was room for more, and more turned out to be a great thing for everybody! Great for Berwyn, great for us musicians to have even more places to play and I would argue even great for Fitzgerald’s.
It’s become a real destination for folks, residents and tourists, to hear great live music. A little like Frenchman Street in NOLA, but different because it’s a bit more spread out.
But yes, not only at Friendly’s but now there’s great music happening at The Outta Space, The Wire and many other cool Berwyn live music stages.
Q - How would you describe your music? Who are your biggest inspirations?
My most recent standard go-to on this is “Americana, roots, original, acoustic, singer/songwriter”- how’s that?
Regarding inspirations? Songwriters.
My first concert experience was Neil Young, solo at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. I was a freshman in high school. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. I learned the whole "Walking Man" record by James Taylor.
I had gotten good at listening to a song on a record over and over; lifting the needle and setting it back down in the same spot a hundred times until I could match what the guitar on the record was doing. That’s how I learned to finger pick.
Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Gordon Lightfoot, Elvis Costello, Joan Armatrading, Randy Newman - "Sail Away," wow! I recall seeing Paul Simon live as the musical guest on a very early Saturday Night Live - he was a young man at the time.
I was transfixed by this guy: just a guitar, a pretty voice, heartbreaking lyrics and the coolest chord changes I could ever have imagined. Later I discovered Lyle Lovett and Bob Dylan. It’s funny, I recall hearing “Tangled Up in Blue” on my transistor radio as a kid.
I knew instinctively that there was magic in that song, and those lyrics - “She was working in a topless place when I stopped in for a beer.” Even at 11 years old there’s something so poetically honest about that phrasing that grabbed me and screamed...”This! This is it man!”
But I never really dug into Dylan until later, in my late 20’s. Maybe subconsciously I was afraid to confront that much power in songwriting before I was really ready to process it. I was obsessed with Lyle Lovett for years after the first time I first heard "Joshua Judges Ruth."
Q - You moved to Chicago in 1993 from Buffalo, New York. What made you want to move to Chicago? How is the music scene here different from the Buffalo music scene?
I was in my mid-20s in Buffalo NY, driving a cab and writing songs; playing gigs and struggling to pay my rent. In order to make any money driving a cab, you must work 12 hour shifts minimum.
There are long periods of down time with zero fares, so in order to offset that, long hours are required to hit that spurt of a couple hours here and there when the fares are flying and money is actually coming in. I mostly worked the 4 p.m. - 4 a.m. shift, then would pick up my relief who would drop me off at home and use the car for the day until picking me up again at 4 p.m.
It was grueling. It did give me an opportunity to work on my music though, so I took that. Business would die most weekdays days after 11 p.m.
People don’t use cabs in Buffalo as much as they do here. So, I’d keep my guitar in the trunk and depending on where I was at in the city (I had my regular “out of the way” spots depending on what part of the city I happened to be in), I’d park in a private spot, get my guitar from the trunk and sit in the back seat and write music.
I’d keep the dispatch radio very low so as not to be distracted and must admit, I missed more than just a few good money calls because I didn’t hear them call my cab number! To this day that was the hardest job I’ve ever had.
I had a bad break up with a long-term, live-in girlfriend and it was time to make a break. The music scene at that time in Buffalo was very limited for me, so I knew I needed to get to someplace else to grow and succeed.
The time seemed right to leave. NYC and Chicago were pretty much my options. My sister, Margaret, lived in Chicago and just happened to have lost a roommate and was looking for a replacement so I took that as my sign.
I was on a train to Chicago within a week of deciding to leave Buffalo for good and start a new life. I have been here ever since.
Q - What are your short-term and long-term goals?
Short term goals? Promote this record as successfully as I can; keep writing and recording songs that I like and continue to nurture the love and support that I give and get from family and friends.
Long term goals? Get rich AND famous. Shit, I’ve only been doing this for over 30 years, so my overnight success must be just around the corner.
Thanks for asking.