Recording and performing under the name Shakey Graves, Alejandro Rose-Garcia can be virtually anyone: a murderer, a jilted lover, a convict, a lonesome wanderer.
“That’s something I consider a privilege of songwriting,” said Rose-Garcia, 27, reached in mid-June at home in Austin, Texas. “In all honesty, that’s the beauty of writing in general. Like, Jack London was a big, depressed fat guy that never went out in the woods, and yet he wrote the definitive book about dying in the Antarctic.
“I felt a little constrained by the concept of trying to write everything from my point of view. Well-written songs have this beauty to them where … I can write a song about a very specific thing in my life, and if I use the right word combination it can be about a very specific thing in your life.”
To further illustrate his point, the musician, who visits Newport Music Hall for a concert on Monday, June 23, recounted the creation of one tune he recently penned for his forthcoming album And the War Came, which he hopes to release sometime this fall. While the still-untitled number started as a love song, Rose-Garcia was hesitant to write another ditty centered on the concept of “her” — “I can’t have every song on my album be about women,” he said — so he started toying with the wording, gradually shaping the verses into a tale of addiction and desperation.
“Even changing ‘her’ to ‘you’ or ‘we’ actually opened a lot more doors,” said Rose-Garcia, whose career path was informed, in part, by growing up with a playwright mother. “That’s the power the written word can have when you give the brain some space to run around in a song.”
Shakey Graves’ roots stretch back to 2008, when Rose-Garcia, then living in Los Angeles, was working as an actor (some might remember him from his role as “The Swede,” Julie Taylor’s brief summer fling on “Friday Night Lights”), a profession he pursued in spite of some deep-seated personal reservations.
“I had trouble with how hard you have to sell yourself [in the industry],” he said. “I know that sounds obvious, but it gets surreal when your car is filled with photos of your head. It’s like, ‘Me, me, me, me.’”
So when he initially launched Shakey Graves as a one-man band, he attempted to maintain a degree of anonymity, concerned some might label his musical pursuits either a lark or a vanity project of some kind. Even when he appeared on the cover of his debut album, Roll the Bones, he did so incognito, donning a mask made from a taxidermied cow’s head.
“I wanted to create a character of some sort, where people could assume anything about me or pour their own personality into my music,” he said. “I don’t care about [my music] being about me or what I’ve done in my life.”
No matter what type of character he embodies, however, there’s a persistent rawness engrained in Rose-Garcia’s primal hobo-folk. Indeed, it felt oddly appropriate when the musician compared the creative process with archeology (“You dig out this idea and try your best to smooth out the edges,” he said), since his songs often come on as though they’re still caked in visible bits of mud, clay and earth. It’s a trait further heightened in concert, where Rose-Garcia accompanies his folksy guitar strumming by stomping out roughhewn beats on a small kick drum, giving over his entire being to the performance.
“When my entire body is occupied, it makes it easier to go into a trance where my brain isn’t able to focus or nitpick as I’m playing,” he said. “As opposed to being precious about how I phrase a certain thing or play a lick on the guitar … multitasking allows me to get right down to the feel of the song.”
Of course, the same way Rose-Garcia once worried about feeling constrained writing songs from his own point of view, he now refuses to be hemmed in by the one-man-band label, and on recent tours he’s started branching out, playing alongside upwards of three musicians and allowing the sets to build Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense”-style by adding and subtracting players throughout the evening.
“As the years go on that’s something I’m excited about pursuing further, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I eventually go on the road with a small string section or a bluegrass accompaniment or whatever,” he said. “It’s easy to get precious about something simply because it works, but I’m uncomfortable working in that capacity. Just because something works doesn’t mean there’s not something else in there I haven’t found yet.”
Kirk Stewart photo