The former Black Swans frontman's fourth solo album is out digitally on Friday, Oct. 16
Jerry David DeCicca writes songs with a strong sense of place, and as a Midwesterner living in Texas, everything in the Lone Star State will probably always look relatively new to the Columbus expat, who moved south in 2013. Some of the first songs the former Black Swans frontman wrote in Texas ended up on 2018 album Time the Teacher, a record that reflected the freshness of his new surroundings.
“Everything was a peacock,” DeCicca said.
But DeCicca wrote the songs on new record The Unlikely Optimist and His Domestic Adventures (out Friday, Oct. 16) after spending a good deal of time in his remote hometown of Bulverde, about 30 miles north of San Antonio. “I was writing it with the geography of where I am, [but] from a different perspective and with a greater sense of permanence,” DeCicca said. “Some of that newness had worn off by the time I was writing these songs, so some of the imagery and even the ideas in the record are a little bit more settled in.”
“I couldn’t hear what I needed to hear/So I moved somewhere where no one was near/Except for a woman that I hold dear,” the song “Quiet Life” begins, DeCicca patiently speak-singing in his instantly recognizable, full-mouthed delivery. Often accompanied by partner and vocalist Eve Searls, DeCicca fills the new record with snapshots of domesticity: pet toads, basement steps, morning coffee, toast with grape jelly.
While the self-released record is rooted in realism, DeCicca also wanted to create a “slightly fantastical” world, he said, which is on display in sweeping opening track “I See Horizons,” a forward-looking, evocative soundscape showcasing the saxophone of Frank “The Wild Jalapeno” Rodarte and the electric guitar work of Don Cento, both of whom came along a bit later in the unorthodox recording process.
It all started with a meeting between DeCicca and Texas keys player Augie Myers, a founding member of the Sir Douglas Quintet. "I called up Augie Myers and really just wanted to have lunch with him,” DeCicca said. “At the end of the conversation, he said, ‘When are we recording?’ And he gave me the number to a studio. So I wasn't going to say no.”
DeCicca booked studio time about a month out. He had a handful of new songs, plus an old one, “Country Cookie,” which he previously recorded on a four-track in Austin in 2008 while on tour with former Black Swans violinist Noel Sayre (released in 2009 as a split 7-inch). So he took those songs, wrote a few more, and then recorded them in a day with Searls and Myers.
When DeCicca returned to Columbus for the wedding of his old Black Swans bandmate Keith Hanlon, who also engineers records at Musicol and Secret Studio, he recruited drummer Jovan Karcic and Black Swans bassist Canaan Faulkner for a Musicol session. “I just gave them the stuff I did with Augie and Eve, and they just listened to it and played over the top of it,” DeCicca said. “It’s kind of a backwards way to make a record, having the rhythm section overdub things. But that's the way it happened. Then I got my guitar player here in Austin, Don Cento, to play on it, and then Frank Rodarte, the sax player, and then Ralph White [on violin and kalimba]. … I saw [White] play at Stache’s when he was in the Bad Livers, so it's really exciting that somebody I was sitting a few feet in front of when I was 19, all these years later he’s playing on my record.”
In “West Texas Trilogy,” The Unlikely Optimist’s 11-minute centerpiece, DeCicca also recounts seeing Townes Van Zandt at age 19. (“I came here to be close to their songs,” DeCicca sings). DeCicca's trilogy is drenched in musical history in other ways, too. The title, for one, is a riff on the song “Texas Trilogy” by psych-country act Frummox, which DeCicca first learned about through Lyle Lovett’s Step Inside This House, a 1998 double album featuring tracks by Texas songwriters. But DeCicca isn’t merely a fan of country song trilogies; he also got a firsthand masterclass in them while producing Larry Jon Wilson’s self-titled album, which features songs like “Losers Trilogy” and “Whore Trilogy.”
“Having been in the room with Larry Jon when he was recording those, and being able to watch him and study the way he shifted from section to section with his guitar and the subjects — just the craft of being able to do that, I knew was something I always wanted to do on a song,” DeCicca said.
DeCicca closes The Unlikely Optimist with “To This Earth,” the most spare and unabashedly optimistic song on the record. While gospel songs often speak of being bound for the promised land, DeCicca sings of being “bound to this earth.”
“It's meant to be a prayer of what you have in your own life and within yourself, as well as acknowledging whatever good fortune has come your way that you stumbled into. Some people may attribute that to God's grace, and other people may attribute that to luck,” he said. “I live in the whole world in my mind. I've always had empathy for people I'll never meet that live in places I'll never visit. I've always viewed my own circumstances, even when I was at my lowest moments, as still feeling lucky for what I was born into. That song is about taking notice of those things. That’s how I wanted to end the record.
“It's the quietest song on the record,” he continued, “because it is kind of a private moment. And I think that we all, in the least optimistic moments of our lives or the most optimistic moments of our lives, have those types of private moments where we're talking to ourselves. … That's what songs have always been, anyway — these recitations and proclamations, as well as ways to carry the news. And I've always wanted to get my news from songs. Not the sort of current events news, but things that remind you of who you are or help you uncover some part of yourself that you didn't know was there.”