Nine years down the road from leading the Gathering Field to Atlantic with "Lost in America," Bill Deasy hits the streets this week with "Chasing Down A Spark," a typically solid collection of songs he's self-releasing at what Deasy calls a "crucial moment" in his life as a working musician.
"I don't have a backup plan. I've really committed to this life of music," Bill Deasy says.
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With: Peter Bradley Adams.
Where: Dowe's on Ninth, Downtown.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: $15 advance; $17 at the door; 412-281-9225.
"There's a lot on the line -- I think in a good way," he says. "It's like 'Can I keep doing this?' I'm really putting it out there to try to make this my thing and to do this. And I think that's cool. My back's against the wall in some ways where I need to find a bigger audience around the country or the world or whatever, so I set a high mark for myself this time and really went for it."
It's not that Deasy isn't happy with the way 2003's "Good Day, No Rain" performed. It's more about the need to take it up a notch with this one.
" 'Good Day, No Rain' was a real reawakening, recommitment kind of thing for me," he says. "And it felt great and sold a good amount of copies and did everything I really hoped it would and just got me further along this path. But now it's like I really need to make a living as a performer and a recording artist, and that's not easy to do. So that's my challenge for right now, to hope that these songs connect with people and I find the right partner for this, the right label or right situation or whatever. I'm not negative or pessimistic about anything. It's just reality. I don't have a backup plan. I've really committed to this life of music. And I don't regret it, but of course, you need to make a living at it."
He's already made some major inroads as a writer -- placing a song on a platinum album by Martina McBride, for instance, and that whole "Good Morning, America" deal. But it's no secret that he'd rather make it as an artist than a writer. And this latest record could be just the thing to help him make up for whatever time he may have lost since losing that Atlantic deal, a harder-hitting effort than "Good Day, No Rain" that tops that album's Triple A accessibility with a sturdier wall of guitars supplied by Kevin Salem and the Clarks' Rob James.
"It feels a little bolder," Deasy says. "I feel like there's a strength in it that maybe I haven't ever been able to bring to record. I've always gotten that comment that 'You're better live,' and maybe this is the record where they finally match up."
He brought in Salem -- "the perfect facilitator," Deasy calls him -- to produce, in part, because he loved the work he'd done with Freedy Johnston in the '90s. Salem's guitar was just part of the bargain.
"I think he brought a sensibility that was a good complement to what I do, a little bit outside my comfort zone, but in a good way," Deasy explains. "There's a song called 'Wishing Well,' and it was very different when I originally played it -- more of like a standard Pittsburgh bar-band approach, a blues kind of thing, and Kevin made it into something more special, I think, and more striking. I had to trust him. But I'm pretty open to things like that."
And he's loving the wall of guitars.
"The dual guitar thing, that was kind of a fun new thing for me," Deasy says. "He played with Freedy Johnston in the '90s on 'This Perfect World' and 'Can You Fly' and those kind of records, and they always had those kind of groovy supplemental guitar parts where two players are kind of just having their own little niche in the track. It was fun for me watching those guys. They just had a real good chemistry musically. And they were just in heaven with their gear. They speak the same language."
As for working with James, with whom he's driving through New Hampshire as he speaks, Deasy says, "We've played so much together over the years that it's just natural."
As natural as the pairing is, though, James can't sign on as a full-time member of the Deasy band.
For example, as Deasy reports with a laugh, "I'm taking him right now to the airport to go meet up with the Clarks. So I just borrow him."
And James is enjoying the opportunity to work with an artist he's always admired.
"I needed to juggle some things to do the record," James says. "But I jumped at the chance. I've always felt that Bill has had really strong songs. And it was neat for me working with Kevin, whose work I've admired for years now. So that was exciting for me. I went into it knowing the material just well enough that it could go in a number of different directions depending on what Kevin would bring to the table. And at that point, I had no idea that it was going to end up with me and Kevin playing guitar in the band. But that's where it went, which was just outrageously cool. A lot of things just fell together in the moment."
There's more to the appeal of "Chasing Down A Spark," of course, than lead guitars. The album also marks a return, of sorts, to the wide-open narrative style of "Bound To Be" and the local hit that got him signed, "Lost in America."
There's even an extent to which the singer sees the one track, a Dylan-esque ballad called "Levi," as a sequel to "Lost in America."
"I almost feel like the character in 'Levi' might even be the guy in 'Lost in America' a few years down the road," Deasy says, with a laugh, "just a little more lost, at a real kind of crossroads where he finally just breaks down all the way in New York and has some sort of epiphany."
It starts with Deasy singing, "I was baptized by Levi in a second-floor sink/Trembling and badly in need of a drink/The henchmen were gathered below/They were antsy for bloodshed." And it only gets darker and weirder from there, with the narrator "seven days sober and losing my mind" and a chorus of drunks and "a five-dollar whore with a ten-dollar name."
In short, it's not the sort of song you'd think would be inspired by getting your haircut in a swanky New York City hair salon.
But that's where you'd be wrong.
"I was getting my haircut in New York," he explains. "My manager's best friend cuts hair in kind of a fancy salon there, so I got a free haircut. And I was sitting in the chair before the cut and this kid, Levi, was given the task of washing my hair. And I was sitting there with my head in the sink and Levi was washing my hair and the first lines of that song just came to me. And that's kind of how 'Lost in America' came to me."
He's joined on "Levi" by an unexpected guest on backing vocals:
"Rob is buddies with him and ran into him as we were doing this," he says. "And Rob said, 'You should sing on it.' And that's how it started. It was so nice. We sent him the tracks and he's just such a gracious guy, he really went above and beyond the call. I just asked him to do a harmony on the choruses and it came back with this great bed of oohs and ahhs. That was kind of the theme of this whole record. Everybody did a little bit more and a little bit better than I was expecting to make the whole project even better than I thought it was going to be. It's kind of cool that people care."
Ed Masley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1865.