Preview: Singer-songwriter Bill Deasy recommits to his roots on 'Start Again'
April 25, 2013 4:00 AM
Bill Deasy -- "I still believe that if you make a record that really resonates for you as the artist, people can feel that and react to it."
By Scott Mervis Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The latest album from Bill Deasy is provocatively titled "Start Again," signaling that the Pittsburgh-based singer-songwriter has embarked on a new direction.
The somber, moody cover photo tells you that it's not metal, jam-rock or dance-pop, for starters.
He elaborates in the liner notes that with "Start Again," the singer who made his name in the '90s bands Shiloh and The Gathering Field was looking to get back to the music that first inspired him: Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, CSN, Van Morrison, etc.
"I didn't necessarily intend to exactly fall into that Hootie and the Blowfish-like folk-rockness -- the Gathering Field just fell into that stream," he says. "We fit right into it, of course, like I'm sure all those bands who loved the same kind of music I loved coming up. But I just sort of never quite owned my influences as much as I wish I did. So, I was reclaiming my inspiration, going back there for the new starting point."
"Start Again" is more grade-A material for that increasingly rare fan looking for warm, polished, golden-voiced acoustic rock with carefully drawn poetic songwriting.
In "Where'd She Go?," for instance, a weeper about lost love, he flips between his two characters, writing from her side: "Day after day the good light changed into an evening shadow we settled into/He stood beside and watched me hide behind a veil of sorrow I could barely see through."
On the more hopeful closing ballad, "I Won't Take It Back," he paints a portrait of redemptive love, singing, "And the things that we believe/start to feel like things we hope."
And then there's "Failsafe," a more fleshed-out story of love, betrayal and murder.
The songs, he says, came from various points in his career and varied between personal experience and pure storytelling.
"I think that's always been the case," he says. "It's usually about half and half. I haven't written too many songs like 'Failsafe,' which was really like grander storytelling, where it's a real narrative. That's kind of like this weird gangster saga from another era, like a Diamond Jim kind of guy who uses this big-hearted woman who thinks she can save him. I guess I read a lot of books, so every now and then ... The Gathering Field records had a little more ambitious storytelling when I did tell stories. I guess it's influenced by old Springsteen songs like 'New York Serenade' -- these kind of epic stories."
The album's cast includes three members of the Pittsburgh band City Dwelling Nature Seekers (Peter Freeman, Matt Booth and Chris Parker), with Mr. Parker also serving as the producer who helps give the album some of the textures of those classic artists, including a few songs that are piano based.
"I was just the beneficiary of Chris' awesomeness," Mr. Deasy says. "I can just tell as a fellow musician that Chris is someone who is poised to explode creatively. I wanted to give him the opportunity to flourish and use my songs to express his vision. He comes from the Levon Helm/Band kind of vibe, and I do too, so we were going for that rootsy, authentic place. Chris is really a good arranger and that's kind of a dying art."
The album has some national contributions as well. "Maybe Everything," with its country jangle, is a co-write with Odie Blackmon, a Nashville songwriter who has written songs for George Strait and Lee Ann Womack. "Meet Me There" -- which sounds a little like "Heart of Gold" with a gospel touch -- was written with Americana artist Kim Richey.
"I met both of them through my travels in Nashville," he says. "Kim and I have had songs on each other's records through the years. She and I had written a ton over the 2000s. This was one I had on the list for every record I've made since then. That's kind of her wheelhouse."
The one guest vocal, on "Where'd She Go?," comes from LA singer-songwriter Maia Sharp, whom he met years ago at a songwriting conference in France in 1997 when the Gathering Field was on Atlantic Records.
"I gravitated to Maia because we're similar personalities. We really developed a great rapport and friendship. We've written and recorded over the years. It was just kind of timing. I didn't write that song to be a duet, but then Maia happened to be coming through Pittsburgh and I had that impulse and just decided to try that. She has one of my favorite voices in the whole world. It's funny too because her singing on that song I think made it a little darker. When I wrote it the lyric had more of a hopeful ring at the end, like the relationship was probably going to work out. But then when she sang it back with her forlorn vocal, it turned kind of darker."
Obviously, records made in the spirit of Jackson Browne and Van Morrison are not big attention getters in the 2010s, but Mr. Deasy is not about to "start again" in any radical new direction now, and he hopes his love for it is catchy.
"I guess our attention spans are getting shorter every second," he says. "And yet I still believe that if you make a record that really resonates for you as the artist, people can feel that and react to it. I think that trumps whatever musical thing is happening at the moment. In a way, this record was a recommitment to that concept that I have to completely love this music and then other people will. It can't be the other way around. You can't hope that other people love it and then you love it."