Thoughts and questions stubbornly pop up in the brain’s logic and reasoning centers moments after Alejandro Rose-Garcia steps onto a stage and straps on a beaten but sturdy-sounding acoustic guitar.
As Rose-Garcia — who performs solo under the stage name Shakey Graves — begins plucking ragged, sparse folk music punctuated by a makeshift kickdrum fashioned out of a suitcase, drum heads and bass drum pedals, audiences hush and gather close, almost entranced.
His grip tightens, and as he jumps his voice up an octave, songs’ tempos shift seemingly at random and his vocals jump from a whisper to a yelp, causing eyes and ears in usually chatty rooms like Antone’s and Stubb’s to lock onto him.
“But why?” and “How?” are the main questions. How is is it that the 25-year-old singer who plays a stylistically challenging brand of mountain or hobo folk is winning over audiences in his hometown and beyond?
The answer, oddly enough, is math.
While gigging in a wildly eclectic underground scene in Los Angeles in 2009 — longtime actor Rose-Garcia was there pursuing work — he saw a performance by one-man band Bob Log III that showed him how to command an audience’s attention by constantly throwing curveballs and changing different “performance variables.”
“He plays and changes his tempo and is very nonlinear, so he’d change the tempo and hit the sweet spot so your body just kind of naturally pays attention to what he’s doing, and he kept doing it,” Rose-Garcia says.
“I totally took a mental note of that. My theater experience taught me how to change in real time, and then it became a math thing; how far away I could get away with similar tempos, when I had to change tunings, how frequently people would accept a quiet song. Also, what’s a good song to end on, or what’s the best song to begin on, or what I shouldn’t play based on the size of crowd. I did that for two years.”
All that market testing upon returning to Austin in 2010 has made the Shakey Graves name a regular one on show bills all over town in the past year and a half. His following has become so strong that local promoters talk about how he consistently draws better crowds than headliners he opens for in clubs, and NPR Music named him as one of 10 national artists music fans “should’ve known in 2012,” with KUT’s David Brown calling him “unclassifiably original. And frighteningly good.”
His January residency on Wednesday nights at the Parish, one of Austin’s best-sounding and most intimate rooms, has served as an ideal setting for his unorthodox shows and lets him build a warm rapport with the audience in between songs that are rarely played the same way twice.
An Austin High School graduate and longtime actor who had a recurring role on “Friday Night Lights,” Rose-Garcia has appeared in a handful of Robert Rodriguez films. He said he was confident his time in L.A. and an earlier stint in New York City’s “anti-folk” scene had prepared him to make an impact in Austin once he returned.
That belief wasn’t born out of overconfidence but from overcoming humbling experiences at open mic nights and warehouse performance spaces, where he was at first dismissed by crowds who barely gave him a glance because he was too quiet or unpracticed.
“At this first open mic night in New York, I was like the 35th guy and went up figuring I’d play one of my most complicated songs, and I just bombed,” he remembers.
“I’d never used a capo. I didn’t really even know how to tune my guitar; I’d just tuned it to itself over and over again. My voice was either yelling or too quiet. That was the first of many times I’ve been dramatically humbled in my life. After that I did this miracle thing called practicing and really working at it. That was 2008, and three years ago I made a decision to really pursue music in a drastic, pointed way.”
Along with reading and adjusting to an audience, Rose-Garcia’s most beneficial nonmusic talent might be his knack for falling into vibrant micro scenes in a city.
The son of artistic parents — his father was a longtime manager of the Paramount Theatre and his mother is an actress, director and writer — Rose-Garcia was always encouraged to pursue his musical and dramatic ambitions, and he clearly feeds off the wildly different personalities and talents of creative communities.
After his early stumbles in New York, he quickly earned respect in an inventive weirdo folk community; his stories of a Los Angeles scene centered in a garment warehouse converted into a loft/speakeasy have Moulin Rouge-level craziness. In Austin he’s connected with a community of musicians focused around Annie Street, while also bonding with indie bands such as Marmalakes, the Sour Notes, Wild Child, Hello Wheels, Whiskey Shivers and more.
Of course, none of those rock or country-influenced bands sound very much like Shakey Graves, and Rose-Garcia said their kinship is founded mostly on hard work and a desire to make the most of their talent in Austin and beyond.
For him that means a year that will be spent mostly on the road — he was among the first acts confirmed for South by Southwest 2013 and is booked for West Texas’ Utopia Fest and the Pickathon in Portland, Ore. — and weighing the biggest decisions of his still-young career.
“This is the first year with obligations for most of the year, and I think right now I’ve got stuff going into September,” he said. “Last year I did my first tour and I learned how to do that. This is lots of on the road and figuring out proper management. There will be lots of opportunities I’ll have wished I’d jumped on, even though it might not be the best thing for me. Things like people asking, ‘Are you willing to drive here all night for $200 because we really like you.’ Can I do that? Am I at that point? How much am I willing to do?”
A whole lotta shake-ing goin’ on…
While Shakey Graves has been an increasingly regular name in Austin show listings over the past year-plus, other bands in Austin with similar-sounding names also evoke an old-timey, unsettling mood. Here, a quick cheat sheet for the uninitiated.
Shakey Graves. The performance name of solo singer Alejandro Rose-Garcia, supposedly created while on a camping trip with friends where they gave each other “campfire Indian guide names” like Spooky Wagons and Spinster Jones.
Shivery Shakes. Not a sonic contemporary of Rose-Garcia, this four-piece is all about driving indie-pop that would work great in an opening spot for bands like Surfer Blood.
Whiskey Shivers. A raucous five-piece bluegrass and roots-focused group with banjo, fiddle and other throwback elements that liken them to Shakey Graves, more so since the two acts regularly pair up for shows.
White Ghost Shivers. The most tenured group of this bunch does throwback Prohibition-vintage swing jazz, complete with era-appropriate costuming. Remember the Squirrel Nut Zippers? They sure do.
Whiskey Sisters. This newish project for the Mother Truckers’ Teal Collins is a six-piece country-rock act that has elements of Damnations TX and the Dixie Chicks going on.
Alabama Shakes. Not from Austin and in no way connected (so far as we know) to any of these acts, but they were everywhere in 2012 so their inclusion here felt compulsory. Plus, they’re scheduled to play March 13 at Rodeo Austin (during South by Southwest, so speculate away).
Shakey Graves continues his Wednesady night residency at the Parish through the end of the month (www.theparishaustin.com).
He’s also on the bill Friday at Club DeVille (www.clubdeville.com).