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On Graduating From Laptop-Recorded House Parties to Overseas Touring
Jarrod Dickenson did not plan on becoming a musician. Growing up in Waco, Texas, he spent his youth playing baseball and later took up golf. He played all through high school and even intended on playing in college.
And then he learned how to play guitar.
Dickenson had been a great fan of music his entire life, listening to his father’s record collection, which included Cat Stevens, Paul Simon and the Beatles. But at 18, he decided that he could “kick around and have fun with it,” he says with a laugh.
“Music snuck in at the end of high school and then just completely took over everything.”
He only intended to play for himself, but he was soon invited by his church band to join the group. He says, “Looking back, that sounds like an absolutely horrendous idea.” But the decision allowed him to play in front of other people, got him to learn how to sing and motivated him to start writing his own songs. He headed to the University of Texas-Austin where continued to write and play at coffee shops, further stoking the singer/songwriter fire.
During his senior year of college, he made the first of his three albums released to date, all of which have been recorded under vastly different circumstances and methodologies. The first one – Ashes on the Ground – was recorded with a producer friend in Austin, and the two would book time in the music school’s rehearsal hall after classes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings for five months. Once it was released, Dickinson, “like every singer/songwriter, got the itch to travel.” He graduated with his degree in Interpersonal Communications and hit the road.
During his time traveling playing bars and clubs around the country, the opportunity to record a second album cropped up, under much different circumstances from the first. “I was doing a house show in Carmel, California,” he says. “Right before I started playing, the guys hosting the show said, ‘Hey, we have a laptop and this little recorder, and we can hook it up to the soundboard. Do you mind if we record it?’” Dickenson, who was playing with an upright bass player he had only met that day and had rehearsed with for just an hour, assented, saying, “Sounds like fun.” The recording wound up sounding good to Dickenson, so he released it as Live at Roost House in 2010.
Dickenson then spent a year in Nashville, where he entered – and won – the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Competition (part of the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival) with his song “Walking in Central Park.” He went to the U.K. to attend the festival and play some shows. Upon his return to the States, he decided to head to Los Angeles to record his third album, which came under even more divergent circumstances than the first two.
He worked with a Grammy-winning producer/engineer Ryan Freeland, whose credits include Ray LaMontagne, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Aimee Mann and a cadre of other big names. The experience offered Dickenson the most sophisticated recording experience yet. Working in a Freeland’s studio with professional recording equipment awed Dickenson. “He has just unbelievable gear.” The two put together Dickenson’s latest release, The Lonesome Traveler, which came out in 2012.
The album showcases Dickenson’s storytelling technique in his songwriting. His musical influences include a standard host of singer/songwriters – Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits. But his writing has also been heavily impacted by his love of reading and literary greats including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath and his biggest influence, John Steinbeck.
“I just love the way that he tells stories about the average blue-collar American in very human situations and very human stories.”
Dickenson’s songs reflect this influence with a weight of a very old soul that belies his youth. The song “The Northern Sea” tells a story of a family of fishermen facing very hard times. Similarly, “No Work for a Working Man” is about a family that has hit hard times and cannot seem to catch a break to improve their situation.
Along with improving his songwriting skills from his early days (he says of the first songs he wrote: “Thankfully, I don’t remember any of them, but I’m pretty sure they were absolutely horrible”), Dickenson has come a long way since his days in the church band as a guitarist. He has two Collings acoustic guitars, handmade by the company in Austin. His “workhorse” is a mahogany guitar patterned after the Triple-O Martin guitars from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. “It ends up traveling everywhere with me when I can’t bring both,” he says.
After stints in three of the nation’s musical Meccas, Dickenson has finally found his way to Brooklyn, where he currently resides. “I had been to New York City a million times before, playing gigs, coming through touring. For many years, it has felt like home, even before I moved here,” he says. His love affair with the city has spawned a series of videos called “City Sessions,” in which he performs songs from The Lonesome Traveler in his favorite spots around the city. “I knew I wanted to record some videos of the songs on the album but…with me playing live, not just making an actual video from the studio recording. I thought it would be really cool if I could show all these different places in the city that I really like.” So far, his locales have included Caffe Vivaldi in Greenwich Village (the site of his weekly residency that was supposed to last a month – but has spanned the course of nearly a year), his Brooklyn rooftop and JJ Hat Center, the oldest hat store in New York as a tip of his, um, hat to the fact that he is rarely seen without a chapeau.
On The Lonesome Traveler, Dickenson collaborated with several great session musicians. He loves playing solo because of the freedom it gives: “You can do so many different things – you can shift your set list up completely, right when you’re in the middle of it. Or you can play a song completely differently than you would normally play it. It’s all on you.” But he says he hopes to someday have a band of his own. “The sounds I have in my head are definitely for other musicians to be joining in.”
The short-term future will carry Dickenson back across the pond to attend the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival again, and then he will return to the U.K. later in the spring to play a 15-day tour opening for musician David Ford. The rest of his plans are uncertain, but he will certainly be on the road again in keeping with his meandering but meaningful career. “I want to keep playing shows up and down the East Coast and hopefully get back to traveling across the country. I’m definitely writing tunes and absolutely plan to record again. As far as when…who knows?”
photos by Barry Berenson