Though singer-songwriter Alejandro Rose-Garcia is a son of Texas, it took stints on the East and West Coasts to find his haunting, ragged voice as Shakey Graves.
A trained actor with parts on NBC’s Friday Night Lights and a selection of Robert Rodriguez movies, Rose-Garcia regularly traveled to New York and Los Angeles looking for acting work. Instead of focusing on the craft he'd initially intented to pursue, he was sucked into the underground folk scenes of each city, where he picked up a guitar, fashioned a kick-drum out of an old suitcase, and used his natural charisma and stage presence to command the attention and respect of music critics and eager fans, alike.
Back in Texas since 2010, his sparse, eerie songs have come to symbolize a soundtrack of sorts for wandering souls' quiet moments. With the releases of 2011's Roll the Bones and 2013's Story of My Life, Shakey Graves recognized those eccentric, kindred spirits and gave them a voice — reason enough to be thankful he found his own.
Just minutes before he played an intimate set for On-Airstreaming, a company that broadcasts small-scale performances and interviews out of downtown Austin, we caught Rose-Garcia for a round of career quick-fire.
How did you come up with the name Shakey Graves?
I was living in L.A. in 2009 and my best friend was working at a festival — Old Settlers, which happens over by the Salt Lick in Dripping Springs. He put me in the trunk of his car and snuck me in, and we ended up having this great three-day weekend of just drinking as much Lone Star as possible. This guy who was inebriated came up to our campsite talking about this great whiskey he had, but he really just had a 32 oz. Miller High Life or something.
We had this conversation and at the end the last thing he said as he walked off was something about "spooky wagons," and we thought that was a really great country name, like Speedy West or something. We all ended up giving each other backcountry campfire names, like Spinster Jones and Shakey Graves. That was one of the first nights I started going to song circles and when people asked who I was, I’d say Shakey Graves. No one flinched, so I went with it.
What are your roots?
It’s almost show tunes. When I was a kid I loved the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack. But as far as singers, it’s guys like Townes Van Zandt, who has always been a presence in my life. The Texas thing is inescapable, and I have a deep love for country music and the imagery of all that. But also bad pop music and contemporary top 40 jams — it’s all there. There is some level of commonality since a good song is just a good song.
Who are some contemporary folk musicians you’re into?
Robert Ellis is a Houston boy whose roots are country, and he’s been knocking it out of the park. But now he has been getting more experimental. I think he hoped people would be mad at him for it, but instead they’ve sort of embraced it.
You kind of have that same license with people, too.
That’s the goal. I play what I want to hear. Doing that is what’s gotten me to this point, so I figure why stop now?
Is there a part of the country that could take you away from your hometown of Austin?
There are bases. I’d move to Charleston, South Carolina in a heartbeat because that place is just set up for human living. There’s incredible seafood, four-to-one women-to-men ratio, a college, great bar scene, really sweet people, really bizarre antique stores with, like, a hearse for sale. I love it. Canada, as well. I’d move to The Maritimes, around Nova Scotia. I’d be a farmer, live somewhere weird, and eat clams out of the sea.
How much thought do you put into your image?
A fair amount. A lot of is lucky because, if I could, I’d wear the same thing every day — like a cartoon character. And I sort of do, with 170 white tanks and one pair of pants. I used to wear a suit a lot. Those are the two sides of Shakey Graves: white tanks or the suit, and I decide based on temperature.
Finally, give us the five tracks you're listening to now — and why.
[Note: Rose-Garcia put some thought into this and delivered his answers post-performance.]
Arthur Russell, "I Close My Eyes"
Arthur was responsible for some prolific early electronic music, but this song shows the country side of the Iowa-native who found his sexuality and death elsewhere in strange America.
Zapp & Roger, "Computer Love"
Besides being a smoking hot robot classic, his song foretold the future — how computerful.
Connie Converse, "Empty Pocket Waltz"
Connie's one of the most enigmatic parts of the Greenwich village scene. One day she wrote letters to all of her friends and drove away in her VW bug never to be heard of again. A collection of home recordings was compiled and eventually released. Her songs have a certain brand of narrative loneliness that I adore.
Shovels & Rope, "Boxcar"
I have had the distinct pleasure of touring with these wonderful people a few times this last year, and it's no secret I have a huge crush on them and their music. Typically you will catch onto a bands set after hearing it every night, but I still went running to the wings every time this tune kicked it off.
Country Willie, "Inside The Reason"
Country Willie is one of Austin's little secrets; he embodies the spirit of my hometown entirely. His voice is an heirloom, his songs are all over the place from zombie tunes to straight up country. Either way, this song rips me a new one. The world is not ready for Country Willie.