“There’s a flow that goes from my gut to my heart, stops in my heart when I’m sinking…”
So goes the lyric that kicks off “Shooting For The Stars,” the elegiac rocker and lead single that opens New Black Suit, the transcendent new album from Stephen Doster, which hits the street August 25, 2017 on Atticus Records. The genesis for the song harkens back to a brief, personal moment Doster shared in passing with his friend and songwriting mentor, the late, great Townes Van Zandt.
As Doster tells it, he ran into Van Zandt in the lobby of KUT Radio in Austin on December 16, 1994. The date would have been his pal Bill Hicks’ 33rd birthday and Doster was there to be interviewed by the late Larry Monroe about Bill. Van Zandt was walking out as Doster was walking in. In their brief exchange, the long time friends talked about creative flow, what it takes to experience it and the experiences that can block it. Though the conversation was brief, Doster always remembered his chance encounter with Townes, and the thoughts they shared about the creative process. The moment became even more poignant when, two short years and two weeks later, Van Zandt unexpectedly passed away on New Years Day 1997.
It is perfectly fitting that the memory of their intersection that day in the lobby of KUT Radio should provide the inspiration for the opening lyrics that jump starts New Black Suit’s lead single. “Shooting For The Stars” sports a plaintive nostalgia for times, places and friends that have passed on. “Although the conversation with Townes inspired the opening lyric line, the song was actually inspired by memories of my childhood, especially a former band mate, Kevin Brill who also died too young.”
Despite the theme of loss at the heart of several of New Black Suit’s songs, they are more celebratory tribute than downbeat paeans. There is a spirit, an energy, Doster brings to these songs that leaves the listener feeling optimistic and hopeful, even in the face of one’s life journey concluding much too soon. Doster wrote the song “William Melvin Hicks” as a way of paying respectful tribute to his close friend’s integrity and artistic vision. Not surprisingly, Bill Hicks continues to inspires today nearly 25 years after his tragic passing from pancreatic cancer. The track is one of many highlights on New Black Suit and Bill Hicks fans everywhere should seek it out.
On the surface, the lyrical persistence of memories and friends gone by give New Black Suit a lyrical sense of looking backwards. However, melodically and musically, the album moves Doster in a decidedly forward direction as an artist. New Black Suit is Doster’s most fully realized record to date, demonstrating his command at creating masterful music, from songwriting and musicianship to performance and studio production.
Like his 2014 release, Arizona, Doster also self-produced New Black Suit, working closely with his longtime studio partner, James Stevens at EAR Studios in Austin. Stevens, who fronts the Austin power poppers, Moonlight Towers, is a multi-talented artist and studio engineer. Having now made more than 70 records together, Doster and Stevens’ combined studio experience is the creative duo’s secret weapon. On New Black Suit, they brought all of that shared experience to bear, resulting in a watershed moment in Doster’s career.
New Black Suit should easily build on the success of Doster’s Arizona, which was well-received by music journalists when it was released in late 2014. Peter Blackstock recognized it in The Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop Poll praising Arizona as “exquisitely crafted classic guitar and piano pop” and also placed it in his “Top Ten of 2014” in the Austin American-Statesman. Likewise, Jim Caliguiri placed Arizona at the top of his year-end poll in the Austin Chronicle lauding it as a “masterpiece” with “one charmed melody after another.”
“Sometimes, a record magically open doors for you,” shares Doster. “Arizona led me to England, Scotland, Africa, and to many stages around the U.S. I had never played before.” After returning home and beginning to contemplate Arizona’s follow up, it was important to Doster to assemble the same core group to record New Black Suit.
Besides Doster on guitars and vocals, Arizona’s studio crew consisted of the impeccable Kevin Lovejoy (Spoon, John Mayer) on piano, organ, and various keyboards, master drummer-percussionist, Dony Wynn (Robert Palmer, Dr. John), and bassist extraordinaire, George Reiff (Joe Walsh, Dixie Chicks, Jakob Dylan), who passed away on May 21st, after a year long battle with brain cancer.
Doster contacted Reiff in late 2016 to ask if he was up to working his magic in the studio on New Black Suit and a second project he was producing for Atticus Records label mate, Rick Busby. “When I contacted George, I knew he was facing serious health challenges and didn’t know if he would be up for working on the records. But he wrote back, ‘Man, I 100% would like to play.’”
In December 2016, the core group, led by Doster, began convening at EAR Studio in Austin where they completed basic tracking on New Black Suit. The very next week, the same players recorded the basic tracks for The Soul Of Everything, which is Rick Busby’s new album, also on Atticus Records and slated for release in September. Both records are among the last studio recordings George Reiff completed before he passed away in May. Sadly, he never got to hear the final records.
“I hope his family and friends will find pleasure and solace when they hear how he played with such drive and eloquence,” says Doster. “Getting to work with George on these records is the most exciting and meaningful musical experience of my life.”
The song “New Black Suit” closes the album and found its inspiration in one of Doster’s old address books. Sorting through some old stuff, Doster came across an old address book. He opened randomly to a page and immediately saw the names and numbers of three old friends, one right after the other on the same page. “As I looked at those names, it dawned on me that all three had passed away. In that moment, the idea for the song was born.”
If you speak with Doster long enough, he will ultimately get around to telling you about one of his early musical mentors and close friends, James Honeyman-Scott, the former Pretenders guitarist who tragically and unexpectedly passed away in June 1982. At the time of his passing, Honeyman-Scott was producing what would have been Doster’s debut album. His sudden death brought the project to an abrupt halt.
It would be another fourteen years before 1996’s Rosebud would finally become Doster’s debut album. However, Honeyman-Scott’s influence continues to be a leading light in Doster’s career as a record producer and through his songwriting and guitar style. The song “Until The End,” which kicks off New Black Suit’s second half, was inspired by a guitar riff Doster heard Honeyman-Scott practicing just before he passed away.
Perhaps because of his close friendships with richly talented artists who passed away much too soon, Doster has developed a keen and reverent respect for life. He creates music that speaks passionately to the entire range of the human experience, the joys and the sorrows, the inspiring magic and the stark reality, always offering an element of hope and inspiration despite subject matter that could easily become maudlin.
There is also a strong sense of place in Doster’s songwriting. Whether writing about the debilitating and life strangling effects of urban sprawl, as on the New Black Suit tracks “You Should’ve Seen This Place” or “Big Cars,” or experiencing the rejuvenating energies of “Balmorhea,” a spring-fed pool in the middle of West Texas nowhere.
“Balmorhea is a mystical, enchanting oasis that I love to share with my family, especially Django, my hydrologist, nature loving son. My wife Melinda is a talented nature photographer, and we used one of her images of the blue-green pools of Balmorhea in the artwork for New Black Suit.”
Doster also demonstrates an acute and sensitive eye for the detailed nuance in the vicissitudes of life and love. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Something Good” and “Love Like Summertime,” two of the most compelling songs on New Black Suit, which Doster describes as “straight forward feel-good songs of love and hope”.
At the end of the day, Doster will tell you that his songs are about life and the artist’s responsibility to do his best to express the experience of life in the most honest, authentic way possible. He takes his music seriously, his own, the artists he most admires and also the artists he chooses to produce. He attributes his commitment to something he learned from a guest lecturer at an American high school in Germany he attended when he was younger.
“One day, we had a guest lecturer named Dudley Strasberg. I was in a band with Dudley’s son, Tor. So, I was pretty open to what he might say that day. I remember he opened his talk by putting a John Mayall album on a portable turntable and dropping the needle. Moments later, we were all listening to ‘Nature’s Disappearing’ and when it was over, he asked the class, ‘What are they doing here?’”
Doster recalls how patiently Strasberg fielded the answers he received.
“They are playing the blues.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“They are singing about the environment.”
Dudley answered simply again, “Yes, that’s true.”
Then, he asked his original question again, with a little more insistence. “But, what are they really doing?”
Doster admits that no one seemed to have the answer Strasberg was trying to elicit from their young minds. Then, he adds, “After a long pause, he screamed out saying, ‘They are carving their lives out in front of you! They are playing for their lives!’”
When it came time to record New Black Suit, Doster remembered that moment and realized that Dudley Strasberg’s words still resonated with him all these years down the line. They became a sort of mantra for him throughout the project.
“New Black Suit is me and my musical friends playing for our lives.”