John Statz has been writing love songs lately, specifically about the kinds of romantic love that burn. Namely, all of them. When we first enter a new relationship we are filled with burning desire. Sometimes we later take those same relationships for granted and seemingly burn right through them. At the end we might find ourselves literally burning old love notes, or bridges, which turns out to be an excellent time to listen to that fire in our bellies. Hit the road, see something new, spend time on ourselves. The Fire Sermon is more than a meditation on romance in the 21st century, it is an assertion gleaned from trial by fire.
One of the more prolific and hard-working young songwriters working in the Americana genre, John Statz has released seven studio albums, and performed all over North America (including Canada and Mexico) and Europe, all in just a shade over a decade. Throughout that time he's been writing the kind of songs that float through your mind and stay nestled in your thoughts long after listening (American Songwriter) and it's been said that his songwriting can stand beside the best and above the rest (No Depression). Along the way John has attracted the attention of the likes of Americana scene heroes Jeffrey Foucault and Bo Ramsey (Lucinda Williams, Greg Brown), who separately produced his last two records. This latest is produced by fellow Denver songwriter, Megan Burtt, whose instincts and backing band help bring forth an entirely new sound from Statz. The title of The Fire Sermon was taken from the third section of T.S. Eliot's poem, The Wasteland, the name of which was borrowed from a sermon given by Buddha, in which he denounced the fires of passion, hatred, and infatuation with which the senses burn, according to Eliot's endnotes. At the very end of the Fire Sermon section Eliot simply repeats, “Burning burning burning burning.”
John Statz was given a guitar by his grandmother when he was 15, which turned out to be perfectly timed for a teenager who, after ten years of piano lessons, had lost interest in classical music and had taken to learning John Lennon and Elton John tunes, first trying out his singing voice and turning towards rock and roll. Spending the rest of his high school years in southern Wisconsin attempting to play and sing like Neil Young and Cat Stevens, it wasn't until Statz was 19 and attending university in Oshkosh that he began writing songs. The spark lit after attending a show at the storied Cafe Carpe in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin featuring Jeffrey Foucault and Peter Mulvey, who quickly became heroes, and, much later on, fast friends and colleagues. The first record, Dusk Came Slow, was engineered by a friend enrolled in the university recording program, and what followed for John has been 11 years of touring everywhere from Bellingham to Budapest, Fairbanks to Mexico City, all the while becoming a stronger songwriter, and a more compelling performer.
Paul Kimbiris is a recovering Philadelphian who now resides in Boulder, CO. Since the year 2000 he has been writing and performing all over the world opening, from Copenhagen, Denmark to Austin, TX opening for acts such as the Dead Milkmen, Hammell on Trial, and most recently Gregory Alan Isakov. His first full length release is due out late winter 2014 and is being produced by Philip Parker (Glowing House, Paper Stars). His songs have appeared on several major network TV shows such as Nick Freeno Licensed Teacher and the emmy award winning cop drama "The Shield".
Hayward Williams thought he was about to die in an airport. Returning home from an Australian tour, the veteran Americana singer-songwriter was tired and gaunt. As he fought his way through the terminal in San Francisco, it seemed like he might miss his connection home to the Midwest, and then something started to feel very wrong.
“My heart was racing, and I was feeling nauseous and dizzy, like I was going to pass out,” Williams recalls. Later, as he sat in the emergency room with an IV in his arm, the doctors delivered their diagnosis: “exhaustion.”
What really happened to Williams will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever had one: an honest to god, clinical panic attack. What brought it on may have been nothing unusual. “I was getting married in 20 days, that’s a big life change. I was just realizing that I was going to have to grow up, maybe,” Williams says.
Yet something psychobiological changed within Williams at that airport, permanently. Panic metastasized into fear of panic — the self-perpetuating terror that he might, at any moment, collapse in a heap of terror, for no good reason.
It crippled his stage performance. “I would have to go into isolation before a show, spend most of my time trying to hold back catastrophic thoughts,” Williams says. To avoid vomiting in the middle of his concerts, he started playing all his songs tuned down and at half speed, so as to not tense his diaphragm.
This was not sustainable. “If this is how I am now, how can I continue to do my job, the only thing that I’m qualified to do?” Williams remembers wondering. So he got help, entering therapy and getting himself on anti-anxiety and depression medications that eased the panic, but altered his creative personality.
The slow, doubt-stricken, but steady process of learning how to think, feel, write and perform again is the backdrop of The Reef, Williams’ first new album since that day in the airport. “I could count back from zero / I could take off from the start / Is it just like falling in love? / Will I know my part?” he sings in the haunting title track.
Other songs explore Williams’ long history with anxiety. “‘High Street’ is all about how I hate being at parties and around a lot of people,” he says of the album’s ironically raucous opener. “You know me, I’m at your feet / Put that foot toward the door,” Williams sings. “It’s all about how I try to convince Kathleen [Williams’ wife] that we should leave early.”
The next track takes Williams into even more vulnerable territory. “‘If I Go Under’ is a call, more or less, to Kathleen, saying, ‘This is me, this is how I’m feeling.’ I felt like I was going to drag her down with me,” he says. The plaintive hook asks: “If I go under, will you go under with me?”
Fans of Williams’ always soulful voice won’t be surprised to hear him finally go into straight-up soul territory in the new songs and arrangements, complete with soaring horn sections and call-and-response back-up vocals from the sibling duo of Matt and Kate Lorenz (Rusty Belle).
Set to tape during a series of whirlwind recording sessions in western Massachusetts produced by Jeffrey Foucault. The R&B tinges of Van Morrison mix with the loose energy and charm of The Faces in Hayward Williams’ latest Americana experience.
Foucault, better known as a singer-songwriter himself, makes his producer’s debut on The Reef. Accompanied by Billy Conway (Morphine) on drums and Jeremy Moses Curtis (Booker T) on bass, Williams, Foucault and the Lorenz siblings recorded the album live-to-tape in just two days. “We didn’t want a lead guitar,” Williams says. “We thought we could add it later if we really needed it. But soon we realized that Matt and Kate were the lead instrument, and that was an exciting epiphany.”
Tracking together in a room, singing and playing at the same time, and only doing a few takes per song imbues The Reef with an absolutely electric feel, vanishingly rare in contemporary recordings. You can hear the naked vulnerability in every weathered crack of Williams’ voice, as the band’s deep, soulful grooves rock each track to sleep like a crying baby. Bob your head, tap your toes, and get cast out on The Reef.