Saturday, December 22, 2012

Local Artist Spotlight - Douglas Lowell Blevins - December 2012

It's been a while since we posted our monthly feature. Our final local spotlight for this year is is focused on Douglas Belvins. Mr Belvins answered our normal sampling of questions about his music, song writing process and the reason he writes/performs solo. 

How would you describe your sound to someone who has never heard you?

I'd prefer that this was a band, but I'm going the solo route because it's so hard to keep a band together.  I've been writing songs and playing guitar in bands since I was in high school (I'm 31 now).  Eventually I got tired of spending so much time getting a new band project practiced up and ready to go, just to have members leave and have to start the whole process over again.  I've been doing solo acoustic shows for the past five years, and it's been a really enjoyable experience learning how to write good enough songs that can keep an audience's interest with just a guitar and a vocal, which is such a different approach than with a full electric band.  

For my new album "Wellspring," I'm hoping to do some shows with some help from my friends Jarrod Svezeny (drums) and Derek Scalzott (bass) as an electric band, and we're also going to do our best to work in Tarra Layne (vocals), though she's busy enough doing shows of her own.  I recorded most of "Wellspring" (& my first album "Dust Sketches") playing all the instruments myself only because it's so difficult to get people's schedules to miraculously align for long enough to do a few recording sessions.   

I'd describe my sound as folk- and blues-influenced songwriter-rock, though that's a bit lengthy!  I'm hugely influenced by musicians that are focused on the song, rather than just a particular sound.  "Wellspring" consists of my best efforts at really paying attention to songcraft, as The Beatles did with 1960s rock, or Dylan has done with blending the folk storytelling tradition into rock, or blues greats such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker did turning rambling, one-chord dance music of their generation into a three-minute soundbite that told a story within the constraints of a record.  (I'm in no way comparing my music to these guys, I'm just fascinated by their work and their processes) 

Are you all originally from the Pittsburgh area? Families here as well?

I grew up in Vandergrift, PA, about thirty miles northeast of Pittsburgh.  I've lived in the Green Tree/Crafton area since 2005.  My parents and their families are originally from northeast Ohio, so I'm the first Pittsburgher of my family.  Plenty of my songwriting inspiration comes from here - "Not My Place," "Around Here, "Been There," "Easy," "Build," "Rest of the Night," and "Emergency" from "Wellspring" are all referencing people or places or events from Vandergrift or Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh is the little city that refuses to let anything get it down, and I love how stubbornly we cling to the past while continually evolving into a better place to be.  It's impossible to not be influenced by it. 

Do you all create music full time or is this more of a part time venture?

I definitely don't survive on an income from music, so in that respect it's part-time.  But songwriting is something I can never stop doing, it's just how I process the world around me, so I'm constantly writing even if I don't get to perform or record for long stretches of time.

Do you have day jobs?

I've never been a "full-time musician".  Most recently, I worked for an insurance company for almost seven years, doing data entry all day and listening to music on headphones the whole time.  I wrote most of my first album "Dust Sketches" and a few songs from "Wellspring" while I typed away at work, so it was a pretty convenient day job for an amateur songwriter.  I'm happy to have just started a new career that's much more rewarding; however, it doesn't allow me to sit around listening to music all day, giving me ideas for my own writing

How do you create your music? What is the song writing process?

I prefer to have the music written first - it's always nice to have a chord sequence ready to go so I can just mumble along to it.  Whatever's been on my mind lately usually somehow ends up falling out in little phrases here or there that I can piece together and guide into an understandable song.  However, I just don't get free time to pick up a guitar anymore, due to work & family & everything else life brings these days.  So over the past few years, the process has turned into scribbling down lyrics whenever & wherever inspiration hits, and hoping I can put a tune to it later.  A line or two, or maybe a chorus, or a possible title will come to me, and it's almost as if I'm trying to tune in to the feelings associated with those lines to try to figure out what I need to do with them.  

What are your goals for the band? What would you like to accomplish? Are you trying to get signed to a label?

I think anybody who puts all the time & effort into making an album would be fooling themselves if they said they weren't hoping to hit it big somehow!  However, I do feel one of my most useful talents as a musician is knowing my strengths & weaknesses very well, and being able to set realistic goals with them in mind.  I'd love to have the promotion & distribution help of a label, but I'm not really able to set off on tour whenever I feel like it, so I realize I wouldn't have much to offer a label if I can't promote myself beyond the Pittsburgh area.  My immediate goal for "Wellspring" is just to try to get a bit more immersed in the local Pittsburgh scene, and try to develop a bit of a fan base that can come out to enjoy live shows.    

What advice would you give to local acts trying to make it?

For me, "making it" hasn't had any commercial connotations yet.  I consider myself a success if I leave a show I've just played feeling like the audience's time wasn't wasted during my set, and maybe one or more of my songs made them feel as good as I do when I listen to my favorite musicians.  So looking at it that way (in a capacity I'm somewhat qualified to give advice in!), I'd advise anybody who steps on a stage or puts out an album to just consider what it is you expect from a musician as a listener & a fan, and tailor your own musical efforts to those expectations.  Annoyed by overly indulgent solo after solo?  Embarrassed when a performer rambles on incessantly about their next awesome song for five minutes before actually playing it?  Bored by long intros or overly long songs?  Well...don't do those things yourself either!  Sounds simple, but I always remember I've been an audience member far longer than I've been a performer, and you never stop learning as both, as long as you just keep paying attention.  Nobody's more of an expert than anybody else when it comes to knowing what they like about music.

Have you all toured nationally? Or do you usually stay more regionally?

I've never toured, but I'd really love to do it some day. 

Being in the Pgh area, do you find it more difficult to try and succeed?

I think the internet levels the playing field a bit in that way.  You don't necessarily have to go to New York or LA or Nashville to be taken seriously anymore.  You can still choose to be the big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond.  I wouldn't blame Pittsburgh for my current "entry level" success status, I just need to get out and do my thing.  

What are some of the obstacles you face trying to create some 'success' in Pgh?

It does seem unnecessarily difficult to get people out to shows in areas of the city they're not familiar with, even though they're not incredibly far away.  Just cross the river, it's okay!  And though it's looking a bit better than it used to, there's still a strange emphasis on cover bands and too many venues that are just bars with a stage, instead of venues made for music that happen to also have bars, that really appreciate original music being played in them.  And don't even try to play a show on the day of Steelers game.  Or the day after, if the Steelers lost the night before.  Love ya, Pittsburgh!

What are the positive benefits of being in the area?

The cost of living in Pittsburgh is definitely a benefit to bands.  We've got some great venues (Club Cafe, Rex Theater, Howler's, Brillobox, Shadow Lounge, Mr Small's) where you can see plenty of incredible national acts, as well as other great locals (Harlan Twins, Boca Chica, The Pump Fakes, Donora, Tarra Layne Band, Lohio, Good Night States, Emily Rodgers, etc etc!) it's cheap and there's plenty of inspiration, the perfect ingredients for a great scene. 

Is there a venue you have enjoyed playing more than others in the area? 

I've pretty much camped out at Club Cafe the past few years while I've been getting my act together as a solo performer.  I pick national acts that I really want to see, and I do the 30-minute opening sets.  I get in for free to the shows I would've paid to see anyway, get to meet the performers (always humbling & inspiring!), and hopefully appeal to some of their fans as well, if I've picked the right shows.  Plus they've got great sound, and it's ten minutes from my house.   

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