Jamil Apostol wasn’t growing with his band The Bonfire Set, so he found himself on the road again. He was “Kerouac-driven.” He traveled to India, Hawaii and set foot in more than 30 states.
“The biggest takeaway was surrendering,” Apostol said in an interview back home at Java Jungle. “I’m going to be taken care of anywhere I go, either directly or indirectly. And everything is temporary.”
Much of Apostol’s art and language is flowered with travel and freeway vernacular. He said it’s important to follow the signs. During his years on the road, he worked random jobs – from picking up cigarette butts for 500 acres at music festivals to getting people registered to vote at Dave Matthews Band concerts.
“I picked up random skills on the way,” Apostol said. “I surrendered myself to the flow, just hitching a ride. This album is a self-inquiry about my experience while trying to find myself.”
His hope for listeners is that they will be urged to find out more about themselves, too. Apostol’s first solo release, “Off the Beaten Path,” varies from folk to ragtime, from bluegrass cowboy Western to a New Orleans funky jazz sound.
“That’s me,” Apostol said. “There are many musical elements with a core sound throughout.”
Studying the foundations of singer-songwriters (including the work of Woody Guthrie, Doc Watson and Bob Dylan) and living in North Carolina influenced the music he writes and performs. He settled in Asheville to record the album after two years on the road.
“You can hear the yearning and search for change in their voices,” Apostol said. “I try to put my own twist on it while finding what’s authentic and true. I’m more influenced by what (the artists) did for their generation – creating such a great spark through music.”
On tracks like “Homeless Romantic,” he displays a new growl atop his bouncing chords. It’s highlighted by trumpet and mandolin solos, a common thread on the album. The song tells stories of musicians busking on street corners. Apostol needed to be loud without a microphone while on the street. He would find his voice doing new things and he’d roll with it.
“I’ve been able to explore my voice as I traveled,” he said. “While busking, I’d think, ‘Wow, that came out. Cool!'”
Apostol plays guitar and banjo and his voice is usually clear and sweet. As he traveled, he met musicians on the road and wanted to include elements of them in his music. The trumpet and mandolin players he paired with were both named Will, dubbed “The Good Wills.”
“At one point, I didn’t have a place to stay in Asheville,” Apostol said. “I ran out of money, then a friend offered her place to me while she was out of town. It turned out one of the Wills was living there as well.”
They recorded in with a friend who went to Berklee College of Music. They had low-budget equipment, a wizened friend with a storage space and the fire to create.
“We made the best out of the sounds we had,” Apostol said.
Most of the songs from “Off the Beaten Path” started as notes on his phone while on the road. He said the songwriting process is always different, but it gets to a point where his notes give him confidence to write a song. He lays down some chords and the melody follows.
Other times, the pressure of having to record creates the content he’s proud of. He didn’t have a majority of “My Red White Blues” until he arrived at the studio. He was asked if he was ready to record the rest, and he said, “No, but let me write something down in two minutes.”
“It’s the pressure,” Apostol said. “Pressure creates momentum and momentum creates content.”
The lyrics of the song are somewhere between profound and artistic, like the loose prose of Dylan. Apostol explores American idolatries such as religion, capitalism and television. The songs asks, “Why would you ask for change when you can have a bill?”
A core element of his former group The Bonfire Set’s music was uniting vocals. They had a hippy-vibe like Grouplove and demonstrated a democracy of vocals.
“To have everyone sing in unity, to use the same melodies, the same vibrations, the same voice is a powerful thing,” Apostol said. “All the troubles we have (wars, politics, whatever), it’s gone and you’re in that moment. I find power in that.”
This power is translated over to his solo release. “Open Ticket Ride” begs you to sing along over the trumpet and catchy chorus. The song finds all the good of his travels while being realistic about “home” always being on the horizon and back of your mind.
The title-track “Off the Beaten Path” is an homage to the beatniks. He wrote it in an RV about the impact of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The name arrived auspiciously. He was surfing Craigslist for places to stay and saw a post with the same title. Apostol was “dog and veggie friendly,” so he moved in with them in Ashville. The deal was set in stone when he arrived and saw a large poster of Vishnu. He studies Vaishnavism and took it as an omen.
“One thing led to another and I found where I was supposed to be,” Apostol said.
Last time Apostol was in Reno for Earth Day, he met Allison Reitz, founder of Good Elephant, an open interface for yogis and workshop facilitators to access studios from Reno, Carson City and Tahoe. Reitz asked Apostol to perform Kirtan, devotional Indian music, where he sings the many names of God in repetition. Instead, he asked if he can perform songs from his new album. She obliged and he performed in his former Reno home at the West Street Market.
Apostol said there are two ways to view contentment. One is inner contentment and acceptance, the other hinders your search for more and can lead to complacency. In his life and music, Apostol forges ahead.
“We are born, then we’re dead. What we do in the middle is up to you,” Apostol said. “I always pursue the mystery. At the end of the day, what stands out is persistence and what you create.”
The issue with the folk revival is that we as listeners- since about 2009- have become saturated with artists. Beyond that, the style allows for a large amount of leniency in what constitutes “good” or “listenable”: Throw some open chords, an easy bass line, and some vocal harmonies into the pot and it’s pretty easy to bob your head to. This has made me weary of new folk artists, as there are many of them not saying much at all.
Jamil Apostol, however, has something fresh, that sort of musician who hops trains, sleeps a night in a field somewhere, and is just as happy playing to three people in a living as to a stadium- perhaps more so.
Does anyone remember Medicine For The People’s first album, On The Verge? Few contemporary fans probably do, but Nahko and crew started out with a lo-fi album robustly integrating a lot of spirit into some Appalachian-style instrumentation, replete with trumpet. I don’t think Off The Beaten Pathforetells Jamil hitting Nahko highs, but I would say that there are parallels. I would also say that, as far as Americana goes, this album is better than many, even some large name acts.
Overall, I’m not the biggest fan of this kind of music. Not that I don’t appreciate it, but it sort of slips below my radar rather easily, so I took my time with Apostol’s work. “My Red White Blues” wins best track award. It’s political, no doubt about that. “Why would you ask for change/ when you can have a bill?” he asks. “Reload, replenish/ pop!/ One shot kills.” It’s just him and his guitar. The song would make Woody Guthrie proud, just a fierce, vocal performance.
“Homeless Romantic” is similar, lyrics rocketing forth over minimal instrumentation, and just as political. “Full Beaver Moon” adds pretty harmonica over finger-picked guitar and Jamil’s distinct alto dings, “Creatures of habit are at it again… As the dove sings her song.” It’s just vague enough to drum up myriad imagery. He often does this, mixing narrative with introspection.
The title track begins with eerie banjo and Jamil offering, “Started as a dream… All the leaves are falling/ into different directions.” The song discusses life and death. Had he added grandiose strings and fiery percussion, this would sound like a Sujan Stevens B-side.
But part of what makes Off The Beaten Path fancy-free is its sparsity and articulated use of instruments, as well as Jamil knowing his voice well, throwing it around at ideal points. The songs have a lot of heart, and even when the content is heavy the melodies are light, (take the sing-a-long aspect of “Open Ticket Ride”). Taking something classic, something traditional, and adding enough pizzazz to make it unique is quite a task. Fans of this “scene” will enjoy Jamil’s talent and the execution of this lively, colorful album.
- John Powell
If you are a fan of Nahko or Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros then Jamil's album is definitely for you. His first album was called On The Road so it seemed a natural progression that this new one is called Off the Beaten Path.
I really resonate with this album. I love it's quirky style and its take on life. I can't help thinking that if Bob Dylan was to start his career now instead of the 60's, this is the style and spirituality that he would have been drawn to. The Kerouac sense of freedom that made The Beat Generation so appealing is captured beautifully by Jamil. The carefree attitude coupled by the push to be different to society's norm is the same story that drove the Beats to write and express.
In Jamil's words, “I am breaking through the illusion of what is put upon us, whether it be gender roles, societal roles or upbringing. We ‘gotta step back and after a while ask ourselves who am I? I feel like this is what people work for - it’s what we’re trying to preserve and maintain - and I feel like music helps us to transcend all these borders.”
- Shayne Locke