How Heartbreak and Psychedelic Drugs Brought Shakey Graves to the World

How Heartbreak and Psychedelic Drugs Brought Shakey Graves to the World
Shakey Graves says there are three types of songs: ones he sits down to write and kind of forces out; some he literally wakes up singing; and others that are like puzzles, where it’s up to him to piece together seemingly unrelated parts.

“I always wanted my music office to look like I’m trying to solve some big mystery,” he says, “like a crime that happened twenty years ago, and there is red string everywhere and I’m like, ‘What ties this to that?’ I’ll come up with a melody and sit on it for two years, find out it goes over this little poem I wrote two hours ago and suddenly it transforms into this full-blown creature.”

The Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter (real name: Alejandro Rose-Garcia) is perhaps best-known for his solo act, for which he sings, plays guitar and beats a kick drum with his heel. Adding to the image of a vagabond musician, he’s often bleary-eyed and sweating through a wife beater, appearing very much hungover and wrung-out. But there’s no denying he plays his gritty brand of blues and folk with authentic emotion — and that it’s captivating.

Nowadays, Rose-Garcia plays with a full band for about half of each set. He played alone earlier in his career mostly out of necessity, he explains. As a self-taught musician, it took him many years to find bandmates he trusted and wanted to play with every night. “Doing anything feels better with company,” he says.

Rose-Garcia first picked up a guitar when he was twelve or thirteen years old. “I had just gotten my poor little middle-schooler heart broken by the first girlfriend I ever had, so it started as a ploy to woo this girl back,” he recalls. “It was like, ‘I’ll learn how to play guitar — then she’ll love me.’ I spent this very bummed-out summer that I picture as, like, a Batman montage. But really it was just this wimpy stupor where I was listening to rap music because I couldn’t deal with anything that had emotional lyrics in it, lifting these eleven-pound weights trying to get swole and trying my damnedest to play this guitar.”

He wasn’t a fast learner, but early on he discovered the ability to manipulate his own emotional state by changing from a major to a minor chord, and also that layering recordings made his then-meager guitar skills sound bigger. Somewhere along the line, he started making a hell of a lot of noise for just one musician, playing rhythm and lead simultaneously by using an unorthodox fingerpicking technique that took a long time to develop.

“It came from me trying to play these songs I had cleverly recorded to sound like one person, and then actually playing them as one person,” he says.

The blurry character of Shakey Graves — who is perpetually confused about the time period, sometimes appearing in suspenders and a bowler hat, sometimes wearing a leather rock & roll jacket — was born about ten years ago at the Old Settler’s Music Festival in Austin. Being dirt-poor, Rose-Garcia hid in the trunk of his friend’s car to sneak in. Early in the weekend, he and his friends were approached by a “tripping gentleman who was flying high on LSD.” Their conversation was mostly gibberish, but the man clearly warned them to watch out for “spooky wagons.” They had no idea what that meant, but agreed it sounded like a great name for a guitar-picker.

“So, we all gave each other fake monikers,” Rose-Garcia says. “There was Spooky Wagons, Solomon Doors and Droopy Weiners, and I was Shakey Graves.”

The name has taken him a long way. Last year, he headlined that same festival, and he’s become a revered figure in Austin, where February 9 is officially Shakey Graves Day. But his sound didn’t really take shape until some time later, when he took a solo trip on psychedelic mushrooms and recorded the whole thing.

“I felt like I was just vomiting songs,” he says. “I wrote, like, five songs in an hour. They all came out fully formed and about the weirdest shit, but I loved it. I always look back on that as my thesis of what I wanted things to sound like.

“There is a certain playful darkness I feel is really encapsulated well by psilocybin mushrooms, a tongue-in-cheek gallows humor that I’ve always sought to sing about,” he continues. “It questions the world around us, whether what we see is there or not, and I feel like, content-wise, that’s what I have to write about — the eternal struggle of identity and the shackles of mortality, so to speak.”

And sometimes those songs just sort of, like, appear. So he stays ready.

“A lot of my work is kind of caught in the wild,” he says. “If an idea swims by you, it’s about having the tools to capture it and remember it.”

Shakey Graves
8 p.m. Wednesday, August 16. Delmar Hall, 6133 Delmar Boulevard. $19 to $22. 314-726-6161.

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