Gales Ferry native Daniel Rodriguez's new album reflects his life in Colorado
In early August, a song called "Brother John" by an artist named Daniel Rodriguez was included in Rolling Stone's highly regarded "Picks of the Week" column.
The tune is the first single on Rodriguez's new album, "Sojourn of a Burning Sun," which comes out Friday, and, without question, the Rolling Stone selection is quite an honor for Rodriguez — a Gales Ferry native who was a part of New London's thriving music scene years ago.
By phone from his home outside Boulder, Colo., Rodriguez says, "My manager sent me an email, and I glanced at it and thought, 'Oh, cool, we got some more press.' I looked back at the road through the windshield, and then it sunk in that it said, 'Rolling Stone.' It was one of those true Hollywood double-take moments." He laughs. "I thought, 'Oh, my God!' I mean, my music would be the same no matter what, but it's certainly a big validation and a morale booster. It means a lot."
"Sojourn of a Burning Sun" is the first full-length CD Rodriguez has recorded after 14 years performing in the popular band Elephant Revival. Formed in 2006, Elephant Revival traveled the world and released several albums in an aggregate that featured five multi-instrumentalists and an Americana sound that enfolded DNA from jazz, hip hop, reggae and pop. The sonic recipe created songs with complex but hummable harmonies, and that worked beautifully on the expansive jam and roots circuits. Two years ago, experiencing creative burnout, Elephant Revival performed a triumphant hometown farewell show at Red Rocks Amphitheater and entered a long-term hiatus.
The Elephant (not) in the room
Beset with a sense of ennui, Rodriguez settled in a favorite chair and just sat there for a few days.
"I couldn't get out of the chair. Some things that had been a huge part of my life were over, and I was having a hard time dealing with the emotions," he says. "Not only was the band ending, I was also dealing with the end of a romantic relationship — and they were interconnected."
Listless and not a little frightened, Rodriguez picked up his guitar ... and wrote a song. "That was what I needed," he says. "I wrote a song, and that was a big help. Suddenly, I could go on. It had been such a wild ride and so many great things had happened, as well as sad things, that I needed the music, and I'm so grateful for the therapy that is being able to write songs."
Eventually, Rodriguez had several tunes, most of which are reflective of his post-band/breakup realities. He and producer/friend/former Elephant Revival bandmate Darren Garvey discussed the best way to release the recordings. In early 2019, they came out with an EP called "Your Heart The Stars The Milky Way," which led to an opening slot for Rodriguez on a 2020 world tour with multiplatinum string band superstars the Lumineers.
On the heels of that, Renew Records, a new subsidiary label of BMG, offered a contract to release in April the remaining songs and even newer ones as the full-length "Sojourn of a Burning Sun." The CD was timed perfectly for Rodriguez's exposure on the Lumineers junket — and then the coronavirus hit.
"It was heartbreaking to have the tour canceled, but there are far worse things happening in the world, and I'll be fine," Rodriguez says. "The plan is to do the tour in a year and, to their credit, Renew stuck to their word, and we're releasing the album now."
"Sojourn of a Burning Sun" is a sparse, haunting, melodic and confessional album — the sounds, moods, sentiments and melodies all reflective of the Western spirit and aura of his adopted Colorado. Rodriguez's acoustic guitar features intricate fingerpicking and sagebrush chord voicings. He has a distinctive, warm baritone voice, and the sparse nature of the arrangement contains snowdrop splashes of bass guitar, banjo and fiddle, brushed snare drums, and contrapuntal female harmony vocals — the sort offered up, perhaps, by a supportive sister or friend who knows the singer's going through a painful but transformative time.
Rodriguez acknowledges that his decade and a half in the Golden West has had a marked influence on his sound and compositions.
"It's something I've always been drawn to," he says of Colorado and the scenery and lifestyle. "I remember as a kid on the East Coast, every time I saw a Colorado license plate — even though I'd never been there — my hair would stand up. I don't know how to explain it, but it was like I knew I was supposed to be out here. In the same way, I knew that music was supposed to be a way of life for me a long time before I even think it was possible to express that."
A way of life
A Gales Ferry native, Rodriguez was early on fascinated by the CD and vinyl collections of his older brother and father. When grunge came along, his mom bought the preteen a cheap amp and electric guitar and, with volume and rudimentary barre chords, he became proficient at "annoying" the family.
He later became interested in artists like Bob Dylan and the craft of songwriting and started paying attention in English class, "just so I could hone my lyric writing." He had, as they say, the buzz. Still, after high school, he headed off to Endicott College to give traditional education a shot.
"But I just didn't fit in," he says.
Finally, sitting in a music history class taught by a professor in his 80s, a former professional jazz pianist, Rodriguez's long-simmering sense of fate suddenly burbled over.
He recalls, "I got up from my desk, went up to the professor and whispered in his ear, 'Hey man, I'm supposed to be a musician. I gotta go.' And he looked at me and said, 'If you're gonna do it, go!'"
Telling that story, Rodriguez laughs in a tone that suggests a bit of disbelief at his younger self — but at the same time there's a sense of gratitude and pride. And why not? Rodriguez returned home from college and worked a variety of jobs in New London, most importantly at the Station 58 music club, where he hosted the venue's weekly Open Mic night. He began to jam and play with other musicians and, just as importantly, hang out with them socially. A casual band formed with Rodriguez, Ian Kelly, Chris Leigh and Station 58 co-owner Ed Briones and his wife, Jessie.
One night, an Oklahoma singer/musician named Bonnie Paine, a friend of Jessie's, came through town and sat in. There was an immediate connection between Paine and Rodriguez.
"She knew a couple of folks in the position to make the great leap to play music for a living," Rodriguez says. "That was the sort of link I'd been looking for. They just happened to be located in Colorado, so we packed up and moved out there. It happened really quickly. We formed the band that was Elephant Revival, got a manager pretty easily, and it was off to the races ..."
Brings a smile
With "Sojourn of a Burning Sun" impending and a huge tour with an arena headliner tentatively scheduled for a (hopefully soon) post-virus world, Rodriguez feels a sense of artistic, personal and spiritual resolution and contentment. He's already written enough songs for another album and is grateful for each day and what might come next.
"I do miss the East Coast, and I look forward to going back and seeing friends and family when we can all travel again," Rodriguez says. "But I feel natural in Colorado. It's a place that allowed me to naturally absorb the surroundings and landscape and culture. The strength of musical community fits the environment; we all lift each other up, and the energy has a cross-pollination effect.
"At home or on the road, it's the music that has this power. There might be a lot of long hours on a tour bus or between shows in small towns. But that's OK. There's a synergy and chemistry with the musicians you play with and the people you play for. And it just brings a smile to your face."
Going on a 'Sojourn'
Who: Daniel Rodriguez
What: Colorado western-Americana artist and Gales Ferry native releases his first solo album, "Sojourn of a Burning Sun"
When: Out Friday
Where: All major streaming services and online music purveyors
More info: drodriguezmusic.com
The total package
Given the emotional and therapeutic scope at the heart of “Sojourn of a Burning Sun,” it’s not surprising Daniel Rodriguez regards the record as an A-to-Z thematic narrative whose songs comprise a complete listening experience.
“I’m a lover of the album as a statement on its own,” he says. “You should able to go on a road trip and listen to albums the whole way.”
On request, Rodriguez offered quick and spontaneous responses to a few of the tunes on “Sojourn.”
“Good Graces” — “This is almost like a conversation with Grace; a writer’s prayer at the altar of good graces.”
“The Unknown” — “This is the song that I wrote directly after getting out my chair after the band went on hiatus and my relationship ended. It’s very raw and emotional and it’s me trying to process it all so close to the timeframe.”
“A Thousand Lights” — “I’m sitting in a house in Colorado on a huge mesa that overlooks the valley, reflecting on the end of that relationship. You think nothing can cheer you up, but then you just look at this sky full of blazing stars — and hopefully see a shooting star.”
— Rick Koster
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