When S.B. troubadour Jesse Rhodes takes to the Mainstage at Jensen Guitar & Music Co. for the November installment of the Santa Barbara Songwriters Concert, he will be bringing with him one of the most remarkable musical evolutions the series has seen thus far. A Santa Barbara native who has gone from a major-label, chart-romancing recording artist to one of the most influential singer/songwriters currently making the rounds, Rhodes is a living testament of the old adage that it’s not the destination, but the journey, that’s important.
Hailing from a truly musical family-Rhodes’s mother plays cello in the Santa Barbara Symphony and his sister is a classically trained violinist-it was never really a question of if Rhodes’s musical talents would surface, but how. Inspired by the likes of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, Rhodes’s inherent unconformity led him to pursue a more contemporary musical framework for his inspirations than his relatives-he picked up an electric guitar.
“I have always been surrounded by music,” beamed Rhodes. “I took piano lessons pretty early and always loved going into the lounge room and hearing my mom playing chamber music with a quartet. And then I got into rock music and all I wanted to do was play guitar. You can’t create your own stuff so much in the classical world, and I was too much of a troublemaker for that anyway. I went to an imitation Led Zeppelin concert at the Lobero when I was 11 and it just blew my mind. So after that, I started playing guitar, and by the time I was in high school I was obsessed with it.”
Like every young musician, Rhodes had visions of making a career out of music. But, unlike the majority of his budding contemporaries, his dreams were soon to be realized. Rhodes formed Stegosaurus and took his band and music on the road. Soon after, Warner Brothers brought the group on board and the band recorded a self-titled album. A single was released and chart success soon followed. But the full album and its marketing got tangled up with corporate politics, which not only shattered Rhodes’s burgeoning career, but also his perception of the industry.
“At that point I was kind of crushed,” confided Rhodes. “I realized the record industry was more about politics than it was about music. It was nothing like I imagined it to be when I was growing up practicing and learning guitar and dreaming of that. I had reached a high level and achieved a lot of what I wanted to achieve, and then it turned out to be not what I thought it would be, which was pretty hard to take. So I stepped away from songwriting and playing for about four or five years and didn’t write much at all.”
In reassessing his musical direction, Rhodes pulled back from contemporary music and sought solace in composing for soundtracks. But after a while, both the enthusiasm and songs started flowing again, culminating in Wanderland, a solo album Rhodes released in early 2007. Written and recorded during a period of some four years, Wanderland not only serves as proof of his remarkable musical empathy and ability, but also as a glowing testament to Rhodes’s perseverance.
“I knew that I didn’t have to force anything,” explained Rhodes of the album. “There was no plan or agenda, and I didn’t find myself having to create anything just to fill a space. And that was a luxury. At the beginning the songs came slowly, but after a few years they started adding up and, when I started listening to them, they reminded me that I really love making records. So, two or three years ago, I started thinking about working toward a record.”
The end result is an album that is undoubtedly one of the finest releases to emerge this year from the Santa Barbara area. Rhodes has always written from the heart and sung from the soul, but there is also an inherent sense of freedom to the work, which no doubt comes from not only rediscovering his muse, but also from being the only one he had to answer to in its production.
“Not having a band has enabled me to write music outside of that context,” explained Rhodes. “And that has been very liberating. On some songs I could scale things back to where it was just me and a guitar, yet in others I could do things like put in sitars, or weird Moroccan drums, or strange keyboard sounds. I like being able to explore like that. Playing live has been an adventure, too. It’s just me and an acoustic guitar. So there’s really nothing to hide behind anymore.”
Jesse Rhodes headlines this month’s Santa Barbara Songwriter Showcase at the Jensen Guitar Mainstage (2905 De la Vina St.) on Saturday, November 24, at 7 p.m. Dale LaDuke opens. Visit myspace.com/sbsongwritershowcase for details.