While the stylish grace and elegance of The Johnny Starlings’ sound echoes days gone by, the band is by no means dwelling on the past. If anything, the Morro Bay-based ensemble is setting their musical sights on the future. In fact, their heavy use of acoustic instruments means that they need not rely on time, place, or even electricity when performing live. With the help of Jody Mulgrew’s sweet soaring vocals, the five-piece might just be the old-timey band that could outwit the apocalypse, but their message is every bit as contemporary as those gracing the Top 40. The Johnny Starlings return to Muddy Waters Cafe this Saturday, January 17. The Indy‘s Brett Leigh Dicks recently caught up with Mulgrew, who tells us that all good things in life start with a ukulele.
The Johnny Starlings embrace a good deal of musical retrospection. What prompted you to go that route? It’s funny because the definitive moment was when I bought a ukulele down in Long Beach. I went in one day and bought the instrument to cheer myself up, and then the voicing of that instrument and the way the chords sound when I played them gave birth to that retro feel of The Johnny Starlings. That was really the first time I started experimenting with taking on a guise of another period :
What inspired you to then step all the way back to the 1930s for inspiration? A couple things, actually. I lived in Los Angeles for a while and I was drawn to rock music. I had even taken a break from school to join a band in San Diego. I was trying to balance this classical vocal training with the high decibels of club rock, and it was always such an ill fit that it pushed me in a more acoustic direction. And my father was born in 1921, so I was raised by a very old dad. Since he was a few generations back, I feel like I have a more direct connection to those musical styles. That old time jazz and vintage flavor never really felt like too much of a put on because of that connection.
Do you consider the connection more of a fascination or an affinity? I find that I’m drawn more to music from a few generations back. Music like the Great American Songbook and the old-timey jazz feel has always been there as reference point and will always be viable as a genre. But I think we are also used to accepting a trend or a style, then closing the book on it and moving on. Maybe something from a certain period gets rehashed for commercial gain a few years down the road, but those songs and styles are still just as viable today as they were back then. Just because that time might be said and done, that doesn’t make it any less relevant. Especially since here we are teetering on the edge of another Great Depression.
You alluded to the Great American Songbook, which was really the contemporary music of its time. Those songs have stayed relevant, so why doesn’t the “romantic music” of today’s contemporaries, like Britney Spears, carry the same weight? That’s a really good question. I am more drawn to the romanticism of the Gershwins and Porters. I love to write songs about romance and love because it is a common denominator; it’s something everyone can relate to. There’s a way to portray romance without explicitly spelling out how you are going to fornicate. I think there’s a lost art to double entendre and innuendo. I just think the Britney Spearses completely lack the grace and sophistication of that.
So how does your current instrumental approach help convey what you are communicating? As a singer, I’m primarily an acoustic musician. I can take my voice anywhere and sing in any situation. It doesn’t require a power socket. So I’m drawn to instruments that are like that as well because I like the immediacy of it. When I was putting this group together, I really wanted to make an apocalypse-proof band. I wanted music that would be able to be performed no matter the situation-no matter whether there was power running or not. If tomorrow there were no more rock clubs and no more radio, we would still be able to put on a show and communicate the same thing.
So where does a post-apocalyptic old-time band take their music in the current world? With The Johnny Starlings doing what we do, obviously we’re not going to work in a big noisy bar. We learned that a long time ago. But we can play everything from a winery to a large folk festival. So I think we’ve found a lot more work than if we were loading in a rack of amps and setting up the lights and smoke machines.
The Johnny Starlings play Muddy Waters Cafe (508 E. Haley St.) this Saturday, January 17 at 8 p.m. Call 966-9328 or visit myspace.com/muddycafesb for details.