The first time I heard Jim Connolly’s music, I was a teenager viewing Lit Moon Theatre Company’s production of Hamlet. Using a sparse and strange assembly of instruments — a handsaw played with a violin bow and a loop pedal to sample the actors’ voices — Connolly spun an eerie ambience across the blank butcher paper of the show’s set. This music was deep, evocative, and dark.
A little more than a decade later, I heard Connolly strum a very different tune, singing alone with a banjo in his Piano Kitchen performance space, surrounded by paintings of open skies: still sparse, still stirring, but in a very new way.
There is no one way for Connolly, a man who is currently enjoying the latest of his many musical rebirths as the folk act Toy Shop Ghost. A writer of string quartet pieces, rock songs, jazz sets, and sound experimentations, the endlessly inventive Connolly is on a spider-like adventure of self-sustaining creative joy, threading between one artistic anchor and the next as the currents sway him. “I feel like Don Quixote a lot, like I’m just flailing at windmills and imaginary monsters. But I’ve actually learned to be quite happy and satisfied with that,” he said.
Connolly grew up south of Boston and spent two formative years in Barbados while his parents volunteered with the Peace Corps. He picked up violin as a 2nd grader and bass as a teenager, growing up to play in bands throughout his life and honing a curiosity for sound expansion.
After some time in San Francisco, he moved to Santa Barbara to raise a family, not knowing what musical frontiers awaited him here. “I thought my life in music was over, ’cause I thought it was a little beach town where there was not gonna be any music happening. But that was my first nice surprise: There are a lot of good musicians here,” he said. Through connections like Ventura composer Jeff Kaiser and John Blondell’s Lit Moon Theatre Company, Connolly found the key to access the more avant corners of S.B.’s often complacently conservative creative scene.
A craftsman through and through, Connolly spends his non-performing days repairing pianos at the Piano Kitchen on Rose Avenue, a workshop that he also opens occasionally as a performance space. With its many dissected pianos, handmade instruments, and free-floating winged puppet beasts, the venue has become a safe haven in Santa Barbara for free-form innovation and bare-hearted openness. “I look forward to someday there being a more adventurous appetite for theater and music here in Santa Barbara, and I hope in some small way doing the Piano Kitchen helps grow that seed,” he said.
In the meantime, as Toy Shop Ghost (a name born of Connolly’s love for light-dark, happy-sad dichotomies), Connolly has found new life in the “beautifully pathetic” banjo and the intimate performances it lends to. “It’s the most fun that I’ve ever had as a composer and a musician,” he said of his newfound love.
On such a long and twisting thread of creation, Connolly is perhaps now in the best place he’s been yet, and expecting as little of it as possible. “I’m actively not making a plan, but I’m actually doing the thing that I love, burning all my calories doing, and none of them dreaming or hoping and planning,” he said. “I want to be surprised and delighted by whatever happens, and I’m ready to be.”