You’ve been referred to as the linchpin of the Baltimore folk scene, but you’re originally from Colorado. How did you end up here?
It was sort of destiny. I truly believe that Baltimore is the greatest American city. There are only a couple I would even put in the same category—New Orleans, maybe Portland. I was just lucky enough to come here in 2000 when there were just enough of the old smells left to let me hunt them down. Growing up in Colorado, I was obsessed with novels and music of old, weird America, always imagining some place other than this very monochromatic, religious, military culture.
When I went on a road trip and looked around, this city had that feeling. I remember the first night I came to Baltimore. I was staying with my cousin and we ended up at the H&H Building where this anarchic punk band was playing, then we went to this after-hours party in what is now the Velocipede Bike Project at like 3 in the morning with fried chicken and strippers getting off work and people hanging out and somebody playing a guitar in the corner. All of those details spoke to the fact that there was a freedom here. People are just themselves and they’re allowed to explore their passions and hobbies and crafts. You’re not going to come here for fame or fortune, but if you’re a craftsperson, Baltimore is a great place to be.
There’s a willingness to give people—and their art—a chance here.
Despite all the clichés about Baltimore, it’s one of the holiest American cities. There’s definitely a quest for the depth of human experience. Not fame, not fortune, but spirit. That’s the thing we need more than anything right now. In the U.S., we’re a country without a narrative. The stories being told are not great, and we’re going to need to generate new ones. Baltimore is doing a good job of that—any night of the week, you can go hear incredibly well-crafted music. Jazz, hip-hop, rock, country. There might only be 10 to 15 other people there listening to it with you, but you’re going to be illuminated.
Did you grow up around folk music?
My dad would play old folk songs on the guitar for me and my sister before we’d go to bed at night. He was always listening to songwriters like Bob Dylan and Neil Young—but also a lot of classical music. Those acoustic sounds were something I was always fascinated with early on. Even on a Beatles album, I was drawn most to “If I Fell” or “Blackbird.” I picked up the acoustic guitar when I was 12 and that became my thing. I started making albums when I was 16 after buying a 4-track cassette recorder with the money I had saved up from working at McDonald’s.
Was folk the genre you started with?
As a kid, I was into the ’60s, and from The Byrds, I started discovering country music, then blues, and then everything on back from there. By the time I moved here, I was already on the time machine back, in terms of my musical taste, but I didn’t perform any shows of my own for about three years. I was just playing and writing a ton at home and going to see a bunch of live music by other musicians. I was blown away by people like Walker & Jay, who were tapping into that primitive Old-Time American tradition—but bringing a whole new thing to it.
That was 18 years ago. How would you describe the local folk scene at the time?
It was sort of like this underground community that had always been there. The heart of folk music is people just sitting in their homes, playing, alone and together, rehearsing for a show or just throwing a house party. When I first arrived here, the community was super humbling and eye-opening. It was like this is what I’ve been looking for—a place that takes art and music seriously. At the time, I had been working on a huge movie, Ladder 49, with Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta.
It was an amazing, intense experience, but also one of those turning points. I realized I can’t not play music every day. When the film was done, I got in my car and took a massive road trip. I remember getting to the Grand Canyon and writing a song and just knowing that music was the path forward. That resulted in an album, a whole new band, and this focus on the American country folk sound. The music I make is soul music. It’s basically reflections and prayers.
Your music has long had religious undertones.
Music is a communion. That’s what we’re doing. It is an incredibly important part of human interaction. With Moon, I wanted to do an album where I was not the producer. I wanted someone else involved with a vision so I could really focus on the singing and the songs themselves. My friend Kenny Liner [of Believe in Music] said he’d do it, and it started this whole journey. He brought in all these other musicians I didn’t know, and all these arrangements I wouldn’t have come up with on my own, and it spiraled and blossomed into its own community.
You call Moon, which comes out in early May, a “modern love story.” What inspired it?
“Hollow” was the genesis. I’d worked on that song for years, and when I finally finished it, I realized the whole short story. That song is about the richness of love, and the multiple layers that exist within it. We really need to be like the Greeks and have multiple words for love, because we mean a lot of things. It’s that world of emotions and feelings that is beyond language. It’s that feeling you have so acutely when you’re a teenager, or when a new neighbor moves in two doors down and you see her and just fall in love instantly, and the air around you is magnetic, like the first time you heard “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys. Or even when you pause at the end, and the sun is setting, and the whole sky is a painting, and you look around and no one else is looking at it, and it’s just for you.
It’s a journey in realizing that everyone else is going through the same thing—that fundamental human existential loneliness that we all start from and end at. But then this whole other bright world opens up. Suddenly, there are vivid colors, and it’s not just about your own internal struggle. We can struggle together. That’s really the story of love—that it’s not just me.
What comes next?
As an artist, I want to keep pace with at least an album a year. I’m going to a studio this afternoon to work on a new one. It’s already almost recorded. But I also want to try other forms of music, because there are just certain emotions and feelings I can’t quite get across that way. Which is why I’m releasing a coloring book with Moon. I just feel like I won the lottery or something. It’s taken me so long—just in the last couple of years I’ve gotten to a place where I can play my guitar every day and work on my art all the time. I feel so lucky, and I just want more time.