December 28, 2007 § Leave a comment
by Phil Pilgrim
All Asia Bar, January 2007
We’re standing in the darkness of an open lot next to the All Asia Cafe, where we’ve each just played a set. Some sort of AIDS benefit is setting up, selling penis-shaped cookies for 50 cents each, and although to the outsider observer it would look like some sort of yuppie drug deal is underway, I’m really interviewing Xander Singh. He is very concerned that his “hair should look good for the readers”.
The sweet-singing troubadour, who makes women old and young weak at the knees, has had a busy year. I recall my band’s first few shows at the Acton Jazz Cafe, a strange mecca for creativity nestled in the obscurity of the middle of nowhere. There I saw Xander in all of his glory, shy and flirtatious, the kid you always wished you could be, the cute-as-a-button fellow strumming his guitar, crooning out songs about Big Love. Since then, he was invited to LA by Marc Desisto, who helped put together U2’s “Rattle and Hum” as well as albums by Warren Zevon, Patti Smith and Blondie. The sessions didn’t go well, so Xander bummed around with “[his] lady friend….who isn’t [his] lady friend anymore, but maybe someday will be again”. He then moved to New York, where he was kicked out of his dorm, and then to Nashville, where, with Matt Wilcox, he made The Ice Cream Parlor, an album of bittersweet pop tunes and portraits of a bruised hipster with a pure heart and black lungs out on the mean streets. Following a tumor scare and a period of recuperation in Seattle, he moved into an apartment on Newbury Street, the beginning of his journey. “### Newbury Street Apt. ##, readers, drop by anytime”, he said (Editor’s Note: I’m going to step in and protect Xander from obsessed stalker-freaks. If you want to visit Xander, email him for directions.)
Xander has that sort of likability and heart-squeezing candor always sought and rarely reached in the world of Howie Day followers. The first show I ever saw him play, he did a spot-on and hilarious cover of James Blunt’s “Beautiful”, which he said he added to his repertoire based on a ‘lifelong love of live comedy’. He oozes charm as he sings “…and she could see from my face that I was FUCKING HIGH”, thus lending dignity to all of ad-libs we’ve all drunkenly hollered over that god-awful tune. “One of my biggest passions in life is disliking James Blunt”, Xander says with a big grin. So who are his influences? “My friends are my biggest musical influence”, he says, “and I’m big into electronic music right now, particularly Sigor Ros”. In his newer works, including the brief set he played at All Asia on Saturday the 9th (cut short by technical difficulty) he is trying to meld the new-romanticism of the sensitive songsmith with the electronic surrealism of his heroes, and he’s doing a good job of it.
There is something about him, a spiritual link to Chris Carrabba and his ilk, that drips of sentimentality and sweetness and demands the listeners adoration, whether he wants to hand it over or not. What in the hands of a lesser artist could easily be tossed into the pile of pussy rock in the corner of the room emerges pure and biting, with the kind of effortless abandon of deep Ryan Adams album cuts. But then again, maybe that’s because he’s been fighting an uphill battle his whole life.
“I was nine…I was deep into musical theater…I played all the lead roles, Oliver, Pinocchio, Velveteen Rabbit…and I was auditioning for the show “Zoom”, the PBS morning show…and I needed a talent. At that point in my life, I was really good at building things with Legos and watching TV…I was a master at Duck-Hunt….so I said ‘Mom, I need to get a guitar’…so I went in and did a great audition, sang my little heart out, and they called me back six times…they loved it…but Pablo was coming back on and they told me the reason I didn’t get the gig was because he was already the ‘ethnic looking one’…but I kept up with guitar and I’m here now and that’s all that matters.” A siren rings out – I think to myself, “Yes sir, you are here”. But he could be anywhere in the world and be comfortable, because his voice is at once both angelic and rustic, naive and weary. Xander has that rare quality of being a man who seems to have seen much but continues to smile through his cigarette smoke, with enthusiasm for his craft and his audience coming out of his every pour. His is a striking brand of folk-pop pillow-talk.
“In the beginning I wrote a lot of songs about love. But now, I write about the places I’ve been, the experiences I’ve had.” The song ‘Walkabout’ is about “…sleeping on the streets of New York and getting arrested and taken to Harlem one night”, but on the most shallow level, it’s a key piece of post-prom prettiness a group of friends in a car or on a rooftop would sing with a bottle of red wine in hand.
I hope Xander stays around here. The man, with his deep soulful eyes, impeccable style and honest-to-God belief that “Endless Love” is the greatest love song ever, is a rare serenader in a stoned-out soundscape of shameless sound-alikes. He’s making music of the people, for the people (assuming the people are the lovesick brethren of blogger nation, and further supposing that this entire thing isn’t some attempt to publicly disgrace Zoom) and he’s giving out his address on the internet. He’s hoping for a grassroots campaign to take him to the top where he can surround himself with those who have been with him the whole trip, where they can all live the high-life together. The last thing he’d call himself is an artist; if anything, he’s the rollicking barnstormer with the velvet voice that we always knew would come out of Boston – but had to go from coast to coast in the process – and who’s return should, to fans of his style of notebook poetry, be right up there with the prodigal sons.
“I want my music to go into the headphones of anybody who wants to listen to it,” he says when I ask him where he wants to go in the next year. “Wherever I can have fun, that’s where I’ll go.” We look down and notice we’re down with our cigarettes and that Jack Frost has been dropkicking at our noses, and so we head inside.
The next day…
The next day was bitterly cold, but my lady and I decided to roam the streets and celebrate the Boston winter in all of its brilliance. The trip ended at Xander Singh’s apartment, living proof that the address in this piece is the real deal (and on the free copies of The Ice Cream Parlour EP is a pictured of a fazed Singh with his phone number below). He made us a delicious drink, offered us a hookah of fine grape tobacco and played a rousing version of “God Only Knows”.
We sat down and, looking down at the city glowing below, we listened to his CD. Somehow, when in the room with the man who wrote it, the bittersweet, Postal Service-style synth bop of “Ice Cream” takes on a new tone. It is like an old and frayed tattoo of some old war brigade on a man’s arm: the song is where Singh has been, imprinted on him in a way beautiful and visceral enough to offer the listener just a glimpse of how striking the original moment must have been. Such is the goal of the storyteller, the back-street performer, and Singh truly is one. Plus, this open door policy (which, by the way, strikes me as incredibly dangerous) is an incredible thing in a world of artists existing behind a veil of internet obscurity. Singh wants to connect with his listeners on a surreal, almost juvenile level. Doesn’t it makes you feel good to know that somewhere in this city exists a man like this – a man who would turn down an offer from a producer of the magnitude of the one printed above and the chance to work with Paul McCartney’s bass player because he just felt he was too YOUNG to be thrust into the big time, and because he would rather strut the city streets of the Hub and sing bittersweet sonnets of isolation and hope for the Laptop Generation?
It makes me feel swell. He’s as close to a poet in my opinion as a man can get without being obnoxious or deranged. He gave me a hug when I left and offered his house to crash at whenever I needed. The strange thing might be that he meant it.