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Mesa-based songwriter Jeff Gonzales knows how to write a love song. Midway through his debut solo EP, the six-song The Lights Just Went Out. . ., he drops an openhearted doozy, the lilting country shuffle "Midday Epilogue."
"Well, I gave up my family for you," he croons, a light drawl over a gently rocking country backbeat. "Love and real friendship, too / Countless jobs along the way / Scholastic dreams I had, now they're dead / I gave up quite a bit for you." It's like "Just Because I Really Love" by Jerry Butler or "He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)" by the Crystals, a dark ballad detailing a terribly one-sided romance, one that will, eventually but surely, destroy one half of the couple involved. It's got a guitar solo, too, one that sounds like it was yanked from some obscure rockabilly record.
"It's about a love addiction to heroin," Gonzales says bluntly, describing his past battles with addiction and how the song was born one night in Kiwanis Park in Tempe, written in the passenger seat of his car. After a few minutes speaking with Gonzales, his openness becomes striking — almost alarming. Gonzales is without filter: He's open about his struggles with addiction (though he says he's sober now, "thankfully"), his epilepsy, and his major depression with psychosis.
The Lights Went Out . . . shares that raw-nerve quality with its creator. Gonzales observes from the distance on some of the songs, like "The Death of a Refrain," in which he sings "We drained the river, and we built a lake / The past is gone / But all the pain remains," over a swooning Ritchie Valens teenage drama, but he's more apt to confess, as he does on the reverb-drenched "Trickster." "I've got a mission for a fix right on my back porch / While my conscience smashes dishes and she don't wanna play no more."
Gonzales finds sympathetic backing in guitarist Matt Banister, drummer Shane Kennedy, and especially in Aaron Ott, the multi-instrumentalist who co-produced the album with Gonzales at his Phoenix studio, Rare Currency. Ott's contributions, the steady bass and gorgeous organ work, help color the album, adding muted washes of color to Gonzales' stark black-and-white.
Gonzales' songs are earthy in construction. His rough, twangy voice pairs well with stark neo-traditionalist folk arrangements, but there's a disorienting quality to his work as well. His songs feel a few inches from the ground, ever so weightless. He says that new medication and a changed diet have helped regulate his epilepsy, but he doesn't deny the influence of his condition on his art.
"I'm not sure that was something that was planned, but there is a sense of what I see and what is real not necessarily being the same," Gonzales laughs.
"The worst part of epilepsy, at least for me, is the anxiety," Gonzales says. "The fear of having a seizure is something that I deal with on a daily basis. The more anxious I get, you know, that can lead to more seizures. So absolutely . . . the anxiety and fear [play a role in the songs]. It's constantly in my mind, basically. That fear comes through with the music I write."
Though Gonzales' fears may course underneath the songs, the record is unhurried, which comes as no surprise, considering its long gestation period. Some of the songs stretch back years, as far back as 2006, when Gonzales moved to Chicago as a member of theatrical psych band Skybox. Feeling constrained by his role in Skybox, Gonzales would spend his off hours busking in the Chicago subway to develop songs.
"It's a great way to gauge people's response to your songs," he says, laughing. "You see how much money they put in your hat." Those songs eventually would find their way back to Phoenix when he returned to Arizona in late 2007.
"There's a lot of reasons," Gonzales says of the record's long process. He and his wife had a child, as did Ott and his wife. "Music was kind of on the back burner for a while."
But there was more to it. "Part of it was a lack of confidence. I didn't think people would like it. I thought it was too dark. Being in Skybox was a great learning experience, but it was creatively stifling . . . I've got nothing against those guys — in fact, I hung out with some of them recently back in Chicago — but there wasn't really room for any of us. It was more like, 'This is the song; this is what you're going to play.' I was in the band because I'm a bass player first and I can harmonize, but it showed me that I was never going to be happy unless I was creating my own music."
It would be years before Gonzales hunkered down at Rare Currency to record the album. The EP features material culled from two sets of recording sessions: a full-band recording in 2011 and solo recordings by Gonzales in 2012. He returned to Chicago for a spell last year — to work an IT job — but returned after a particularly bad seizure. He still considers Chicago his second home, and he's got a band of players there to complement his band here in Phoenix. When he returned, he found a nearly complete record staring at him. Despite his misgivings about his songwriting and abilities to perform, Gonzales says he felt compelled to get the EP out.
"It was out of necessity," he say, laughing. "I knew I'd feel relieved once I got them out." So he did. At the end of April, the EP went live on Bandcamp and iTunes. The positive response bolstered Gonzales. With The Lights Just Went Out . . . finally out in the open, he's already looking forward to a follow-up, one he's sure will come easier. "I can't wait to record again," he says, citing a new single, "The Robin in the Birch Tree," that will be added to the EP when it sees physical release later this year.
"Basically, I knew it was going to drive me crazy if I didn't release them," he says. "I knew I was going to regret it. I had to get them out, you know?"