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Musician and professional surfer Donavon Frankenreiter has been all over the world and seen his share of big waves. Still, he marvels at the daredevils who routinely tackle giant waves, including an estimated 100-footer recently surfed in Portugal.
"It's unbelievable what some of these guys do," he says by phone from his home in Kauai, Hawaii, "but they know that when they do this, they could die. When I'm out there surfing, I love the feeling I get when the waves are a little bit dangerous, but I don't want to put myself in a situation that could [end badly]. I want to have fun, play music, and surf waves that aren't going to kill me — and do it around the world. I don't need to add a 100-foot wave into my day."
While Frankenreiter may take a safer approach in the water, the opposite is true in the studio. At a time when many artists strive for a consistent continuity of sound (keeping fans happy and, they hope, boosting sales), each of Frankenreiter's five albums is a different musical journey. Just as Frankenreiter never knows what the ocean might offer up, his studio time begins the same way — with a take-it-as-it-comes approach.
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"Going into the studio [to record Start Livin'] I wasn't really thinking about anything, as far as how I wanted to make this record," he says. "It's always a challenge when I do it myself. When I write a song on acoustic guitar, it can stay on acoustic or go to electric. It can be full-band or broken down. It's all about how I feel and how it comes together on that day."
This time, Frankenreiter enlisted the help of longtime bandmate Matt Grundy. A multi-instrumentalist, Grundy provided a diverse array of sounds on the laid-back album, using banjo, lap steel, ukulele, assorted percussion (including Zippo lighters and a can of dry beans), bells, and bowls.
"The only thing I wanted to do was sit in a room with him and play and sing and have him pick up an instrument to accompany the song we were recording," he explains. "Matt would pick up a banjo [or] a ukulele or something and we'd just build it up from there. There's no drums on it, just a lot of percussion and quirky, different instruments. It just kind of naturally came out the way that you hear it."
In typical Frankenreiter fashion, the album was completed in a week.
"It just came out as it happened, and we never went back and changed it," he says. "When I'm recording, I like [to?] do things two or three times and then move on."
The album harks back to his self-titled debut, produced by friend and fellow surfer/musician Jack Johnson in Johnson's Brushfire studio. But it's not another sing-around-the-bonfire album full of gentle shuffles and easygoing rhythms for the flip-flop-wearing, bleached-out crowd. Instead, Start Livin' offers a deeper emotional complexity, with songs focused on Frankenreiter's family and sun-baked lifestyle as well as the recent death of fellow surf pro Andy Irons.
"Start Livin','' he says of his mantra-cum-bouncy-title-track, "is the basis and theme of the record. 'A.I.' was . . . just the way that I felt, and [the song] happened really quickly. I was stoked when I wrote it, because songs often take me months and months to write. It was the emotions and feelings from when he passed away pouring out."
So if you see a tour bus heading through the Valley with a few surfboards on the roof, don't be alarmed. It's only Donavon Frankenreiter — and he'll settle for a 100-foot stage.