How to measure loyalty, commitment, devotion?
In the case of David Jensen, of Sunset Alliance Records and guiding light behind Before Braille, Art for Starters, and now Loyal Wife, his dedication to music can be physically measured in the form of actual compact disc inventory, shrink-wrapped and stacked up, in the attractive shed behind his Mesa home. Standing watch over all this product is a cutout of Eminem's head peering ominously from the window.
"The sheer number of unsold CDs I have requires someone with vast multi-platinum experience," Jensen wryly observes, "so I asked Eminem to guard them for me. So far, he's done too good of a job, as unfortunately none of them have gone missing. I've printed 55,000 CDs through Sunset Alliance and my own bands. I have 3,000 in my shed. Two thousand of those are attributed to Before Braille breaking up suddenly. Another year of touring would have brought a zero sum."
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Loyal Wife is scheduled to perform Saturday, May 12, at The Sail Inn in Tempe.
Jensen inherited Sunset Alliance from original owner Steve Lefever in 2000 and used the label to help other bands in the scene disseminate their music, as well as his own. But it's been both blessing and curse. Being an indie-music figurehead made him the obvious target for disgruntled musicians when their goals and dreams for massive success in the majors went unrealized. Couple that with membership in two bands that abruptly ended in acrimony, and one wonders why Jensen feels the third time could be the charm with Loyal Wife, or why the idea of making another album could fill him with any sort of joy. But it does. And they have. Faux Light is Loyal Wife's debut, financed by the fans via Kickstarter and labeled with love.
"I have an urge to create and collaborate," he says. "My song ideas are always greatly improved by working with others. My songs feel like diary entries written in invisible ink until I record them properly. It's also a vicious cycle. The loyalty to the songs drives me to the studio. Paying studio costs drives me to stage. The stage drives me to depression and feelings of inadequacy, and those feelings drive me back to the 'diary.'"
Vocalist Ashley Taylor witnessed this vicious cycle firsthand — first as a fervent fan of Before Braille, and then as a standout member of Art for Starters, a band that indeed started off for Cheshire Cat grins but, within a month and a half, was featured in a New Times story by this writer. Despite the euphoric start, the group fragmented acrimoniously. Over a dispute about T-shirts.
"I'll let David answer that one," Taylor says, laughing.
"I think people chose to make it about T-shirts," Jensen says. "I think the band broke up because we realized half the band was on one page, and the other half wasn't even in the same book."
Jensen acknowledges it may have been unfair to expect Art for Starters' members to be invested equal partners in what started out as a solo recording project before briefly morphing into a fully fledged live band.
Jensen returned to school at Northern Arizona University and took recording class electives at Mesa Community College, which is where a fellow student familiar with Before Braille asked to record Jensen for his class project. "I thought it would be cool to have Ashley come in and record a song I wrote circa Art for Starters-live-band called 'Ivory'."
After Art for Starters crumbled, Taylor focused on her career in private aviation but welcomed the reignited collaboration. "The more I looked for other projects, the more I realized Dave and I work really well together and it would be nice to do something together. I just wanted to have a quality recording of a song I was proud of. Once we went into the studio with Bob Hoag at Flying Blanket Studios and re-recorded the song, it started getting our creative juices flowing, I think, and that's when we started getting together and entertained the idea of a new band."
Jensen and Taylor were pleased with the recording, but neither committed to do a project together until months later, after Jensen claimed he had an unsettling dream about doing so, maybe involving T-shirts, maybe not.
"Ashley and I met at my house and discussed forming as a 'duo' and using Kickstarter to fund the project," says Jensen. "Six weeks later, we had 151 pledges totaling $7,534 and studio time reserved. Six weeks after that, we had 1,000 full-length CDs delivered to my doorstep, and a five-piece band preparing for a CD-release party."
The studio band — comprising three-fourths of another Phoenix buzz band, Awake and Alert (Spencer Reed, Blake Kimball, and Sam Hardwig) — was approached to record live in the studio.
"At the time, Spencer and I had a project, Bronco, that was coming to an end," Kimball says. "I had no idea Sam was also asked to play, until we chatted on Facebook. I was excited to play with Sam again. Awesome drummer and even a better dude. And Spencer is always the perfect choice for bass, and we all work really well together."
The dynamic gives Jensen a chance to step aside from the spotlight. Though he plays most everything on the record, Taylor's vocals are the main focus now, with Jensen taking an occasional lead but mostly providing backup support. This change offers illumination to the title of the band's first CD.
"I've never enjoyed or felt comfortable in the spotlight, even as a kid. It's a faux light. I think it takes either a starving or mature person to handle such a thing. At this point in my life, I'm neither. I was very happy to find that Ashley was capable and willing to take on the responsibility part of that, and her voice is so impressive it makes a lot of sense for me to step back and find a more stable role.
Because the Kickstarter page pictured only Jensen and Taylor, people have approached Ashley, wondering whether she's the "loyal wife." In truth, it was Jensen's way of giving a shout-out to his own loyal wife, and it wasn't originally his first choice for a name.
"I wanted to name the band Yell Aware," Jensen says. "As a joke, I posted a poll on Facebook about it. No one liked it but my wife, Annelise. So, I posted another poll with the name Loyal Wife included. I don't think anyone liked it, either, but Ashley did, so we went with it. For me, it's a bit of a homage to Annelise, but, honestly, she's too cool to care about what name my band chooses to answer to."
After their success on Kickstarter, Loyal Wife need only answer to the loyal fans who ponied up enough money to stretch a proposed EP to the splendid full-length, but you almost wonder whether the Kickstarter experience changes the relationship between artist and appreciator. Might they begin to act as if they own the band?
"I think, if anything, they are more invested fans! They have this sense of pride for helping out and seem more excited for everything we do. It's pretty awesome," Taylor says.
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"We can't express our gratitude in words to our Kickstarter backers. We took repayment very seriously. Some declined the rewards because they just wanted to help, but all pledge perks have been perked. The only thing we owe our backers now is a video. Our next video could get really interesting with all those who have paid for a role in it."
"I even drew blood to sign thank-you cards for those who earned that Kickstarter reward," Jensen says. And, he stresses, he didn't have a safety pin in the house, so he used a knife and scissors.
"To any that feel they didn't get their money's worth: You got my blood. How much more can you ask?"