It takes balls to do a solo acoustic set in the middle of a bill consisting of loud bands, mostly because it's so easy to fall flat on your face and turn the crowd off completely.
A few weeks ago, though, I saw a kid pull it off. On a bill that included tween screamo outfit Death Drives Theory and hardcore-gone-country boys the Liar's Handshake, a 19-year-old named Joey Arroyo got onstage at the Real Bar and strummed out a set of pretty, compelling acoustic songs on his guitar.
Though he doesn't strictly pop up in the midst of louder bands' shows, I'd heard from Arroyo before; he'd sent me a clever little press kit that included a picture with a tab on the side that you can move to make him strum his guitar -- actually, the motion suggests another elbow movement overly familiar to most young men. The package included his Acoustic EP, which was good, but not as good as the kid was live, onstage.
With a slew of tattoos and large-gauge ear piercings, Arroyo doesn't seem like your typical earnest singer-songwriter. His last band was a hardcore group called Six Gun Sweetheart, in which he was the guitar player. Before that, when he was in his mid-teens, he was the vocalist in a nu-metal band called No One Important.
It was the intensity of the hardcore band that made Arroyo, a graduate of the New School for the Arts in Tempe, channel his softer side into pleasant little pop songs. "Being in [Six Gun Sweetheart] was too much energy -- I needed the exact opposite to feel like I was well-rounded. In my downtime with them, I'd be writing really chilled-out, mellow songs so I could relax," he tells me over caffeinated beverages at Mill's End, a Tempe coffee shop.
He had another impetus to work on his solo shit as well -- he and his older brother Kenny had been trying to launch a production company called Clear As Night for some time, taking out a loan to purchase studio equipment and ostensibly make some beats ("Me and my brother both have a big love for hip-hop music," he tells me). As a way to get to know the studio equipment better, they started recording Arroyo's solo compositions themselves, hoping that any profit from Arroyo's music could help the company recoup some of its debt, which they're still paying off.
When I see Arroyo at the coffee shop, he hits me off with a 14-track CD of fully fleshed-out songs, with his friend Chris Lucier playing drums and Arroyo playing guitar, bass, and occasional piano. Some of the tracks are more completely realized versions of songs on his Acoustic EP, and some are more recent, like the haunting "Yourself in Yesterday," which he'd just recorded the day before.
He's put a live band together as well -- the Joey Arroyo Band -- which plays out occasionally, though one member's traveling schedule will keep the group from playing out anytime soon.
"My main motivation for that is that people don't take acoustic music seriously," he tells me. "It can only go one direction -- full band to acoustic. I think the Acoustic EP will sell better once people are familiar with the band. So we grabbed other people who are passionate about playing." What Arroyo implies is that without the validity a full band supposedly provides, it's hard to get the same level of interest from audiences when you're playing acoustically.
The fact that Arroyo is just as comfortable as a solo performer outside of the typical singer-songwriter context is what's impressive to me, though. And it's completely intentional on his part -- he's got a beef with the singer-songwriter scene around town, and I agree with him.
"The concept is that the music doesn't have to stop at the coffee shop," he tells me (while, ironically, we're sitting in a coffee shop, with no live music playing at the moment). "People have the wrong idea [about] what it means to be a singer-songwriter in Arizona. The scene is a little one-dimensional to me right now. People here, if you ask about a singer-songwriter, they're like, 'Oh yeah, I saw them at the Coffee Cabana, when I saw that middle-aged housewife playing her songs.'
"I watched a news broadcast about the singer-songwriter scene in Arizona and I got so pissed off watching because all they did was shoot a segment at Joe's Grotto doing an open mic night to no one -- there's nobody there at all except a film crew and other people playing. Then they interview a guy afterwards who's like, 'You never know who's gonna be in the audience -- one of these days somebody's gonna be there.'
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"I'm like, 'No. That's not how it works.' I spend more time on the phone, sending e-mails, and making press kits than I do writing music. There's a lot more on the business part than the actual performing part. You're not gonna get a career by playing coffee shops. I do it sometimes, it helps me unwind when I'm bored, gets the jitters out, whatever. But you can't expect some record producer to be there and be like, 'Wow, this guy's gonna be it.' I just hope someday I see the scene snowball, see people actually come to a show and not expect to have a latte every time they see a singer-songwriter."
That passionate attitude toward making his craft into a real career is what really impresses me about Joey Arroyo. I don't have any problem with coffee shops, but Arroyo's right about their not being ideal for getting noticed or making it in the music business.
Arroyo's music is sweet, well thought out, and executed with precision, but he also knows what he's got to do to get his music out there. If there were more local artists with that sort of dedication, then no one would have to mine coffee shops' open mic nights to find great songwriters.