“I’m not here to break any hearts,” Johnny Delaware croons on the closing track to his debut album, investing his little promise with all the sincerity he can muster. He sings over the gentle bounce of a piano and the call of a trumpet that sounds like it’s coming from the end of an echoing hallway, and the whole thing feels simple and honest and spacious, like a Beatles song circa Sgt. Pepper.
“I’m not here to cause a scene/ ‘Cause I’m not here to break any hearts/ Especially when you know when it starts.” But we all know he’s going to break a few hearts. He can’t help it. He’s a born charmer.
Johnny Delaware’s first full-length album, Secret Wave, was released independently in October and features many such earnest proclamations set to plinking piano chords and chiming guitars. Delaware prefers not to slap a hyphenated “indie” genre label on the music, calling the album’s style “just pop rock, honestly.”
The album took him 10 months to record in sporadic studio sessions with Wolfgang Zimmerman, a sought-after local producer who’s been churning out indie-pop masterpieces (by the likes of Brave Baby, Elim Bolt, and Grace Joyner) at a recording studio in a Line Street storage unit. Crammed into the windowless 12-by-24-foot room with Zimmerman’s recording equipment and couch, Delaware recorded most of the instrumental tracks himself, enlisting Zimmerman to play the drums and a handful of local artists to pitch in with pedal steel, trombone, and soprano sax.
The remarkable thing about Delaware’s Charleston career is that he only charmed his way into town two summers ago, and yet he’s already endeared himself to a wide swath of the independent music community, even appearing on a few records, including SUSTO’s recent full-length debut.
Johnny Delaware isn’t the man’s legal name, but he wears it well. “I lie to people and say it’s my real name, just because it almost has this destiny to it, this credibility — like, ‘Oh, you were born with that? You’re meant to be something,'” Delaware says.
In person, off stage, Delaware has a certain charisma about him. He’s a hugger, not a hand shaker. He tosses off profundities and faux-profundities like he’s telling you what he had for dinner last night: “There needs to be more truth in the world,” he says at one point during a wide-ranging chat in his downtown apartment. “I feel like everything’s connected,” he says later. “I got my answers.”
Lanky and sharply dressed with parted long hair, Delaware makes a strong first impression. Zimmerman still recalls hearing Delaware’s slight Midwestern accent over the phone for the first time in early 2012.
“He’s always moved to different towns and kind of been a loner and had a hard time meeting people,” Zimmerman says. “I think just because he’s such a little sweetheart, when you meet him you’re almost like, ‘Who is this fucking guy? Is he a con man? What is going on?'”
What was going on was that Delaware was having a hard time of things in Austin, Texas, and he needed a change of scenery for at least the fifth time in his young life. He started as an undergraduate psychology student at Black Hills State in tiny Spearfish, S.D., but he chafed against the confines of the classroom and spent hours holed up in his dorm room perfecting little guitar riffs. After reading a magazine interview with the roommate of English singer-songwriter Nick Drake, another musician who obsessed over technique, he dropped out and moved to Nashville, Tenn., to try a music career.
He lasted only two months in Nashville, where he says he couldn’t even land a job flipping Krystal burgers. “At that point, I knew that I wanted to play music, but I didn’t believe in myself yet,” Delaware says, “so no wonder nothing happened there.”
From Nashville he moved to Albuquerque, N.M., to be near his sister, an artist who would later supply the cover image for Secret Wave. After two years struggling with a band there, he and a girlfriend moved back to Spearfish, where Delaware had resolved to finish his degree and pursue a career in counseling. That lasted all of one week.
After living and saving for a year in a cold mobile home in the Black Hills, he packed up and headed for Austin, the warm-weather indie capital — but fortune didn’t smile on him there, either. In fact, to hear Delaware tell it, his first big stroke of luck came when a tree fell on his car during a Texas-sized thunderstorm. He’d been thinking of moving on again, and a friend from Austin had recommended that he try recording with Zimmerman in Charleston. The only problem was, he didn’t have the money for relocation or studio time. That changed when the tree crushed his poorly maintained RAV4 — which he estimates was worth about $2,000 — and his insurance company paid him a whopping $10 grand. “Divine intervention, I guess,” Delaware says, shrugging.
Arriving in Charleston in June of 2012, Delaware hit it off with Zimmerman and his friends, and the two started recording right away. “His left hand was my right hand; it felt like we were one. It felt like telepathy in there,” Delaware says. He recorded in fits and starts, saving up his pay from slinging pizzas and washing dishes at D’Allesandro’s to pay for the studio time.
Zimmerman says that, through the recording process, they came to see each other as “cosmic brothers.”
“We both taught each other a lot. I was so obsessed with making everything completely dialed in and perfect, to where every drum hit was in line or every vocal was in tune, and he’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s Christian rock,'” Zimmerman says. “It opened me up to see that it doesn’t have to be perfect and sometimes it’s better a little rough.”
Secret Wave bears the souvenirs of places Delaware has called home. A track called “New Mexico,” which sounds like the warm post-Britpop of Travis (or maybe even Coldplay), evokes lonely desert landscapes. “Krause” is a soliloquy to a place called Krause Springs, an oasis park outside Austin that features glittering waterfalls, hidden caves, and natural spring swimming holes. Another song, “Sea of Fields,” features existential notes from the highway over a slow-building, heavily reverberating electric guitar churn.
“I kind of envisioned leaving the past behind you like a movie reel that you’ve recorded with your eyes, but you just kind of toss it out the window and you’re driving and you see it in your rear-view mirror in the haze of the heat,” Delaware says by way of explanation.
Nothing’s flashy on this record. Delaware’s keyboard playing is emotive but not especially complex, save for a few show-stopping moments on the slow song “Flame.” At live shows, he plays with a rotating band of locals, but he plans to go it alone when he starts a nationwide tour this summer.
“I just want to be on the road for at least a year,” Delaware says. “A mentor of mine lately has just said, ‘If it is to be, it is me.’ That’s so right, like no one’s gonna do anything for me. People are gonna support me, but it’s up to me to get on the road and do it all on my own.”
The plan is to crisscross the country with a keyboard and three guitars (electric, acoustic, 12-string) and keep his audience on their toes with a broad-ranging solo show. For the time being, he says, that’s what feels right.
“I think when it comes to our intuition, we have to listen to that,” Delaware says. “That’s where all of our truth lies, and if we follow our intuition, we’re going to take risks, and doors are going to open that we never really expected.”