“Everybody in New York thinks this music doesn’t happen up here, but it does,” says Blake Christiana. The deep-voiced songwriter and native New York upstater sounds more like a seasoned Memphis session man than a Yankee songsmith. “It’d be nice if we weren’t based in New York; it’d be a lot easier financially [laughs]. It’s tough, man. It’s tricky, but we’re fighting it.”
Their funds may be tight, but musically, Christiana and his Brooklyn-based band Yarn have little to worry about. The band headlines Wednesday night at the Pour House in support of a forthcoming album titled Empty Pockets — an unusually smooth, low-key collection of heartfelt, bluegrass-tinged alt-country songs.
Christiana, 32, previously played for years in the N.Y. jam band Blake & The Family Dog. He admits he grew tired of the routine with the group and decided to switch gears completely toward a less chaotic musical situation.
“It was more about improvising and jamming than it was about the songs themselves,” he remembers. “I got so sick of that really. I was ready to make a record of songs. To me, the record is about the song, first and foremost.”
Yarn currently features Christiana on acoustic guitar and lead vocals alongside singer/guitarist Trevor MacArthur, filddler/mandolinist Andrew Hendryx, bassist Rick Bugel, and drummer Jay Frederick.
“I got lucky with the guys in this band,” Christiana says. “They’re all very tasteful musicians. The rhythm section actually features a couple of jazz guys. We’re all in our 30s, except for the bass player, who is a young 25-year-old. He keeps us partying, you know. The band on the album is the band on the road. There aren’t any special guests planned for the Pour House show … although if anyone wants to come up and play, we might be glad to have them.”
When the songwriter was growing up in Schenectady, N.Y., his guitar-playing dad bought him a guitar and arranged for lessons, hoping to nurture a natural talent. His guidance took a while to pay off.
“Like any kid, I kind of rebelled against it a bit,” Christiana remembers. “My dad was a diehard Ricky Nelson fan — that and Elvis Presley. As a kid, that’s all I’d hear — in the living room and around the campfire. It was hammered into my brain. I started back up with music in high school again, and started playing rhythm guitar in garage bands. I didn’t start writing my own music until I was in my mid-20s. Plus, I wasn’t a singer, either.”
The slightly drowsy, flat-toned croon of Ricky Nelson must have made its way into Christiana’s vocal chords, too, as his singing style on most of Empty Pockets maintains a similarly nonchalant style. There’s a bit of Randy Travis-by-way-of-Don Nelson in the tone as well — deep, rich, raspy, and understated, with the occasional yodel and trill.
“That’s just developed over the years,” he says of his singing. “I think Ryan Adams has a beautiful voice. I’ve always liked his vocals. I don’t necessarily emulate him at all, but he does have a nice falsetto. I thought it was important to try to take that and take a note from my regular voice and make it that high trill, as you call it. I don’t even know how to describe it. I guess I developed that unconsciously.”
Christiana didn’t even try his hand singing lead until just seven years ago, when he started collaborating more and more with his buddy Shane Spaulding, eventually adding lyrics and arrangement ideas to their original song sketches. Spaulding shares songwriting credit on several tunes on the new album.
“This has been brewing since I was a kid,” says Christiana of his latest work. “I loved the Grateful Dead when I was younger and I was really into the Garcia and Grisman stuff — Old and In the Way and all of it. Then I started listening to Whiskeytown and Wilco and groups like that. I got into Gram Parsons and the Burrito Brothers and stuff. It became kind of a hipper thing to do — get the country stuff out. It inspired me for the first record, and it worked so well, I continued with this second record.”
Empty Pockets features guest appearances by vocalist Edie Brickell, five-string banjo legend Tony Trischka, Nashville fiddler Casey Driessen, and Caitlin Cary of Whiskeytown.
The major slow waltz on the new album, “I’m Down,” features high-pitched harmonies from Brickell. “Can’t Slow Down” and “More” are snappy quick-tempo shuffles in 2/4 time, replete with rich vocal harmonies between Christiana and his high-tone, strumming sideman MacArthur. Hendryx’s tasteful mandolin lines and chords slip out of their rhythm section roles into the front as part of a subtle call-and-response counter to Christiana’s lead singing. “Ain’t That a Sin” and “Christopher Street” work as elegant, strummy ballads propelled by brushwork across the snare drums and pedal steel and dobro in the background. Sad and swingin’ tunes like “I Feel So Low” and “5 Guitars” (featuring Carey on vocals and fiddle) could easily have been on a George ‘n’ Tammy or Conway ‘n’ Loretta album from four decades ago.
“When I made the first record, I wasn’t thinking of a specific album to model it after — but I did have the Dead’s American Beauty in mind, with its country/folky thing,” says the songwriter. “It’s pretty personal. It’s heartbreak, debauchery — all typical subject matter for country music. We’re trying to keep things not too depressing, although even some of the most upbeat songs don’t have the happiest themes to them. There’s an intertwined message throughout the record … although I’m not so sure what it is. Maybe it’s just life, you know?”