Live on arrival: Hermosa Beach’s Kevin Sousa returns to Pier Plaza, with a new EP in tow
Flick the volume knob far enough to the right, and the first sound you will hear on “Wait, What?,” the new EP from Kevin Sousa, is the faint murmur of a steady rain. In a state suffering through a five-year drought that even El Niño couldn’t slake, that may qualify as a foreign sound to your ear. But, Sousa would like you to know, it’s real.
The opening drops come not from a stock recording but an actual storm, grabbed from the environment outside Redondo Beach’s Kona Inn Recording, with producer Mike Sutherland deliberately leaving the studio door open as Sousa strummed.
That Sousa found himself in the studio during one of the South Bay’s few bouts of bad weather is fitting. Most of the lyrics for the album were written in the midst of a far less hospitable climate. After the New Year, Sousa had plenty of ideas kicking around, and had booked time at Sutherland’s studio as a kind of self-imposed deadline. Before entering the studio, though, Sousa needed a block of time to turn ideas into songs. He went to New Jersey to stay with an old friend, and arrived just before the onset of the Winter Storm Jonas, also known as “Snowzilla,” which buried the Eastern Seaboard under three feet of snow.
“I landed, and the storm hit. It was this huge East Coast blizzard, and I’m stuck in the back of this guesthouse,” he said in a recent interview. “All I had was an acoustic guitar and a notepad. And I wrote for four days.”
Sousa’s story is another in the regal lineage of the importance of place in songwriting. Brian Wilson literally sat in his own personal sandbox while writing “Pet Sounds.” Dylan, at the height of his countercultural power, left New York for the suburbs and wrote “John Wesley Harding,” sounding about as modern as the steam engine.
The discipline of monastic isolation is wonderful, but the risk is that an artist loses connection with the people for whom the music is being written, the spice that makes music pleasurable. Like life itself, the trick is to find a kind of balance between practice and spontaneity, commitment and openness.
Sousa will be revelling in spontaneity as he plays songs from “Wait, What?”, and more, live this Saturday. After the stage at the Surf Expo clears, Sousa and a quartet of local musicians will put on a free, three-hour show for the Hermosa Beach Pier Plaza crowd.
And thanks to a stylistic decision, little will be lost from the studio version in this live performance. Going into the studio to cut the album, Sousa decided that he wanted nothing done to enhance the vocals. Like being stuck in the snow, it’s a self-imposed limitation that speaks both to Sousa’s maturing confidence as an artist, and development as a person.
“I told [Sutherland], don’t touch anything on the vocals. If they’re a little bit flat, it’s ok: then they’re a little bit flat,” Sousa said.
Between Rock and roll
Most of the songs on “Wait, What?” feature only a bass, scattered percussion, a guitar and a voice or two. Two of the songs began with a single, straight-through take by Sousa.
The result is an artist that is exposed yet comfortable, and a record that brings in some of the warmth intimacy of Sousa’s frequent local performances. (On an instrumental track, Sutherland grabs a cajón and emulates the almost unconscious slaps and strikes Sousa makes with his right hand against the body of his guitar when performing alone.)
The opening track is titled “California,” and the stormy weather that leads it off is a tip that there is more than meets the eye in the place synonymous with new beginnings and a sunny disposition. Sousa describes the song as “a look back at the 20 years I’ve spent out here: how I’ve grown and changed as a human being.” It’s wrapped up in the memories that Sousa made with Glenn Frey, a founding member of the Eagles who died in January.
“Glenn was so good and kind. He used to love to say, ‘This is Kevin from Villanova. Now he tunes my guitars,’” Sousa recalled with a laugh.
For a song inspired by the Eagles and their “Southern California sound,” the tune is decidedly heavy, crawling through peaks and valleys of pathos and verity. Jeff Nisen adds some welcome warmth with backing vocals and a slide guitar.
The link with other California stories, though, is the idea of transformation. It’s the song on the album where Sousa most clearly reckons with the changes in his own life, including his now-years-old sobriety.
“So often, way in the past, I tried to mask being sad with drugs and alcohol. Now, I can sit still and be with it,” he said. “Before I was an angry dude. Now I’m a man experiencing anger. I’m not a sad person. I’m a person experiencing sadness.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum and the other end of the record is “Parker’s Song,” which closes the album. Sousa had been tinkering with the tune for a while, then got inspired when a close friend gave birth. After spending more than 24 hours in a hospital, he got home and composed the song in about 15 minutes.
Unlike the rest of the songs, it was recorded at a studio in Joshua Tree, and features a bit more ornamentation. It’s tone — straining to give serious advice in a gentle fashion — recalls Cat Stevens’ “Fathers and Sons.” But it shares with the rest of the song a reflective mood that manages to avoid cliche. If “California” is about arriving in life, “Parker’s Song” is about earning its blessings.
“I’d had this song in my head for a while. And there, hanging out in the waiting room, I started thinking about all the great stuff that had been so freely given to me,” Sousa said. “Not platitudes, but stuff that really matters.”
How it happens
Much of the music for the album was cobbled together in sessions at Mike’s Guitar Parlor in downtown Hermosa. Sousa would head there for a couple hours before his weekly residency at the Standing Room, and jam with owner Mike Longacre. It’s an opportunity Sousa had despite spending relatively little of the past twelve months in Hermosa, the place he called home for more than two decades.
Sousa is a co-founder of Keep Hermosas Hermosa and was deeply involved in the anti-oil campaign. But after the March 2015 election, Sousa and his wife Patty were exhausted. They rented out their Hermosa home and relocated to San Clemente, finding serenity away from a civic atmosphere still dominated by the oil issue.
“I just needed some time and space,” Sousa said. “I love this community, but I needed some walls, some boundaries.”
Sousa returned to the South Bay periodically for musical gigs. At first, the arrangement worked fine. But the couple gradually began missing Hermosa. Each of Sousa’s trips back to the South Bay offered tiny reminders of all the people that they had left behind. They decided to return in the spring.
“It was like a little death, a part of me was missing,” he said. “The drive got longer and longer. Chinks in the armor, as it were, started appearing.”
Back in Hermosa, Sousa leads a life that provides ample inspiration for songwriting. In addition to his frequent live performances, Sousa work as a licensed marriage and family therapist. The psychotherapy he doles out to victims of trauma, he said, inspired some of the work on “Wait, What?” and has enhanced the resonance of his music.
“My lyrics are more deeply felt,” he said. “When I was younger, I was thinking more, ‘Do the words sound good together?’ Now, it feels like more an empathic message.”
Empathy takes a lot of forms on “Wait, What?” including “On Loan.” Featuring a rare electric guitar and written in open-E tuning, it relies on a kind of coiled aggression found nowhere else on the album.
“I was worried. I thought, ‘This sounds way too much like Lenny Kravitz, let’s take the electric out,’” Sousa said. “But Mike said, ‘No, this sounds really good.’ I kind of let him drive the bus on that.”
The song is redeemed from Kravitz comparisons by a moment in which Sousa repeats “It’s all on loan.” The words were captured as Sousa stood, distant from the mike, in a corner of the studio. Contrasted with the edge of the electric guitar, the lo-fi chanting has the effect of words heard while half asleep.
The song began as a rant against Donald Trump, then gradually evolved to encompass deeper, non-political themes. But it remains a classic protest song, its words charged and authoritative.
“It’s the same message: You’re scratching to be a billionaire, and then what?”
Shortly after wrapping up this Saturday’s performance, Sousa will be returning to the same New Jersey house where he crafted “Wait, What?” He has “five or six” new ideas bouncing around, and hopes to get a few songs out of the trip, including what he describes as his first love song in a few years. But evocative of the patience he has learned and earned over time, he has no expectations.
“Whatever happens will happen,” Sousa said. “There’s some stuff I want to get down, and see what comes up.”