In summer 2008, Seattle-based singer/songwriter Jason Webley traveled to the other side of the world to play his biggest headlining show yet -- performing in front of about 1,500 people in Norilsk, Russia, a city in northern Siberia above the Arctic Circle.
Looking back on that show, Webley described it as "an amazing experience in a bunch of ways. It was the most remote place that I've ever performed, probably one of the most strange and remote places that anyone would ever get invited to play, and the fact that my strange life brought me out there, the reception was so warm.
"All these people that lived such interesting and unusual and often really difficult lives in a city with a lot of difficult history and difficult conditions, for some reason their hearts opened up to me and my music so much and they welcomed me. Actually, it was really humbling and I really want to go back, and I hope that's a relationship that will continue."
A singer who combines elements of folk, rock and gypsy music, Webley will be bringing his East Cost tour to Jersey with a show Wednesday (Jan. 7) at the Saint in Asbury Park, and he recently spoke with Metromix Jersey Shore.
You've been doing this on the road for about 10 years now. Did you ever think when you first started out that you'd wind up touring the world and finding a fan base all the way out in Eastern Europe?
No, it wouldn't have really occurred to me. When I was really young I kind of had the idea that I'd someday be a musician and that people would be interested in what I did. I kind of lost that at some point in college, like I didn't feel (as though) folks would be that interested in what I'm up to. But when I actually started doing the stuff that's grown into this, my goals were pretty modest; I was playing to some people on the street.
Tell me a little about your past as a street performer. You do have a very attention-grabbing style when you play live.
I mean, that's how I started. I didn't really plan to start a music career, I just sort of thought, "I'll play accordion on the street for people and see what happens," and everything's kind of grown out of that. A lot of where I learned the way that I interact with my audience is from street performing.
Now, it's not that I don't like to perform on the street -- I just don't. I feel like that chapter's over. There are certain psychological aspects of when I was doing that that I would rather not have to deal with now. Like, mainly just that when I was doing that my brain was kind of always on the prowl, wondering, "Is it time? Should I be playing? What's going on right now? I should be playing," whereas now, I know when I play. I play at 8 at night when the show starts, and the rest of the time I worry about other things and freak out about other things.
The past few years you've been playing rooms of all different sizes around the world. What's that like for you as a performer, to go from playing sizable halls with Amanda Palmer to a bar in Asbury Park?
I think it's really cool. ... it's kind of a wonderful thing about where I am right now, actually, because I get to taste all sorts of different aspects of this business. In a lot of ways, these smaller shows are better. ... It's funny; I'm really shy but weirdly social. Like, after I'm done playing, I don't go out running around looking for people, but I kind of like it when people come and talk to me because you just put out all this energy and there's some other energy left that needs to be defused somehow. When I play the smaller shows, I actually kind of get to meet people and kind of connect in some ways, like people will whisk me away and I'll end up in weird places in weird cities in the middle of the night.
Switching gears a bit to talk about the record that came out in 2007 ("The Cost of Living"), your first four albums seem to tell a whole story, ending with 2004's "Only Just Beginning," and it feels like you're closing a book. What was the inspiration behind the fifth album? It feels like a new beginning.
I'm glad people hear it that way, about the other four albums because I sure felt that way. When I finished "Only Just Beginning," I didn't feel like, "God, I'm never gonna make another album again," but I really felt like something had completed a cycle and I was done with something, and in a way, I was ... and then it was a long time before another album came out. So, I was pretty reluctant to even try to attempt another album after that.
But, I just kind of waited and was seeing what kind of songs rose up in me, and I was a little less ambitious about it. I didn't want to try to have something that ... held together in quite the same way as "Counterpoint" did or "Only Just Beginning" did in a structural sense. I just was like, "OK, well, here are a bunch of good songs and they kind of fit together in an abstract, poetic sense and they're all kind of dark in a similar way and they've got these driving rhythms that kind of hold them together which distinguished them from stuff I've done in the past," and by the time we actually came in and recorded them I was feeling pretty good about the idea. But, it was a way different process and I do look at it as being something totally, totally different.