Parlor Showcase

Aaron Bowen: The Ambitions of a Balanced Artist

Aaron Bowen. Photo by Dan Chusid.

Bowen with Jane Lui.

Bowen with Isaac Cheong at a Macaroni Club event.

Photo by Dennis Andersen.

The life of an independent musician can be limiting, an all-consuming pursuit of what ultimately registers as a paradoxically avaricious dream with few if any tangible rewards for most of its pursuers; so few break through as to make the amount of sacrifice seem absurd for the other 99.9%. Even the inherently enjoyable creative tasks, like writing and recording, take vast amounts of time, energy and focus, not to mention money; the distracting, often soul-destroying day job – or sugar momma/daddy or other willing patron – must be secured to fund inordinately overpriced gear purchases, studio time, and touring/promotional costs, among a ridiculous multitude of other things. But once the music is made, the incongruous drudgery of self-marketing begins; shows and tours must be booked and promoted, music distribution (i.e., internet and, now to a lesser extent, physical availability of the music) facilitated, and an online presence maintained. Media recognition – both local and elsewhere, online and in endangered non-virtual mediums – must be doggedly chased; shamelessly gaudy press packs are painstakingly assembled and sent out – at great personal cost – to radio stations and newspapers, and they require an absurd amount of follow-up to even confirm their reception, let alone garner priority as an action item. Fan mailing lists must be dutifully maintained and pandered to, with the new income-depriving necessity of freely disseminated music and videos to generate and sustain interest. Social networking – be it of the Twitter/ Facebook/MySpace variety, or the actual face-to-face building of relationships (does anyone remember when this was all there was?!) – also takes time and energy, with consistent status updates and friend adding, and diligently hitting the venues even on non-performance nights. And there’s also keeping one’s band happy (if one has a band, and this entails both creatively and often financially), and the drama one has to deal with if they’re not; it’s a very personal thing, one’s art, and artists are some of the most sensitive and touchy people out there, trying to promote their highly valued personal vision to a jaded public that, for the most part, couldn’t care less; trying to recruit and sustain even the funded loyalty of band members you haven’t grown up with transpires in this same detached dimension.

Meanwhile, the artist has no free time or money left over to enjoy any semblance of a normal life. Dining at a restaurant, or hanging out with friends somewhere besides a gig seem like once-in-a-blue-moon luxuries. Spending quality time with family, or particularly with long-suffering significant others, also goes by the wayside. Most musicians exist in such a drained continuum as to often appear mentally distracted and emotionally unavailable.

And what about other interests, other passions, other pursuits, or even other careers? There is often so much more to an artist than the stubborn pursuit of the public exploitation of their muse, one can’t help but think they’re doing themselves a disservice by arranging their entire lives around such a singular, difficult to tangibly exploit facet of who they are, trying to bleed an ever uncooperative stone and becoming a craven version of themselves just to live up to the task. Since the field of hopefuls has grown so vast, and because their wares have become so literally devalued in the face of such high and yet jaded expectations (and the development and proliferation of evolving technologies that has made purchasing music cheaper––if not free––and more readily available), independent musicians and their music no longer seem sufficient in the service of entertaining mankind. In fact, one has to wonder who they’re helping besides themselves (and insufficiently at that), and if there’s any measurable significance inherent in such pyrrhic sacrifice.

Aaron Bowen is a world-class singer/songwriter, guitarist, engineer, producer, and also a budding philanthropist, political activist, antique dealer, velophile, and skilled metalworker and carpenter who has established a less-taxing, more meaningful paradigm for himself and his music, while simultaneously tapping into other creative outlets – and even alternative vocations – in the pursuit of a more balanced, fulfilling life.

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Unlike the majority of its denizens – mostly immigrants on the lam from colder climes, it would seem – Aaron Bowen was born and raised here in the Chula Vista area of San Diego, one of several in a highly musical family (father Richard is a singer/songwriter/producer/engineer, brother Richie is a virtuosic guitarist and singer who lives and works in Sedona, Arizona, and younger brother Jesse plays bass for local San Diego band Blackout Party).

He caught the music bug as an adolescent during the golden age of guitar heroes in the ’80s and early ’90s, and moved to Los Angeles at 17 to attend GIT (Guitar Institute of Technology), the six-string-shredder arm under the Musician’s Institute rubric of schools, in the hopes of becoming a guitar hero himself. Bowen says he used to average up to eight hours a day running scales, arpeggios, and other technical exercises; this discipline eventually got him sponsored by the Ibanez guitar company and gained him a formidable reputation in the gunslinger’s circuit of clinics, demos, and session work, with which he became progressively disenchanted. Establishing the cycle of change he now naturally embodies and seems to periodically require – with intensely focused immersion giving way to a restless, newness-craving ennui; repeat – he shifted gears and began concentrating on another outlet.

Bowen began making a decent living through a self-owned custom car construction and modification business. As financially rewarding – and even creatively satisfying – as it was, Bowen realized he was losing touch with his muse from all the extra hours spent at the shop, and the generally demoralizing nature of the manual labor. Perhaps (un)luckily, or more likely through some kind of subliminal machination fueled by waking-world desperation, Bowen suffered an accidental injury while using a box cutter, puncturing the flesh between the thumb and index finger of his right hand, presenting an unavoidable caveat to deviate from that path. With uncanny prescience, Bowen told the doctors to reattach the severed tendons, as he knew he would need his right hand as functional as possible in order to play guitar, let alone to execute the fingerpicking now prevalent in his canon, though at the time they told him he wouldn’t need it for mechanical work. Taking this event as a harbinger of necessary change, he sold the business, living on the nest egg while simultaneously subsidizing the establishment of his home studio. It wasn’t until around 2002 that he even considered writing songs with vocals; up until this time he was exclusively a self-professed instrumentalist with a soft spot for technical players like Frank Gambale (with whom he actually studied) and Django Reinhardt.

All the years of LA shredding drifted into the background as other long-standing influences came to the fore. Aaron’s obsession with the timeless songcraft of the ’30s and ’40s – as embodied specifically by his adoration of the soundtrack to the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz – and the singer/songwriter heyday of the ’60s and ’70s (including Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor) became his northern star in this new creative manifestation. A high, clear-toned tenor à la the aforementioned Paul Simon also emerged, seemingly fully developed, embedded with the rare DNA of its own identifiable timbre, and without the pitchy, confidence-lacking flaws most vocalists spend years sanding from the edges of their voices. Although he sometimes wishes, like most singers, for a different voice with more range, one doesn’t hear this ambivalence when he sings.

Meanwhile, the home studio was developing to the point where Bowen was becoming a bona fide professional engineer and dangerously close to making a good living at it. Bowen embodies the archetype of the eccentric, tightly wound, night-owl-insomniac genius who collects – and routinely uses – old ribbon microphones and exotic instruments in his studio (several of both can be seen hanging on the walls of the one-bedroom vacation-style cottage he shares with wife Kate in La Mesa). He usually eschews the traditional approach no matter what function he’s performing at a given time, often extracting usable sounds out of common household items (he recently got a tangible thrill from transforming an empty 10-gallon plastic water jug into an ideally toned bass drum, for instance). He loves the organic approach of using whatever objects he has lying around the house for recordings, taking pride in his ability to conjure employable aural emanations from whatever he can get his hands on. And he is highly protective of his “trade secrets,” the mic technique and gear settings that capture his superb signature sounds, exhibiting the same competitive intensity in maintaining said secrecy that he once put into the pursuit of guitar heroism.

He has recorded numerous local and not-so-local artists (Gayle Skidmore, Dawn Mitschele, Josh Damigo, and an LA artist with a development deal respectively), but his long-standing collaboration with Jane Lui is perhaps the most significant. Teargirl (reviewed in the July 2005 issue of the San Diego Troubadour), and especially Lui’s latest album, Goodnight Company (released earlier this year and reviewed in the June issue) exude the sonic quality and grandeur of a production helmed by a seasoned LA producer/engineer in a major label studio, not a self-trained home recordist living and working in the recesses of San Diego on an obsolete digital recording console. Both Lui’s albums bear the indelible stamp of the pair’s synergistic willingness to submit to each other’s wild experiments in service of her superlative songs and voice, but Goodnight Company is a massive aural achievement, a fully realized sonic coup of symphonic magnitude expertly executed on an independent level. The first hundred or so units of the initial pressing include a fantastic behind-the-scenes DVD that grant the viewer a special visual peek into Bowen’s studio mastery, as he and Lui are filmed in the midst of arduous, painstaking searches for exactly the right sounds from whatever instrument (or piece of luggage, or bit of kitchenware, etc.) is under the scrutiny of whichever archaic microphone is being employed. One is also treated to rehearsals and recording sessions with the string and horn sections that were used to such wonderful effect on various selections.

Eventually, Bowen accumulated enough of his own songs to record a proper full-length singer/songwriter album. He is self-effacingly dismissive regarding his self-produced 2005 debut, A Night at Sea (reviewed in the November 2005 issue) and has since turned his back on performing most of those songs live (unless persistent, numerous requests are made), as he exhibits that perfectionistic, adamantly onward-pressing, past-work-disavowing drive native to most artists. But for a CD from a songwriter who’d only been at it for a couple years at the time of its release, it is exceptional. Every song is replete in the mood it establishes, offering up sublime, genuine, memorable vocal melodies over intricate, intriguing, often deftly fingerpicked acoustic chord progressions and minimal instrumentation (lap steel, some keys, and scant bass and percussion) in a kind of old-is-new-again hat-tip to both previously professed sets of influences. The (un)easy listening of cuts like “Teacup Boat” and the titular track are belied by the lyrical content of a troubled, self-conscious, critical mind (“Waves of regret for what I said are on my head and left me lonely” and “All of my life, all of my days/Just wasting away” respectively), and “Dorothy” is a lovelorn, metaphorical homage to the aforementioned Wizard of Oz.

2007’s The Supreme Macaroni Co., Ltd. (supposedly a reference to the 1994 movie The Professional, according to Bowen’s Wikipedia page) is a natural follow-up, with its ambitiously expanded instrumentation (banjo, accordion, piano, trumpet, strings, and others unobtrusively joining the ranks) and vastly improved, more confident lyrics (“Put away your resignations/Lord knows I didn’t bring mine/What I brought is a bottle of Strawberry Wine”), and also exhibiting a richer use of storytelling metaphor (“When the Fall of Rome” casts a former lover as the Caesarian antagonist in a failing relationship, and includes a clarinet part and muted trumpet, which he has been known to mimic with his voice live). There’s a cultural expansion happening as well, with the emergence of a Parisian-cafe vibe on several tracks (compliments of an accordion and/or waltz rhythms), and the subtle incorporation of exotic twists like the understated vocal ululations toward the end of “The Bird” (which also features that Parisian accordion, and a 3/4 waltz section). Bowen presses forward even during an unusual look backward, as on the reinterpretation of the A Night at Sea fan favorite “Teacup Boat,” changing the key, altering the rhythm to a lazy shuffle, modifying a word or two in the lyric, and adding a clarinet solo.

At the time interviews transpired for this writing, Aaron was rushing to add songs and finishing touches to his upcoming third album, Abstract Logic. The bulk of its tracks – with an elaborate production ethic à la …Macaroni…– were recorded at least a year or two prior, and somewhat different from the latest batch of predominantly bare-boned acoustic numbers (à la A Night at Sea), which presented him with a quandary in terms of how to honor the work put into the older material from which, as reflected in his enthusiasm for the newer pieces, he felt he had already moved on. The solution will most likely be to mix the two different approaches into a hybrid, exhibiting a wider dynamic range and more song-to-song variety. Bowen has an elaborate Peter Gabriel-esque packaging concept in mind for this album, with a special photo shoot planned that will incorporate a highly artistic, multi-medium approach that will deviate from the old-fashioned retro imaging of the past two records for the first time, showcasing a more modern appearance for a decidedly forward-looking album. It is clear from hearing several of the tracks that this may very well be the record on which Bowen firmly establishes his own sonic identity.

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There’s a new political awareness emerging in some of the songs slated for inclusion on Abstract Logic. One tune has a pastiche of thought-provoking soundbites taken from various sources, reminiscent of Living Color’s late 80s hit, “Cult Of Personality,” floating over one hell of an intricate drumkit groove. Bowen wouldn’t have dared try this a few years ago, as he was formerly of a mind that musicians shouldn’t dabble in overt political expression, but he now believes that the present circumstances have become dire enough, and the rampant political corruption and resulting social unrest so endemic, that he can hardly avoid letting this burgeoning consciousness seep into his work. He has also been using his Facebook page as a platform for expressing his alarm at the state of our union (mainly in spotlighting injustice and governmental gaffes), regularly posting slightly left-leaning, common-sense-touting articles and videos on his profile.

A couple years ago, after …Macaroni… had been out for a while, Aaron Bowen completely abandoned his email list, letting go of hundreds of fan contacts without a second thought. He says he tired of the incessant, unnatural self-promotion and vast hours of work involved to sustain a music career, not to mention the encumbering obligation he felt from his fans to keep his music more stylistically static than he would prefer. He also had several unsavory interpersonal experiences that left him more than a little bit shell-shocked, causing him to recede even further from music as a livelihood. And he felt a bit purposeless, noticing a newly emerging impetus for his music to benefit more people than just himself and his fans.

Bowen recently pulled his albums off of iTunes. It seems a little counter-intuitive considering the success he had enjoyed (respectable CD and MP3 sales, especially for an independent, and great live shows, including some very lucrative west coast touring), but it turns out there is a good explanation for this as well. Bowen has just struck a deal to donate $6.00 of each hard copy of Abstract Logic sold to the Humane Society, and he’s made a similar deal to donate proceeds from online sales to local animal shelters (he had to pull his music down before making this agreement, so much of his oeuvre will be re-uploaded after this happens).

Aaron has always been somewhat community-minded, but that aspect of his character has blossomed over the past several years. He’s the kind of guy you can count on seeing at the local coffee shop hanging out with a laptop and a cup of joe (it’s his one and only vice, he says), or run into randomly on a street corner or at the market, or during an occasional bike ride, or at a show checking out any one of a number of his favorite, mostly obscure, wildly inspiring musical artists on their way through town.

Early last decade, Aaron got on a custom bicycle kick and became one of the first two dozen or so participants in the San Diego chapter of Critical Mass, a national phenomenon where as many as hundreds of cyclists meet up at a previously determined rally point and spend a few hours parading through the city like a mildly misbehaving party on wheels, with some wearing costumes, lights, and other flamboyant accessories, and generally causing an innocuous ruckus. Bowen has tapered off his involvement in Critical Mass, but he still buys, builds, customizes, collects, and even gives and sells bicycles as a small sideline to friends and clients alike.

Aaron has always been a little dissatisfied with the apparent lack of unity in the San Diego music scene, as well as the competition inherent in some of the venues at which he had been gigging, and after seeing others come up short in their efforts, and as a DIY antidote to not only his own dissatisfaction but also that expressed by fellow artists, he decided to take action, spearheading his own think-global-act-local movement, Macaroni Club. He presents these events at small like-minded venues (like Monica’s and the new Treehouse cafe, which according to him has the best coffee in San Diego) where a justly hand-picked, steadily growing variety of excellent San Diego musicians (as well as visual artists) can be part of a slowly consolidating, talent-fostering and promoting collective. Bowen also sets up many of these and other gigs as benefits for various charities, which anoints the proceedings with a little more conscience-assuaging purpose than a simple public exhibition would seem to bestow.

Concomitant with his proclivity for collecting the aforementioned music-related items has been a snowballing interest in rare and unusual pieces of furniture, art, and related antiques. In fact, his past knowledge and experience working with metal and wood have dovetailed nicely to transform this budding hobby into a full-blown career, as it has allowed him to recognize quality craftsmanship, and even to begin building custom items of his own, which he has sold at well above cost to several astounded, disbelieving customers. Aaron and Kate Bowen now deem themselves professional “pickers” (as in the History channel reality series American Pickers), combing the abundance of local antique and furniture stores, and scouring Craigslist, eBay, and Facebook for the next piece of hidden treasure to buy and resell to support their simplified bohemian lifestyle (they like to cook and eat healthy, exotic meals, often with friends, as they search for new acquisitions, or work on random jobs like designing and building a new metal sign for a local shop in their TV-free living room). Bowen’s enthusiasm for this vocation is as obvious as it is infectious; hearing him describe a recently discovered piece of vintage furniture with the nerdy excitement of a prospector panning his first gold nugget is enough to make anyone want to get in on the action (especially when he mentions the respectable profit he stands to make in light of what he initially paid for the item). This husband/wife industry kills multiple birds with one stone, as their passion for picking provides them an enjoyable, time-freeing livelihood, fulfills multiple creative yens, keeps them connected with the community via colleagues and clients, lets them set their own hours, and ensures a strong relationship by granting them plenty of quality time together in their shared interests. And it allows Bowen to pursue his muse in the specific manner he requires, without the pressure for it to pay his way, with a little more altruism, and with the freedom to steer clear of any jive he sees fit.

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From this point on, Aaron Bowen is content to lead a simpler kind of life, one that sidesteps as much hassle as possible––even, and perhaps especially, at the cost of notoriety––and allows him to put his music out on his own terms, and at negligible personal cost, as a completely self-contained cottage industry (much like his antiquing business), without having to mortgage the happiness of the present moment for some wildly speculative future payoff. Bowen is adamant in his preference to put more emphasis on his embrace of the journey towards unfettered excellence in all of his facets as his measure of success, and less attention on playing the avaricious, pandering game the business of music seems to necessitate. Abstract Logic will probably be released sometime in early 2012, and although he’d love to support it with some touring, he wants to do so without losing his shirt, preferably making a profit or at least breaking even like he did for a while a few years ago when the colleges he played had larger entertainment budgets. He has given thought to putting a band together to help him get his music across more effectively live, but he knows how much of a logistical conundrum that can pose, and he’s confident that he can do the material justice through solo performance, thereby saving him money he feels he would have to dole out to keep a band of good players happy. Apparently he’s pretty big in Germany, having gained tangible traction there, so he would like to tour Europe someday, as long as it doesn’t cost him an arm and a leg to do so. And he’s going to keep serving the music community via Macaroni Club and his home studio (he just finished up a record with Derrick Oshana), and now there are several charities benefiting from his music.

Otherwise, Bowen seems pretty happy and fulfilled in the life he is able to lead, and the freedom he has found not only to still be creative but also to enjoy many of the pleasures of a normal, organically flowing life that many people in well-paying careers take for granted. And he feels grateful that his life and art carry more purpose now, that he can serve a more humane vision of society. And so, if you catch one of his upcoming performances, or you run into him after purchasing and enjoying one of his albums, sure, tell Aaron how great an artist you think he is, but know that in his mind he’s striving for an unreachable perfection in his art that he has now attained elsewhere in his daily life.

  • September 2016

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