Tending to the dream in Joe Firstman’s Garden
What is it to be living the dream? The expression typically inspires a no worries, no hardship lifestyle. But that’s not quite it. All that jazz comes after, potential rewards for having worked at the dream. Really living the dream is found in the daily self-application to pursuing the dream. It’s not easy street. It’s solid commitment, blood, sweat, and tears which define the weathered lines and crevices spread across the face of living the dream.
When a hotheaded and very green 19-year-old Joe Firstman set out from Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2000 in pursuit of his dream, he was capable of filling whole Hollywood nights with the knowledge of a youth reaching for the stars.
“When I got to Hollywood it was a spectacle,” he concedes. “I must have been something to see, because I was as brash and as ignorant and as loud-mouthed, and as passionate as anyone; I could do no wrong. Youth has something to do with that, maybe.”
All the same, it seemed he could do no wrong. By 2001 he was named singer-songwriter of the year at the Los Angeles Music Awards, and soon landed a record deal with Atlantic, only two years into his pursuit. After releasing his first LP on Atlantic and touring in the opening slot for major acts like Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow and Jewel, he moved into a 4-year stint as band leader on the Carson Daly show on NBC. Concurrently, he abandoned the ego-fueling, dizzying roller coaster of Hollywood to settle into a slower-paced approach to life and his music, in El Porto.
Still riding the clout from his prior successes, Firstman became a local fixture – surfing these waves, shopping these markets, jamming these clubs, quietly sipping tequila in these bars while analyzing every potentially song-oriented detail surrounding us all. He’s a loud man by nature, even when silent. He’s a curiously crafted mix of a boisterous stoic (if you can imagine such a thing), and when he’s roaring out a song or barking an opinion he commands even more of your attention. But he doesn’t sit still for too long and comes and goes with the tides of his music, following his heart and songs in and out of the area, across the country and over the border, until returning to this home base with a next album in the works.
Ojos on the Ball
Ten years on and about ten albums later, Joe Firstman is living the dream harder than ever. He’s written hundreds of songs, both under his name and the band Cordovas, who he recorded with in Nashville, and has toured countless cities. Not surprisingly, a bit of wisdom has followed him down the road and into his next project. He’s got his ojos on the ball, and he’s trying to get his new album signed by a major label.
“Poverty is a mother….,” he said in a stone cold, sobering moment of crass sincerity.
Always the pure songwriter at heart, Firstman’s also like a jazz musician who can do it all. With his new project, the developing artist is exploring new directions completely outside of his usual territory. Not only is he stepping away from Americana/Country-driven music, but he’s stepping into a more pop culturally appealing realm of expectation. Well, sort of.
He expounds. “There’s no doubt that I’m trying to write that best songs that I can. (I don’t know who isn’t.) In ’03, when I was on Atlantic, I would take turns that would be the least obvious turn. Producers laughed at me for it, like, ‘You don’t want it to be the obvious thing?’ The Atlantic record was fiercely my own doing. I stood up to that company and managed to get my record out while basically saying, ‘You’re all idiots.’ (You should interview the A & R guys for this, because they’d say that.) I’ve moved away from that. I’ve softened, for sure. Now, 10 years later, I’m starting to put the obvious chord behind the lyric first. And that’s just another style of song. If you wanna call that going for hits, great. Again, we’re just trying to write good songs.”
The running name for Firstman’s new project is Ojos (Spanish for eyes). The music of Ojos draws on a rich tapestry of style and genre. It’s genre-blending to the point of genre-defying. Catchy tunes laden with retro-driven keyboard melodies suffused throughout hip hop, R & B, and rock n’ roll-based numbers dressed up with atmospheric elements of electronica, nastily distorted guitar shreds, and hooky, transitional beats all supporting the soulful, raw, and honest vocal work of the master behind the control, from one track to the next you might hear Eddie Kendricks mixed with Red Hot Chili Peppers jamming with Lenny Kravitz. Or something entirely different.
One thing’s for sure, as Firstman admits, he doesn’t want it to be so easily definable. (It should be mentioned that this venture is coming from a man who finds classical music psychedelic, who will accuse you of not liking black people if you don’t like rap music, and who will listen to Wilco, Woody Guthrie, The Growlers, and Indian funk all in the same day.)
Obviously, Firstman now faces a tightrope walk to retain the artist within the artistry of this new direction. He’s flirting on the fringe of Play-Doh factory produced music; much of which, even if catchy, is total crap.
“We want to trust our artists to be artists,” says Firstman in response to this concern. “At the end of the day, man, I know that it’s going to be painful to be poor, and if I prolong poverty that will also have its certain rigors; but how would you be able to deal with just giving up and just making… [crap]. I don’t think I would be able to confront that. It would disprove every argument with every cat, everything I ever said to anybody would go to the trash, if I started thinking completely like processed food. It is true, they are trying to write songs that way, ‘They.’ And again, hey if it’s a good song, good, more power to you. It’s a dangerous road to go down, because there’s a lot of ways to do it. We might come up with one right now, just off the top of our heads, and write the dumbest thing ever; but you show it to the next guy and he says, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of funny, but what if you did it this way?’ God, dude it’s art, it’s such a funny thing. Sincerity is easy to find, and it’s very hard to find… It’s all crap unless you have a good song to talk about.”
Tapping into the core of how he’s pursuing this new type of music, he says, “Same as always, as fiercely, as personally as I can, without compromising; but you pick up a lot of skills along the way.”
Without sacrificing his integrity as an artist, and especially as a songwriter, Firstman aspires to make songs that fill the soundtrack of your life. Useful music he calls it – something you can drive to, skate to, groove to, work out to, make out to, freak out dance to, get pumped for the weekend to, get fired up for your kid’s baseball game to…
At the soul of it there’s a man with a guitar and a song. That’s never changed. He’s like a tumbleweed. He blows in the wind when it’s suiting, collecting things along the way; and likewise shedding them as necessary. And while the ultimate destination and course can seem uncertain, it’ll get there, and it ain’t really too worried about it.
Joe Firstman’s first album as Ojos, produced by Jimmy Messer (Kelly Clarkson, The White Buffalo, Selena Gomez) awaits release pending contractual singing with a label. In the immediate future he’s performing an Easy Reader & Dirty Hippie Radio presents show at Saint Rocke on Mar. 20, at the WitZend in Venice on Mar. 27, and Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles on… Visit www.joefirstman.com for more information on the artist. Both Joe Firstman and Cordovas can be heard on www.DirtyHippieRadio.com, tuning you in to the independent music community. ER