Jamil Apostol wasn’t growing with his band The Bonfire Set, so he found himself on the road again. He was “Kerouac-driven.” He traveled to India, Hawaii and set foot in more than 30 states.
“The biggest takeaway was surrendering,” Apostol said in an interview back home at Java Jungle. “I’m going to be taken care of anywhere I go, either directly or indirectly. And everything is temporary.”
Much of Apostol’s art and language is flowered with travel and freeway vernacular. He said it’s important to follow the signs. During his years on the road, he worked random jobs – from picking up cigarette butts for 500 acres at music festivals to getting people registered to vote at Dave Matthews Band concerts.
“I picked up random skills on the way,” Apostol said. “I surrendered myself to the flow, just hitching a ride. This album is a self-inquiry about my experience while trying to find myself.”
His hope for listeners is that they will be urged to find out more about themselves, too. Apostol’s first solo release, “Off the Beaten Path,” varies from folk to ragtime, from bluegrass cowboy Western to a New Orleans funky jazz sound.
“That’s me,” Apostol said. “There are many musical elements with a core sound throughout.”
Studying the foundations of singer-songwriters (including the work of Woody Guthrie, Doc Watson and Bob Dylan) and living in North Carolina influenced the music he writes and performs. He settled in Asheville to record the album after two years on the road.
“You can hear the yearning and search for change in their voices,” Apostol said. “I try to put my own twist on it while finding what’s authentic and true. I’m more influenced by what (the artists) did for their generation – creating such a great spark through music.”
On tracks like “Homeless Romantic,” he displays a new growl atop his bouncing chords. It’s highlighted by trumpet and mandolin solos, a common thread on the album. The song tells stories of musicians busking on street corners. Apostol needed to be loud without a microphone while on the street. He would find his voice doing new things and he’d roll with it.
“I’ve been able to explore my voice as I traveled,” he said. “While busking, I’d think, ‘Wow, that came out. Cool!'”
Apostol plays guitar and banjo and his voice is usually clear and sweet. As he traveled, he met musicians on the road and wanted to include elements of them in his music. The trumpet and mandolin players he paired with were both named Will, dubbed “The Good Wills.”
“At one point, I didn’t have a place to stay in Asheville,” Apostol said. “I ran out of money, then a friend offered her place to me while she was out of town. It turned out one of the Wills was living there as well.”
They recorded with a friend who went to Berklee College of Music. They had low-budget equipment, a wizened friend with a storage space and the fire to create.
“We made the best out of the sounds we had,” Apostol said.
Most of the songs from “Off the Beaten Path” started as notes on his phone while on the road. He said the songwriting process is always different, but it gets to a point where his notes give him confidence to write a song. He lays down some chords and the melody follows.
Other times, the pressure of having to record creates the content he’s proud of. He didn’t have a majority of “My Red White Blues” until he arrived at the studio. He was asked if he was ready to record the rest, and he said, “No, but let me write something down in two minutes.”
“It’s the pressure,” Apostol said. “Pressure creates momentum and momentum creates content.”
The lyrics of the song are somewhere between profound and artistic, like the loose prose of Dylan. Apostol explores American idolatries such as religion, capitalism and television. The song asks, “Why would you ask for change when you can have a bill?”
A core element of his former group The Bonfire Set’s music was uniting vocals. They had a hippy-vibe like Grouplove and demonstrated a democracy of vocals.
“To have everyone sing in unity, to use the same melodies, the same vibrations, the same voice is a powerful thing,” Apostol said. “All the troubles we have (wars, politics, whatever), it’s gone and you’re in that moment. I find power in that.”
This power is translated over to his solo release. “Open Ticket Ride” begs you to sing along over the trumpet and catchy chorus. The song finds all the good of his travels while being realistic about “home” always being on the horizon and back of your mind.
The title-track “Off the Beaten Path” is an homage to the beatniks. He wrote it in an RV about the impact of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The name arrived auspiciously. He was surfing Craigslist for places to stay and saw a post with the same title. Apostol was “dog and veggie friendly,” so he moved in with them in Ashville. The deal was set in stone when he arrived and saw a large poster of Vishnu. He studies Vaishnavism and took it as an omen.
“One thing led to another and I found where I was supposed to be,” Apostol said.
Last time Apostol was in Reno for Earth Day, he met Allison Reitz, founder of Good Elephant, an open interface for yogis and workshop facilitators to access studios from Reno, Carson City and Tahoe. Reitz asked Apostol to perform Kirtan, devotional Indian music, where he sings the many names of God in repetition. Instead, he asked if he can perform songs from his new album. She obliged and he performed in his former Reno home at the West Street Market.
Apostol said there are two ways to view contentment. One is inner contentment and acceptance, the other hinders your search for more and can lead to complacency. In his life and music, Apostol forges ahead.
“We are born, then we’re dead. What we do in the middle is up to you,” Apostol said. “I always pursue the mystery. At the end of the day, what stands out is persistence and what you create.”
— Tony Contini