Tahoe-bound Gene Evaro Jr. blossoms, plays ‘Like It’s 1965’

Tahoe Onstage

Gene Evaro Jr. performed in the Crystal Bay Casino’s Red Room on Saturday Sept 15.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Every year, California’s desolate deserts explode into a dazzling array of colors with the spring bloom. Wildflowers burst open and fill up the supreme barenness with life, challenging the status quo with its own existence. It takes patience and resilience for those plants to lie dormant in the desert, to then withstand the harshness of its environment for a few weeks of beauty and bliss.

If there is anyone who knows about this cycle, it is Joshua Tree musician Gene Evaro Jr. He’s lived there since 2008 and has surely witnessed his fair share of blooms. This spring, he contributed to the scene’s beauty in his own unique way, releasing his third full-length album “Like It’s 1965” and throwing a release concert at famed desert venue Pappy and Harriet’s.

The album is a masterpiece, another progression of his poetic sound, tapping into all the most beautiful elements of soul, pop, hip-hop and rock. The question that still remains and has been constant since the start of Evaro’s career: Who is going to see this desert rose for the beauty it truly beholds?

Over three albums, Evaro has proven to be an artistic visionary. His sound and musicianship is air-tight (he plays and produces all the instruments on “Like It’s 1965” except saxophone) and the quality of his songs in lyrical and emotional intensity are at the level of greats like Stevie Wonder and Prince. To his dedicated followers — there aren’t too many — musicians who can hold a candle to him.

But for years his recognition level hasn’t seemed to match where he’s at musically. Evaro has been popular on the festival circuit, especially in California, and has wowed audiences at High Sierra, Joshua Tree Music Festival and Guitarfish, among others. As summer fades though, it’s back to clubs, small venues and hole-in-the-walls, touring in an ever-revolving rotation of band members that he is compatible with and afford to pay.

It’s hard to find anyone outside of California who has ever heard of Gene Evaro Jr. Recent tours opening for prominent artists such as Blues Traveler, Milky Chance and Elle King have at least introduced the budding artist to a wider audience, though it’s still questionable if it will lead to any more doors opening. 

I love all music, yet I am keenly aware of what people are capable of digesting. I learn this from listening. Always listening.”

A performer and musician all his life, being one’s art is the only thing Evaro has known. He grew up in a family of 11 brothers and sisters, traveling around the country with his parents. A fifth-generation professional musician, he’s been all about music since he was 8 years old and three of his siblings are musicians and performers themselves.

Tahoe Onstage / Larry Sabo

There is a lot of positivity and resilience in Evaro’s music, which can be traced to him trying to rise out of the struggle and poverty that is a normal part of his family’s history. A large family of practical nomads is a tough financial burden for any household to overcome. Additionally, the Evaros have also had their fair share of loss. The family has had to witness a bloody altercation involving Gene’s younger brothers that left one in jail (eloquently addressed in “Fatherless Nephew” on the new album) as well as the death of Gene’s sister, which prompted his initial relocation to Joshua Tree to heal.

It’s never been easy for Evaro, but he’s always found the will and strength to follow his muse. With a new album comes the ever-hopeful optimism that the right people will find his music and give him the chance he’s been waiting for since he was a youngster.

In addition to long-standing bassist Piper Robison, the guitarist and keyboardist has a new band in tow that includes Victor Singer on drums and Aankha Neal and Tamina Johnson on vocals to bring “Like It’s 1965” to the stage. Even if mainstream success doesn’t find Evaro Jr. with this release, the musician is confident he’ll be investing in himself and his artistry for his own fulfillment. Like those desert wildflowers, Gene Evaro Jr. will be raging against the harshness and brutality of this life with his resilient beauty and art until his final petals fall to the Earth and become one with the desert again.

Tahoe Onstage: You said in our last conversation about wanting to have a chart hit, to be on the pop charts essentially. What qualities in your music do you think gives it the potential to connect with a grander audience, outside of these festival-like audiences?

Gene Evaro: I grew up listening to music that at one time was considered “pop” (as in popular). The Beatles, Earth Wind & Fire, Paul Simon. So for me it means having a song that connects with people on a national or global scale. The qualities that are constant through the music of Janis Joplin and let’s say Sam Smith, for modern sake, is heart and relativity. I think certain songs stick with people when they experience it in their own environments like their cars, on their way to work, at work, at home. I can’t tell you how many songs I remember hearing for the first time and experiencing them over and over again, which is what solidifies its worth on an individual level. I hope that makes sense.

Furthermore, are you actively crafting your music, or at least keeping it in mind, to reach a wider audience? If so, how does that factor into the creative process? Can you point to songs or musical moments that would have felt that effect? 

Lately, I don’t feel 100 percent responsible for my music. My experiences and my life bring it out of me. It’s much more potent this way. If I was too high, drunk, sad or happy, for that matter, to convey what’s happening around me, then there simply would be no music. I am attempting to stay present enough to stay up to the challenges of my muse. That is, the music in my head, heart, my surroundings, my genes, if you will. I can’t help but to reflect the qualities that I surround myself with. Again, I am all about lyrics, song and substance. I love all music, yet I am keenly aware of what people are capable of digesting. I learn this from listening. Always listening.

Tahoe OnstageFor example, the song “One” is a love song about my beautiful girlfriend, Piper, but it was a song I thought James Bay would sound cool doing. I took elements from his productions I liked and that I thought were inspiring and I made a song. This is inevitable, nothing is truly original anymore. Only your perspective, that is all we got, our own unique perspective. I don’t write songs with James Bay in mind often, but it was a winning combo at the time. The song went viral in Brazil / South America and led to many opportunities for us.

You mentioned in an Instagram post that August is your greatest month for creativity? Why do you think that is? What elements give you the right frame of mind to be creative? 

It’s basic superstition at this point. You could call it a vibe, call it a frequency, maybe it’s because I’m a Cancer, maybe it’s because it’s hot outside, or because the summer is inspiring, I still don’t know. Nonetheless, I’ve written tons of songs in August the past few years. More to be determined.

What is something about your musicianship/artistry that you always are pretty confident in? What can you rely on/hang your hat on about yourself? What do you have less confidence in? 

I’ll put it this sway, I’m confident it will always ask more of me than it previously did. I’m confident I won’t stop growing as a person, a soul, an artist, a guitar player, a piano player, a producer, a listener. I’m confident more will always be asked of me. That’s daunting. Am I always confident I can fulfill that? Hell no. Although, I can rely on the fact I can move people.

Even if I have no band, no house, no food, no family, I am rich with music. I could play guitar for dinner, because I already do. I could sing people to sleep, because I have. I can help people who are down, because I have been down. I can sing from my soul, because it’s when I sound my best. If all was lost, I would still be me.

I’m less confident that any of this even matters at the end of the day. I think a positive life is good generally speaking, but only because It works best for me. At the end of my life, and when the sun eventually turns off, It doesn’t matter how confident I was. Just matters if I had fun.

Your album “Like It’s 1965” is another evolution in your sound. It has a lot of synth/keyboard/drum effects throughout, more produced/electronic instrumental aesthetic than before, in my opinion. What drew you to that sound?

It was a song I wrote specifically for a commercial/movie placement. I wasn’t planning on releasing it as our next single, but it was one of my favorites at the end of the day. Again the song is all about my life, but production called for a new challenge, a new approach. I love it. I dig the song a lot and our fans dig it too, I think.

Is there an emotional/conceptual thread that runs through the album, or is it more just a collection of songs over time?

There is. “Like it’s 1965” cover art is an image of flag with different colored stripes. This is the heart of me. I’m as American as it gets. I’m White, Native American and Portuguese. The American flag needs an update. The counterculture that existed in the ’60s is alive and well. I am of that spirit, the best part of America, in my naive opinion, is the one that says we are all fucked up but this gift of opportunity we have been blessed with shouldn’t be taken for granted or exchanged for hate, bigotry or mass ignorance. It’s a waste of privilege. We should celebrate diversity because it’s a miracle that this is even happening. Although we are all are dealing with being slaves to a debt nation, we still have a great position in the world. What do you choose? Besides, this country is a rental anyway.

What would you hope someone might gain from “Fatherless Nephew?” It’s an arresting song when you comprehend the lyrics and then you get the news broadcast at the end. Where did this song come from?

It’s a song about my 15- and 17-year-old brothers who were in a gun fight over stupid street shit. They almost lost their lives, both ended up in the hospital and one in prison. They both have beautiful children. The song is me talking to them as their older brother telling them I’m worried, scared and want to help them as I always have wanted to do. The broadcast is from the local news report the moments it was unfolding. I was left with feeling like I could do nothing for them anymore but watch. That shit is hard to do. All those feelings inevitably came out through the music.

“Drifting Sands,” “Fatherless Nephew,” “Slippin Away,” and “What Do You Choose” is my favorite stretch. It also feels the most linked to a hip-hop/R&B/jazzy lo-fi beat aesthetic. Very much in the vein of stuff like Hiatus Kaiyote, Robert Glasper, Taylor McFerrin and Nujabes. It was impressive. Do you delve into that sonic arena as a fan? Who do you like to listen to? Who is someone you look up to?

It’s my favorite style of music. I look up to D’Angelo. Erykah Badu. Marvin Gaye. Bill Withers. Flying Lotus. Anderson Paak.

You went on tour/played shows with Elle King, Blues Traveler and Milky Chance in this last year. What did you take away from your experiences with each artist (not with them specifically necessarily, but the overall human experience of going through those shows)?

What I took from each of those experiences was that this is what I was made to do and that I have to get better. I want it. For myself, for my family. I want to come home from touring the world with more than enough money to help my entire family out, to help my mom. To lift the people I love out of the fucking trenches we’ve been raised in. I’m sick of being in poverty and living from gas pump to gas pump. Choosing between fake tomatoes and real ones. Choosing between Top Ramen and tortillas with butter. I’m sick of hearing about how my family is stressed out about money, selling drugs, losing themselves to the streets. Someone has to do it and obviously ain’t no-one going to do it for me. This isn’t just about thousands of people singing your songs, it’s about lifting up your community through telling your story.

What’s the next challenge/step for you and the band?

Same as it has been, need to find people who believe in me and my music enough to take a chance. The hard part about marketing someone like me is there’s no gimmick. The popular culture today digests talent and prophets as fast as their Wi-Fi connection. I’m not claiming to be a prophet, but there are more amazing artists on this planet than ever before, but because of the climate, they are starving because they don’t have a million views on You Tube or 500,000 followers on Instagram or they don’t a live set that stays 150 bpm the entire time. I don’t resent it — I just recognize it for what it is. A cultural algorithm that is recycling garbage. But hey, you gotta play the game, baby. Again, it’s all a blessing!

— Garrett Bethmann

About Garrett Bethmann

Garrett Bethmann is a graduate of University of Mary Washington with a degree in English. He moved to Lake Tahoe in summer 2012.

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