Ryan Cabrera at Chameleons: Singer feelin' the vibes
PITTSFIELD -- For a musician who had logged a couple of pop smashes by the age of 22, after getting his shot in the music business almost by accident, Ryan Cabrera doesn't seem to be in a hurry.
He's now several years removed from the success of his major label debut ("Take It All Away," in 2004) and the height of his presence in the pop zeitgeist, when he was a regular tabloid subject as the boyfriend of popstress Ashlee Simpson and, more recently, a recurring figure in the final season of the MTV unscripted series "The Hills."
His current solo acoustic tour hits Chameleons Nightclub Wednesday, and the format gives a hint as to his current source of inspiration.
(The all-ages show also features Lakeview Drive, Rookie of the Year, Sarah Elizabeth Rayner and the debut of Autographed Apologies.)
"I was just writing and writing and writing, and all of a sudden you hit a song that just changes everything, and you say this is going to be the vibe," Cabrera, 30, said in a telephone interview from the road, emerging from an area of cornfields on the way toward Chicago.
"It inspires a new kind of approach and you're like, this is going to be the vibe of the record now. That's basically what happened."
The song in question is called "Forgot How to Fly," Cabrera said, but his fans will have to wait a bit longer before hearing it -- he hasn't yet worked it into set lists.
He says his route to this breakthrough was to trust the feel of the stripped-down essence found beneath the carefully produced radio pop that eventually results.
"It's still my style of song, ‘cause I can't help the way I write, but I felt like I was just trying to create something that wasn't just creating itself," he explains. "Then I wrote this acoustic song. It's an acoustic guitar and a vocal. I was like, I don't need to try to write this record. That was the song I was like, okay, cool, let's bring it back to where I started, which is the singer-songwriter kind of pop of songs."
Cabrera's work is aimed squarely at the mainstream market, but he is no manufactured pop star. He quit his high school punk band after falling in love with the work of Dave Matthews -- an artist with strong popular appeal but by no means a pop icon -- and he writes and produces his material, which feels earnest rather than cloying. He entered a recording studio only after receiving a session as a gift, but impressed the studio engineer enough to let him stick around and record a whole album, on the house.
On the strength of that independent release, Atlantic Records signed him and his resulting major label debut was certified Gold, spawning two hit singles and breaching Billboard's Top 10 album chart.
A follow-up just 13 months later performed respectably on the album chart but failed to spawn a hit single. When he brought his third major album to Atlantic, the label bosses said "no thank you," apparently possessing little confidence in its commercial viability.
"The Moon Underwater," which Cabrera stuck by and released independently in 2008, doesn't sound at first listen like such an intensely radical break from his past work, though its bouncy melodies and friendly hooks are contained within a sound that evolved from mall-pop to more moody pop textures sounding inspired by the likes of Coldplay and even U2.
"I wrote a lot of it in London and a lot of it was really drab and kind of dark and where I was then," he says of his previous work, and contrasts it with the new material he continues to hone in the studio.
"Now the vibe of the record is just fun. It's still organic, but it's got a lot of big beats and pop melodies and hooks. We just hit a stride, so I'm really stoked about it."
Giving fans a taste of the work-in-progress, he released a single (called "I See Love") in August.
Though there's still no target date for release of a finished record, he says he wanted to start laying the groundwork early.
"We wanted it to grow organically, not push it towards people -- to kind of throw it out there and see what people think. And the reaction has been amazing, which is what we wanted."
As he works the clubs on his acoustic tour, working selected new tunes into the mix, Cabrera says it's a chance for fans to hear how his work sounds before it's dressed up with studio bells and whistles.
"That's how you write the songs. It's cool for people to hear how it is originally. Even when it's all produced up, I want it to sound just as good acoustic."
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