Solo Life is Easy for Deasy
by Andrew Ellis
When Bill Deasy shopped his new solo demos to various major labels in NYC, he had every reason to feel optimistic. He'd written some of the best material of his career, was working with famed producer Gregg Wattenberg and had achieved national prominence as the voice of "Good Things Are Happening", the theme tune to ABC's Good Morning America. Yet the former Gathering Field frontman left those record company offices with only polite plaudits from music executives, instead of a record deal.
The reason for this industry indifference was not due to the inferior quality of Deasy's demos -- they were unaminously well received by executives -- but because he was told his age falls the 'wrong' side of 26. If the music industry seriously believes that a songwriter with a warm, commercial voice, creative gift and knack for melody is unable to shift product just because he is 36, then it's no wonder record companies are lurching from one crisis to the next with alarming regularity.
"Practically speaking it motivated me," the affable Pittsburgh native reflects. "But not in the made-for-TV-movie kind of way. I was just so happy with how the first tracks had turned out and I had a renewed sense that I really had something to share. It felt good to take the reigns into my own hands and soldier on not worrying about outside opinions."
Realising that courting the interest of the big five record companies was not the only way to begin a much-anticipated solo career, Deasy concentrated on making Good Day No Rain, a truly exceptional album of thought-provoking, touching, and mature folk-tinged rock songs which positively drips with commercial appeal and quality.
Rather than wait around for the whims of New York's music industry executives to change, Deasy and his long-time manager Holly Greene set about releasing and marketing the album via his newly-formed indie label Bound To Be Records together with the successful online indie record store, CD Baby, and it's an approach he couldn't be happier with.
"Having CD Baby as one of the avenues to finding my record is a major asset, Deasy admits. "They're an amazing ally in this changing business.
"The fact that a person anywhere in the world can buy my record at any moment is pretty massive. Where CD Baby really shines, though, is in the respect they show for the artists. They don't try to rob you, they have your best interests at heart and they give new meaning to the term 'artist-friendly.'"
Good Day No Rain promptly sold out at CD Baby on the first day of its release, and had shifted 600 copies by the end of its first two weeks on sale. Of course, such numbers are miniscule in comparison with the first week figures required by the bean counters at Universal, Sony et al, but in the absence of a massive corporation (and label advance) to swallow up the majority of revenue from the sale of an album, those figures look decidedly more impressive.
An artist receiving most of the money from his own songs and performances shouldn't really be considered a rare scenario in this day and age, but with a major label artist's advance being effectively spent before a contract is signed, making money is something only 5% of bands ever do. Deasy was aware of such gloomy statistics from the period when the Gathering Field were signed to Atlantic, and his experiences allowed him to shrug off the ageism he encountered in his attempts to get the majors to appreciate his talents.
"Not getting signed by a major was sad only in the sense that it made me face what I already knew -- that the record business is just that and has little to do with art or music," he says, with refreshing honesty.
"It's all about commerce and what record companies feel they can sell. We're kind of just beginning this process but I would certainly encourage people to investigate this route. It's definitely easier to get on the radio if you're signed, that's the simple truth.
But what he lacks in a major-label marketing budget, he compensates for in the security that his career will be driven by decisions he makes rather than others who tell him what they want him to hear.
He says, "Whatever you do, it's always good, I think, to avoid a situation where your fate lies solely in someone else's hands. I'm sure there are a lot of music lovers still in the industry, but there are also a lot of people scared of losing their jobs. Fear and uncertainty is not a real good combination."
He admits: "I've been thrilled with the reaction so far. It's a scary leap from private to public with songs that are so close to your heart, but I am happy and relieved that so many people like what I've written. I think there will always be a need for good songs, which makes me believe there will always be a role for good singer-songwriters.
And the transition from band member to singer songwriter is one Deasy has handled with aplomb. He made four albums with popular Pittsburgh outfit the Gathering Field, signing to Atlantic in 1996 for the release of Lost In America. The band had a loyal following in the Pittsburgh area but after the release of 2001's So Close To Home, Deasy knew the time had come to take the leap in the dark and strike out on his own.
"Going solo wasn't a decision so much as a natural process," he recalls. "That being said, it's hard leaving the security of something so strong and familiar.
"I'd leaned on [Gathering Field guitarist and producer] Dave Brown's ears and ideas and guitar playing for so long that leaning became my natural stance... which is a slightly goofy way of saying I needed to stand alone, just to see if I could... to see what it felt like.
"I'll always view the Gathering Field -- the music we recorded and the millions of experiences we shared – as a treasure. Those guys gave me an education in a lot of ways and brought integrity and vision to the songs I wrote."
Laced with a rich lyrical seam, and blessed by Deasy's trademark melody, Good Day No Rain flirts with a similar sound to The Gathering Field, yet is a different, more personal beast to his work with his former bandmates and Deasy admits the move from a band member to solo artist has afforded him more creative expression and control.
"Yes, it has. It was important for me to find my own vision and bring it to life, to trust my instincts in a way I hadn't before. It's an ongoing process and this record was an exhilarating first step."
That solo vision was initially heard on Spring Lies Waiting in 1999, a sparse yet deeply affecting album of excellent acoustic solo tunes, but Good Day No Rain expanded the acoustic base on that record to a full-band environment and elevated his special songwriting talents still further.
The conscience-examining splendour of "Blue Sky Grey" is the obvious contender for stand-out cut on Good Day No Rain, but such is the overall quality of each of the album's ten songs, it faces severely tough competition from the epic beauty of "I'll Rescue You", the glorious life-affirming "Who We Are" and the tune Deasy cites as his personal favourite from the sessions.
"I'm proudest of "In My Head"," he reveals. "It's my favourite kind of song. A story song, with details and imagery and all that, but which retains an air of mystery.
"I suppose it was inspired by my own need for forgiveness at a certain point in my life. Though, it was one of those songs that emerged in one short sitting, as if it had been hovering around my head already completed waiting for me to write it down. Generally, those are the best ones -- songs you don't have to fight with and feel like they've existed forever
"I also love the production approach -- the subtle lifts throughout. Gregg Wattenberg did a tremendous job there."
Wattenberg (Five For Fighting, Eve 6) handled the first four tunes Deasy demoed in New York, but although he wasn't involved on the remaining six, Good Day No Rain doesn't suffer for that and as Deasy admits, the responsibility of producing also called for him to raise the bar a little.
"I learned a lot working with Gregg and in some ways took my cue from him," Bill concedes. "Also, I hired the same engineer for the whole project -- a guy named Dave McNair -- who co-produced the last six songs with me. He helped provide some continuity between the batches.
He continues, "It was actually kind of perfect for me to break the ice with the Gregg tracks then bring it home a little more on my own. It forced me to grow -- which is always a good thing."
"If you really believe in what you do, and you recruit other believers as you go, doors can start opening, obstacles can be overcome," he says with an almost evangelical zeal. "We're a long way from signing other artists to Bound To Be, but this model is certainly becoming more common and viable every day. I think there will be many different ways of achieving goals in the months and years ahead and I'm pretty much open to considering all of them."
A year or so down the line, then, does he regret the rejection he found at the doors of the major labels?
"I have learned in my life that regrets lead you nowhere," he says emphatically. "And no matter what happens in my career, I always seem to look back and see how it was better in the end than what I maybe thought I wanted.
"I have a pretty deep faith that the music will lead me somewhere. It might be some place just up the street...or it might be some place I can't even imagine right now. Time will tell."
To order Good Day No Rain visit http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/deasy2