Unmasked and Anonymous
Deluged as we are with music these days, it's easy to forget how much guts it takes to get onstage with just a guitar and sing your heart out for a room full of strangers. Especially when it's just you up there, with no band to hide behind.
That feeling is achingly familiar to 22-year-old Henry Dillard. After the enterprising Houstonian parted ways with the rest of his band two years ago, he decided to continue on alone under the same name, Without a Face. He hasn't looked back since, nerves be damned.
"It is very much nerve-wracking," he admits by phone from the road, in the midst of a cross-country tour with major-label sweethearts Ludo. "If it's just guitar and vocals, people are gonna be paying a lot of attention to your lyrics, especially if you're not that good of a guitar player."
Dillard decided to respond to such close attention by eschewing serious subject matter and instead belting out funny, disarming anthems while bashing away at his trusty acoustic. On his wryly titled Worst Debut Album Ever, released on Ludo's Redbird imprint, Dillard sings a love hymn to MySpace, decries the slow death of the album as a format, declares a stalker-ish affection for KHOU news anchor Lucy Noland and beat-boxes in the middle of a song about lactose intolerance.
Suffice it to say, the guy's got a sense of humor.
"I felt I had to have some unusual things to say," he explains, "just to get people to remember me when they leave the show. I don't think anyone really cares about hearing about a stranger's heartache. You have to come to the table with something more than the millionth unrequited-love song."
The reason Dillard can pull off such playful topics is that he so clearly loves what he's doing. He's been writing songs since ninth grade, but even before that he was singing and playing keyboards.
When he assembled the initial, full-band incarnation of Without a Face in late 2004, the band name didn't come from the Rage Against the Machine song or the Billy Idol hit "Eyes Without a Face." Rather, it was an expression that fit how Dillard and his bandmates felt about music: that it should just be fun and not get bogged down in some ever-changing notion of what's cool.
Now that Dillard is alone in the band, he sees the name as a sort of conceptual blank slate, meaning he can make whatever kind of music he pleases at any given time.
That explains the nonchalant diversity of Worst Debut Album Ever, bookended by a pair of songs about the original band's collapse punctuated by a goofy phone call with his mother during Dillard's senior year of high school.
Employing hand claps and vocal harmonies on "31," an ode to older women, and humorously bending his voice every which way on the giddy "Druggie Love," Dillard indeed resorts to every trick in the book to hold listeners' attention and get his point across. It works, too — sure, it's quirky and a bit of a laugh, but the songs are undeniably heartfelt and painfully catchy.
Other grabby antics include occasionally playing live in his underwear to break the ice as well as covering songs by everyone from the Black Eyed Peas to Cat Power to Sinéad O'Connor.
"It's for the sake of making it more interesting for myself," Dillard says, "just doing different things and seeing how people react. With covers, that's just a way to expand the fan base over the Internet. Hopefully people will stumble onto them and then check out my actual music."
The same goes for his memorable video for the album track "Without A MySpace," which portrays him practically grafted to his MacBook.
Of course, Dillard's cheeky streak is bound to rub some people the wrong way. A lot of people, actually. Humor is notoriously hard to work into music without listeners feeling like the whole thing is a novelty — or worse, a massive joke that's fallen flat.
People can accept musical comedy, especially of the Flight of the Conchords variety, but they often want their music to be serious and to the point. Then there's Dillard, who is so animated and eccentric that his dad describes him as Weird Al meets Randy Newman.
"I don't really like that designation," Dillard is quick to admit. "It's very tough. Certain people are inevitably going to think I'm gimmicky. But what's not gimmicky? Isn't 'keeping it real' a shtick unto itself? Isn't James Blunt doing the 'sensitive songwriter' shtick?
"I wanted to do something a little different," he adds. "Humor isn't really prevalent in a lot of music. So I just thought the first record would be stuff that's not too personal and has a sense of humor."
Dillard finds it most difficult playing for Houston audiences, many of whom don't seem to warm easily to the unexpected.
"It seems like it's more about context in Houston," he observes. "If you're opening for some band that's similar to you, maybe they will go for your music. But in general, my experience is that people don't really care."
That said, he's won better responses playing with some kindred spirits in town, including Young Mammals, Satin Hooks and Fat Tony. But those are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Whatever the response, whether he's on the road with Ludo or playing to local crowds, Dillard is committing to carrying on Without a Face as a one-man band.
"I found it to be absolutely liberating," he says of the dissolution of the band's original lineup. "You don't have to split what little you make with five other guys. It seems a bit more realistic that you can even make a living off music by yourself, if you just work really hard at it."
Despite having his tongue planted firmly in cheek, Dillard continues to do just that.
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