Which place is quirkier, weirder, more likely to attract odd beings or supernatural occurrences — Night Vale or Notsuoh? Those familiar with both might call it a toss-up between the fictionalized desert hamlet and the real-life Houston bohemian bar; but, of all the people who’ve encountered both, musician Jason Webley may be best qualified to answer that question.
Webley is now touring with Welcome to Night Vale, the wildly popular, wryly comical and utterly offbeat podcast that chronicles the fictionalized strangeness of the small town via twice-monthly “community updates.” The show touches down at Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater tonight; Webley will open the show and/or participate in it.
“It will be a surprise to me, too!” he confesses. “I'm an opener, but in the past they've also worked me into the show. So far I'm not sure what they'll have me doing this time.”
Webley’s versatility and game attitude make him an asset on the Night Vale tour, which he’s done before. They’re also traits he’s honed over a 20-year career in music. Genre-wise, his guitar- and accordion-fueled catalog finds him sometimes labeled as folk or folk-punk. Because he began as a busker in Washington and has traveled internationally as a musician, he’s occasionally pegged as "gypsy punk."
Classifications aside, he’s a songwriter at heart, one whose superb work on tracks like “Dance While the Sky Crashes Down” and “Drinking Song” has caught attention from followers and fellow artists alike. He’s collaborated with Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer and Reverend Peyton, among others, and has performed shows with Regina Spektor, DeVotchKa, the Avett Brothers, Against Me! and more.
And, somewhere along the way, he says, he caught the attention of the eccentric Night Vale program. The podcast has many strengths, but its use of music stands out especially. Adam Green, AJJ, Sara Watkins, Explosions In the Sky and The Mountain Goats all have songs included in its episodes. Webley’s “Last Song” was featured in one of the very first.
“One of the writers, Joseph Fink, wrote and asked if I'd mind if he used one of my songs for a podcast. I said sure,” Webley recounts. “A year or so later, he asked if I'd do a show with them in New York. I said sure again. When the show sold out in a few minutes, I thought, ‘What the hell is this thing?’ Since then I've done a number of tours with them. They are really good folks, and their audiences are generally large and receptive, so it's a delight to play shows like this.
“I'm pretty sure Joseph picks all the music,” he continues. “ I'm not sure how well it matches with the podcast — people really seem to like it, but I'll confess I've never really listened to much of the show. I've tried a few times, but it's not for me. The live shows are really fun, though!”
We asked if there’s an appreciable difference between playing in an auditorium like The Wortham and busking for listeners on a street corner somewhere.
“When you are on the street, or in a bar, you have to fight to get people's attention. It's a lot riskier than when you are in a big theater. I used to enjoy that, but at a certain point, you don't want to have to go through that battle every time you perform,” he says. “And I feel like there are a lot of places you can go with an audience if you have their attention from the beginning that aren't possible in less-focused spaces. But I still admire those who keep putting themselves in risky situations. “
It’s something Webley admits he’s done less of recently than he’d like.
“Well, I quit my job at a little recording studio in 1998 and decided to play music on the street until I ran out of money. I never ran out of money...that's the story in a nutshell," he says. "I've been pretty lucky, in that from the beginning there were people interested in what I was doing.
“I've been performing a lot less actually for the past six years. I think any creative job where you are your own boss can be a bit hard to sustain or balance," continues Webley. "I think, for me, at a certain point I needed to shift my focus so that my own music and career isn't the center of all of my energy. So my recent projects have involved other people's stories and lots of collaborators.“
He does have plans for projects he’d like to helm and see to fruition, including a “sort of theatrical-circus-like show that travels on a barge floating from town to town. And it's getting close to eleven years since I put out my last studio album, and perhaps it's time to think about doing something like that.”
This is hardly Webley's first trek to Houston. His past travels here put him squarely in local confines that rival Night Vale’s peculiarities.
“It took me a while to get to Texas in my touring, so I haven't been to Houston too many times — maybe a half-dozen," he says. "I don't know the city very well, but I've been impressed by how many long-running, weird, small venues Houston has. The first time I played at Super Happy Fun Land, and I've played a bunch of times at Notsuoh.
“I remember one of the first times I played there, I wanted to go somewhere afterwards to write and record a song with some of the audience — a project I was doing at the time — and the owner, Jim Pirtle, suggested we go upstairs. He had all these giant crazy art pieces up there and we ended up incorporating some of them into [a] song,” Webley recalls. “Not my finest hour, but a fun little thing. It's really cool that Houston has these spots, and I am impressed that they are still around and hope that the city values them and keeps them alive for a long, long while.”
Welcome to Night Vale, with musical guest Jason Webley, pulls into the Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater, 501 Texas, tonight at 8 p.m. Tickets $35.50; see houstonfirsttheaters.com for more details.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.