Jerry Gonzales, a.k.a. Gonzo, front man and percussionist for Muddy Belle, might be the quintessential Bayou City musician. He’s an artistic hustler, hip yet charming, an inspiring musician and a damn fine dresser. You’ll rarely find him without the proper pants, suspenders, pressed shirt and hat. When he talks about music, his voice and mannerisms come to a crescendo. His passions spill over, especially when he's talking about the Houston-based quartet's latest release, Come On In.
It’s easy to understand his excitement. Come On In is stacked with deep cuts across several genres and time periods: big-band sounds (“She Gonna Tell”); bluesy, drowsy syncopation (“Cut N Shoot”); funky rhythms (“Better Not Lie”) and upbeat distortion (“You Like It”) All six tracks on the EP demonstrate not only how dynamic the band's songwriting is, but how diverse Muddy Belle’s sound can be.
Produced with John A. Stephens and recorded at SugarHill Studios over the past year, the entire collection is a celebration of sound. Surely some of the good vibes will carry over to White Oak Music Hall for Saturday night's release party with guests Soul Creatures, Handsomebeast and Vanilla Whale. “I wanted to challenge myself and the band by pushing us to do something a little out of our comfort zone here and there,” Gonzo says about the EP.
“I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could pull off the hassle that goes into bringing more players [horns, keys] on the record," Gonzo continues. "And by hassle I only mean the working around multiple schedules, more personalities. I wanted to do something I wasn't 100 percent comfortable with or used to doing after playing and writing for the last 15 years.”
The addition of horns and full percussion opens up a rich, soulful dimension on the album.
"Writing with horn players in mind definitely gave us more colors to work with," he says. "Being a drummer and the lead vocal is a fun challenge, but I also wanted to expand what I did on the drums. I wanted to do some hip-hop funky stuff in songs as well.”
But don’t think for a minute that being behind the drums doesn’t allow Gonzo to engage the audience. Recently at the Nightingale Room, Muddy Belle connected not only to the crowd's ears, but feet and hips as well. The entire room was bouncing and dancing to the music.
The addition of those instruments was not accidental, but something Gonzo says he had planned out for months. He speaks about his influences like a student praising a mentor.
“Prior to recording the record, I was listening to a lot of different music — Michael Jackson, Otis Redding, Tedeschi Trucks [Band], David Byrne, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Bobby Bland," he says. "A lot of what Mom played on the radio while cleaning house on the weekend. I was really into how well records were made, with horn players and spacing of those parts. The spacing of all the different parts can carry melody while being tasteful about it.”
Gonzo describes his songwriting style and process: “The lyrical content jumps around from very personal experiences growing up and moving a lot,” he says of living in sketchy neighborhoods and growing up as the man of the house with a single mom. "Just things I’ve seen living and driving around the streets of Houston.
“I try to imagine a woman’s point of view when writing music," Gonzo continues. "Talk about a challenge!”
On Come On In, those experiences led to some beautiful collaborations, including one with The Suffers’ Kam Franklin. “I knew that this record needed a strong, beautiful female voice.” Gonzo explains. “And I want to work with the best artists and musicians who inspire and make me want to do more.” If that’s not impressive enough, local talents Lyric Michelle and Sydnee Jane will be performing as Muddy Belle's backup vocalists tomorrow night.
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Always locally minded, Gonzo describes how Come On In represents H-Town on many levels. The band seemed to absorb the spirit of the city while recording, too. “This album really represents Houston in that there is a beautiful marriage of old and new, of blues, rock and roll, soul, jazz and pop," he says, "[and] the delicious tacos and Vietnamese pho that got us through rehearsals, the good smoke and craft beer. All played their roles [laughs].”
Reflecting on all that he and his band have accomplished thus far, Gonzo is humbled. “What I’m most proud of and thankful for is the collaborations that came together and worked," he says. "Taking an idea, knowing that there is an easier route but that there was more to gain from the tougher one, and finishing through.”
Muddy Belle will release Come on In Saturday, September 3 at White Oak Music Hall with special guests Vanilla Whale, Soul Creatures and Handsomebeast . Doors open at 8 p.m.; tickets are $10.