The Strange Case of Shakey Graves

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Background to center stage. Support to headliner. Shadow to light.

Everything about Alejandro Rose-Garcia's current life suggests an emergence, even his name. Every exciting opportunity that's come his way -- and there have been many of late -- is a step away from his given name and one closer to his stage name, Shakey Graves.

They're one in the same, of course. And those opportunities, which include a spot on this summer's Newport Folk Festival and two Houston festival dates, were byproducts of his steady, not-remotely-overnight evolution.

"Right now, I'm really trying to remind myself that I'm lucky and blessed and in a good position. But, at the same time, I've worked really hard and I love this job," he says. "I love the fact that it actually is a job now and I have a lot of good people by my side."

He's continues to build an avid following on the strength of his 2011 LP, Roll the Bones and a cache of videos that have garnered millions of views. But, more than anything, his live one-man show has people seeking out his music. It's just Rose-Garcia, a guitar, a kickdrum fashioned from a suitcase and a handful of songs that are some of the best-received offerings to come from Austin in awhile.

Houstonians will have a pair of chances to catch the act relatively up-close within the next month. Tomorrow, Shakey Graves plays the Texas Crawfish & Music Festival in Old Town Spring. At the end of the month, he's back in Houston to perform at Free Press Summer Fest.

"Houston is actually a pretty big stronghold," he says. "When I went out on my first headlining tour, Fitzgerald's was the first building I sold out and that was one of the only buildings I sold out that trip. That's a big room. You can fit a lot of kids in Fitzgerald's.

"I've never been to Free Press before, but it's got some amazing acts," Rose-Garcia adds. "I mean, Jack White is playing, right? And, wherever the Wu-Tang plays -- I'm in. But, at the same time, I'm excited about people like New York City Queens, who I've played with years ago. I've watched them develop as a band. They're doing pretty good.

"Being in the trenches with other local bands and getting to see people like that, like, 'Oh! Hey! You're here!'" he adds. "That feels good."

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He's including the local gigs among some personal highlights for 2014, not the least of which includes his date at Newport Folk Festival this July. A week later, he'll be clear across country, playing Pickathon in Oregon. Even those gigs are testimony to his sloughing off the chrysalis to fly out into bigger skies. At both events, he'll catch up with old friends and tourmates, like The Devil Makes Three and Shovels & Rope. But, Rose-Garcia says, he'll also be playing the fan for acts like X, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Angel Olsen.

He may find some of those acts are interested in his set, too, if only from the buzz he's getting. After all, he's had a day declared in his honor by the mayor of Austin. He's been featured in an Esquire article on SXSW. Just this week, his photo made the cover of the Rolling Stone. Okay, maybe not the cover -- yet -- but it was featured in RS's blog.

All this notoriety is nice, he said, but never moves him too far from the memory he once played a show at a Chinese food restaurant just to be heard. As he takes on more success, he's figuring out the ways to move from 45-minute sets at 250-person rooms to an hour or more for thousands of people.

"For some of these bigger festivals, I've started playing with other musicians. In my brain, sort of the way I'd like it to work is like Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads documentary, where they're starting out with David Byrne, then adding the bass player and others, until everyone comes out and it's like a 15-person band.

"It's not going to be that extreme," he continues, "but, for some of the bigger festivals I'm playing this summer it's important there are some bigger peaks and sweeter sweet spots. The dynamics will change a lot, especially based on the crowd size and set length."

Some who catch Shakey Graves this summer may sense some familiarity. Rose-Garcia's got an actor's good looks and he did do some acting as a child and young adult, appearing in vehicles like Spy Kids 3D: Game Over and the NBC series Friday Night Lights. He did lots of stage acting as a kid. He said those early acting days were some of his most terrifying as a performer, but they taught him some skills he leans on today.

"Something I feel really happy I've learned is there really is no fucking up. The only way you can actually fuck up is if you accept defeat in front of people. Audiences -- even as an audience member yourself -- you just want to see someone roll with it. Sometimes, that's the best part of a performance. 'I can't believe he just rolled with that! He broke three strings at the same time and just hummed the rest of it!' It takes a long time to be comfortable and confident enough to do that."

He said his self-assurance also comes from a very supportive family. They encouraged creativity and pursuit of all things artistic, he said. But, his interest in guitar has to be attributed to someone else.

"I started playing at 11 or 12 years old. I was using the guitar as a tool of revenge," he laughs. "The first girl I ever dated in middle school -- which I thought was very, very serious -- she ended up going to Mexico for the summer and cheated on me. I don't even know how you do that when you're 11, but she figured it out.

"She had a huge thing for guitar players," adds Rose-Garcia. "My mother had a guitar in the closet and I developed this whole plan where, by the time she'd come home from Mexico I'd just be wailing on the guitar. And I'd be super-buff, too. That was my other plan."

In the end, it didn't matter to her, he says. But, it was fortuitous for music fans who are now watching him emerge. Shadow to light.

"It's easy but kind of detrimental to think of this career and where I'm trying to take this music as an inclined plane, you know, like I'm climbing up a mountain. Because I feel at that point I'm setting myself up for a peak, a place that you finally get to that's like, 'Oh, I've made it.'

"But, if I really think about what's happened in my life, it's the little accomplishments that mattered the most, you know, the first time I started getting emails from kids that were like, 'You got me through high school' or, 'My wife and I bonded over your music,' he concludes. "Any of that stuff -- that's it. That's really about as high as the mountain goes. You've made something that's personally relevant to you but presented it in a way that's actually changed someone else's life."

Shakey Graves performs alongside Ben Kweller, the Tontons, Bob Schneider, Willy Mason, Heartless Bastards and more Saturday at the Texas Crawfish & Music Festival in Preservation Park, Old Town Spring. Gates open at noon; see here for tickets.


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