John Shade Profile (Phoenix, 5.4.10)

Posted on May 18, 2010

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Folksie newcomer John Shade says that his songs are focused on identity and anonymity, but there’s also what sounds like an unraveling personal economy lurking beneath: characters steal purses, check classifieds, go it alone with “no safety net,” and generally feel like bums. Meanwhile, Shade’s chords sound down and out, and his vocals dip into weary Dylanesque tics.

Shade — real name Dave Godowsky — is a 30-year-old native Mainer who’s held jobs at bookstores, candy stores, shoe stores, and hot-dog stands while quietly chipping away at a set of songs with rustic façades and seedy backlot plots. Over the past year, his live performances have quietly become a Boston treasure — he’s recently supplemented his usual three-piece (Zack Hickman on bass and Mark Erelli on guitar/pedal steel) with a string quartet, and he scored a nomination in this year’s Phoenix Best Music Poll. But Godowsky’s mission has remained humble. In his first recording with strings to hit the Internet, “Here I Am,” he sings about struggling to write a decent love song: “Like a falling star in space/I guess I’m easily replaced.” You can’t really tell whether he’s talking about an old relationship or his career.

I meet up with Godowsky at a coffee shop in his Arlington ’hood as he’s preparing to set up camp at Lizard Lounge for a month-long Tuesday-night residency and, with any luck, an extended stay in the public’s earbuds. “I moved here from Maine because I was bored,” he tells me. “I think I already sort of want to move back.” An English major through and through — he studied poetry and plinked piano for the modern-dance troupe at Connecticut College — he appropriated “John Shade” from the name of a fictional poet buried in the annotations of a fictional editor in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 metafiction Pale Fire. From there, he’s molded a vagabond persona to parse out a collection of ambiguously autobiographical details.

“It’s the idea of an artist constructing something fictional using parts that are real,” he explains. “That, in an effort to articulate yourself more clearly, sometimes you can say what you want to say more through fiction than non-fiction. And that’s what I was finding in my own work.”

The result of his effort is a set of songs that resonate somewhere between personal and parable, mixing lived-in instrumentation and wry, transparent wordplay. He’s dubbed this collection All You Love Is Need, and the connection is no joke. Godowsky has picked up the subtle chording and wilting half-steps of John Lennon and Elliott Smith. The entire collection beats with a muted ’70s thud, all fuzzy drums and carefully exhaled vocals. Godowsky recorded it at his friend Justin Vernon’s studio among the cornfields in Wisconsin. (Vernon also goes by a pseudonym: Bon Iver.) “We wanted an old feel to it. We draped a ratty old T-shirt over the snare drum for that Fleetwood Mac sound — soft.”

Another throwback move of late is Shade’s incorporation of those strings, which bring to mind stately pop moments from “Eleanor Rigby” on down to Tom Waits’s drunk run-ins with the orchestra on his ’76 breakout Small Change. Meeting through mutual friends at the Lizard, Godowsky began rehearsing with the Neave Quartet back in February. “My whole life, I’ve been really into string quartets. I used to buy tapes of them for my mom for her birthday when I was younger, and they’d stack up in the glove compartment of her car. It has an effect that other music just doesn’t have. It’s tangible.”

The John Shade project now straddles two sets of basically unreleased recordings — the originals (from Wisconsin) and a new batch with just Godowsky and the strings, this one arranged by Hickman and recorded in Cambridge at Paul Kolderie’s Camp Street Studios. “I’m thinking about trying it one more time to balance the two,” he says, and I wouldn’t doubt it. The guy is a reserved perfectionist — Hickman and Erelli had to persuade him to stop throwing away songs he thought might be mediocre. But as long as he maintains an enthusiastic supporting cast, we should have plenty to look forward to.

He’s not totally convinced about his job security, however. “We’re trying not to get that excited — maybe five people will come to the next show. If that’s it, so be it.”

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