In the spring of 2009, Rey Villalobos, hit by something good, pulls his car to the side of the road and writes "Honeybee." Just like that. Guitar in hand, he sits on the warm hood, surrounded by sagebrush and bougainvillea and olive trees, and takes in the cool salt breeze. The chords and lyrics arrange themselves.
Four years earlier, what comes to Rey is a succession of words, a phrase, a title. Roses in the Nordic Countries -- wow, that's good! -- will be the name of his first solo album. Here, the title precedes the title-track by several months, and later, the music is complete before the right words fix themselves to the melody.
This August, I meet Rey at Muddy Waters in Santa Barbara to record him for One Night Music. He opens for Blind Pilot and I tape his set, but the lighting's dark, so after the show we set up in Muddy Waters' tiny storage closet -- we pack in with coffee cups, back-up beers, and tortilla chips -- for a very intimate One Night Music session. At first, Rey's hushed voice competes with the rowdy clean-up crew, but soon the café falls silent and I'm sole witness to his blushing lure, delicate guitar lines and whispered melodies. Later that night we talk at a friend's house, and when we part, I feel we've known each other much longer than those few hours. I won't see Rey for a while; I'm about to move north.
During one of several trips to Portland, made over the course of a year to record Roses with producer John Askew, Rey sits on his girlfriend's couch. She always wants to make out, passionate and messy. Rey jokes, "Just kiss me like it's the 50's." He picks up his guitar and sings it to her. They laugh -- it's funny -- but fuck, it's good. Rey turns this into a serious song, something raw and honest and melancholy and hopeful.
Like the stories of Rey's creative process, the story of his musical history is broad. He first studied classical piano then switched to drums, played in bands, picked up the guitar and decided he wanted to sing. He started making demos. Then, Rey broke up with a long-time girlfriend and got a credit card in the mail with a fifteen-thousand-dollar credit-limit. He decided to make a record.
That record was Volcano and Heart, the first of two by The Coral Sea. An indie label picked it up and sent the band on a national tour. While fronting The Coral Sea, however, Rey was stockpiling material for a solo album -- tucking away both completed songs and song fragments for Roses in the Nordic Countries. "Honeybee" -- captured between takes of The Coral Sea's second album recording -- was one such song that turned out so perfectly, it accidentally made it on Firelight.
Rey says there's an old Chumash curse -- a legend, really -- that lures people back to Santa Barbara. When you live there, it's a place you can love and hate at the same time, but it's when you leave that it feels most like home. While recording his EP Roses in the Nordic Countries, Rey traveled frequently between Santa Barbara and Portland. He moved north, he moved back. Now, Rey lives in Portland but loves the freedom afforded by his new solo career -- the ease with which he can move around. Last November he toured in New York and the Pacific Northwest, phoning friends to play with him along the way. This spring, he'll play a show in SXSW (South By Southwest) with Sharon Van Etten, whose song "Much More Than That" was recently featured on NPR's Song of the Day, and in May, Rey will embark on a Western States tour with friends Hosannas (a band formerly called Church. Next week, Rey says, he could be living in Brooklyn, or Paris. It hardly matters. Still, it feels really good to come home.
If you're in Santa Barbara, catch Rey Villalobos on February 20th, 2010 with Mirah at The Hard To Find in Goleta. Or get his new EP (a beautiful very-limited-print-edition in four designs, sure to run out) at reyvillalobos.com and check his tour schedule at myspace.com/reyvillalobos.
Recorded in Muddy Waters Cafe, Santa Barbara, CA on August 01, 2009.