Oakland avant-rock cellist and composer Joshua McClain left his fast-paced, senior-level tech job to spend a month in the Amazon jungle, where he worked with shamans and participated in ayahuasca ceremonies. He emerged from the rainforest on a newfound path of self discovery and driven to make his instrumental concept album, Coming Home.

Though Coming Home features eight tracks, it can be considered a single body of music with an overarching theme. The album is meant to be heard in its entirety as a comprehensive journey based on McClain’s life experiences. With the cello as his voice, McClain takes listeners on his trek as he faces depression, embraces his renewed spirit, and follows his dream of being a full-time musician.

He hopes that the idea of a transformative journey reflected in Coming Home resonates with listeners and that his music helps guide people on their own journeys.

McClain will perform an album release concert at CounterPulse in San Francisco on February 17, 2018.

McClain grew up in Indiana where he began playing cello at 9 years old. He studied the classical string instrument in grade school, took private lessons, trained throughout high school with cellist Patricia White, and performed in solo competitions.

While in college at Indiana University, McClain played in diverse bands, learned different styles of music from folk to reggae, and discovered his talent for improvising. He graduated in 2007, earning a bachelor’s degree with a double major in Communications & Culture and Folklore & Ethnomusicology. He released his self-titled first album in June 2011 and moved to California in 2012.

“I was just learning about songwriting and instead of focusing on the cello as my main instrument, I was trying to write songs, play guitar, sing,” McClain said of his first album. “I’ll definitely approach songwriting in that way at another point in time, but right now my focus is using the voice of the cello to tell my stories.”

Though classically trained, McClain’s style is progressive and innovative. He uses a looping pedal and effects processor to create multi-layered, cinematic soundscapes that stem mainly from the cello. He also plays baritone ukulele and electric guitar.

“It wouldn't do my music justice to call it classical, just because the instrument is classical. I’m using the cello in a way that’s outside of its typical definition. But there’s also a lot of blues and rock and roll,” McClain said. “There are distinct, recognizable melodies and rhythms with a highly emotional backbone.”

He regularly performs with Monica Pasqual and the Handsome Brunettes. Pasqual is a Bay Area pianist, singer, and songwriter who has won six Emmy Awards.

   Monica Pasqual and the Handsome Brunettes. Photo by Jeri Jones.

In July 2013, McClain began working at a San Francisco tech company that helps raise capital for start-ups. He rose to the role of senior campaign strategist and worked on large marketing and outreach campaigns, but became disillusioned by the industry.

“Helping people launch products into the market that end up in a landfill and that will be made by workers who aren’t getting paid very much made me depressed,” McClain said. “Sitting behind a desk and communicating with people about projects I don’t think are that important to the progress of humanity made me feel like I had gotten away from who I am. I had gotten away from being human.”

“It was also, I found out later, that I hadn't been following my calling of playing the cello and producing music and really sharing that with people. That is why I became spiritually unwell, from not following my calling,” he added.

McClain quit his job in May 2016 and just two weeks later boarded a plane to Peru. In search of spiritual guidance, he joined a month-long immersion program at the Temple of the Way of Light, a plant-medicine shamanic healing center in the Amazon rainforest.

“When we weren’t drinking ayahuasca, we were participating in yoga, meditation, art, music, and cognitive behavioral therapy classes, and a lot of sitting around in hammocks talking, smoking mapacho — a sacred jungle tobacco — and journaling,” McClain said of the retreat.

 On the grounds of the Temple of the Way of Light in Peru.

He continued, “They talked a lot about Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and the need to go into the shadow, into the underworld. That is where you can reclaim yourself, but it is not comfortable. You have to do the hard work and fight the demons in order to be able to reclaim that part of your soul and return home bearing the fruits of your labor. My album follows this same archetype of a hero’s journey combined with my own journey.”

Coming Home, released February 12, 2018, was recorded at Studio 132 in Oakland. McClain composed the music and played all the cello, ukulele, and electric guitar parts. Sound engineer BZ Lewis programmed drums. Vocalist Pamela Delgado sang on “Spirit Guides” and vocalist Jessie Turner sang on “Underworld.”

A successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign in March 2017 had 364 backers and raised nearly $15,700. Funds helped pay for album costs including studio time, production, marketing, and pressing CDs.

The first track called “The Journey” is when the hero comes to grips with the idea that there is inherent suffering in humanity and accepts his own suffering.

“It starts with a slow, orchestral string build to what feels like launching off into empty space. As the cello starts with a slow, rhythmic pizzacato, we hear the voice of the hero for the first time, represented by the voice of the cello: strong, sad, thoughtful, searching,” McClain said. “The lead line becomes bold and pronounced, almost marching, as if the hero has made a life-changing decision to embark on this very difficult path.”

The fifth track, called “Underworld,” is an 11-minute opus with four sections and multiple time signatures. At this point, the hero starts his descent into darkness to face his fears.

“It begins with the crescendo of feedback from a guitar amp followed by a highly distorted, demonic-sounding cello loop playing in the background while multiple cello lines descend downwards into the underworld,” McClain explains. “Three or four cello harmonies build to create the most beautiful and utterly heartbroken string quartet.”

The song accelerates and the tempo increases, as if the hero is racing to exit. A female soprano voice rings out. “She is the angelic figure that sings and brings the hero, the cello, out of the underworld,” McClain said. “The cello line turns into an impossibly fast bowed arpeggio, upward and upward out of the underworld.”

The seventh track, “Hear My Voice,” is a rock anthem that sees the hero after his spiritual death and upon his return home.

“It starts quiet and gentle, as if you're hearing your own voice for the first time. But as you realize how strong it is, you begin to sing with more power and beauty. It’s like coming to the realization of how important it is that you share the purest version of yourself, your gifts, and ultimately your voice,” McClain said. “The song finishes with distorted cello chords played with abandon, with huge slides, fast flourishes, and an aggressively struck last note.”

McClain said his experience in the Amazon, learning about the hero’s journey, and taking his own journey led to the manifestation of his anticipated album.

“We can’t be sitting in the jungle in a perfect vacuum of care, yoga, and ayahuasca all the time, but the layers of shit I shed and the realization I had — that I want to live a life I'm proud of — all of that was real,” McClain said. “Plus, thinking of music via the lens of  mythology and imagery is really exciting.”

Joshua McClain
February 17, 2018
8pm, $20