You know that fight you have with your parents? The one where they want you to go to school and study to be a doctor or a lawyer, but you just want to move to L.A., bum around and then strike it rich as an A-list actor?
Alejandro Rose-Garcia had that fight with his mother several years ago. But the 28-year-old Rose-Garcia, who was born in Austin to an actress mother and theater-production father, and himself acted from an early age, was rebelling against acting at the time. The fight took place when Rose-Garcia was 16. He had become a troublemaker, or, in his words, “a little 16-year-old shithead…which can lead to all sorts of super-intelligent young man decisions.”
His mother asked him if he wanted to grow up to be a drunk, spending time in jail, or if he wanted to make a life for himself and seriously try acting as a career. He agreed to move to L.A. with her.
“I just wanted to write music,” said Rose-Garcia, an up-and-coming musician known as Shakey Graves. “Acting (is) super shallow at times. I think the art of acting is really wonderful and there’s a lot of depths to it, but the chemistry of acting; the audition pools and stuff, is so degrading. I don’t think anybody really gives any pity to anyone who’s trying to live that life. It was super hard and made me question what my goals were in life. I (would have) rather just washed dishes or something.”
Although acting remains a part of his life, the “something” has at least temporarily won out. Shakey Graves performs at the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival this Sunday.
Rose-Garcia was performing on-stage from about 6 years old. Even before then, as a toddler, he played on a full-sized dance studio his mother and father kept in a farmhouse. He got his first agent around age 11 and started going to auditions, mostly for commercials. The one that comes to mind first is a Southwestern Bell spot. His role involved jumping into a pool.
“My mother always supported me,” he said. “‘If this is something you enjoy doing, then you can make a living off of it. You just have to work and you have to be willing to get out there.’”
Music entered the picture when he was 12. As is often the case with such things at that age, it was initially fueled by a girl. In Rose-Garcia’s case, it was a 12-year-old girlfriend who “cheated” on him while on vacationing with her family in Mexico.
“She had a big thing for guitar players,” he said. “I had this whole concept of when she would come back. I’d be a super-amazing guitar player and really muscular. She would be, like, ‘What have I done!?’”
He hated practicing, so much so that he ended an earlier venture into piano. But with the guitar, he felt connected. It was his first time dealing with complex emotions, and his guitar helped him release his pent-up confusion, even though his plot to win back the girl failed.
“As soon as I got over that first hump of having to play an ‘A’ chord or a ‘G’ chord, it blew my mind,” he said. “I could come from a ‘C’ to an ‘A-minor;’ from happy to sad. I essentially started writing as soon as I could put chords together.”
Rose-Garcia attended the arty Austin High School, where he was a regular in the theatre company, often in lead roles, and a member of a singer-songwriter club.
The club provided him with a boost of confidence, and all of the musician students at the school, no matter the clique, were friendly and supportive of each other. He began writing and performing prototypical whiny emo love songs, and even though they weren’t any good, his classmates and teachers encouraged him.
One of those fellow students was blues rocker Gary Clark, Jr.
“Gary was always really far ahead of the curve,” Rose-Garcia said. “When we were in high school, he was already playing in bars. By the time he was a senior, he was pretty damn well known in town. I wasn’t even close to that level of skill level.”
Rose-Garcia often became tired with the life of a working actor in Los Angeles. Losing one audition after another, often being subjected to cattle calls that made him feel small, took a toll.
“I went on this ping-ponging thing, where I would get super-overwhelmed with L.A. and then leave,” he said.
He would spend 18 months at a time before becoming discouraged and going back to Austin. Back home, he had no problems landing auditions. Eventually, he realized that his Los Angeles experiences were teaching him important acting lessons after all.
He became a sort of regular on projects led by director Robert Rodriguez, including Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, and more recently, 2014’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. His best-known role remains the fan-despised, girlfriend-stealing Swede on the TV show Friday Night Lights, which was one of his big wins on a return trip to Austin.
Moving to L.A. did have benefits for his songwriting, however.
“I was ripped from my friends’ circle for the first time – I only had time,” he said. “When I was bored, I’d funnel all that into writing more complicated music. It was more than just, ‘There’s a blonde girl in my class,’ or something like that. I started to find a little bit more depth in my own music.”
He continued to nurture this dream through several years of acting auditions. He found his stage moniker in 2007, while on one of his return trips to Austin. While camping at a music festival with friends, a straggler at their campsite, likely inebriated on some substance, mumbled a bunch of nonsense, which included the words “spooky wagon.” After he left, the group decided those words would be a good name for a Nashville country-western guitarist. Then, they came up with names in a similar vein for themselves. The name stuck when, after performing at a campfire circle at the festival, he was asked for his name, and responded that he was Shakey Graves.
Songwriting was more of a priority when he decided to go to New York rather than Los Angeles after one of his Austin trips. He lived in a friend’s basement for several months, and fell in with a group of singer-songwriters who performed open mic nights at the Sidewalk Café, where the likes of Lana Del Rey, Regina Spektor and Rachel Platten (“Fight Song”) got their starts.
To Rose-Garcia, the scene was a modern version of New York’s Greenwich Village. He learned from his peers (as opposed to feeling like he was in direct competition with them) and became used to wearing his Shakey Graves stage persona and performance style – that of the one-man band, with a guitar and a suitcase kick drum.
Eventually, Rose-Garcia returned to L.A. where, in 2011, he recorded debut album Roll the Bones with minimal tools at his disposal, and released it on Bandcamp. The songs were a blend of bluegrass, folk-country and rock, rife with harmonica and western drawl vocals. None of the songs had accompaniment from other musicians.
“I pride myself, I suppose, on making a lot out of nothing,” he said. “I love multi-tracking and I love recording so much. When I had these songs, I couldn’t figure out how to actually play them live. So it’s kind of reverse engineering something that I made out of pure inspiration.”
But Rose-Garcia never envisioned a permanent one-man-band set-up for Shakey Graves. It was just the second phase (with the first being a recording project). Looking back, he said he would have bypassed that phase altogether had he felt more like telling other musicians to change the way they were playing around him. Every time he tried, he didn’t have the guts to ask the other musicians to stop trying to solo around his songs.
“I wasn’t a strong enough bandleader or a confident person,” he said. “That all changed to a certain degree when I felt like I did have something to offer, and then other people did too. The same thing happened with writing the second album.”
On 2014’s And The War Came (Dualtone Records), Rose-Garcia collaborated with several musicians, including vocalist Esmé Patterson, with whom he duets on three of the 11 songs, including album standout “Dearly Departed.”
The album retains Rose-Garcia’s wordy wit, vocal delivery and stylistic, fingerpicking, small-town charm, but has fuller quality with the sound that comes with being on the same page with other musicians. To the ringleader, the Shakey Graves recording project no longer resembles its performance counterpart.
“The next phase is essentially merge the two,” he said. “It’s the old Peter Pan thing of reattaching the shadow to the boy. It’s trying to record an album that feels and sounds like how it feels and sounds live.”